Last week, a story broke which detailed alleged racist, sexist and homophobic comments made by CBS executives about employees at the network’s Philadelphia station. One of the alleged comments was that an employee was “too gay for Philadelphia.” PGN reached out to CBS Philly news anchor Jim Donovan, who is openly gay and has been with the station since 2003, to ask about the alleged comments as well as the reality of being LGBTQ in the broadcast news industry.
You read the line ‘too gay for Philadelphia’ in the news; what was your initial reaction?
I will say my first reaction was that I did chuckle a little bit because I thought ‘what does too gay mean?’ I think, first of all, I want to make clear that the statements that were alleged and published in the Los Angeles Times, those were made allegedly by corporate executives in New York. They were not people that worked here in Philadelphia. That’s a big distinction. If someone in Philadelphia said that, I would be shocked. But for the corporate New York television world, it didn’t surprise me. I’m sure things have been said behind closed doors when I was being considered for jobs through the years. I know, quite often, things were said. Past employers, after I left, told me ‘you know, when you first came here, we weren’t sure you’d work in Greensboro North Carolina, but you did,’ and fortunately those people gave me the opportunity. Look, I know that being openly gay probably closed some doors for me; I know that some people may have had reservations about hiring me, but fortunately my work stood for itself and I got the jobs. I got this job here 17-plus years ago and then I was promoted to the anchor desk. So if there’s some hesitance, I’m just surprised it’s still happening this many years later in my career.
You know that Philadelphia’s KYW-TV (CBS) has a history of being pro-LGBTQ. They were the first to make sure those old homophobic Dr. Laura Schlessinger shows didn’t get broadcast on the station. They were one of the first owned stations that didn’t run a show from their own network.
Yes, KYW management has always been very supportive of me and, at least since I’ve been here, the LGBTQ community. They encouraged my participation whether it was hosting an event or being the grandstand announcer at Philly Pride. I remember when I first came here, an LGBTQ organization reached out to me to emcee an event. I got the email, I looked at my calendar, and I was free then. I responded probably within 15 minutes of receiving the request, and the organization was shocked, because that normally didn’t happen. Usually stations would make an excuse, or people would say yes, but then realize the organization was involved in LGBTQ issues. So, I just thought it was the funniest thing, because if you watch me on TV I’m sure you’ve figured out what team I’m playing for. And then I started doing all of these events at different places. I think if you’re true to yourself, the audience will follow you, because they want authenticity. They don’t want these fake people.
What was it like early in your career?
When I began my career in the late ‘80s, there were no openly gay reporters or anchors, at least none that I was aware of, and I lived in New York City. So I started on this career path alone, but as the years went by I’d often speak to young journalists who said that once they saw me on TV they knew that being open about your life was not a kiss of death for a career in TV news. I was just trying to do the best work possible and not be a fake person. I was just being myself, and unfortunately that was a rarity years ago. Nowadays people are a lot more open, but there still are people who are very concerned [about being LGBTQ in the industry] because they have a certain path or trajectory that they have in mind for their careers. When I was first starting it was like ‘okay, this is what I do, just keep on moving.’
You began your career only a decade after networks started to show gay people on TV news, much less hire them. When you were hired in the ‘80s, the typical person who got hired in the news business was that hyper masucline, deep voiced heterosexual man. You broke that stereotype.
It was interesting, because when I got here, I knew Philadelphia was the birthplace of gay rights. They had the marches on Independence Mall. I remember someone said to me ‘there’s never been an openly gay person on television here’ and I said to them ‘what do you mean? This is 2003,’ and they said that there had been gay people but nobody has known it; it wasn’t broadcast out loud. And I thought ‘you have to be kidding me.’ I thought that was very odd. I’d come from Columbus, Ohio before coming to Philadelphia, and we had a number of openly gay people on TV in Columbus. How could that not be the case in Philadelphia? But apparently it wasn’t.
One of the complaints that was brought in the article about the CBS executives was that the discrimination caused hiring, firing, lack of promotion, and lower salary for people like yourself. Did you feel that while you were coming up in the business?
I didn’t; I was always known as what they call a ‘franchise player’ or ‘franchise reporter’ so I was in a very unique position as far as my job category in the newsroom. So I wasn’t a general assignment reporter, but I wasn’t an anchor. I was kind of in the middle, balancing two things. I don’t feel it ever impacted my earnings potential or my abilities that way. But I can see where that happens. Look, you’ve got just a few people in an office making decisions about who’s going to be hired, who’s going to be fired, who’s gonna be moving up the chain of command, and when those decisions are made outside of the city where you’re broadcasting, that becomes problematic. Because what works in New York doesn’t necessarily work in Philadelphia. What works in Philadelphia doesn’t necessarily work in Denver or Miami. And that, I think, is the problem with these centralized companies. Corporate offices are making the decision in New York or Los Angeles that affect places that some of them have never even been to. But in my case, I was very fortunate. One of the gentlemen in the article that was alleged to have made those statements, he hired me at CBS. He also approved my promotion to the anchor desk. He knows my work ethic. So if something was said behind the scenes that he was concerned about me being gay, I still got the job anyway. So I was fortunate. But I’m not a person of color. I’m not a woman who has been in the business for 30 years and has to be concerned about what she looks like. There’s a double standard. I could sit there and be gray or white hair, and that’s not going to happen for a woman. Fortunately, if there has been discrimination against me, it’s been in the background and I never focused on it. I can’t, because there’s nothing I can do about it.
What would you say to LGBTQ people who want to get in the news business but are afraid of discrimination?
I would encourage young aspiring LGBTQ broadcasters to simply have faith. Have faith that the occasional bigot or homophobe that tries to cut you down and block your path, is outnumbered by many more people who will want to help you and lift you up. At least that’s my experience. And to those people who helped me along the way, I will be forever grateful.