CBS has ousted two powerful TV station executives following allegations of racist and abusive behavior that rocked the storied media giant.
Peter Dunn, who served as president of the TV Stations group since 2009, and David Friend, senior vice president of news for more than a decade, are no longer part of CBS, the company’s chief executive, George Cheeks, announced Wednesday in an email to staff.
The move comes two months after an investigation by the Los Angeles Times alleged that the pair cultivated an environment that included bullying female managers and blocking efforts to hire and retain Black journalists. The Times’ series shined a harsh light on an often overlooked corner of the company that lacks the prestige of the CBS television network but remains a vital source of local news for millions of Americans.
Dunn, who was based in New York, maintained a tight grip on operations of the 28 CBS-owned TV stations, including KCBS-TV Channel 2 and KCAL-TV Channel 9 in Los Angeles, according to interviews and court testimony. Dunn in 2010 promoted Friend, a veteran news executive who oversaw news operations at WCBS-TV Channel 2 in New York, to head of CBS’ local newsrooms across the country.
Dozens of current and former staff members in Los Angeles, Dallas, Boston, Chicago, Miami, Philadelphia and New York have complained of a hostile work environment. Journalists in New York alleged that managers often made news coverage decisions that neglected communities of color. The flagship WCBS station in New York — one of the nation’s most diverse cities — lacked a full-time Black male reporter until March 2020, the same month that Cheeks, who is biracial, took the reins at CBS.
“Removing these two individuals is a good start,” prominent Black journalist Roland Martin said in an interview. “But there is so much more work that needs to be done throughout CBS. There are some systemic and cultural issues that exist, and I want to hear a deeper and broader plan to address them.”
Allegations that Dunn made racist comments about Ukee Washington, a beloved Black anchor at the CBS-owned television station in Philadelphia, struck a chord. Former CBS station managers alleged that Dunn called Washington “just a jive guy” and that Dunn ridiculed the dance moves of the popular anchor, who is a distant cousin of actor Denzel Washington.
In the wake of The Times’ series, Washington’s colleagues spoke out in support of him and Philadelphia’s City Council adopted a resolution commending Washington for his “professionalism” and “outstanding work and service to the community.”
The series also raised questions about a $55-million purchase of a TV station on New York’s Long Island — the only station acquisition during Dunn’s 11-year tenure overseeing CBS’ station group. The 2011 deal came with privileges for Dunn and other high-level CBS executives at an ultra-exclusive golf club in the Hamptons, where they hobnobbed with billionaires, including the owner of the Miami Dolphins, Stephen Ross.
In January, CBS called the Long Island station purchase a “strategic acquisition” that created value by giving the broadcaster two stations in New York, the nation’s largest media market, and that Dunn’s membership was disclosed in advance to senior management and legal counsel.
Amid pressure from the National Assn. of Black Journalists, CBS suspended the two executives a day after The Times’ report was published in January.
The company quickly hired an experienced trial attorney, Keisha-Ann Gray of the Proskauer Rose law firm, to investigate the allegations about Dunn and Friend and other ranking executives in the station group, which employs about 2,800 people.
Cheeks, in his email, emphasized that Gray’s investigation is ongoing.
Dunn and Friend have previously denied any inappropriate conduct.
On Wednesday, Dunn’s attorney, Larry Hutcher, said his client was a victim of “cancel culture,” and that Dunn expects to remain on CBS’ payroll until the investigation concludes.
“There have been no findings of wrongdoing by Peter Dunn,” Hutcher said in an interview. “We are confident that when the investigation is completed, he will be fully exonerated. But the situation has gotten to the point that they are making him a scapegoat. In this heightened age of not wanting to offend anyone, lives and reputations are being sacrificed.”
Hutcher said Dunn hasn’t been interviewed by the investigators yet.
CBS, late Wednesday, defended its decision to terminate the two executives while the investigators were still gathering evidence.
“While we won’t comment on the specifics of an ongoing investigation, it is clear to us that this action is appropriate and necessary at this time,” a CBS spokesperson said in a statement. “Any decision regarding termination for ‘cause’ will be made at the conclusion of the investigation.”
Friend’s attorney, David Pohl, did not immediately provide comment.
In a February statement, Pohl said the allegations against Friend are “wholly unfounded and clearly opportunistic given the timing and absurdity of the claims. To be clear, the news industry is incredibly demanding, and Mr. Friend makes no apologies for operating with passion and a relentless pursuit of excellence. His decisions have always been grounded in what is best for the success of the News Department and his staff, and any assertion that his decisions were made based on race, sexuality, or gender is completely false and uninformed.”
So far, dozens of current and former executives have met with Gray and her colleague at Proskauer Rose as part of that investigation and more interviews are scheduled throughout April. Several people told The Times they have complained about the alleged abusive work environment inside the TV stations group beyond Philadelphia and New York.
“We appreciate those who have already provided information to the investigators,” Cheeks wrote. “This entire process, while sometimes painful and emotional, is an important step forward in living up to our promise of a safe, inclusive, respectful and equitable workplace for all of us.”
In his note to staff, Cheeks wrote: “We have determined that CBS Stations President Peter Dunn and SVP of News David Friend are not returning to their positions and will be leaving the Company. Until we have new leadership in place, Bryon Rubin will continue to run the Stations group while Kim Godwin will continue her oversight of Stations’ news operations. I will be sure to update you with information about permanent leadership for the group as soon as it is finalized.”
Cheeks has been running CBS for little more than a year.
The Times’ series documented that multiple people came forward to complain about their treatment in the TV station group in 2018, and that CBS internal investigators looked into the conduct of Dunn and Friend in 2019. Among the accusations, Dunn allegedly asked whether a candidate for an anchor role was “too gay for Philadelphia.”
A former Philadelphia news director, Margaret Cronan, said that Friend belittled her during a meeting of senior executives, asking whether she was “a [expletive] idiot.” She said her efforts to hire Black male reporters were thwarted. Cronan left CBS, saying she didn’t want to be part of a culture that she perceived as racist and sexist.
“I prayed that CBS executives would make this decision, and I am relieved that they did,” Cronan said Wednesday. “There is still much work that needs to be done, but with these two individuals out, there is promise ahead. There’s hope — and that’s something that those who have worked in that division of CBS haven’t felt in a long time.”