9News, Parent Company Accused of Racist Behavior in Federal Filing

A photo of Lori Lizarraga prior to her exit from 9News.
Photo by David M. Budd
A photo of Lori Lizarraga prior to her exit from 9News.
A document filed this week with the U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission includes what's described as a six-page, single-spaced letter that asserts "a broad pattern of bias and racially-insensitive behavior" at 9News and its parent company, media giant TEGNA.

Alleged problems involving the Denver station are prominent throughout, with considerable space devoted to "LatinXed: 9News Got Rid of Three Latina Reporters This Past Year, Including Me," an essay written by former 9News staffer Lori Lizarraga that Westword published on March 28. In April 2020, Westword detailed the exit from 9News of another journalist cited by Lizarraga: Kristen Aguirre, who was let go after surviving a stroke.

The filing, dated April 8, was initiated by Standard General, a New York-based investment firm that's described in the text as "the largest active shareholder of TEGNA Inc." in correspondence addressed to the corporation's board of directors. Standard General, whose CEO and investment manager, Soohyung Kim, is identified as the item's author, holds 7 percent of the stock.

The piece begins with a reference to "the racially insensitive incident involving Adonis Hoffman and CEO Dave Lougee, and the Board’s failure to conduct a thorough and independent investigation into that matter."

Specifics about this episode were reported by in March during what the site characterized as "a proxy battle for TEGNA. The company has rebuffed acquisition overtures despite the preferences of some of its privately held investors. One stakeholder — hedge fund Standard General — is calling for a shakeup of the board and had initially nominated Hoffman for a seat." Lougee, a white University of Colorado Boulder graduate who was a 9News executive before being named to lead TEGNA in 2017, is said to have wound up on the hot seat after word surfaced about a 2014 industry event during which he mistook Hoffman, a "longtime fixture in Washington media and regulatory circles" who is Black, for a valet, handing him the ticket for his car. Lougee apologized afterward, but Hoffman withdrew his nomination to TEGNA's board of directors anyway.

The document summarizes Standard General's main concerns in this bullet-pointed excerpt:
• An event in which the TEGNA Vice President, who now helms the Company’s employee recruiting efforts, wore black face at a Company event dressed as Michael Jackson. Far from being reprimanded, that employee apparently won an award for wearing the best costume and was subsequently promoted to her current executive role.

• The termination of a Latina reporter eleven months after she suffered a stroke because she was no longer up to “9News standards.”

• Termination and non-renewal of prominent Latinx reporters working at TEGNA’s Denver station primarily due to their coverage of immigration issues, including requiring Latinx employees to disclose their own immigration status when broadcasting about such issues.

• An incident in which a corporate marketing executive explained using purple graphics, which “African American audiences might enjoy,” referring to “You know, like the Color Purple (a novel and a movie),” and introduced new theme music as the “sound of the street,” to which she “stomped her hands and feet.”

• A practice of instructing Asian reporters “how to apply makeup so her eyes will look more ‘Western’” and Black or Latin on-air employees being “hammered for your dialect.”
Note that the person referenced as dressing up as Michael Jackson was former 9News director Patti Dennis. The occasion was said to be a Halloween party in the early 1980s.

Kristen Aguirre was let go at 9News after surviving a stroke. - TWITTER
Kristen Aguirre was let go at 9News after surviving a stroke.
Diversity on the air and behind the scenes has long been a subject of debate at Denver TV stations, with journalists of color frequently complaining that they tend to be sidelined in secondary or subsidiary roles rather than being given an equal opportunity to climb the ladder — and 9News is no exception.

Granted, 9News's main anchor for years was Adele Arakawa. However, her given last name was Hausser; she adopted the Arakawa appellation (her mother's maiden name) at the suggestion of a former news director in Knoxville, Tennessee, who'd reportedly recommended the change as a "minority-ethnic thing." More common were the experiences of reporter/anchor TaRhonda Thomas, who talked to us about the lack of Black representation on Denver's airwaves around the time of her 2018 relocation to Philadelphia.

Denver isn't the only TEGNA market spotlighted in the filing. Also mentioned are lawsuits filed by journalists of color in association with outlets in Tampa Bay and Indianapolis. But 9News personnel pop up regularly. Take this email from a former TEGNA reporter: "The main anchor position became available at WXIA in Atlanta and rather than promote a Black employee who would reflect the demographic makeup of the city, a White anchor, Cheryl Preheim, was promoted and moved from the Denver station. It was unfair because qualified Black candidates, one of whom is an Atlanta native, were passed over for this prime assignment."

In response to inquiries about the filing, TEGNA spokesperson Anne Bentley offers this statement: "Increasing diversity, equity, and inclusion (DE&I) continues to be a top priority for TEGNA across the company and at our 64 stations around the country. We have made significant progress in recent years, but our record is not perfect. However, the distorted picture of TEGNA and its stations painted by Standard General to advance its ill-conceived proxy fight will not distract from our significant focus on DE&I as well as our strong financial performance. TEGNA’s Board of Directors, management team and station leadership continue to take concerted action to build a more diverse, equitable and inclusive TEGNA — all of which is publicly detailed here. We have clear processes for promptly investigating and addressing inappropriate workplace conduct at all levels of the organization. We remain committed to ensuring that TEGNA effectively serves and represents all of our communities."

Westword has also reached out to 9News and Standard General for comment on the document. Click to read Standard General's SEC filing.