Ex-NBC Reporter Took Orders But Booted Anyway, Jury Hears

By Daniel Siegal
(Law360, Los Angeles)

A Peabody Award-winning investigative journalist alleging NBC painted him as insubordinate as a pretense to fire him from its Los Angeles station took the stand Monday in an age bias and wrongful termination trial, telling a California jury he never refused an assignment.

During the third day of trial in Los Angeles on 72-year-old Frank Snepp's claims that his supervisors concocted a false pattern of insubordination to fire him from NBCUniversal Media LLC's Los Angeles affiliate because of his age, Snepp himself took the stand.

Under examination by his attorney, Suzelle Smith of Howarth & Smith, Snepp gave a broad overview of his responsibilities as an investigative journalist at the station, and walked the jury through the steps of producing an investigative report, from getting a tip and researching the story to shooting, editing, adding graphics and having the final product cleared by NBC's legal department.

Snepp said that despite the “lively give and take” he engaged in with his superiors when pushing to get his reporting on the air, he “never refused an assignment.”

NBC has argued during the trial that Snepp was fired because after a company reorganization in 2009 resulted in Snepp switching job titles — from Field Producer to Content Producer — and getting a $10,000 salary bump, the journalist refused his bosses' orders to expand the scope of his job to include producing more, shorter stories, and to handle certain photographing and editing responsibilities himself.

Smith on Monday asked Snepp about the impact of NBC's reorganization on his job duties, and Snepp said that the station's News Director at the time of the switch, Bob Long, told him it was “simply a name change,” and wouldn't change what his job entailed.

“He said that investigative journalism was the way to improve viewership, to attract people, they would come to see original reporting ... it was the DNA, he said, of NBC,” Snepp said.

A reporter for the network's Los Angeles affiliate, KNBC-TV, Snepp sued in October 2013, alleging he was a victim of the station's efforts to appeal to a younger demographic when he was terminated in October 2012 at age 69.

Snepp, who was a chief intelligence analyst for the U.S. Central Intelligence Agency in North Vietnam during the Vietnam War, has decades of television news experience under his belt. He was hired by NBC in 2005 at the age of 61. One year later, he earned the Peabody Award for a four-part series that investigated environmental and safety hazards at the site of a commercial-residential development in southwest Los Angeles.

According to Snepp's complaint, around 2009, NBC started focusing on its online content and began marginalizing Snepp and other older employees. In August 2010, there was a change in leadership at the station: Vickie Burns, who took over as news director, frequently stated her desire to appeal to a young audience of 20-somethings, Snepp said.

Once, at a morning staff meeting, Snepp alleged that Burns turned to him and said, "Some people just see you as a grumpy old man who oughta just quit."

Burns also allegedly scolded another employee, NBC Platform Manager Todd Reed, after he put Snepp on air to provide commentary for the breaking story of Osama bin Laden’s death in May 2011.

Snepp's civil complaint said his experience with ageism was not unique. Throughout his employment, he made several complaints about the company's apparent age discrimination, including submitting a 150-page summary of his experiences to his superiors.

Snepp's suit also claims he was retaliated against for speaking out about the age discrimination at the station.

That cause of action, however, was tossed by Los Angeles Superior Court Judge Stephen Moloney in August. He agreed with NBC that Snepp failed to show a causal link between his complaints about age discrimination to the network's human resources and legal departments, and the news managers who fired him.

Last week, Bart Williams of Munger Tolles & Olson LLP, representing NBC, told the jury during opening statements that Snepp was in fact the victim of his own obstinacy and refusal to adjust after the reorganization that resulted in more than 50 layoffs.

Williams noted that other decorated employees at the station, including anchor Paul Moyer, who teamed with Snepp on his Peabody-winning story, were cooperating, but Snepp flatly refused his bosses' entreaties.

Trial will resume Tuesday morning with more direct examination of Snepp.

Snepp is represented by Suzelle Smith, Don Howarth, Jessica C. Walsh and Archibald Magill Smith IV of Howarth & Smith.

NBC is represented by Bart H. Williams, Manuel F. Cachan, Margaret G. Maraschino and Erin J. Cox of Munger Tolles & Olson LLP.

The case is Frank W. Snepp v. NBCUniversal Media LLC et al., case number BC523279, in the Superior Court of the State of California, County of Los Angeles.