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Fired Latina Reporter Says She Has No Regrets

By Richard Prince, Robert C. Maynard Institute for Journalism Education 





Rebecca Aguilar accepts the Broadcast Journalist of the Year Award at the 2007

awards gala of the National Association of Hispanic Journalists. (Credit: NAHJ)


DALLAS - Dallas reporter Rebecca Aguilar lost her lawsuit against Fox-owned KDFW-TV television for wrongful termination based on race Monday but said, "Fox won in the court of law, but I know I have won in the court of life."

" 'You heard a week's worth of testimony,' Fox's head attorney, Michael Shaunessy, told outside the courtroom shortly after District Court Judge Jim Jordan announced the jury's decision in the oft-acrimonious case," Dallas television writer Ed Bark reported. " 'KDFW (Channel 4) did everything it could to make her a good employee. In the end they couldn't save her from herself.' "

Bark described it as "a trial in which both sides repeatedly swung hard at one another."

Aguilar was suspended by KDFW on Oct. 16, 2007, a day after her controversial interview of a 70-year-old West Dallas salvage business owner. As Bark explained, "On the weekend before the interview, [James] Walton had shot and killed an alleged burglar, the second time in three weeks that he had used deadly force on an intruder. . . .

"Aguilar said she initially was praised throughout the newsroom for her scoop. The station then was hit by a wave of angry emails and phone calls from viewers who essentially accused her of bullying an elderly crime victim."

Aguilar told Journal-isms she faced a Texas jury of 11 white people and one black person.

"I don't regret anything I did," she said. "They offered me two settlements. I said no. . . . I don't feel like I lost. I've inspired people that we do have a voice. A big corporation like Fox cannot take away my voice."

On her Facebook page, she added, "Was about exposing a wrong inside a newsroom when comes to minorities in management. It was not about money. They needed an army of lawyers, paralegals to take me on. What does that say. Never fear a giant."

A Fox spokeswoman told Journal-isms, "The jury’s decision vindicates our position that FOX 4 acted appropriately."

Aguilar's lawyer, Bill Trantham, said there was no basis to appeal the unanimous verdict from the state district court jury. "Some you win, some you lose," he told Journal-isms.

Aguilar is a member of the board of the National Association of Hispanic Journalists. In 2007, she was NAHJ's "Broadcast Journalist of the Year."

Bark provided virtually the only coverage of the six-day trial. "I'm shocked that other media companies did not cover this," Aguilar told Journal-isms. "I wonder if they're in the same boat that Fox4's in now, with no minorities in management. Maybe one or two, especially not Latinos."

Bark reported, "It's Aguilar's contention that the station increasingly became averse to hiring minorities for news manager positions after Kathy Saunders became Fox4's general manager in 1997 and Maria Barrs was promoted to news director in 1998.

"Aguilar's repeated lobbying for more minorities in positions of authority eventually led to her suspension on Oct. 16, 2007, according to her lawsuit. The station allegedly found a pretext to dismiss her after Aguilar's controversial interview" with Walton.

On Friday, Day 5 of the trial, Bark reported, final witness Clarice Tinsley, Dallas-Fort Worth's dean of news anchors, a 32-year veteran at KDFW-TV, "said that Aguilar occasionally would broach the subject of discrimination in conversations they had. But Tinsley said she never witnessed any racial prejudice on the part of management, and advised Aguilar to keep her head up and continue to do a good job as a reporter."

Defense witness Shaun Rabb, a black journalist, "praised Aguilar as a dogged reporter who probably had more 'exclusive' reports than any other Fox4 staffer.

"Rabb said he also was an advocate for minority hiring at Fox4. But unlike Aguilar, he never sent any memos to that effect, Rabb said. He explained that that's not his style.

"Asked whether opportunities for minorities had declined with Saunders and Barrs in charge, Rabb answered, 'In my opinion, no sir.' "

Bark reported on Monday, "In his 45-minute closing argument to the jury, Shaunessy said that Fox4's action solely had to do 'with the fact that Rebecca Aguilar for more than 10 years was a bad employee.' 

"The Walton interview, a flashpoint throughout the trial, 'was an ambush interview from the start,' jurors were told.

"Aguilar's relationships with fellow employees and supervisors were repeatedly problematic, and her reporting skills also began eroding in later years, Shaunessy said."

Aguilar was backed by NAHJ and Unity: Journalists of Color after her 2007 suspension.

"It is puzzling why KDFW chose to run Aguilar's piece, and then suspended her only after the station received public pressure," Unity said in an Oct. 24, 2007, statement. "Either her reporting was a violation of the station's standards from the beginning and should never have run, or the station should have – out of fairness – also suspended the decision-makers who aired the piece."

Rafael Olmeda, who was NAHJ president at the time, wrote on his Facebook page on Thursday, "I was and remain proud to stand by Rebecca Aguilar against the unfair decision to fire her after a controversial interview."


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