“Is Fox 29 Turning Into Fox News?” Inside Allegations of an “Extremely Conservative” Newsroom Culture
Several former and current employees at Fox 29 allege that the station's newsroom is run by "toxic, super-white, and Trump-apologizing management."
Following former Fox 29 legal analyst Ken Rothweiler’s allegation that he was fired by the station’s news director for being “too pro-Black Lives Matter,” nine more people who have worked at the local station are now sharing their experiences with a newsroom culture some describe as being “toxic,” “racially offensive,” “extremely conservative,” and “socially intimidating.”
“The sentiment from myself and my former colleagues has been that Fox 29 has definitely evolved into a Fox News atmosphere in recent years,” Rothweiler tells Philly Mag. “I was at the station for over a decade and saw firsthand how management has gone from being conservative to being extremely right-wing in how they ran the newsroom after Trump got elected. I recently let the general manager of the station know how these problems need to still be addressed.”
Philly Mag has obtained an email sent on July 14, 2020, by Rothweiler to Fox 29’s general manager, Dennis Bianchi, following the story of the former legal analyst’s firing from the station.
“As an employer myself with a similar number of employees to yours in your newsroom, I have dealt with employee complaints,” Rothweiler, a founding partner of the Eisenberg Rothweiler law firm, wrote in his email to Bianchi. “I would make the same recommendation to you to address the many concerns and complaints in your newsroom. Yesterday’s article addressed my concerns; there are many more concerns by many more people. I am sure my revelations are being denied and may be met with skepticism by management. My suggestion is to uncover the truth from those that work every day under your roof.”
Including Rothweiler, Philly Mag has spoken with 10 former and current Fox 29 employees about their experiences working at the station. These employees, who have requested anonymity because they fear retaliation, include on-air talent, producers, newsroom staff and more; span various racial, age, and gender identities; and range from longtime current employees to former employees who left the station after brief tenures.
“Is Fox 29 turning into Fox News?” a former on-air anchor asked rhetorically when contacted by Philly Mag. “Absolutely.”
This former anchor, who worked at Fox 29 from 2013 to 2016, found the environment at the station difficult even before Trump was elected. He describes the newsroom culture under news director Jim Driscoll, who started in 2013, as “extremely white, conservative, and everything wrong you would expect from such leadership overseeing news coverage in a diverse city.”
“When I first started working at Fox 29, Driscoll called me into his office and chastised me for openly praising a Black news director working at another station,” the former anchor says. “I always felt like I had to be super-cautious of how I expressed progressive sentiments in the newsroom, whether it was stating that I was a fan of certain liberal television channels like Al Jazeera or expressing outrage when a police killing happened.”
A former web producer, who worked at Fox 29 from 2017 to 2020, charges that the station’s newsroom culture under Driscoll was “extremely conservative, racially offensive, and biased toward defending Trump.” Among the examples the producer cites is the way Fox 29 management handled an incident involving the use of the n-word by a white on-air personality.
On the morning of Saturday, November 24, 2018, the former web producer says, Lauren Johnson, a Good Day Philadelphia Weekend anchor, shared a racist Twitter post from an online troll referring to her as the n-word. The former web producer says that Johnson, who is Black and still works at Fox 29, also shared the tweet with an on-air colleague, who proceeded to read the post aloud, including the racial slur, several times to the newsroom.
“I was immediately appalled that he would say the exact word out loud,” the former web producer tells Philly Mag. “There were several Black anchors and producers in the newsroom who overheard him repeat the n-word in its totality. I confronted him as another white person in the newsroom to advise him that this wasn’t acceptable and that he needed to stop. He got defensive and suggested that he was entitled to say it because rappers say it all the time. The next thing I know, there’s a huge internal investigation.”
Several current employees at Fox 29 corroborate the incident, noting that the on-air personality, who left the station shortly after the incident, said the n-word repeatedly in rereading the tweet and cited rappers’ use of the word as his defense.
On Sunday, November 25, 2018, several employees, including the now-former web producer, were called on to give their account to Driscoll and Fox 29’s human resources department.
“I told Driscoll that the [employee] had said the n-word several times even after I told them to refrain from doing such,” the former web producer says. “Driscoll was startled and said that management wasn’t aware of the full extent of the situation. An internal investigation was launched, and I was told in December 2018 by human relations that the [employee] was no longer working at Fox 29.”
Lauren Johnson declined to comment about the incident. Fox 29 confirmed that the employee who allegedly said the n-word out loud has not been with the station since December of 2018.
While some employees were pleased that the incident ended with the employee’s departure from the station, they were disappointed that there was no public notice, or even an internal memo to the staff informing them of and condemning the misconduct. Requests for racial sensitivity trainings at the station, according to employees, weren’t addressed by management until spring 2020, when they were finally initiated.
This wasn’t the first time Fox 29 faced backlash over a white employee using the n-word in the newsroom. In 2007, former Fox 29 reporter Thomas Burlington was fired after using the n-word during a news meeting. Burlington later sued the station for terminating his contract for racial reasons, and lost following a three-hour deliberation by an all-white jury.
Despite such controversy, Fox 29 has a noticeably diverse on-air talent pool that includes people of color at various levels and positions. However, some employees have argued that such diversity doesn’t extend to upper-level management roles, as the station’s current general manager, news director, and associate news director are white. In comparison, Philly’s NBC 10 has a Black general manager and a Black news director, while local affiliate CBS 3 has a Black general manager and a Black managing editor. Past and present Fox 29 employees tell Philly Mag that issues with diversity and coverage stem from the “microaggressions and insensitivities” of predominantly white management running the station.
An example that allegedly took place prior to Driscoll’s tenure at the station involved a member of Fox 29’s management being upset with Sheinelle Jones, a Black former anchor, for sounding “too proud” when saying President Obama’s name on-air.
Speaking with Philly Mag, Jones, who has since left the station for NBC News, declined to comment on the matter. Fox 29 also declined to comment. But several current and former employees at Fox 29 have corroborated the incident, with some noting that it was “an unsettling situation in the newsroom that stirred chatter at the watercooler for a while.”
“There have been dozens of instances I’ve personally experienced or witnessed with employees of color involved in uncomfortable situations with management on matters pertaining to race,” a former Fox 29 news reporter tells Philly Mag. “Anything liberal, progressive or diverse will get a side-eye at Fox 29’s newsroom. In the last few weeks, since George Floyd’s death, I’ve seen more constant coverage of Black people not [in the context of] doing crime or playing sports than in the past 20 years.”
The former web producer can recall on at least two occasions being asked to reframe a story involving President Trump in a way that felt like “being forced to make the President appear more favorable than what the facts had actually described.”
On March 24, 2019, Fox 29 posted a story on its website about the end of Robert Mueller’s investigation of Trump. The former web producer, who created news content across Fox 29’s digital channels and social media platforms, says that Driscoll changed various captions on the station’s official Facebook page overnight to “lessen the blow that the President had not been completely exonerated.”
“I referenced information from the Associated Press’s reporting that Trump wasn’t completely exonerated by Mueller, and Driscoll changed captions that I made overnight,” the former web producer tells Philly Mag. “Driscoll called me to his office the next morning and criticized me for how I presented the facts, but it was obvious that he was actually making an arguably right-wing slant of this important news to our viewers.”
Philly Mag obtained screenshots from those official Fox 29 Facebook posts made on March 24, 2019, that identify Jim Driscoll as the admin who made editorial changes to drafts written by the former web producer, whose name has been redacted to protect anonymity:
As a result of these incidents, the former web producer felt “dismissed by Driscoll as a leftist” and “was probed aggressively in the newsroom when covering political matters.”
On July 15, 2019, when Trump made headlines for tweeting at Black lawmakers who had been critical of him that “if you’re not happy here, you can leave,” the former web producer recalls being asked not to describe the President’s tweets as racist, even though several leading media outlets were doing so.
“I remember helping to edit our version of the Trump story for Fox 29’s website, and Driscoll requesting that we switch the word ‘racist’ out of the headline/text and instead use the term ‘incendiary,'” the former web producer says. “It was infuriating that we had to change our story like that. It became even more obvious to me that we were acting as if we were Fox News. … Fox O&Os [local affiliates owned and operated by Fox] are supposed to be independent local news stations that are separate from the politically divisive cable news channel. That clearly isn’t the case anymore.”
Philly Mag obtained screenshots of Slack correspondence from July 15th and 16th showing changes made to the headline of the original story by the former web producer. According to the former web producer, the digital team was told by Driscoll and management that Fox O&Os across the country were changing their headlines for the Trump story. The following Slack correspondence shows how Fox 29 staff was informed, using changes made at WWOR, a local Fox affiliate in New York, as an example. Driscoll, through Fox 29’s spokesperson, declined to comment on these claims.
In April 2020, after three years of working on the job, the former web producer finally quit at Fox 29 and now feels “relieved, but still concerned about the future of the news.”
“Philadelphia is a very diverse city that deserves one of its leading newsrooms to reflect the diversity and inclusion of its viewers,” the former web producer tells Philly Mag. “At a time when racial unrest is more visible than ever, newsrooms need to have people in management committed to telling the truth and protecting marginalized staff members and their allies. Fox 29 struggles with this a lot, and that’s why there has been a mass exodus of employees.”
A Fox 29 spokesperson would not comment on specific incidents mentioned in this story, citing a reluctance to respond to anonymous claims. The spokesperson gave the following statement to Philly Mag, along with a list of “some specific recent examples of the station’s dedication to diversity and inclusion through our commitment to coverage.” These examples included a list of segments featuring people of color and outreach initiatives.
We understand and respect that the current FOX 29 employees who reached out to you do not want to be publicly identified. However, responding to anonymous sources is not an effective way to communicate. We encourage these employees to reach out to General Manager Dennis Bianchi or Human Resources Director Adrienne Pritchett for an open and honest dialogue about their concerns. We’d like to hear from them directly and firmly believe that genuine understanding and growth can only happen through direct, truthful conversation.