Meredith Corp. fired the head of its broadcast group last fall after documenting his repeated comments criticizing blacks, including: "We've got to quit hiring all these black people," according a company memo filed in a lawsuit against the executive.
The Des Moines-based media company, which publishes specialty books and magazines including Ladies' Home Journal and Better Homes and Gardens, fired Kevin O'Brien in October, citing violations of its equal opportunity policies.
According to a company memo uncovered in a search of court documents this week, an internal investigation found that O'Brien "made statements, often in the context of speaking about a minority employee, that employ racial and ethnic stereotypes and denigrate women."
The investigators found that, among other things, O'Brien had urged colleagues not to hire black people and complained that an Atlanta TV station was "too black."
O'Brien's attorney, David Casselman, of Tarzana, Calif., said the company's disclosure was meant to embarrass his client.
He did not dispute the allegations, but insisted his client is not a racist.
O'Brien, 62, had been at Meredith for three years, overseeing 13 television stations and half of Meredith's 2,600 employees. He was credited with turning around the broadcast group, which reaches 10 percent of TV households in the country, and earned almost $2 million last year. The group includes KPHO in Phoenix, WFSB in Hartford and KPDX and KPTV in Portland, Ore.
The Nov. 8 memo from the company's lawyer to O'Brien is one of few documents that was not sealed in a lawsuit filed by Meredith against the former executive. The company's claims and what it was seeking were in the sealed documents. O'Brien has filed documents seeking to unseal the case and is expected to file a countersuit alleging wrongful termination.
"There was far more going on here than what they have voluntarily disclosed, and they hope to keep the truth a secret," Casselman said.
According to the memo, Meredith hired two labor lawyers to investigate complaints from the general manager of WGCL-TV in Atlanta. She was fired days later.
Meredith's top lawyer wrote in the memo to O'Brien that the investigation had confirmed that he made the following statements:
- "We can't right all the wrongs of the Civil War; we've got to quit hiring all these black people."
- "You shouldn't hire old black guys. These guys don't listen, they have attitudes, and you can't control them."
O'Brien came to Meredith after 15 years as an executive with Cox Television Independent Group and had headed the California Broadcasters Association and the Association of Local Television Stations.
While at Meredith, he shook up management at several local stations and oversaw the acquisition of others. Analysts credited him with boosting profit.
According to the memo, O'Brien also:
- complained that the Atlanta station hired too many black reporters and anchors;
- said that a black weather forecaster, who was eight months pregnant at the time, should be fired because she was too fat;
- declined a business deal with a minority-owned station, writing in an e-mail: "I've never seen a minority broadcast enterprise work in my entire life, especially if they have control!" and
- told a black waiter at a company outing: "You probably don't like the same fruit as me. You look like a watermelon kind of guy."
The investigation also found that O'Brien solicited gifts from business partners, gave special attention to certain female employees and helped his daughter get an on-air job at a company station.
O'Brien, who has homes in San Francisco and Las Vegas, did not return an e-mail message seeking comment. He remains unemployed and has complained in court documents that Meredith's allegations have ruined his reputation.
Meredith "took swift, decisive and appropriate action" against O'Brien, spokesman Art Slusark said. He said Meredith does not tolerate discrimination.