Trouble for TEGNA

The former director of digital for WTSP/10 News has sued the station’s parent company for sex discrimination.

A timeline of discrimination?

2002: Collington starts at WTSP as a news researcher. She receives, according to the complaint, excellent reviews.

2007: Gannett puts Collington in charge of the station's website and social media sites.

2011: Gannett officially promotes Collington to Director of Digital.

June 29, 2015: Gannett splits into two companies: TEGNA and Gannett. Gannett kept the print assets (USA Today and others) while TEGNA, whose senior leadership included Gannett broadcast executives, took over all broadcast and websites.

June 14, 2016 (Tuesday): 

Parents report toddler Lane Graves missing at Walt Disney World, saying he was attacked by a single alligator. CBS and NBC both report that witnesses saw a single alligator involved in the attack. USA Today reports the father received a minor injury to his hand fighting off the alligator (the father told officials two gators attacked him as he tried to rescue his son, NBC reported later).

WTSP’s news team sends a Collington a push alert on her phone that a gator attacked a female toddler at Disney World.

The Orange County Sheriff Office will not confirm the attack.

June 15, 2016 (Wednesday): 

4 a.m.: Collington reads the push alert and clicks the link, but the link is broken; staff tells her the report initially reported a girl but the story changed. She instructs them to change the story to read "child" and re-post. (When CL checked for this story on Aug. 15, 2017, all locally-originated coverage in the days following the attack had disappeared from WTSP's website.)

Collington posts on her personal Facebook page, suggesting the attack may be a hoax. (Disclaimer: this writer, who met Collington in graduate school and remained in touch through Facebook, saw the post and agreed on Collington's personal page it could be a hoax). TEGNA executives comment on the post and agree that it could be a hoax, "some applauding her decision to challenge the authenticity of the story, and none objecting to either the substance or tone of Collington’s post," the lawsuit alleges.

Shortly before 4:30 p.m.: OCSO confirms attack in a press conference, stating they had found a toddler’s body believed to be Lane Graves.

Collington posts on Facebook that she was wrong.

June 17, 2016 (Friday): Scott Jones, blogging for a broadcasting industry gossip site ftvlive.com, posts about Collington's post — sans comments or follow up posts. Collington texts Wiser to make him aware of the post.

TEGNA tells Wiser to suspend Collington for a week with pay.

June 24, 2016 (Friday): Collington texted Wiser and inquired about returning to work on Monday. She says Elliott replied "stand by."

June 27, 2016 (Monday): Collington received no communication from TEGNA.

June 28, 2016 (Tuesday): Wiser's assistant calls Collington and asks her to come in for a meeting the next day at 9:30 a.m.

June 29, 2016: One year anniversary of TEGNA and Gannett's tax-free split of businesses.

9:30 a.m.: Collington went to Wiser's office, where she finds Wiser and a representative from HR. Wiser reads from a paper and fires Collington. Collington does not have the opportunity to clear out her desk or personal effects.

click to enlarge Trouble for TEGNA
via Twitter Screenshot

The former director of digital for WTSP 10News filed a lawsuit on Aug. 15 against media giant TEGNA, charging the company with violating Title VII of the 1964 Federal Civil Rights Act, the Equal Pay Act and the Florida Civil Rights Act, according to a copy of a lawsuit filed by her lawyer (download the filed complaint here).

Theresa Collington, who started as a news researcher with WTSP in 2002, took over managing the station’s website and, later, social media in 2003. In 2007, Gannett officially made her director of digital, one of four department heads who reported directly to General Manager Elliott Wiser, CL ascertained after an interview last month with Collington and her lawyer, Gary L. Butler, and reviewing the filing Tuesday afternoon.

click to enlarge Trouble for TEGNA
via Theresa Collington

She was the only female department head.

She was also the only one of the four who didn’t get paid the same way, have the same benefits or the same health insurance, the lawsuit alleges. For the other directors, payroll came directly from the parent company, as did their health insurance and stock options. Collington, however, received her paycheck from a subsidiary, as did the lower-level staff. (This continued when Gannett and TEGNA split in June 2015 and WTSP became a TEGNA station.)

“All other department heads at the Station and, based on Collington’s information and belief, all Directors of Digital at other stations owned by TEGNA are considered executive positions and are paid through TEGNA’s corporate payroll. All executive-level employees on TEGNA’s payroll receive higher salaries, larger bonuses, better retirement plans, and better insurance and other benefits than do similarly situated employees on the payrolls of P&S and TEGNA’s other subsidiaries. In addition, TEGNA employees receive stock bonuses awarding them stock in TEGNA, a publicly-traded company, which are not regularly issued to employees on the payrolls of P&S and TEGNA’s other subsidiaries,” the lawsuit says, continuing:

“However, even after promoting her to Director of Digital, TEGNA left Collington on P&S’s payroll, denying her the higher monetary and non-monetary compensation paid to other Department Heads on the TEGNA corporate payroll.”

When then-GM Ken Tonning made Collington a direct report, she asked for parity with the other direct reports, the lawsuit alleges and which Collington affirmed in our interview with her.

“‘I want to be be treated fairly, just like the rest of the department heads,’” she remembers telling him. “‘I want the same things.’”

“‘What do you think we get?’” Collington says he asked her.

She told him she wanted equal pay, a parking spot and equal health benefits.

“What I didn’t know was that there was a stock component that was never offered to me,” she says. When Tonning left and Wiser took over as GM, she repeated her request. That’s when, she told CL, she found out about the stocks the men received that she had not. She also told us Wiser — who has since left the station — had no idea she wasn’t receiving them. (Editor’s Note: Wiser told CL “I can’t talk to you” when we asked him for an interview.)

Collington also told us Wiser brought her request to a meeting with TEGNA's senior management, including CEO Dave Lougee. Senior management refused to compensate her equally. (According to documents posted by Florida-based industry blog FTV Live, it appears she did make less than not only the news director but his assistant. CL cannot verify the accuracy of these documents, but has no reason to disbelieve their veracity, either.)

Why?

Collington told us she received only the following explanations from human resources and the other male managers:

“‘Are you sure you really want to get paid once a month?’”

“‘It might put you in a different tax bracket, which means they would have to take more taxes out.’”

“‘Your benefits will be more expensive because most of the people on that payroll will be older.’” 

Then came Lane Graves.

On June 14, 2015, reports of a toddler getting attacked by a gator at Disney World emerged. The Orange County Sheriff’s Office would not confirm these reports and the story changed over the course of the evening (please see our timeline below for links and more information) — and the toddler was missing. When Collington woke up the next morning and started reading conflicting reports, she told CL her “fake news” radar went on alert.

"I really hoped, up until the last minute, that the little baby was alive," she says. "I thought it was a hoax, like Balloon Boy. We were all duped by that in 2009."

Collington’s lawsuit, filed Aug. 15, speaks to her experience sniffing out suspicious-seeming stories:

“During the course of her fourteen-year employment, Collington developed a specialty in detecting scams, publicity stunts, ‘doctored’ photographs, and other hoaxes, now colloquially known as ‘fake news’,” the filing alleges. “The Station relied daily on Collington’s expert skills and instincts to prevent them from broadcasting and publishing unverified stories,” 

On her personal Facebook page, Collington posted her thoughts that the disappearance/attack could be a hoax, starting the post with the words, “Bet you a beer…” (Disclosure: This writer, who met Collington in graduate school and remained in touch through Facebook, saw the post and agreed on Collington’s personal page that the gator story could be a hoax.) TEGNA executives commented on the post and agreed that it could be a hoax, “some applauding her decision to challenge the authenticity of the story, and none objecting to either the substance or tone of Collington’s post,” the lawsuit alleges.

TEGNA social media manager Evonne Benedict in Washington, on Collington's Facebook post. TEGNA management later told Collington she should have looked to Benedict for guidance about the post, Collington says. - Facebook screenshot
Facebook screenshot
TEGNA social media manager Evonne Benedict in Washington, on Collington's Facebook post. TEGNA management later told Collington she should have looked to Benedict for guidance about the post, Collington says.

“Since the event was only a few days after the horrific Pulse Nightclub shooting in Orlando, the shooting death of a famous vocalist at another Orlando nightclub the night before that, and on the heels of a tropical storm, Collington believed the potential for an attention-stealing hoax was very real,” the lawsuit alleges.

When the baby’s body was found, Collington posted she had been wrong and expressed sadness, she tells CL. The lawsuit alleges that nothing happened for two days, until broadcast gossip columnist Scott Jones published Collington’s Facebook post on FTV Live, without comment or follow-up. Collington texted her concerns about the post to Wiser, "that an industry blogger took her post out of context." (CL contacted Scott Jones, who heads FTV Live, and asked him about his article. He would not reveal his source on the Collington's Facebook post but maintains that he found it inappropriate.) As the lawsuit explains,TEGNA suspended her for a week (and an extra day; see our timeline, below). When the company allowed her to return to work, Wiser read a script written by TEGNA executives, firing her for violating the company's social media policy:

“At TEGNA’s instruction, the General Manager read aloud from a sheet of paper the orders to terminate her. The written order asserted she had been fired because she had violated TEGNA’s social media policy,” the lawsuit alleges. (CL has emailed TEGNA and asked for a copy of the social media policy in effect at the time of the incident. At press time, the company had not responded.)

“His hands were shaking,” Collington told CL. “Locally, they were fighting for me.” 

Collington isn’t arguing whether or not she violated the policy. She is, however, arguing that men who violate the policy have not been disciplined.

“Male employees of TEGNA and P&S, both at the Station and at other TEGNA-owned stations, including both on-air personalities and off-air management employees, have violated TEGNA’s social media policy. Those violations include posts that were sexually suggestive; posts that were sexually explicit; posts suggesting damaging private property and breaking the law; posts casting on-air personalities of TEGNA in a bad light; and posts making light of a natural disaster that had killed at least one child. However, none of those male employees were disciplined. None of those male employees were fired,” the lawsuit alleges.

Former WTSP meteorologist Jim Van Fleet (Van Fleet currently has a lawsuit pending against TEGNA as well, although not for anything related to social media policies) tweeted offensive material, Collington says — and, as director of digital, she tried to reprimand him for a Sept. 14, 2012 tweet of a license plate with an illustration of a nude woman under the words “Eatin’ Ain’t Cheatin,’ prefaced by the message, “Aaahhh… to be back in the Motherland!”

click to enlarge Trouble for TEGNA
via Twitter Screenshot

Collington says she repeatedly asked Tonning to speak to him. She says Tonning told her the writeups of such incidents would go in his file.

Questionable posts didn’t appear only in the Tampa Bay market; in Washington, D.C., at TEGNA’s WUSA 9, a CBS affiliate, Adam Longo posted a video to his public Facebook page about whether or not women were getting  fidget spinners stuck in their vaginas. He acknowledges the question is absurd, and disputes it as “fake news.” Longo, wearing a t-shirt, appears to be taping in a bedroom.

click to enlarge Find the video at https://www.facebook.com/AdamLongoTV/videos/1858471404181687/ - Screen shot
Screen shot
Find the video at https://www.facebook.com/AdamLongoTV/videos/1858471404181687/

Perhaps, then, Collington’s perceived insensitivity to a child dying triggered her dismissal, or that a director level position should know better?

This summer, WTSP’s News Director Bob Clinkingbeard tweeted a mocked-up map of Hurricane Cindy, which killed a 10-year-old boy in Alabama. The map traced the storm’s path using images of Cindy Brady (of Brady Bunch fame). 

Trouble for TEGNA
Twitter Screenshot

Maybe, then, he still has a job because it didn't garner the attention Collington's post did?

FTV Live, the same site that brought attention to Collington's post, also posted critically about Clinkingbeard's hurricane "joke."

"TEGNA and P&S eventually hired a replacement for Collington at the Station," the lawsuit alleges. "The replacement is a male. His job responsibilities are less than those Collington had at the time she was terminated and he has less experience than Collington in that field. However, he is being paid more than Collington was making at the time of her termination. 

Collington wonders if any other TEGNA women have experienced this sexism in the workplace. 

The federal government passed EEO Title VII in 1964, five years before Collington was born. The law "prohibits employers from discriminating against employees on the basis of sex, race, color, national origin, and religion," according to the American Association of University Women.

"It's five years older than me," Collington says, "and we still have to deal with this shit."

CL reached out to Jim Van Fleet via Twitter and asked him to message the writer. He has yet to respond. CL also called TEGNA's vice president of corporate communications shortly after Butler filed the lawsuit; the woman who answered the phone asked us to email our questions to [email protected]

CL still awaits a response, which we will publish online in its entirety with a link from this story when we receive it.

Cathy Salustri is the Arts + Entertainment editor for Creative Loafing Tampa. While she did attend graduate school with Collington, she made every effort to give every side of this story the opportunity to contribute to the story. Of everyone contacted, only FTV Live communicated with the paper. Email Cathy here.

About The Author

Cathy Salustri

Cathy's portfolio includes pieces for Visit Florida, USA Today and regional and local press. In 2016, UPF published Backroads of Paradise, her travel narrative about retracing the WPA-era Florida driving tours that was featured in The New York Times. Cathy speaks about Florida history for the Osher Lifelong Learning...
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