More than a month after Frank Somerville was barred from KTVU, the popular presenter is out of the air, and neither is he or the radio station aware of whether and when he can return.
Public silence from Channel 2 and his parent network Fox has caused community frustration over the purported reason he was suspended from his job – reports of a dispute over his desire to add a brief comment on racial inequality at the end of a live news article about him. the disappearance of social media influencer Gabby Petito, whose case sparked a storm of media coverage.
Following the removal of Somerville from KTVU studios, two rallies were held in Jack London Square on October 2 and 12, prompted by Somerville’s stated desire to eliminate disparities in media coverage of white crime victims such as Petito and women of color.
Last week, the City of San Leandro also issued an official proclamation in honor of the multiple Emmy Award winner “for speaking out about missing women of color and setting an example of strength and justice for our community and everyone around the world.”
But even with such statements, activists say they have not yet heard of their concerns from station or Fox executives.
“We wanted to give KTVU a chance to see if they would answer on their own,” said George Holland, president of the Auckland NAACP, which organized a rally for 40-50 people on October 2. Fox just hopes the controversy goes away.
“I think it’s probably time (to let them know) that we’re still listening and waiting,” Holland said.
George Galvis, executive director of Communities Alliance for Restorative Justice Among Youth, which helped organize the October 12 rally, said KTVU’s silence “is the answer.”
“I think this really shows that blacks and dark-skinned people are being silenced and invisible,” said Galvis, whose team worked with Indigenous Justice to organize the rally. He said it is “deeply troubling” that KTVU is unwilling to even discuss media coverage when it caters to a wide variety of viewers in the Bay Area.
Somerville did not respond to repeated attempts to contact him, as did Fox News, who just last month said the host had been suspended “pending further consideration.” No one at KTVU, including news director Amber Eickel, will speak on the tape.
But as community groups express frustration, questions remain about Somerville’s removal. Among them was the question of whether the host offered an effective or appropriate way to challenge the often one-sided media obsession with stories of White women in danger.
Martin Reynolds, co-executive director of the Oakland-based Maynard Institute, which promotes diversity in America’s newsrooms, said Somerville’s reported decision to add a comment at the end of live news would be “lazy” rather than assigning a full story on the topic. Reynolds, a former editor for the Oakland Tribune and Bay Area News Group, said this would lead to “a huge inequality (in coverage) that he sought to eliminate.”
Somerville wanted to add a 46-second cue to an update on the Petito case that aired on September 21, according to two KTVU news sources who declined to give their names because they were not authorized to speak on the minutes. Petito, a New Yorker, was killed while traveling in a van with her fiancé, Brian Landry. He was identified as a defendant in the case, and his remains were found in Florida last week.
A “tag” is a short ending to a story that the host usually reads. Somerville wanted the tag to address domestic violence and the media’s tendency to ignore reports of missing and murdered women of color, according to the San Francisco Chronicle, which received a copy of Somerville’s original tag.
Shortly before the 5:00 pm airing, Eikel told Somerville she planned to remove the label after editorial editors raised concerns. Sources said Eikel was willing to instruct a reporter to make a separate, deeper story. However, she agreed with editors who felt that the tag alone was not a sufficient way to cover up the story and blurred the lines between an anchor delivering live news and offering editorial comment, the sources said.
Somerville backed down, but his decision was rejected, a news source said. Prior to the 6:00 p.m. broadcast, a producer unfamiliar with previous discussions between Somerville and Eickel noticed that an abbreviated tag had been added to the Petito update.
Somerville reportedly told the producer that Eikel had approved the shortened version, the source said. But she didn’t, and the new tag was removed. Somerville was told the next day that he had been suspended for violating his supervisor’s orders, sources said.
Reynolds said Somerville may have acted with the best of intentions, and that he definitely seems to be passionate about honesty in his reporting. As Somerville noted on social media, he is the father of Black’s adopted daughter.
But if Somerville thought the issue was “so important, then he should have used his journalistic authority to push for a second article after a segment or series of stories that will run over the next two days,” Reynolds said. “It should have been a lot more about doing journalism and … showing respect and deference to the issue and the people you purportedly serve.”
Somerville was off the air for most of the summer after his infamous May 30 news release, when he repeatedly stumbled inaudible and seemed unable to read from a teleprompter. He took nine weeks off to “focus on his health,” and only returned in August. Seven weeks later, he went offline again.
Now, the controversy over the slogan has put Somerville in a position that journalists usually find uncomfortable: instead of covering history, he is history. Somerville, a white male, “is extolled and becomes the subject of history, not women who are being ignored,” Reynolds said.
But Reynolds also accused KTVU of fomenting controversy by not meeting with activists to discuss their complaints about coverage, saying journalistic organizations must provide “a certain level of transparency and accountability.”
Without publicly commenting on his suspension to reporters, Somerville took to Instagram late last month to thank his fans for their support in defending what he believes is “regardless of … the consequences.”
“We in the media can’t be afraid to look in the mirror and ask ourselves tough questions about race and our coverage,” Somerville said. “And I will not stop fighting for equal media representation for all victims.”
Holland and Galvis insist that Somerville was not the main target of their rallies, nor did they say that the media should not cover Petito’s assassination. But if Petito’s story is to be told, the same must be said for the thousands of forgotten women of color, they said.
Galvis said the activists’ intentions were not to shake a finger, but to establish a “dialogue” with the media organization, which is a symbol of the Bay Area with “immense power.”