Philadelphia’s KYW at center of investigation of toxic work culture at CBS

In a major shake-up at the network, Peter Dunn, president of CBS television stations, and David Friend, senior vice president of news for television stations, were ousted April 7 from CBS over allegations of racism, misogyny and homophobia.

Dunn was accused of having created a toxic work environment that included openly misogynist, racist and homophobic behavior. Friend was accused of being an accomplice to Dunn’s actions, as well as being verbally abusive to and about members of the news teams.

At the center of the investigation that led to Dunn and Friend being removed from CBS is Philadelphia’s KYW-TV news station. The executives’ treatment of news anchors, reporters and even upper management at KYW was detailed in a two-part exposé in January 2021 by the Los Angeles Times. That series led to Dunn and Friend being suspended from the network in February. On April 7 they were officially removed.

In addition, Brien Kennedy, the former general manager of KYW, has filed a complaint with the Pennsylvania Human Relations Commission alleging that he was fired in retaliation for cooperating with an internal review into alleged misconduct by Dunn, his boss.

About Dunn and Friend, the network said in a statement that the investigation by a third party is “ongoing” since the Los Angeles Times expose. In a statement April 7, CBS said Dunn and Friend “will not return to their positions and will be leaving the Company.”

CBS said, “On an interim basis, Bryon Rubin will continue to run the Stations group while Kim Godwin will continue her oversight of Stations’ news operations until new leadership is in place.”

Among the central figures cited as being victimized by Dunn and Friend are long-time anchor Ukee Washington, who is Black, morning anchor Jim Donovan, who is openly gay, and former KYW news director and vice president Margaret Cronan.

In addition, a series of other women co-anchors were named as having been abused by one or both of the two men, including Donovan’s former co-anchor Brooke Thomas, a subsequent co-anchor, Rahel Solomon and anchor Natasha Brown, all of whom are Black, and Alexandria Hoff, who is white.

The Times spoke with four Black journalists who worked at KYW. None agreed to an on-the-record interview, citing fear of reprisal. But in conversations, several relayed instances of unequal treatment and racist comments.

Washington has been at KYW since 1986, Brown since 2002, Donovan since 2004 and Hoff since 2015. Cronan, Thomas and Solomon have all left KYW due specifically to the issues raised in the investigation. 

Cronan told the Los Angeles Times that she left her job as KYW news director in July 2017 because “I no longer could tolerate a culture in which I was expected to defend corporate decisions that I found offensive.”

The impact of the shake-up is profound. Since 2009, Peter Dunn had commanded the 28 CBS-owned TV stations that employ 2,800 workers nationwide. Of those, Philadelphia is the nation’s fourth-largest TV market. Yet CBS’s station, KYW-TV, had come in third behind top ranked ABC and NBC in the city.

KYW is one of the world’s oldest TV stations and originated the now-iconic “Eyewitness News” format. But as the Times investigation noted, “Black Philadelphians would derisively refer to KYW as ‘White-Witness News’ because, historically, many of the on-air journalists were white.” The population of Philadelphia is majority Black.

Dunn managed KYW personally from 2002 through 2004. In April 2015, Dunn installed Brien Kennedy as general manager to propel KYW into a better ratings profile. In interviews with The Times, Kennedy said he saw KYW needed greater diversity in prominent roles.

Kennedy put Washington in the main anchor desk, rehired Cronan, a Philadelphia native and former KYW producer, and put Donovan in the morning anchor position, adding Thomas as co-anchor.

Dunn approved Washington’s promotion, but Kennedy said in an interview with the Times that Dunn frequently disparaged Washington, calling him “just a jive guy.”

“Peter would say: ‘All he does is dance … dancing, dancing,’” Kennedy told the Times.

Cronan was also upset by the overt racism, telling the Times, “I was shocked that a corporate head would use words like that to describe an African American.”

She said Washington was an invaluable asset to KYW and beloved by audiences.

Cronan said prior to Donovan’s being promoted from reporter to anchor, Dunn asked her whether Donovan, who had already won Emmys for his consumer affairs spots, was “too gay for Philadelphia.” Cronan told The Times she was startled, but responded: “Philadelphia can handle it.”

On Jan. 10, 2020, Kennedy filed a discrimination and retaliation complaint against CBS and Dunn with the Pennsylvania Human Relations Commission. Kennedy alleges Dunn fired him because he spoke with CBS investigators about “possible unlawful discrimination and executive misconduct” by Dunn.

Kennedy’s complaint asserts that Dunn’s behavior was toxic and that he exhibited “a pattern of discriminatory behavior through the instruction of others regarding hiring, firing, promotion and pay setting of employees based on race, gender and sexual orientation.”

Cronan told reporters and investigators that she witnessed racism, misogyny and homophobia and experienced verbal insults. Cronan said Friend asked her in a meeting with other executives, “What are you, a [expletive] idiot?”

Other CBS executives say Cronan was “treated abusively.”

The CBS statement on Dunn and Friend concludes, “We are thankful to those who have shared their experiences and knowledge with the investigators thus far. CBS is committed to a safe, inclusive and respectful workplace where all voices are heard, claims are investigated and appropriate action is taken when necessary.”

Attorneys for both Dunn and Friend denied all allegations against the men and assert that when the investigation is completed, “the accusations will be proven false.”

KYW declined to comment on this story.