Former CBS news entertainment staffer Whitney Davis says her former employer has “a white problem.”
Davis was most recently director, CBS entertainment diversity & inclusion
In February, I decided to part ways with CBS, the corporation where I began my media career and most recently served as director of entertainment diversity and inclusion. Last fall, when sexual-misconduct allegations against then-CEO Leslie Moonves prompted an outside investigation into the CBS workplace culture, I assumed that all forms of discrimination would be delved into. The attorneys I spoke with did not lead me to believe otherwise. I was eager to tell my story and grateful that two independent law firms were brought in to conduct interviews with several hundred employees. By sharing my experience, I hoped to shed desperately needed light on the truth that CBS, sadly, doesn’t value a diverse workplace.
For five of her first 15 years at CBS, she worked in the news division, starting out as a CBS News broadcast associate, a role she held from December 2006 to April 2009, before becoming a CBS News digital journalist, a role she held until December 2011.
She describes her experience at CBS News:
My first job at the network was an entry-level role with the “CBS Evening News” weekend edition. I cut my teeth in the newsroom getting coffee, running scripts, pulling tape and editing voiceovers, all while remaining at the same entry-level position and pay. While I was at “CBS Evening News,” a co-worker shared some family lore, telling me, “My dad has f—ed black women, and he loved it.” Though horrified, I didn’t take action. Like many women who experience workplace harassment and inappropriate behavior, I didn’t want to lose my job if I complained. Due to my hard work and perseverance, I began to build a reputation in the newsroom as a go-getter, someone who met deadlines, thrived under pressure and worked well with others.
It gets worse:
There were two black women working in production on the broadcast — myself and another. We both held the lowest-ranking positions on staff. Not uncommon in most predominantly white institutions, most of our white colleagues had trouble keeping our names straight. As a joke, they began to call us We-Dra — short for Whitney and Deidra. In every job I’ve had at CBS, co-workers have confused me with other black women in the office, as if we’re interchangeable. I don’t think most people understand just how demeaning these daily micro-aggressions are. Or maybe they do and don’t care.
One “CBS Evening News” senior producer always wanted to touch my hair while sharing an inappropriate sexual joke. Once again, I brushed this off as ignorance — not wanting to imperil my job — and kept pushing forward. Looking for a new path, I was able to convince a senior producer to help me with my camera skills, and I soon began to pitch, shoot and produce my own stories.
By the spring of 2009, nearly three years after I began my career at CBS News, I was one of three journalists hired into the newly formed digital-journalist unit. We were associate producers with camera gear who covered breaking news for all of the broadcasts. This was a huge advancement in my career. My goal was to become a “60 Minutes” producer. Despite ongoing concerns, I kept my nose to the grindstone.
One Friday in the newsroom, Bill Felling, then the national editor, asked my two white male colleagues if they could travel to cover a story. Both replied that they weren’t available. He never asked me if I could cover the story. I had already successfully covered important stories including Michael Jackson’s funeral, the Bernie Madoff scandal and several other high-profile news events. Summoning courage, I marched over to his office and told him that I was able to travel to shoot the piece. He looked me dead in the eye and said, “I’m not going to waste the company’s money for you to go there and fail.”
For years I rolled with the punches. Then in late 2009, when a white female colleague used the N-word in my presence, I was outraged. I was advised to talk to a senior executive in the news division. Her response was to tell me that I should have thicker skin. I was speechless. Why would I go to HR to file a formal complaint if a senior executive would only tell me that I needed to be tougher?
Davis says she moved to L.A. to work at CBS News’ west coast bureau.
Not long after that, I transferred to Los Angeles, where a woman of color was the bureau chief — an anomaly at CBS News. She was instrumental in creating opportunities for me to thrive. My assignments included covering countless wildfires around California, as well as the shooting of Rep. Gabrielle Giffords in Tucson, Ariz. I traveled to Japan as an embedded reporter with the USAID relief teams, where I covered the devastating earthquake and tsunami. Feeling empowered, I was on the rise, cutting my own segments for “CBS Evening News.”
In the fall of 2010, I was in New York covering a story. While there, I stopped by the CBS newsroom and, to my surprise, was met by Felling, who complimented me on my producing skills. This was the same man who just a year before refused to waste company money on me. Before I could wipe the smile off my face, he stopped talking about my work and placed his hands on my shoulders, turned me around and asked what I had done differently to my hair. The touching and the remark made me uncomfortable, but at the time, I felt there was nothing I could do.
For the next year, I excelled, covering every breaking news story west of the Mississippi, confident that my work mattered and that I was making a meaningful contribution to CBS News. I soon learned that I was being considered for the L.A.-based weekend-edition producer role. A colleague with insight into the process told me that I had been deemed “not ready.” Although I couldn’t confirm that my career had been sabotaged, I felt as though I had hit a glass ceiling working in news.
We reached out to CBS News for comment on Davis’ letter, but have yet to hear back.
Davis then departed CBS News and moved into the entertainment division, where she would help develop the fall 2013 lineup.
In the summer of 2011, I was one of three employees accepted to CBS’ newly launched Emerging Creative Leadership Experience — a two-year program that identifies and develops future creative executives at CBS Entertainment.
She most recently worked in the CBS entertainment inclusion and diversity division, so if there’s anyone who knows about race at CBS, it’s probably Davis.
I am not an angry black woman with an ax to grind. As a mom, I don’t want my black boys to have to work at a company that doesn’t value them for their talent and skills, and I don’t want other young girls and boys to encounter similar roadblocks in corporate America. They deserve a better world. I’m speaking out to encourage other black, Latinx, native, API, disabled or LGBTQ workers to know that we don’t have to tolerate what is intolerable.
With the investigation into CBS’ workplace culture now closed, it is my hope that my story is a cautionary tale for companies to value the talent and contributions of people of color and those from marginalized communities in the workplace. A diverse workforce is an asset to any company — we make you stronger and more profitable. My hope is to create lasting change in the industry. Let’s start with CBS.