08.09.09

Why I Committed Career Suicide

Charles Perez, the gay news anchor fired by his Miami ABC affiliate after filing a discrimination claim over a bump to weekends, says he couldn’t forgo marriage and children just to stay in the news business.

I was fired four days after filing a sexual-orientation discrimination claim with Miami-Dade County’s Equal Opportunity Board against my employer, Miami ABC affiliate WPLG, owned by Post-Newsweek Stations.

Bottom line, I believe they sold me out as soon as my being gay became too widely known. It made them uncomfortable and made me, in their eyes, less advertiser-friendly. They’d demoted me two weeks earlier from main weekday anchor to weekend anchor. It was a move I quickly recognized was leading to the door, and I wasn’t prepared to watch my career circle down the drain.

If the past decades have taught us anything, it is to be much more subtle about our prejudices. Getting rid of “the black guy” has given way to “we really should go in a different direction.”

My ex-employer will never admit this, but if the past decades have taught us anything, it is to be much more subtle about our prejudices. Getting rid of “the black guy” or “the woman” or “the gay guy” or “the Jew”—not to mention many other select groups—has given way to “we really should go in a different direction.” Or “we’ve really got to consider what’s the least objectionable choice.”

I’ll probably never work in the news business again. Honestly, who’s going to hire a newsman, as good as he may be, who litigates against his employer? It’s not exactly a career builder. The good news, as my dentist told me August 6, the day I was fired, is: “They can only take your job. They can’t take your talent.”

Since my firing, I’ve added a retaliation charge to my discrimination claim with the Miami-Dade County Equal Opportunity Board. The case will now go before a three-judge panel, which can award damages.

The station has said in a statement that it will “bring the facts out in the appropriate legal forum.” “WPLG is disappointed that the actions of Charles Perez left us no real choice other than to terminate his employment contract,” the station said. “WPLG emphatically denies Perez’ claim of discrimination.”

There are no state or federal laws to support my claim. I’m relying on a new county ordinance, enacted last November, that added sexual orientation as a protected class. A positive outcome could help push the need for a state law and for the passage of the federal Employment Non-Discrimination Act, which was recently reintroduced by Rep. Barney Frank (D-MA).

I understand there are those who believe that my actions will actually make it harder for gay men and women to rise up, for fear they'll start trouble. But that is no reason not to do the right thing. In the words of the Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., “The arc of history is long, but it bends toward justice.” Barack Obama, in his acceptance speech on November 4, 2008, added that we play a part in that history and must put our hands on that arc and “bend it once more toward the hope of a better day.”

The news business has become a place of fear, where principle and the news have become the casualties and ratings and dollars the prizes. A perfect example: In the runup to the war in Iraq, Mohamed El-Baradei, the top man looking for weapons of mass destruction in Iraq, stood in front of a dozen microphones in Paris and announced that there weren’t any. It was a front-page story in Paris, London, Moscow, and Tokyo. It was buried in The New York Times. I, however, read it.

I went to one of my bosses at Miami’s Fox affiliate, WSVN, and said, “We have to run this. This is big!” He said, “Charles, that’s not what our advertisers want to see.” We never ran it.

Today, the major news outlets are held hostage by what they “think” their advertisers—and by extension their audiences—want to see. Sacrificed is the news we may need to know. As a result, they contribute to building a less-educated electorate that only wants more of the Twinkies it has been fed.

Democracy demands a free and independent press as a check on those who govern us. The Founding Fathers must never have imagined, however, that we would abdicate that responsibility for a quick buck.

This brings me back to my story and my choice. I used to believe in my company, WPLG and The Washington Post (which owns Post-Newsweek Stations). Now, The Washington Post is embroiled in a scandal over selling dinner spots at the publisher’s dinner table, offering access to power in exchange for cash, and my own station told me to shut up, go to the back of the bus, and they won’t fire me.

So what do they stand for? It’s not clear. If anything has taken a back seat, it seems to be integrity.

One of my colleagues, a higher-up at the station, told me: “The weekends will be better for you, anyway, Charles. You and Keith [my partner] want to have kids. It’s a lot less high-profile there.”

It was a suggestion that never would have been made to one of my straight colleagues, male or female. The only thing I could take from it was that my profile as a gay man, especially if I were to have kids and, God forbid, get married, would render me less promotable and less advertiser-friendly.

In fact, over the previous five months, I’d been told, “Don’t get married, Charles. We don’t need that.” I’d also been told not to have children. In essence: “You’re the main anchor and you’re gay, but let’s not push it.”

To me, having the family I want is not pushing it. Living with love, commitment, and dignity is not pushing it.

I did not want this moment. I had hoped to be at the station for the rest of my professional career. However, I could not choose that career over the man I love and our commitment to build a family together.

They say I was demoted for financial reasons, but their reasoning and their examples keep changing. They have continued to be the No. 1 station in the market, and my co-anchor and I have continued to deliver the ratings—along with stellar performance reviews. It just doesn’t ring true.

What does make sense is that, by living honestly, I began not to fit into their valuable picture. And so, out of fear, to the back of the bus I was told to go.

Well, I won’t go to the back of the bus, and neither should anyone else. To do so would have cost me something far more valuable than my career: my integrity.

When given the choice between my soul and my career, I chose my soul.

Charles Perez came to Local 10 News in September 2006 in a move that, for him, meant coming home. Charles spent two years at the ABC station in New York City (2004-06), where he anchored the weekend 6 and 11 p.m. newscasts. Since then, he has interviewed newsmakers from state, local, and national politics, to Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez.