‘Absolutely Impossible’ That ABC News Chief James Goldston Was Unaware of Exec’s ‘Racist’ Behavior
The top boss at ABC News had to have known about his top lieutenant’s behavior, sources told The Daily Beast.
British-born network television executive James Goldston, the president of ABC News since April 2014, is known among colleagues and underlings for his obsessive attention to detail and hands-on involvement in the news division’s programming.
Thus several ABC News insiders, who asked not to be further identified out of fear of possible reprisals, told The Daily Beast that it strains credulity to think that Goldston was unaware of the allegedly abusive conduct of a longtime top lieutenant, Barbara Fedida.
The Disney-owned news division’s senior vice president of talent relations and business affairs—a powerful executive responsible for hiring and developing ABC journalists and negotiating their contracts—Fedida was the subject of a damning HuffPost story about her purportedly racist, racially insensitive, and otherwise ugly comments about on-air news anchors and correspondents who happened to be Black.
“Absolutely impossible,” an ABC News veteran said about the likelihood that Goldston was uninformed about Fedida’s behavior—especially because Goldston has heard complaints about it directly from representatives of ABC News talent. A knowledgeable source recounted how a well-known talent agent recently complained specifically to the news division chief about one of Fedida’s insulting remarks concerning a client, and that Goldston agreed that Fedida’s trash-talk was unacceptable.
“My experience is that he’s literally producing each one of the broadcasts, signing off on the lineups, and I don’t know how much more down-in-the-weeds you could get,” the ABC News veteran said about Goldston’s granular attention to detail. “His greatest news judgment is that something is ‘boring,’ and if James says it’s boring you can be assured it will not be anywhere near the top of a program, or it will not even be on the program.”
Fedida’s job—which required her often to give talent bad news about their careers—isn’t designed to enhance her popularity; that was even less the case because she’s known to favor brutal bluntness over tact and diplomacy.
Her conduct was one of the factors, according to a source, that prompted a tough letter addressed to Goldston and his boss, then-Disney/ABC Television Group President Ben Sherwood, with the names of 12 Black journalists at ABC News, including Good Morning America star Robin Roberts, The View co-host Sunny Hostin and senior Justice Department correspondent Pierre Thomas, listed at the bottom.
Fedida derisively dubbed the letter “The Black Manifesto,” according to HuffPost’s Yashar Ali. According to one Black on-air ABC journalist, who reached out to The Daily Beast after being alerted to this story by the network’s PR department, the letter was circulated informally among the group but never officially sent to Sherwood and Goldston, who apparently obtained a copy anyway, and the letter’s sometimes confrontational wording wasn’t agreed to by the 12 journalists named as signatories.
“While we recognize our numbers in front of the camera, we are frustrated, demoralized, and angered by the lack of black voices in our newsrooms,” said the Aug. 17, 2016 letter—which was deliberately not addressed to Fedida, a source told The Daily Beast, because she was seen by some in the group as an adversary.
The letter noted in bullet-points: “No black Senior Producers at World News Tonight; No black Senior Producers at Nightline; Only one black Senior Producer at Good Morning America; Only one black Senior Producer at 20/20.”
The letter continued: “The lack of African-American representation in key editorial positions is not only unacceptable, it is also bad for the news division, as is often painfully clear in our coverage. Most recently, we felt that the network’s town hall on race with President Obama”—a July 2016 event moderated by David Muir—“failed completely in its effort to foster a meaningful dialogue on issues of race, a sentiment echoed in our community. But this was a preventable failure. Had just one senior-level black person been involved in a special about black people.”
The memo listed seven concrete suggestions to remedy the situation, including adding a Black senior producer to World News Tonight and a Black senior producer “per shift” at GMA, and adding a Black senior producer to Nightline.
Also requested: that Kendis Gibson be officially named the anchor of World News Now and America This Morning—ABC’s overnight and early morning newscasts—that Hostin be officially named a co-host of The View, that Ron Claiborne be officially named news anchor of GMA Weekend, and that ABC’s Black on-air journalists be accorded a periodic “respectful conversation about individual goals, strengths and areas of improvement.”
A knowledgable insider said that while Goldston was aware of the letter, he might not have actually read it. But at a tense and candid meeting between Goldston and the Black journalists, which was scheduled specifically to discuss their complaints, it was clear to some at the meeting—though not to others—that the ABC News president had received and studied the letter.
There seems to be no dispute, however, that Goldston discussed the concerns and recommendations, point by point, according to participants. Since then, Goldston has been holding periodic sessions with Black ABC News correspondents and anchors.
“James welcomed the opportunity to hear from this group and meet with them regularly,” an ABC News spokesperson told The Daily Beast. “These conversations have led to positive change in the news division. While we’ve made progress, there is more to do and we’re committed to it.”
ABC News declined The Daily Beast’s invitation to enumerate any steps Goldston has taken over the past four years to address the letter’s concerns.
The on-air personality who reached out to The Daily Beast, however, said that several Black senior producers have been installed at several of the news division programs, including in recent weeks. This person also noted that last August, Goldston hired longtime PBS executive Marie Nelson, who is Black, for the new position of senior vice president for integrated content strategy, with the mission of diversifying ABC News content.
Meanwhile, ABC News announced that Fedida was placed on administrative leave pending an investigation of HuffPost’s allegations.
The damaging story recounted that during contract renewal talks with representatives of Robin Roberts, Fedida balked at the GMA anchor’s request for more money, remarking that she was already making enough and “it wasn’t as if the network was asking Roberts to ‘pick cotton.’”
Fedida allegedly denigrated Kendis Gibson by noting that ABC “spends more on toilet paper than we ever would on him.” Gibson, for five years an ABC News correspondent and anchor, left for MSNBC in January 2019.
On Twitter, after his story was published this past Saturday, HuffPost’s Ali reported that Fedida also referred to Hostin as “low rent”—which prompted an emotional response from Hostin and her co-hosts on Monday’s installment of The View.
“It was a tough weekend for me,” Hostin said. “And I was really disappointed and saddened and hurt when I learned about the racist comments that were made allegedly about me, my colleagues, and my dear friends.”
Hostin added: “It’s the type of racism that Black people deal with every single day, and it has to stop, and I look forward to the results of what I hear is going to be an independent, external investigation.”
Ron Claiborne, meanwhile, retired from ABC News in 2018—at the suggestion of management, said a source. Claiborne didn’t respond to voicemail and text messages.
And longtime 20/20 correspondent Deborah Roberts, who is married to NBC’s Al Roker, was said to be “deeply disappointed” in April 2018 when Goldston named Amy Robach, not Roberts, anchor of the primetime show.