NBC Benched Reporter For Being ‘Too Veteran,’ Jury Told

By Daniel Siegal
(Law360, Los Angeles)

A former colleague of an investigative journalist alleging NBC's Los Angeles station fired him because of his age on Friday told a California jury the station's news director had insisted the journalist be kept off the air because he was “too veteran.”

During the second day of 72-year-old Frank Snepp's age bias and wrongful termination trial in Los Angeles, the former journalist for NBCUniversal Media LLC's local affiliate called to the stand a former colleague at the station, Todd Reed, to testify about a disagreement he had with Vickie Burns, who took over at news director at the station in 2010 and frequently stated her desire to appeal to a young audience of 20-somethings, according to Snepp's suit.

Under examination by Snepps' attorney Suzelle Smith of Howarth & Smith, Reed, who had worked as a producer and then Platform Manager at KNBC with Snepp, said that he put Snepp — a former U.S. Central Intelligence Agency analyst — on air to provide commentary for the breaking story of Osama Bin Laden's killing by the U.S. in May 2011. After he tried to bring Snepp on-air again in the following days to again provide commentary, however, Burns blocked him from doing so, telling him after the segment that it was because Snepp was “too veteran.”

Manuel Cachan of Munger Tolles & Olson LLP, representing NBC, during a sometimes testy cross-examination asked Reed extensively about apparent discrepancies between the way he described the incident on Friday compared to how he described it in a sworn declaration, asking if he “just forgot” what happened when he said he “believed” he'd been asked to keep Snepp off-air because he was a veteran employee.

Reed said that Cachan could “nitpick words,” but that he knew what Burns had said, and added that from the “expression on her face,” it was evident what she meant.

“Matter of factly she tells me, he was too veteran,” he 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 CIA 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.

Snepp alleged that Burns' taking over newsroom, however, older employers were marginalized, and claimed that in addition to him being prevented from going on air for continued Bin Laden commentary, Burns once told him in a meeting, "Some people just see you as a grumpy old man who oughta just quit."

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.

During opening statements on Thursday, Smith told the jury that Snepp's supervisors concocted a false pattern of insubordination to fire him.

In his opening statement, Bart Williams of Munger Tolles & Olson, representing NBC, told the jury that Snepp was in fact the victim of his own obstinacy and refusal to adjust after NBC underwent a reorganization that resulted in more than 50 layoffs.

On Friday, Williams called to the stand Robert L. Long, the news director who preceded Burns, and who had hired Snepp, and asked him whether he would consider it unprofessional if Snepp had maintained an “intimate, sexual relationship” with one of his confidential sources from a story.

Long said he would consider it unprofessional. Trial adjourned for the day before the conclusion of the cross-examination, and will resume on Monday morning.

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.