‘Not my choice.’ A TV anchor is ousted, and viewers ask: Was sexism to blame?
By Alan Yuhas
From a makeshift studio and with a news anchor’s measured tones, one of Canada’s most familiar faces shocked viewers, created a public relations disaster at a national broadcaster and set off intense conversations about how employers treat women as they age.
She did it with a polite, unexpected farewell.
“I guess this is my signoff from CTV,” news anchor Lisa LaFlamme said in a video that announced the abrupt end of her 35-year career at the network.
She made it clear that the decision was made by Bell Media, the company that owns CTV, and not by her. The company made “a ‘business decision’ to end my contract,” she said, adding that she was “blindsided” by the call.
LaFlamme said it was “crushing to be leaving CTV National News in a manner that is not my choice.”
In the two weeks since she posted the video online, LaFlamme, 58, has inspired a huge wave of support, with many women speaking out about their own difficult experiences in the workplace.
The video also generated a steady drumbeat of outrage over how Bell Media treated LaFlamme, a veteran journalist whose résumé includes war zone reporting, the latest national news anchor award and over a decade as chief anchor of Canada’s most-watched nightly news show.
Neither LaFlamme nor Bell Media has described the specific reasons for her dismissal. But viewers, fellow journalists, former government officials and celebrities were quick to draw their own conclusions, accusing Bell Media of “shameful” and “shoddy” conduct, with some speculating that factors like sexism were at work.
After a Globe and Mail report, citing an anonymous CTV official, said that an executive had questioned LaFlamme’s decision to stop dyeing her hair and let it go gray, Canadian branches of companies such as Wendy’s and Dove, in a gesture toward the anchor, turned their branding gray.
On Friday night, Mirko Bibic, CEO of Bell Media, pushed back against the accusations but said he would not disclose details of the case because of an agreement with LaFlamme.
“The narrative has been that Lisa’s age, gender or gray hair played into the decision,” Bibic said in a statement posted on LinkedIn. “I am satisfied that this is not the case and wanted to make sure you heard it from me. While I would like to say more on the Bell Media decision, we are bound by a mutual separation agreement negotiated with Lisa, which we will continue to honor.”
He did say that an executive, who some viewers have criticized over the dismissal, had been put on leave “effective immediately,” pending the findings of a workplace review. The review, he said, will be independent and will seek to “address concerns raised regarding the working environment” in the newsroom.
In response to an email, a Bell spokesperson said, “We will not be responding to any further questions on this matter.” LaFlamme could not immediately be reached for comment.
Bibic’s post did not quell the growing anger over LaFlamme’s departure.
Over the weekend, a former prime minister, Kim Campbell, joined singers Sarah McLachlan and Anne Murray and other high-profile Canadians in condemning the dismissal, saying Bell had “confirmed one sad truth: Even after all the progress women have made, they continue to face sexism and ageism at work every day.”
In its initial statement about LaFlamme, Bell Media said its decision had been driven by “changing viewer habits,” without offering further details. In a subsequent statement, the company said that CTV “regrets that the way in which the news of her departure has been communicated may have left viewers with the wrong impression about how CTV regards Lisa.”
In that statement, Wade Oosterman, the president of the company, and Karine Moses, a senior vice president, announced “an independent third-party internal workplace review of our newsroom.” The executives said they took “matters regarding any discrimination very seriously and are committed to a safe, inclusive and respectful work environment for all our employees, devoid of any toxic behavior.”
The dismissal of LaFlamme, who was most likely one of the newsroom’s highest-paid employees, followed a torrent of layoffs and budget cuts at CTV’s network and local news operations over the past seven years, which were made despite government assistance to news organizations. As in the United States, the internet and years of collapsing advertising revenue have left many Canadian news organizations in dire financial straits. The executive put on leave, Michael Melling, had overseen recent layoffs and cuts at CTV.
Although some speculated that LaFlamme’s dismissal was tied to the financial crisis in journalism, most conversations centered on a deeply rooted problem that extends far beyond the news industry: sexism. Many journalists and viewers noted that two male longtime anchors before LaFlamme, one at CTV and one at another major broadcaster, were able to retire at 69 and 77 and that both were able to offer their farewells on-air.
“The media landscape has obviously been pretty turbulent in previous years: We’ve seen quite a lot of firing and replacing of anchors and anchor teams,” said Sylvia Fuller, a sociologist at the University of British Columbia who studies inequality in the labor market. “But nobody of that stature, and nobody of that stature in a way that the departure has not been highly managed.”
Amanda Watson, a sociologist at Simon Fraser University who studies media, said LaFlamme’s dismissal resonated with many people because it spoke to the problem of economic precarity — the risk of losing a job despite significant success over a long career — and because of the anchor’s sex and age.
“Women were scared to see that, and also angry, because it’s a fear that we all have,” she said. Many women, she said, are asking, “Wow, if this could happen to her, how could it not happen to me in my low-profile job?”