Aguilar vs. Fox -- Epilogue
12/15/10 01:08 PM
By ED BARK
So, upon further review, did the jury decide wisely? Should it have rejected former Fox4 reporter Rebecca Aguilar's claim that race and retaliation were the motivating factors behind her suspension and the eventual non-renewal of her contract?
Based upon the evidence presented in court -- and I heard every second of it -- jurors indeed rendered the proper verdict. Their swift decision Monday, after roughly one hour of deliberation, came as no big surprise. It would have been folly to decide otherwise based on the cold, hard realities of what they saw and heard.
The turning point in the six-day trial likely came on Day 3. That's when attorneys for NW Communications of Texas, Inc. (parent company of KDFW/Fox4) hit jurors with an avalanche of written performance evaluations and reprimands that dated to 1998, when Maria Barrs became the station's news director.
Aguilar was praised as a strong reporter with a capacity for developing "rapport with the 'regular' people." And her fluency in Spanish has "brought us stories no one else has," Barrs wrote.
In the same 1998 evaluation, though, Aguilar was criticized for being "widely perceived to be something of a troublemaker" who had "more than the usual number of unpleasant confrontations with officials and others involved in her stories." At one point that included calling the Dallas Police Department's public information officer a "puppet" in front of his co-workers. The evaluation also noted that Aguilar "will sometimes immediately reject a story idea or angle if it is not entirely to her liking, rather than hearing out the suggestion first."
Aguilar had been at Fox4 for four years at that point. But Barrs wasn't sold on her, recommending that discussions on a new contract be postponed for "at least three months." Message to jurors: this had been going on for a long time.
Some might deduce that Barrs had it in for Aguilar. And that she was determined to have her head on a platter some day. But jurors simply didn't buy that, in the end seeing Aguilar as the constant agitator and Barrs as a tough but fair boss who alternately nurtured and lashed Aguilar before finally throwing her hands up.
There's no doubt they had an ongoing personality conflict that sometimes cooled to a simmer but regularly re-heated to a boil. Both Barrs and Aguilar are strong-willed minority women from very humble backgrounds who worked their ways up to prominent positions in the country's fifth-largest media market. They can be prickly, demanding and sometimes unbending. But in many instances, relationships of this sort can live long and even prosper. In that respect, veteran Fox4 reporter Shaun Rabb (who is African-American and was called by the defense) likely scored points with the jury on the basis of both his command presence on the witness stand and his declaration that "You've got to know when to hold 'em, know when to fold 'em." The clear implication: Aguilar had no clue in that respect.
Barrs and Aguilar in fact co-existed for nine years at Fox4 before their end game came in the form of that much-documented Oct. 15, 2007 interview with an elderly West Dallas salvage business owner who had shot and killed two would-be burglars in three weeks time. I've seen the finished product many times, and to this day do not see it as some sort of journalistic cardinal sin. Aguilar got an exclusive interview that every rival station coveted.
Her subject, the then 70-year-old James Walton, repeatedly protested about being on-camera during raw footage shown to jurors. But he also seemed in absolutely no hurry to drive away. He was both conversational and cantankerous, with Aguilar trying to draw him out while standing between Walton and his open driver's side car door. But to say she was "blocking" him -- as the defense repeatedly contended -- is basically nonsense. Aguilar immediately moved out of the way when Walton started his engine and then closed his car door. Yeah, she was aggressive in her pursuit of him. But there are a lot of hard-charging reporters in this market who would have behaved pretty much the same as she did. It's just that none of them will admit as much on the record.
The aftermath was explosive. Barrs and Fox4 general manager Kathy Saunders said the station was deluged with emails and phone calls from viewers who objected to Aguilar's supposed ambushing and bullying of a defenseless, geriatric crime victim. One boiling point: Aguilar asking Walton, "Are you a trigger happy kind of person? Is that what you wanted to do -- shoot to kill?"
Aguilar to this day says she has no regrets about including that question in the finished product. But it provided a ton of ammunition for her critics, and also was brought up during last week's court testimony.
The interview proved to be a final flashpoint, the "story that broke the camel's back," in the words of Fox's lead attorney, Michael Shaunessy. Saunders previously had overruled Barrs' recommendation that Aguilar's contract not be renewed after her latest two-year deal with Fox4 expired in early 2007. But the Walton story, and the reaction to it, prompted her to approve a paid suspension that eventually led to the official non-renewal of Aguilar's contract at its midway point in March 2008.
Fox4 had a clear contractual right to sever ties with Aguilar -- and didn't need a reason, jurors were told. It also was emphasized that the station paid her throughout her suspension, and then for another 90 days beyond the official non-renewal of her contract.
The fact that her husband, John, continues to work as a newscast director for Fox4 certainly didn't hurt the defense's case. It also was disclosed, by both sides, that Aguilar had been making a tidy $129,000 annually in what turned out to be the final year of her Fox4 contract. In times of continued steep unemployment, that's not exactly a sympathy point. And attorney Shaunessy no doubt knew as much when he noted during the jury selection process that a number of people in the 50-member pool were currently out of work.
The jury ended up being composed of nine white women, two white men and an African-American man. But the initial jury pool was made up of at least 20 percent minorities by my count, with attorneys on each side getting six picks. So if racial imbalance was a problem, -- as Aguilar indicated in post-trial comments -- then her lawyers had at least a little something to do with that.
Aguilar's principal claim against Fox4 was that the station continually ignored her written and verbal lobbying on behalf of hiring more minority newsroom managers. Specifically, Hispanic news managers. She ultimately paid the price for being a "thorn in the side" of management, as one of her attorneys, Chris Raesz, told jurors in his closing argument.
That's a hard argument to sell. Barrs, who is Asian-American, remains the only minority news director at any of D-FW's television news providers -- NBC5, WFAA8, CBS11, TXA21 and CW33. And in a "University of Diversity" article posted on this site in May 2008, Fox4 was found to have more minority reporters -- nine -- than any other news room. Its overall grade of B-minus was the second highest given, behind WFAA8's A-minus for its wealth of high-profile minority anchors.
Fox4 didn't complain about that article, but did bristle at the lengthy post-suspension interview Aguilar did with unclebarky.com. It came up during the defense's case against her and in Barrs' multi-paged Nov. 2, 2007 "Last and Final Warning" to Aguilar. By disclosing her side of how she had obtained the Walton interview, Aguilar had violated company policy, Barrs said. "As an experienced journalist," she wrote, "you are well aware that we routinely fight all efforts to inquire into our newsgathering process."
Alas, there's a lot of that going around, and certainly not only at Fox4. Although they hound the subjects of their stories, this market's TV news providers invariably construct moats around their castles when it comes to discussing anything regarding how they gather the news or handle "personnel matters." Being owned from afar by a corporation has only worsened things, although CBS11 remains more accessible and a bit more forthcoming than Fox4 or NBC5. The comparative mom-and-pop outfit, Belo-owned WFAA8, is no better, it should be noted.
Back in the "old days" -- the 1980s and '90s -- general managers such as John McKay, Dave Lane and Blake Byrne (who respectively ran the ships at Channels 4, 8 and 5) used to enjoy mixing it up. As did news directors Marty Haag, Mike Sechrist and Bill Vance (respectively of Channels 8, 4 and 5).
It's the major reason I covered Aguilar vs. Fox from start to finish. The inner workings of media companies generally are off-limits to both TV critics and the general public. But this case put a microscope on one of the country's major news operations, even though Fox4 -- as the station is billed in all of its promotions -- fell back on the old "KDFW" tag throughout the trial in an effort to dissuade jurors from at least subliminally thinking that the Fox corporate monolith easily could part with the couple of million bucks that Aguilar's attorneys wanted for her.
It also should be noted that attorneys from both sides were cordial and/or friendly throughout to the only reporter who bothered to cover this trial. Saunders and particularly Barrs also were approachable outside the courtroom. Obviously they didn't have to be.
The jury's verdict clearly was of great relief to them, and a bruising body blow to Aguilar. Both Barrs and Saunders say they'll "move on," and Aguilar should follow suit in this case. In the end, she was a dogged, outspoken reporter who won many awards but in the end overplayed her hand. As a prospective, ultimately unchosen juror said at the very start, "It's just that corporate usually wins out."
Corporate won out. They had the best cards, and they played them.