MEDIA

‘To Say That She’s An Abusive Figure Is An Understatement’: At ABC News, Toxicity Thrives

Sources say Barbara Fedida, a powerful ABC News executive, has an extensive history of insensitive comments. She's now been placed on administrative leave while the network investigates.

In 2018, Barbara Fedida, a senior ABC News executive in charge of talent, was sitting in a meeting with colleagues discussing fraught contract negotiations with one of ABC’s biggest stars, “Good Morning America” anchor Robin Roberts. 

Roberts, a Black woman who has co-anchored “Good Morning America” since 2005, wanted more money as part of a contract renewal, and Fedida felt that Roberts had gotten enough. Fedida then asked what more Roberts could want and said it wasn’t as if the network was asking Roberts to “pick cotton,” according to one source who was in the room and witnessed the exchange. Two other sources who were not present but were told about the incident soon afterward confirmed the account to HuffPost.

That remark is part of a long pattern of insensitive statements, including racist comments, made by Fedida to people who report to her, according to the sources who spoke to HuffPost. Fedida has been the subject of more than a dozen human resources complaints and was the subject of a human resources investigation in 2016 that led ABC News to hire an executive coach for her, sources said. Staffers at ABC News who knew about the investigation told HuffPost they were stunned that it did not end in her dismissal.

Fedida, who has worked under two ABC News presidents, Ben Sherwood and now James Goldston, has helped to foster an environment so toxic that several former staffers and talent told HuffPost that when they left the network they felt like they were leaving an abusive marriage. 

Two years after Fedida allegedly made the racist comment about Roberts, Fedida remains in power at ABC News, where sources say her alleged misconduct has led the network to spend millions of dollars in confidential settlements with former talent and staff, including at least one settlement related to allegations of racial discrimination.

Fedida’s impact on the news division has been devastating, according to the sources who spoke to HuffPost. Key talent and executives have left or been forced out, and all the sources who spoke to HuffPost said her behavior has had a detrimental effect on ABC News reporting. 

“To say that she’s an abusive figure is an understatement,” said one former ABC News employee. 

Fedida said in regards to Kendis Gibson, who is Black and at the time was an ABC News anchor, that ABC 'spends more on toilet paper than we ever would on him,' a source who heard Fedida make the comment told HuffPost.

In response to a list of 28 fact-checking questions, ABC News said: “There are deeply disturbing allegations in this story that we need to investigate, and we have placed Barbara Fedida on administrative leave while we conduct a thorough and complete investigation. These allegations do not represent the values and culture of ABC News, where we strive to make everyone feel respected in a thriving, diverse and inclusive workplace.” 

This story is based on interviews with 34 sources over the course of six months. The sources are current and former ABC News staff and talent, as well as other sources with knowledge of Fedida’s conduct and of the inner workings of ABC News.

None of the sources were willing to speak on the record, either because they had signed nondisclosure agreements with ABC News, feared reprisal from Fedida or other top ABC News executives, or were not allowed to speak with members of the press on the record without prior authorization. 

In a statement from her attorney, Fedida said: “Throughout my career, I have been a champion for increased diversity in network news. Building a news division where everyone can thrive has been my life’s mission. I am proud of my decades of work of hiring, supporting and promoting talented journalists of color. And, unlike these heartbreaking and incredibly misleading claims about me, that track record is well-documented and undeniable.”

A Talent Executive With Unusual Power 

Fedida’s title at ABC News is senior vice president, talent and business. As part of her role at ABC, she oversees the network’s diversity and inclusion efforts. Fedida’s career started at ABC News in 1989, where she served as a production associate for the legendary anchor Peter Jennings. Fedida held various producer roles until she was named director of standards and practices in 2001 and then director of talent recruitment and development.

In 2006, she left ABC News for CBS News, where she first served as executive director of talent, and then was promoted to vice president of talent and development. In 2011, she left CBS News and returned to ABC News. 

Normally, a talent executive in a network news division is responsible for finding new talent, and developing and working with the network’s current talent. 

Fedida does all that at ABC News, but her role and influence go far beyond that. She is essentially a deputy to Goldston and has been tasked with being an enforcer and dealing with all of the difficult issues he doesn’t want to handle. She held a similar position with Ben Sherwood when he was in charge of the news division. 

“There were a lot of things James and Ben didn’t want to deal with, and Barbara was always willing to handle them,” a former ABC News staffer told HuffPost. And by doing that, according to sources, she made herself invaluable.

Fedida also would refer to women as 'cunts' openly in the office, according to several staffers who personally heard her use the word.

Essentially, Fedida is a problem-solver who helps make unpleasant situations go away. And every source who spoke to HuffPost said that’s how she has remained in power despite engaging in behavior that would normally get any other executive ousted.

Fedida has excelled at ABC in part because of a key ally, Tanya Menton, who has worked for the Walt Disney Co. (the parent company of ABC News) for over two decades and currently serves as vice president of litigation. Menton has been involved in settlement negotiations related to Fedida and other ABC News executives, and has personally handled the response to some of the human resources complaints about Fedida’s conduct, according to three sources.

Inappropriate Comments And Questions 

At a company holiday lunch that took place after a series of mass shootings across the United States, Fedida asked attendees, all of whom reported to her, who they thought would be the most likely ABC News staffer to be an active shooter in the building, sources who were at the event told HuffPost. Fedida was the subject of HR complaints for the offensive question.

Fedida also would refer to women as “cunts” openly in the office, according to several staffers who personally heard her use the word.

Fedida said in regards to Kendis Gibson, who is Black and at the time was an ABC News anchor, that ABC “spends more on toilet paper than we ever would on him,” a source who heard Fedida make the comment told HuffPost. Another source was told about the comment after the meeting. Gibson now serves as an anchor at MSNBC.

‘The Black Manifesto’

In more than a dozen interviews, sources who spoke with HuffPost said Fedida, despite overseeing ABC’s diversity and inclusion efforts, appeared to have a clear distaste for the efforts and would often develop animus toward staffers or talent who tried to champion the efforts, including staffers she put in charge of improving diversity and inclusion. 

Fedida, according to five sources, has shown little interest in the National Association of Black Journalists (NABJ), despite diversity and inclusion being key parts of her role at the network.

Network executives and talent attend NABJ’s annual convention and sit in booths to network and talk to young black journalists for potential recruitment efforts and mentoring. Fedida has rarely appeared at the NABJ convention, which is a huge departure from what her counterparts at other networks do. At NBC News, for example, top talent executives attend the NABJ convention annually and sit in the booth to critique newsreels and offer advice. The NBC News head of talent has only missed two NABJ conventions in 30 years, according to a source familiar with her attendance.

A source told HuffPost that ABC executives dubbed that letter 'the Black manifesto.' Fedida used the phrase when talking about the document, according to one source who heard her say it directly.

One situation in which Fedida actively sabotaged diversity efforts at ABC involved her combative relationship with a group of Black journalists who organized to advocate for more inclusivity at the network. Chief among the organizers of the group was Mara Schiavocampo, an ABC correspondent.

The group came together in the summer of 2016. ABC News was preparing to hold a town hall with then-President Barack Obama about race relations. Interviews with U.S. presidents are significant news events, and networks put a great deal of preparation into them. Typically the interviewer — in this case, the anchor of ABC’s “World News Tonight,” David Muir, who is white — and staff meet regularly to plan out questions.

None of the staffers initially involved in the planning process were Black, according to multiple sources familiar with it, which led Black journalists at ABC News to organize the advocacy group.

The group, according to multiple sources, held conference calls and put together a detailed letter to Goldston. The goals were relatively modest, among them that of having one senior Black producer on every show and interviewing a Black candidate for every job opening. 

Black employees put together this letter, which ABC executives dubbed “the Black manifesto.”

Somehow, the letter came to the attention of Goldston and Fedida. A source told HuffPost that ABC executives dubbed that letter “the Black manifesto.” Fedida used the phrase when talking about the document, according to one source who heard her say it directly.

What followed was a meeting with Goldston and the group, which multiple sources who attended described as tense. Robin Roberts was directly involved in all the meetings, a rarity for an anchor of her stature. 

In a second meeting with Goldston, when Goldston told Roberts that colleagues were pushing back on some of the proposals, Roberts, who was visibly angry, said, “Were they carrying torches and chanting ‘You will not replace us?’” The phrase, which is frequently used by white supremacists, was inspired by Renaud Camus, the white supremacist French philosopher and writer who created the “great replacement” theory that mass migration of Muslims would replace white Europeans. 

Roberts also went through a list of Black candidates she presented to ABC News for consideration for various roles. She added that ABC News didn’t take the candidates seriously despite the fact that they were qualified, according to two sources who were in the room. Roberts said the candidates sought employment elsewhere, according to the sources.

In a statement, ABC News said, “James and Barbara welcomed the opportunity to hear from this group and meet with them regularly.  These conversations have led to positive change in the news division.”

Despite any progress that may have been made, the group of Black journalists at ABC News gathered on a conference call with Goldston and Fedida last Thursday to express frustration with coverage around the reaction to the police killing of George Floyd and with ABC’s efforts toward inclusion of black candidates for positions within the network, according to two sources who were on the call and another source who heard about it afterward. 

“My personal experience with Barbara Fedida is that she is not racist. I know what racism looks, smells and sounds like. Barbara Fedida is not any of those things. But I am respectful of other colleagues who have had a different experience,” Byron Pitts, a Black ABC News anchor, told HuffPost.

In response to this story, NABJ called for ABC to launch a “transparent, external investigation” into its allegations, and to waive NDAs “for black employees & other employees of color.”

“The external investigation by ABC News should be transparent, and all findings must be published and broadcast. This is appropriate because Fedida was no second-tier executive,” the group said in a statement.

Back in 2016, Schiavocampo’s involvement as a leader of the Black journalists group put a target on her back with Fedida. Soon, multiple sources said, Fedida started making disparaging comments about Schiavocampo behind her back. 

Then in February 2017, ABC News decided not to renew Schiavocampo’s contract. But Schiavocampo didn’t find out the decision until July 2017. After she was told, she was taken off the air, even though her contract didn’t expire until 2018. 

Schiavocampo, through her attorneys, approached ABC News with a legal claim that included an allegation of racial discrimination perpetrated by Fedida. 

The network gave Schiavocampo a financial settlement. As part of the deal, Schiavocampo signed a nondisclosure and nondisparagement agreement.

When reached by phone, Schiavocampo declined to comment.

Follow Yashar — or send him a tip — on Twitter: @yashar

 
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