Former television meteorologist Jeremy Kappell has filed a defamation lawsuit against his previous employer, NBC affiliate WHEC-TV, for defaming him over a word jumble that occurred on-air in January. In a written statement posted to his website, Kappell said, “The decision to file a lawsuit against the station was a difficult one. However, we felt it was a necessary one considering the damage done to my reputation, career and the future livelihood of our family. I believe this could have been avoided if the station had shown any real effort to work with us towards a resolution.” It adds, “This lawsuit is necessary, not just for the defense of myself and family, but for the next person who comes into a similar circumstance. In my opinion, injustice that goes unaccounted for only breeds more injustice. Someone has to stand up in order for it to stop.”
Kappell was chief meteorologist for the NBC affiliate in New York. During an evening forecast broadcast, Kappell described a Rochester, New York park named after civil rights leader Martin Luther King Jr. as “Martin Luther Coon” Park. Kappell said that he spoke “too fast” and the word was said by mistake. This isn’t the first time a broadcaster made the word jumble; it also isn’t the first time a weatherman has been fired for letting the word “coon” come out of their jumbled mouths.
In January 2005, KTNV-TV Las Vegas weather forecaster Rob Blair suffered from the same word jumble while delivering a forecast for the Martin Luther King Jr. Day holiday weekend. Viewers called and emailed at the station to express outrage over Blair’s forecast. At that time, Blair apologized for the comment, saying some people may have thought he had said “Kong instead of King”. However, it was a slurring of the words “King” and “Junior” into “coon” that lead to his demise. At the time, KTNV-TV General Manager Jim Prather wrote, “Blair stumbled while attempting to provide a forecast for Martin Luther King Junior Day and uttered a phrase that viewers found offensive. This kind of incident is not acceptable under any circumstances. I am truly sorry that this event occurred.” Blair was fired.
In January 2010, ESPN reporter Mike Greenberg jumbled the same words on TV and radio. In that broadcast, Greenberg said, “Hi, I’m Mike in the morning on ESPN Radio and we’re talking football with you on this Martin Luther Coon King Junior holiday.” Due to that slip-up, ESPN did not punish Greenberg.
In a Facebook post, Kappell said what he jumbled Friday was a “simple misunderstanding.” “If you watch me regularly, you know that I tend to contain a lot of information in my weathercast, which forces me to speak fast and, unfortunately, I spoke a little too fast when I was referencing Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. So fast to the point where I jumbled a couple of words. In my mind, I knew I mispronounced, but there was no malice. I had no idea the way it came across to many people.”
One person that reacted very strongly against the jumble was Rochester Mayor Lovely Warren who demanded that the meteorologist be fired. In a statement she had the City of Rochester release, Warren wrote, “It is wrong, hurtful and infuriating that WHEC Channel 10 broadcast a racial slur in reference to Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. during its Friday News broadcast. It is beyond unacceptable that this occurred. There must be real consequences for the news personality involved and also for the management team that failed to immediately apologize and address the slur.” She added, “While referring to African Americans in racially derogatory, insensitive and vulgar language needs to be addressed immediately, there are other issues at play as well that feed into this cultural ignorance. ”
WHEC-TV ’s Vice President and General Manager, Richard Reingold, apologized in a statement after firing his meteorologist. “This word has no place on News10NBC’s air, and the fact that we broadcast it disheartens and disgusts me; that it was not caught immediately is inexcusable,” Reingold said. “I regret that we did not immediately interrupt our broadcast and apologize on the spot.”
Many came to Kappell’s defense, saying he shouldn’t be fired for the error. Among them was NBC television’s most prominent weather personality, Al Roker, who delivers weather for the network’s flagship Today Show and other prime time news specials. In a Tweet, Roker said, “I think Jeremy Kappell made an unfortunate flub and should be given the chance to apologize on News 10 NBC. Anyone who has done live tv and screwed up (google any number of ones I’ve done) understands.” More than 65,000 viewers have signed a petition urging WHEC-TV to reconsider their decision.
Kappell’s suit uses Reingold’s statement as grounds for the defamation case. The civil complaint says that Reingold’s statement “attributed a non-existent intent to Kappell that Reingold could not reasonably had knowledge of and representing to the world that Kappell had intentionally uttered a racial slur.” Kappell’s suit says that his firing was a violation of the terms of his three-year contract As a result, he has suffered lost wages and emotional distress. The suit also alleges that Kappell has seen his prospects for re-employment “severely damaged by defendant’s callous and reckless conduct.” The suit seeks an unspecified amount of compensatory and punitive damages, and names Reingold, the station, and its parent company, Hubbard Broadcasting, as defendants.
WHEC-TV released a brief statement in response to the lawsuit. “We are disappointed that Mr. Kappell has taken this step, and are prepared to defend our decision to the fullest,” the statement said. “Because this matter is now in the courts, we will have no further comment.”