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Bye-Bye Boys' Club

Still healing: Rebecca Beckmann hopes things keep getting better for her female colleagues at WCCO
Raoul Benavides

It has been almost three years, but Kevyn Burger, a reporter for WCCO-TV, still has vivid memories of the scene. Like they do every month, Channel 4 management and staff had gathered in the commons of the CBS affiliate's downtown Minneapolis headquarters to honor the employee of the month. On the surface, it looked like business as usual: There was pie à la mode for the ranks. For the winner, a modest statuette and cash award to match. General manager Jan McDaniel came downstairs from her office suite to deliver a few words of congratulation. There was a golf clap. Everyone went back to the cubicles. But it seems there was more going on this May day in 1998 than could be captured on the "Hometown Team" cameras.

The recipient of the award was a 38-year-old technician named Rebecca Beckmann, who, along with former co-worker Beth Senn, filed a lawsuit in U.S. District Court on December 19, 1996, charging WCCO and CBS with maintaining a "sexually hostile" and unfair environment for women. The suit was still pending when Beckmann was named employee of the month, and it's a good guess that McDaniel, who came to WCCO in 1996, wanted to show that a new era was under way at the station, which was characterized in court documents as "an old boy's club." As the general manager told City Pages four years ago ("A Way With the Ladies," June 11, 1997): "Zero tolerance is a CBS policy, a WCCO policy, and a Jan McDaniel policy."

"This all started before Jan arrived," Burger, who has not felt discriminated against by management at WCCO, says now. "She's a person who believes what she says. And to see these two women--one giving the award to the other, the way they handled themselves--it was really something."

Today, McDaniel is still the general manager at WCCO, Beckmann has been promoted to the position of training supervisor, and, as of January 19, her lawsuit--which grew to include women from CBS stations all over the country--was settled out of court. (Senn resigned in September 1996, two months before the suit was filed, but remained a plaintiff.) CBS will pay out $8 million to some 200 female technicians working at WCCO and CBS-owned television stations in New York, Los Angeles, Chicago, Detroit, and Green Bay.

The network has also agreed to the terms of an unusually detailed, 38-page consent decree, enforceable for the next four years, which guarantees that female employees at the six affiliates will be made aware of all internal job openings and that they can expect to have the same chance at those jobs as their male peers. Women can also count on equal compensation, access to better training, and a fair shot at overtime pay. If the terms of the agreement aren't met, CBS lawyers will find themselves back in federal Judge Donovan Frank's Minneapolis courtroom.

"This settlement imposes an unusually detailed level of injunctive relief," explains Beckmann's attorney, Lawrence Schaefer, who, along with partner Susan Stokes, will "administer" (read: enforce) the decree. "I think a trial would have been a difficult prospect for CBS. Claims of gender bias at six of their stations would be on the evening news in each of those markets. And that gave us a great deal of leverage."

The usually forthright McDaniel would not comment for this story and referred City Pages to the vice president of communications at CBS, Dana McClintock. Instead of answering specific questions about the scope of the settlement, McClintock referred to a network press release that denied any wrongdoing and, citing legal costs, proffered the hope that the whole thing would be put "behind us." "In general we're mindful of discrimination policies at all of our stations," says McClintock. "And we have become increasingly sensitive toward issues of discrimination and diversity over the last few years."

Given the scope of the plaintiffs' original complaint, that's a good thing. If the suit had gone to trial, Beckmann's attorneys were prepared to try to establish a decades-long pattern of sexual discrimination and harassment. Citing reams of statistical data and armed with pages of headline-grabbing anecdotes, their complaint included a series of allegations: That WCCO appeared to have a two-tiered compensation system for technicians, predicated solely on gender; men were given preference for higher-profile assignments such as the Super Bowl; open jobs for which there were qualified internal female applicants didn't get posted and then were given to men; and that Beckmann and other female technicians were denied promotions on several occasions, often because they had not received the appropriate technical training--even when they had requested said training over and over again.

When Schaefer and Stokes came to suspect that women working at other CBS-owned properties had similar problems, they began talking to other potential plaintiffs, with an eye toward pursuing a class-action lawsuit. Diana Rios, a technician at KCBS-TV in L.A., would eventually claim she was being denied overtime. From 1993 to 1998 at WBBM-TV in Chicago, male technicians had earned, on an average, $13,432 more per year than female technicians. On October 29, 1999, the federal Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC), persuaded by testimony provided by Linda Karpell, a former photographer at WCBS-TV in New York, found that CBS discriminates against female technicians at local stations owned and operated by the company.

 

What ultimately convinced Beckmann's seasoned employment attorneys that they had a winning case, however, was evidence of a hostile work environment, particularly at WCCO. "There was an underlying machismo involved there that said, 'Hell, we're a newsroom. We're allowed to treat people that way,'" says Schaefer.

In particular, one of Beckmann's supervisors, Deronn Greseth, was singled out for bad behavior. Beckmann testified that on several occasions Greseth asked her if Wendy Wyatt, a female technician, "played with herself in the bathroom." He allegedly referred to women's breasts as "jewels," frequently used the words bitch and cunt when berating female employees, and would later admit in an affidavit that he brought pornographic images into the station on his laptop computer to share with male staffers. He even wore a digital watch where he stored a list of profanities. In late 1993 Greseth--who did not return City Pages' phone calls--was promoted over Beckmann and named night assistant supervisor.

"That promotion was the straw that broke the camel's back," Beckmann remembers. "Just about everyone in the department thought that was like throwing gas on a forest fire. He was one of the worst people there as far as his language and the way he treated people."

In their original complaint, Beckmann and Senn also singled out WCCO news director Ted Canova, who, they claimed, used sexually charged language when chewing out underlings. In February of 1997, two months after Beckmann and Senn filed suit, news anchor Colleen Needles lodged a harassment charge with the EEOC, alleging "a pattern of vulgar and derogatory comments" by Canova (in particular, the news director allegedly referred to Needles as his "anchor bitch"). Needles eventually dropped the complaint and walked away silently, with a settlement rumored to be worth up to $1 million. But the damage had been done. True or not, the allegations were now a matter of public record.

"I can't speak to Becky's situation. I'm not familiar with the particulars," Kevyn Burger says. "But that business about Ted is total nonsense. Believe me, Ted and I have had many disagreements. But he runs this place in a reasonable and honorable way. People had their own axes to grind and their own agendas."

(Canova refused to comment for this story, but he told City Pages in 1997 that he was wounded by the accusations. "There is no yelling and cursing over screw-ups," he said. "This is a refined workplace with Midwestern values.")

"What this really came down to is women trying to integrate into a predominantly male, old-boys network," Schaefer says. "And WCCO, for decades before, was run like a boys' locker room. That was just part of the fabric and culture of the workplace. Hopefully this agreement we fashioned with CBS will go a long way toward changing that culture."

For the next four years, WCCO will have no choice but to go through the motions--posting jobs, holding sensitivity seminars about sexual discrimination, and correcting disparities in pay. As part of the settlement, female employees are not only ensured a comprehensive annual review, but at least twice a year CBS will have to provide plaintiffs' counsel with a list of relevant job openings, along with data about training opportunities, special assignments, and overtime pay. If women at any of the stations feel their employers aren't living up to their side of the bargain, Schaefer and Stokes will step in.

To date, Greseth and Canova are still employed by the station, and Beckmann isn't sure what to expect from them. She guesses that Greseth was so terrified he'd lose his job that his boorish side went on vacation. Canova has mellowed, Beckmann observes, but still has a lot of work to do on his management style. "There will always be excuses for Ted, because he's still basically the same way," she says. "He still yells at people in public, because that's just the way he is. He's not really going to change. There are still a lot of people who are surprised he's allowed to stick around."

Since no one in a position to comment at WCCO or at CBS is willing to go on the record about the settlement's specifics, it's hard to gauge their long-term commitment to change. In large part this is because the suits at CBS are vested in denying that anything was really wrong in the first place. For whatever it's worth, things do seem to have settled down in WCCO's newsroom. In 1997, when Ted Canova's name was a staple in the gossip columns, a number of reporters were complaining off the record that the news director should be fired. Today those same reporters are silent.

 

Beckmann also believes things have changed for the better. In particular, she has faith that general manager Jan McDaniel will make sure changes mandated by the consent decree stick: "It will be a slow healing process, but I already feel like it's on its way. It's like a death. It takes time. Things are going in the right direction now."


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