By Austin Siegemund-Broka
(The Hollywood Reporter)
Lawyers for Frank Snepp, 72, argued in court Thursday that his ouster from KNBC in 2012 reflected NBCUniversal's treatment of other employees.
NBCUniversal will answer accusations of age discrimination in the trial of a lawsuit brought by Frank Snepp, a former KNBC reporter who claims the network fired him for his years.
Snepp sued in 2013 for his termination from Los Angeles' KNBC in 2012, when he was 69. In the Los Angeles Superior Court trial, which opened Thursday, his lawyer's opening statement placed Snepp's removal within a trend of alleged discrimination on the part of NBCUniversal and KNBC.
"NBC acted intentionally. They papered his file with untrue criticisms. They did the same thing to other employees. They wanted Mr. Snepp out for age-related reasons. There was a pattern," said Suzelle Smith of Howarth & Smith, Snepp's lawyer.
Snepp is an interesting figure. The former CIA analyst published the book Decent Interval on the CIA's operations in Vietnam without the CIA reviewing it before publication, which Snepp's employment contract required. The United States took him to court, and a 1980 Supreme Court decision found his First Amendment rights did not protect him from having breached the prepublication requirement.
He became a journalist, going on to document the government's role in the Iran-Contra Affair and win awards including a Peabody (presented by a young Jon Stewart) and an Emmy.
In 2006, Snepp became a field producer for Los Angeles' KNBC and in 2009 he became a content producer.
Weeks after NBC concluded a lawsuit with AEG over his investigative piece about fire protection issues at Staples Center, NBC fired him. Snepp claimed in his complaint the following year the network terminated him for his age (he was 69), alleging members of the news leadership recently installed at the station made ageist comments, including a superior telling him, “Some people just see you as a grumpy old man who oughta just quit."
NBCUniversal says Snepp was fired for poor job performance. In a motion for summary judgment, the company argued that to prove discrimination, Snepp needed to have been replaced by a younger employee.
Judge Stephen Moloney denied the motion in August, setting the case up for trial. The judge would not permit Snepp to argue his claim of retaliation, but found it unclear whether a younger replacement was required for the discrimination claim and ruled Snepp "has submitted evidence that suggests age-animus based on the believed reason why Plaintiff was removed."
The trial, previously set to begin Nov. 9, got postponed because Judge Rolf Treu recused himself. Now in Moloney’s courtroom, the trial opened Thursday following jury selection earlier in the week.
Smith argued that in a 2009 reorganization, NBCUniversal had devised the "content producer" position in order to fire employees by reverse-engineering requirements of the job. "NBC now had a weapon it could use against older, sometimes higher paid employees in the newsroom," said Smith. "NBC could create a list of anything it wanted to come under the umbrella, and criticize older employees if they were failing according to NBC's own structure for not meeting the requirements of content producer."
After the retirement of KNBC's Bob Long, whom Smith called "a watchdog against age discrimination," the network targeted older employees with criticism "they couldn't understand" and unfair performance reviews, said Smith. "When NBC management was criticizing other older employees unfairly, some of them just gave up. They will testify that some of them who felt they were being marginalized and set up for failure and termination were told, 'You can resign or you're going to be fired,' and most of them took the resign package," she said.
Snepp declined, so KNBC fired him, she continued.
Smith added that Snepp had not fallen behind the times, calling him "one of the pioneers" of online journalism and "one of those investigative journalists who changes the world we live in."
NBCUniversal counsel Bart Williams of Munger Tolles & Olson told a different story, one in which NBCUniversal introduced the content producer position to combat the Great Recession and the changing media market. Under the system, reporters would learn to produce every element of news stories, including the writing, editing, voiceover and video graphics. "Mr. Snepp said he didn’t need to change, and his bosses said he did. Mr. Snepp stubbornly clung to a model of news reporting that was largely being replaced," said Williams.
Snepp repeatedly avoided "training that was key for him to be self-sufficient like other content producers" and invoked his journalism recognition when superiors would critique his work, continued Williams, and he relied on other content producers for editing and graphics while spending months or years on investigative reporting. "You will hear over the course of 2011 and 2012 friction between Mr. Snepp and his bosses," said Williams. "They said, 'Look, the bottom line is, you’re the only content producer who requires help from other content producers to get a story on air, and that needs to change.'"
Finally, said Williams cryptically, "You will hear about conduct that, had KNBC known about it, would have brought about his termination from KNBC."
Former KNBC content producer Yvonne Beltzer, 71, took the stand Thursday afternoon. A news writer before the content producer system, she said she's "still trying to figure [out]" what the content producer position entailed. "My job did not change," she said. Beltzer received instruction that the content producer job involved every element of producing a story, she said under cross-examination, "but that's not what happened."
In 2013, her employers brought her into a conference room and told her she required writing lessons, she said. "I did not feel I needed remedial writing lessons. I was insulted they would take an employee who had been there for 30 years and treat them in that manner," said Beltzer. “There was a person at HR there who said we do have some buyouts. I said make me an offer, and I took a buyout."
When Snepp lawyer Ames Smith asked whether Beltzer wanted to exit KNBC, she said no.
Age discrimination lawsuits are not uncommon in Hollywood. Recent litigation on the subject includes complaints against Warner Bros. from a Big Bang Theory assistant director, against Sony from a stuntman on The Amazing Spider-Man 2, against Disney from a fired story department employee (who allegedly was replaced by a younger employee) and against WME from a former assistant then in his late 30s.
Snepp's trial will continue Friday. He likely will not testify until the coming week.