KTLA turmoil highlights concerns about Latino representation

KTLA-TV Channel 5 is defending its handling of the departure of two popular hosts amid calls from viewers to boycott the channel and criticism that channel executives have been insensitive to concerns about a shortage of Latinos on the show.

For nearly two weeks, KTLA has endured a backlash from angry viewers over the exit of Lynette Romero – the network’s most prominent Latina – and her co-host on weekend morning shows, Mark Mester. He was fired last Thursday after an emotional on-air appeal accusing his bosses of cruel treatment of viewers and Romero, which the channel’s management denies.

The young co-host rented a small plane to fly with a banner that read, “We love you Lynette!”

After nearly 24 years at KTLA, Romero is expected to join rival KNBC-TV Channel 4 in the fall.

Romero’s departure leaves KTLA without a full-time Latina anchor to service a market where Latinos make up almost 50% of the population. A recent poll by a group of Latino journalists found that KTLA has the lowest percentage of Latino on-air talent among Los Angeles television stations. Last spring, the leaders of CCNMA: Latino Journalists of California requested a meeting with KTLA executives to address the issue.

CCNMA Executive Director Mekahlo Medina, who conducted the study, told The Times that KTLA News Director Pete Saiers is initially open to meeting. But when Medina pressed for a date for a meeting, Medina said he had been told KTLA executives were no longer interested.

“It was disappointing and confusing when KTLA chose not to have a conversation with us about diversity,” said Medina, a weekend presenter at KNBC. “We didn’t get any further with them.”

A KTLA spokesman declined to comment on the channel’s refusal to meet with the group, but defended its efforts to diversify its newsroom.

The clapperboard follows three years after television network chain Nexstar Media Group acquired KTLA as part of its $4 billion acquisition of Tribune Media. Nexstar hired new executives, replacing the channel’s longstanding leadership. The Dallas-area company installed Janene Drafs in February 2020. She became the station’s first female executive director, coming from a station in Seattle where she had worked since 1992.

Newsroom manager Saiers joined in April 2021, also from Seattle. A native of Northern California, he spent much of his career at the CBS station in San Francisco.

The turmoil at KTLA — which airs LA’s top-rated local morning news show — comes as television networks face falling ratings and increasing competition for viewers. Newsrooms across Los Angeles have also long reckoned with inequalities within their ranks.

News organizations, including The Times, have been criticized for a lack of Latino staff and for the portrayal of Latinos in news and opinion pieces. In early 2021, the National Assn. of Hispanic journalists visited executives at the Times and other news organizations to urge them to improve their representation.

The NAHJ delegation met with KTLA. “We have asked the newsroom to share employee diversity data with the public and to listen to journalists of color calling for equal representation on the newsroom,” NAHJ said in a March 17, 2021 tweet.

CCNMA: Latino Journalists of California also sought a meeting with KTLA executives this year. According to Medina, the group was concerned because KTLA did not have a Latino newscaster on its two late-night newscasts and only 15% of its on-air staff identify as Latino.

Of the more than 14 hours of news that KTLA produces weekdays, just one hour is hosted by a Latino: Pedro Rivera, who joined the station last year. Vera Jimenez, who was born in Mexico and moved to LA when she was 3, is the station’s weather forecaster for its weekday newscasts.

“Broadcasters need to look closely at who is bringing us the news and recognize that representation matters,” said Laurie Ochoa, President of CCNMA. (Ochoa serves separately as general manager of food at The Times, overseeing the newspaper’s food coverage.)

KTLA said half of the on-air talent hired since Drafs was named general manager is Latino. Of the eight hires, four are Hispanic, one is Black, one is Asian, and two are White.

“We’re very comfortable with our diversity efforts, but we’re always working to improve them,” said Gary Weitman, spokesman for KTLA and Nexstar.

Industry executives have widely criticized KTLA for handling Romero’s departure.

“KTLA has had LA in its DNA for a long time, but the larger group of companies has no history with that city,” said Paula Madison, former general manager of KNBC-TV Channel 4 and former chief diversity officer of NBCUniversal. “The people who run this station didn’t seem to understand that they were insulting a person that many viewers held in high esteem.”

The station has been under siege since September 14, when it announced Romero was leaving.

“My husband and I watched Lynette for years,” said Upland’s Nita Ulloa-Pedroni, who describes herself as a “former KTLA viewer.” She remembered the chemistry between Romero and Mester.

“It was like having friends in your living room,” Ulloa-Pedroni said. “They were funny and friendly and it was really good banter.”

The station had been in talks for months to keep Romero, including offering a pay rise to match the KNBC offer. But Romero, who had worked the weekend shift for eight years, wanted opportunities to work weekdays, said people close to the station, who were not authorized to comment.

Her final day as the anchor of the KTLA weekend morning news was scheduled for Sunday, September 18, coinciding with the end of her employment contract.

Earlier this week, KTLA spokesman Weitman said Romero “requested that her leave be extended until the end of her contract.”

“She was supposed to work this weekend. Her decision meant she would not be at KTLA to say goodbye to viewers or the weekend team,” Weitman said.

Romero declined an interview request. But a person familiar with the situation, who was not authorized to speak publicly, said Romero emailed Drafs on Sept. 11 to discuss details of her departure. Romero was still in limbo the next day, the knowledgeable person said, asking for vacation days because the situation at the station had become “embarrassing.”

Romero wanted to say goodbye to viewers – until September 14. That morning, Drafs called to say the station would announce the news. Minutes later, KTLA entertainment host Sam Rubin read from a teleprompter and said he wanted to share with him “some news that we had just delivered.”

“After almost 24 years, Lynette Romero, our friend Lynette, has decided to step away from anchoring the weekend morning news,” Rubin said. “KTLA management had hoped she would stay here her entire career and KTLA has worked hard to make that happen, but Lynette has chosen to pursue another opportunity elsewhere.”

The broadcaster also announced this on Twitter.

“Once it was clear that Lynette would not be returning to the air, KTLA management felt it was important that viewers hear the news of her departure from the station, rather than through social media,” Weitman said.

At the station, Romero’s colleagues were upset they weren’t told before the public announcement, insiders said.

“The way Sam Rubin read that casual comment on air without Lynette saying goodbye to viewers was just wrong,” said Ulloa-Pedroni, the viewer. “She was there for 24 years and deserved respect.”

Madison and other industry executives said KTLA is following standard industry practice to downplay a key anchor’s move to a rival. .

“But this practice is short-sighted,” said a veteran news executive who previously worked in LA. “The reason you don’t let a presenter say goodbye is because you don’t want him to rip you off on air. But if someone wants to do that, they can do it in five seconds on their Instagram page.”

After a social media backlash, KTLA news managers offered to send a camera crew to Romero’s home to record a farewell video. But at the time, the network was in the middle of a PR nightmare, and she turned it down, several people said.

“In her absence, we wanted to honor Lynette’s dedication and work with a story and video retrospective [the following] Saturday morning’s weekend news,” Weitman said. “Unfortunately, instead of reading the script story, and unbeknownst to the editors or KTLA management, Lynette’s co-host Mark Mester walked away from the script and made a number of comments about her departure at will.”

He was released last week. Neither Mester nor his agent could be reached for comment.

News veterans have criticized Mester’s actions, including referring to Drafs as “that woman” in his September 17 monologue.

“I’ve never seen anything like it, and I’ve been on TV news for 25 years,” Madison said. “When I watched the video, I was like, ‘Oh my god, they have a renegade host on the air who says whatever he wants to say.’ ”

She added: “No matter how right he thinks he still hijacked the airwaves of that station.”

Tensions between management and Romero have been building for several weeks, insiders said.

Madison questioned why the broadcaster didn’t renew Romero’s contract months ago — or work out a smooth transition.

“If I had an anchor that I really wanted, I’d renegotiate the terms of the contract a year later so it wouldn’t go to the end,” Madison said. “I was shocked that they couldn’t find accommodation for her.”

Times contributor Jonah Valdez contributed to this report.

https://www.latimes.com/entertainment-arts/business/story/2022-09-27/ktla-turmoil-lynette-romero-mark-mester-latino-representation KTLA turmoil highlights concerns about Latino representation

Sarah Ridley

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