More than a month after KTVU’s Frank Somerville commented, the popular anchor remains off the air with no word from him or the station about whether or not he’ll be back.
Public silence from Channel 2, and parent network Fox, has fueled community frustration over the ostensible reason for his suspension – a reported dispute over his push to add a brief comment on racial inequality to the end of a live news story about the disappearance of social media influencer Gabi Pettito, whose case sparked a storm of media coverage.
Since Somerville’s suspension, two demonstrations have taken place outside KTVU studios in Jack London Square on October 2 and October 12, both of which stemmed from Somerville’s stated desire to address disparities in media coverage of white crime victims such as Pettito versus women of color.
Last week, the city of San Leandro also issued an official announcement honoring the multiple Emmy Award-winning broadcaster for “speaking of women with lost skin and setting an example of strength and fairness to our community and to society around the world.”
But even with such statements, community activists say they have yet to hear from station managers or Fox about their concerns.
“We wanted to give KTVU a chance to see if they would respond independently,” said George Holland, president of the Oakland chapter of the NAACP. Which hosted the rally 40 to 50 people on October 2nd. Holland wondered if KTVU or Fox were simply hoping the controversy would go away.
“I think it’s time (to let them know) that we’re still listening and waiting,” Holland said.
George Galvis, executive director of the United Communities for Restorative Youth Justice, which helped organize the October 12 rally, said KTVU’s silence “is a reaction.”
“I think this is really indicative of blacks and blacks being silenced and hidden,” said Galvez, whose group worked with the Restoration of Justice for Indigenous Peoples to organize the march. He said it was “extremely concerning” that KTVU was not even willing to have a conversation about media coverage when serving the diverse Bay Area viewers.
Somerville did not respond to repeated efforts to contact him, nor did representatives of Fox News, who said only last month that the broadcaster had been suspended “pending further review.” No one at KTVU, including news director Amber Eikel, will be speaking officially.
But while community groups express their frustration, questions also remain about Somerville’s comment. Among them, whether the broadcaster offers an effective or appropriate way to challenge the media’s often unequal obsession with stories about white women at risk.
Martin Reynolds, co-executive director of the Oakland-based Maynard Institute, which promotes diversity in American newsrooms, said Somerville’s solution, to deal with a comment at the end of a live news story, would be “lazy,” as opposed to assigning a full story on the topic. That would have led to “the extreme disparity (in coverage) he was seeking to address,” said Reynolds, the former editor of the Oakland Tribune and Bay Area News Group.
According to KTVU’s newsroom sources, who declined to be named because they are not officially authorized to speak, Somerville wanted to add a 46-second “tag” to the Petito issue update, which aired on September 21. New York-born Pettito was murdered during a cross-country bus trip with her fiancé, Brian Laundry. He has been named as a significant person in the case, and his remains were found in Florida last week.
The “mark” is a brief conclusion of the news that the broadcaster would normally read. Somerville wanted the label to address domestic violence and the media’s tendency to overlook reports about women with missing skin and the murders, according to To the San Francisco Chronicle, which obtained a copy of the original Somerville Card.
Shortly before the 5 p.m. broadcast, Eckel told Somerville that she intended to cut the mark after newsroom editors raised their concerns. Sources said Eckel was willing to assign a journalist to do a separate, more in-depth story. However, she agreed with editors who believed that the tag by itself was not a sufficient means of covering the story and would blur the lines between a broadcaster providing a live news story and providing editorial commentary, sources said.
A source from the newsroom said Somerville responded but was overruled. Prior to the 6 p.m. broadcast, a producer, not familiar with previous discussions between Somerville and Eikel, noted that a short tag had been added to Petito’s update.
Somerville reportedly informed the producer that Eckel agreed to an abbreviated version, according to a source. But it did not and the new tag was removed. The sources said Somerville was notified the next day of his suspension for violating his boss’ orders.
Reynolds said Somerville may have been well-meaning, and that he certainly seemed to be passionate about justice in the coverage. As Somerville noted on social media, he is the father of an adopted black daughter.
But if Somerville thought the issue was “extremely important, then he should have used his journalistic charisma to push for a second story to run after clip or a series of stories to run over the next two days,” Reynolds said. “It should have been a lot more about interfering with the press and … giving respect and honor to the cause and the people you claim to serve.”
Somerville was off air for most of the summer after his infamous May 30 newsletter, when he repeatedly stumbled across his words and seemed to have trouble reading the teleprompter. He took nine weeks off to “focus on his health” and only came back in August. Seven weeks later, he stopped broadcasting again.
Now, the controversy for the brand’s logo has put Somerville in a position that journalists usually find uncomfortable: Rather than relaying the story, it’s the story. Somerville, a white man, said Reynolds, “is celebrated and becomes the subject of the story and not the women who have been ignored.”
But Reynolds also criticized KTVU for creating controversy by not meeting with activists to discuss their complaints about coverage, saying that press organizations should offer “a level of transparency and accountability.”
While he hasn’t publicly commented to reporters about his comment, Somerville took to Instagram late last month to thank his fans for their support in defending what he believes “regardless of…the consequences.”
“We in the media aren’t afraid to look in the mirror and ask ourselves tough questions about race and our coverage,” Somerville said. “I will not stop fighting for equal media representation for all victims.”
Holland and Galves insist that the final focus of their marches was not Somerville, and they did not say that the media should not cover Pettito’s murder. But they said that if Pettito’s story needed to be told, so did the stories of thousands of neglected women of color.
Galvez said the activists’ intentions were not to “wagging a finger” but to promote a “dialogue” with a media organization that represents a symbol of the Gulf region with “tremendous force”.