Janet Peckinpaugh had worked in TV news long enough to know when her job was in jeopardy. So she sensed something amiss when, in the middle of a news story she was reading from the anchor desk of her Hartford, Conn., station in October of 1993, a producer spoke into her earpiece, “Comb your hair!” During the next break she learned it was the station’s news director who had issued the command. “I told my agent, ‘Start looking,’ ” she says.
Her instincts were right. Within 15 months, Peckinpaugh, then 44, once the station’s $250,000-a-year, golden-girl anchor, was out of a job. Outraged, she fought back, suing the then-owners of CBS affiliate WFSB for age and sex discrimination. On Jan. 28 a Hartford jury awarded her an $8.3 million judgment, shocking a TV news industry that considers “good-looking young female” or “authoritative older man” valid job descriptions. Temple University journalism professor Karen Turner calls the verdict “a wake-up call for TV executives to look at their hiring and firing practices.” Newsrooms should reflect America, but they don’t.”
Peckinpaugh was coanchoring the station’s highly rated 5 and 6 p.m. newscasts in 1993 when the station signed veteran newsman Al Terzi, then 52. She had left an earlier job in nearby New Haven after, she claims, Terzi, her coanchor there, had groped her. (Terzi testified that he merely gave her a collegial hug and kiss.) WFSB made Peckinpaugh and its two younger female anchors tape auditions with Terzi and then let her contract lapse after a market research firm found Peckinpaugh had the lowest “net enjoyment score” with test audiences. Feeling betrayed—the station, she later testified, had once assured her that her job was secure—Peckinpaugh sued.
The anchorwoman says she had struggled for equality since she started her TV career in 1978 in Richmond, Va., where the only on-air job she could get was reporting the weather. But in months she had worked her way into a reporting job and in 1981 became a pioneering anchorwoman—”a dream come true,” she says. New Haven’s WTNH-TV hired her in 1984 and the next year paired her with Terzi. “We had a special chemistry,” Peckinpaugh recalls. But, she testified, that was shattered in 1987 when he made a pass at her in her hotel room after a charity telethon. “I felt violated,” she says. “I was furious.”
After her move to Hartford one month later, her popularity brought lucrative offers from stations in Boston and Dallas. But she turned them down in favor of the security she enjoyed at WFSB. By the fall of 1993, she says, “red flags started going up. All of a sudden, the news director started picking on me.” (She testified at the trial that Terzi had requested not to work with her.) In September 1995, nine months after Terzi’s arrival, she was told the station wouldn’t renew her contract. “I lost my job,” she says, “because I was earning a large salary, and I was 44 years old.”
At the trial, the station argued that Peckinpaugh was let go simply because of her poor audience testing, and that it had no obligation to keep her. But a jury found that the station had discriminated on the basis of sex (but not age), falsely assured her of long-term employment and retaliated against her for complaining about Terzi’s alleged harassment. “TV news seeks people who are attractive,” says New Jersey lawyer Robert Tarver Jr., who specializes in discrimination cases. “The jury said the industry can no longer judge solely on superficial criteria.”
It remains to be seen what impact the verdict will have on the career of Peckinpaugh, twice divorced and the mother of a 10-year-old son. She will see no money while the case is appealed, and for now, as she has for over three years, she continues to rise at 2:30 a.m. to anchor the 5:30 newscast on Hartford’s NBC affiliate—at $80,000 a year. Whatever comes next, she feels vindicated. “It’s a sexist business, and I knew that going into it,” says Peckinpaugh. “But that doesn’t mean it’s right.”
Marianne Stochmal and Bob Meadows in New York City