Reverse discrimination? Lawsuit accuses Progress parent

A former Lexington, Kentucky, television news producer has sued the parent company of the Daily Progress, claiming she was fired for standing up to reverse discrimination in a newsroom rife with racial tension.

Audrey Port also claimed she was a victim of libel, slander, and harassment in her suit, filed Friday, November 14, against Media General Inc. and several former co-workers at WTVQ-TV in Lexington. Richmond-based Media General owns the station.

Port was fired last April after less than a year as executive producer at the station. Her ouster coincided with the dismissal of top station executives William Stanley and David Foky, also named as defendants.

Her suit, filed in Fayette County Circuit Court in Lexington, seeks unspecified compensatory and punitive damages. It also asks that the defendants retract "false statements'' about Port and her termination.

Port's attorney, Jeffrey Smith, said she endured a backlash of hostility and harassment from three black co-workers because she wanted to enforce the station's anti-discrimination policies. Port is white.

The station newsroom during Port's tenure was "almost paralyzed with fear'' as white employees worried that any actions or comments might be considered racist and spur a discrimination lawsuit, Smith said.

Media General said in a statement that Port was fired for "legitimate business reasons in compliance with her contract.'' The station's management "stands by the decision'' to fire her and will "vigorously defend'' itself, the statement said.

Foky, WTVQ's former news director, said he had not seen the suit.

"My position throughout this whole process has been to act with class and dignity,'' Foky said in a phone interview from Charlottesville, where he moved after his dismissal from WTVQ. "If I started talking about the details, personalities and problems now, it wouldn't be fitting with the position I've taken.''

Stanley did not return a call seeking comment.

The suit said racial tension at the station was simmering before Port's arrival. It cited an incident in which a rope knotted in the shape of a noose was left on the desk of a black producer, Celeste Ward. Foky told Port that Ward was upset about the incident, had hired a lawyer and was demanding $300,000 from Media General, the suit said.

Foky told Port to be his "eyes and ears'' in the newsroom and not to provoke Ward and employees Kristi Runyon and Tiani Jones, who also are black, the suit said. All three were named as defendants.

Reached at the station, Runyon also said the suit was "completely without merit,'' and declined further comment. Jones, who was a reporter at the station, did not immediately return a phone call seeking comment. Ward could not be reached.

The suit said that Ward and Runyon– a news anchor and reporter– allegedly harassed Port, were insubordinate, and accused Port of racism.

Port asked Foky and Stanley, the general manager, to discipline them, but no action was taken, the suit said.

The suit said other staffers became angered by the "double standard of treatment'' regarding, among other things, punctuality at staff meetings and staff productivity. According to the suit, Foky admitted to the double standard, but said higher executives had told him not to deal with it.

The suit said the newsroom began to "fester with racial tension and toxic feelings.'' It accused Media General and WTVQ of violating their anti-harassment policies by not taking action.

In April 2003, Port openly discussed the newsroom's problems with corporate human resources employees, the suit said. Port, who was under contract at WTVQ until 2005, was fired "without cause'' a few days later, the suit said.

The suit said the defendants created a work environment filled with "discriminatory intimidation, ridicule and insult.'' The suit also said that Media General and WTVQ "recklessly made false statements'' about Port's professional ability.

Port now works at a television station in Denver, her attorney said.

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