MARYCLAIRE DALE, Associated Press
PHILADELPHIA (AP) — A former TV anchor’s discrimination lawsuit over the racial epithet that ended his career raises the question of whether the station let black staffers use the same word with impunity but not whites.
Tom Burlington, who is white, believes he lost his job over a news meeting discussion of the epithet because he said the full word instead of the hyphenated version.
The June 2007 discussion at WTXF-TV, the local Fox station, involved a story on the ceremonial “burial” of the word at an event organized by an NAACP youth group. The participants had used the word repeatedly, although the reporter did not plan to use it herself.
“Does that mean we can finally say the word ‘N—–?'” Burlington asked in the meeting, according to court documents.
At least one black colleague took offense, and tension at the station grew after co-anchor Joyce Evans, who is black, heard about the conversation, the judge found.
“Evans encouraged other co-workers to complain to management …, even urging a white co-worker to do so because ‘(t)he only people who have complained so far have been black people,'” U.S. District Judge R. Barclay Surrick, quoting a white employee, wrote in a memo last year.
Evans, on the stand Tuesday, denied saying that but said she was concerned about Burlington’s statement because co-workers were upset.
She said that heated words were exchanged inside the station that week as the issue devolved into “a little more than a journalistic debate about what to say on television. It turned into a little something more than that, I think.”
Bad press followed in the local newspapers. Burlington, initially sent for sensitivity training, was instead told to clear his desk. By then, he had used the word several more times in his attempts to apologize to black colleagues, according to witness depositions.
“It was the continual insensitivity that Tom showed,” former WTXF general manager Mike Renda testified Tuesday. “He continued not to get it.”
Burlington, who had joined the station in 2004, was paid $90,000 for the months remaining on his contract. Renda insisted Tuesday that he was never fired.
The 2009 lawsuit against Fox TV has been on hold for years while the U.S. Supreme Court decided a legal theory involved in a parallel case. Surrick finally ruled in October it could go to trial.
“Management was clearly aware that plaintiff’s actions were being judged in light of the social norm that it is acceptable for African-Americans to use the word, but not whites. Deposition testimony suggests that some supervisors even subscribed to this view themselves,” Surrick wrote in a 30-page decision.
Burlington is seeking unspecified damages for lost income, pain and suffering, legal expenses and punitive damages.
The jury seated in the Philadelphia courtroom this week is all white. The federal courthouse pulls jurors from the city and eight suburban counties.
Burlington told jurors when the trial opened Monday that he never used the racial slur maliciously.
He now works in real estate. Evans remains on-air.
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