Sonia Gutierrez dreamed of returning to her hometown of Denver as a television reporter for the city’s defining news station: KUSA 9News. When she finally achieved it, however, it came at too steep a cost, she says.
Gutierrez says she was told that she could report on immigration, an issue about which she cares deeply, but only if she were to state her own immigration status on air in every story on the subject.
“I was put in a box simply for who I am,” Gutierrez says.
She had never tried to hide that her parents had brought her as a baby from Mexico without documentation. But Gutierrez, 30, says she balked at the station’s directive. She was told she could continue pitching stories about immigration, but, she says, she was asked to pass off her ideas and sources to other reporters.
Gutierrez is no longer with KUSA. Nor are two other Latina reporters. One had pushed editors to involve Black and Latino colleagues in more decisions about news coverage. The other’s contract was not renewed five months after she had returned after having a stroke. She, too, had challenged station leaders on how they cover issues affecting Latinos in Colorado.
Over the course of a year, from March 2020 to March 2021, KUSA allowed each of the women’s contracts to lapse without renewal, the way television stations typically part with their journalists.
“The nature of the coverage was not a factor at all,” Grady Tripp, the chief diversity officer of Tegna Inc., KUSA’s parent company, says in a statement to NPR.
Calls to fire TV station executives
A quarter of Colorado residents are Latino, and the state is rapidly becoming more diverse. The ouster of the three reporters — revealed when one of them, Lori Lizarraga, wrote about it in Westword, a local alternative weekly — has revived profound criticisms of the station. In meetings with Tegna and KUSA officials this spring, a group of local elected officials, all Latina, called for the dismissal of KUSA’s top news executive, Tim Ryan.
So did the National Association of Hispanic Journalists in its own meetings with station executives.
“It is racist to require a Latino reporter, a Hispanic reporter, to disclose their own immigration status [to viewers] before reporting on immigration,” says Julio-César Chávez, the association’s vice president.
According to two people who attended the NAHJ meetings, the association demanded the firing not only of Ryan, but also of his news director and the corporate official in charge of hiring. The company made no such promises, though it did direct stations to no longer use the word “illegal” when discussing immigration. (The station and the company declined to comment on the calls for dismissals.)
The outcry has focused an unwanted glare on Tegna, one of the nation’s largest and most prominent owners of local television stations, just as the company faces claims of racial bias from a dissident investor.
Tegna and KUSA declined to comment on what happened to the Latina journalists and the criticism that has ensued, saying those are personnel matters.
9News: A station with swagger and sway
KUSA 9News’ headquarters looms as a citadel of local television, in a largely residential neighborhood just 2 miles from the state capitol building. More than 100 journalists work in the KUSA newsroom (which also serves its sister station, KTVD), far more than the 60-some news staffers at the once-dominant local newspaper The Denver Post.
“9News is the market leader in Denver and has been for decades,” KUSA news director Megan Jurgemeyer says in the station’s first official interview since Lizarraga’s article came out. “Having worked at another station in town, it was always viewed as the top competition and who we wanted to beat.”
Kristen Aguirre, one of the journalists let go in the past year, says: “I didn’t really know its reputation until my agent told me, ‘Listen we go there, you put your time in there, you can go to whatever station you want.’ ” She says the station had swagger and sway.
9News is unusually woven into the fabric of its parent company. Tegna’s CEO Dave Lougee used to be the station’s news director. KUSA’s general manager, Mark Cornetta, is also the executive vice president of Tegna Media, the company’s local television division. And Patti Dennis, a Tegna vice president and director of recruitment, is herself a former KUSA news director who still works out of the station’s main building in Denver. All three are white, as are Jurgemeyer and Ryan.
Parent company faces its own issues with race
Tegna faces its own allegations of racial bias. An activist hedge fund, Standard General LP, recently nominated rival directors, saying it wanted to diversify the company’s largely white board. Standard General also contends that Tegna’s leadership is following the wrong business strategy.
In an April federal securities filing, Standard General accused Tegna of racist practices stretching back years. For example, its filings pointed to one Halloween in the 1980s when Dennis wore blackface in portraying Michael Jackson and KUSA declared it the best costume.
In 2019, a sports anchor at the company’s Phoenix station accused its general manager — recently promoted from a job as KUSA’s sales manager — of making “loud and unwelcome racist and sexist comments about coworkers” at a baseball game, in a civil complaint reviewed by NPR. Federal court records show that case, centering on a civil rights violation claim of retaliation, was resolved out of court in a confidential settlement.
Standard General also pointed to an episode directly involving Tegna CEO Lougee. In March, Lougee publicly apologized for a 2014 incident in which a Black lawyer had accused Lougee of mistaking him for a hotel parking valet just minutes after a professional luncheon at which the two had chatted about business.
The attorney, Adonis Hoffman, was one of the board nominees proposed by Standard General. He withdrew, citing professional conflicts and saying he did not feel comfortable working with Lougee. While Hoffman accepted Lougee’s apology, he wrote a letter to the CEO raising concerns of “unconscious bias.”
Tegna defeated Standard General’s efforts to appoint dissident directors to its corporate board. It has publicly accused the investment fund of “unfounded attacks” in response to its criticisms.
Jamie Torres, a Denver city council member, was among the Latina state and local public officials who met twice with KUSA executives following the dismissal of the three journalists. She says the meetings left her unconvinced that there would be real progress beyond some changes in language and style.
“The conversation felt just incredibly transactional,” Torres says.
And it renewed long-held frustrations: Torres says the three Latina journalists had been hired after an earlier round of discussions between the station and Denver-area Latino officials about representation at KUSA.
“Why Don’t You Pitch It To Telemundo?”
While in college, Gutierrez interned at the local affiliate of the Spanish-language network Telemundo. Back then, it was housed inside KUSA’s headquarters. Though owned by Tegna, KUSA is an affiliate of NBC, and Telemundo is part of NBC’s parent company, Comcast.
As Gutierrez rose at Telemundo Denver, she also pitched stories to KUSA.
She says she often heard back: “That’s a great story idea, why don’t you pitch it to Telemundo?” Her response: KUSA also needed to serve Latino families — the ones who speak English.
“After a while, when stories wouldn’t get picked up, I would just take it upon myself to do the interviews, write up a little [script] and give it to the anchors and say, ‘It’s done.’ To the producers, ‘It’s done. You want it or not?’ ” Gutierrez says it was easier to hand off the idea fully baked.
After a stint at a station in Columbia, S.C., Gutierrez returned to KUSA as a reporter. She says KUSA leaders told her that she could be a defining person for the station, someone who would thrive there. By her telling, Gutierrez ignored the little slights that accreted.
Then, Gutierrez says, she was told she had to disclose that she had been a DREAMer, protected from deportation through the Obama-era policy called Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals, or DACA, before she became a legal permanent resident through marriage. She didn’t see why viewers needed to be told that in each of her immigration reports.
Gutierrez says she received no response when she asked for concrete examples of how her status had compromised her reporting. And when she refused to go along, Gutierrez says, she was told she would have to pass her story ideas and sources on immigration to other reporters.
“It’s not like there was something wrong with me or my reporting,” says Gutierrez, who left last year. “There was just something wrong with who I was — a liability to them.”
Allegations of unfulfilled promises
Aguirre, 34, a Mexican-American who grew up near Midway Airport on the South Side of Chicago, says she had been inspired to become a journalist to tell stories about Latinos that were not simply about crime and immigration.
She came to Denver after being an anchor at a smaller station in Flint, Mich. Initially, she felt like her reporting skills were rusty. But Aguirre says she believed her pursuit of community-driven news brought value.
“I can tell a story in a much different way than a female white reporter can because I lived it. I know the questions to ask,” Aguirre says.
In April 2019, Aguirre suffered a stroke that resulted in a traumatic brain injury and paralyzed her on her left side; as she built back strength and returned in the fall, the station shared the news with the public, ran stories highlighting her recovery and helped raise money for research into her affliction. Colleagues printed T-shirts. KUSA set up studio time for Aguirre to practice hosting and provided a photojournalist to carry her equipment and shoot footage on assignments.
After roughly six months, as new newsroom leaders rotated in, both arrangements waned, and then disappeared, she says. She did not return to the anchor’s chair. The support in the field ultimately vanished too, Aguirre alleges in a formal amended complaint she filed with the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission earlier this year.
Aguirre left the station in March 2020. Her attorney, Iris Halpern, says the complaint is currently in mediation.