Ex-Iowa anchor hopes her age bias lawsuit changes TV news

Aug 24, 2021, 11:31 AM | Updated: 12:37 pm

IOWA CITY, Iowa (AP) — As a prominent reporter and anchor at one of Iowa’s biggest local television stations, Sonya Heitshusen was known for doggedly investigating injustices and holding the powerful accountable.

A year after WHO-TV in Des Moines abruptly let her go, she is turning those skills on her former employer with a lawsuit challenging what she calls a widespread practice of removing older, female staffers from the air because of their looks.

Heitshusen filed an age and gender discrimination lawsuit Tuesday against WHO-TV’s parent company, Nexstar Media Group, Inc., which calls itself “America’s largest local television and media company,” with 199 stations.

The lawsuit alleges Heitshusen, 54, was “thrown out to pasture” because she was no longer seen as camera-worthy, after years in which she saw her male colleagues receive better treatment from management.

“Where are all the women who are in TV broadcasting over 50? You don’t see women on TV with gray hair and wrinkles,” she told The Associated Press last week. “It has to change. Women are relevant after the age of 50. They have a lot of great ideas. They are hard workers and can make a difference.”

She said she was bringing the lawsuit to help spur a “cultural shift” in the industry that makes discrimination no longer acceptable.

Nexstar spokesman Gary Weitman declined comment, “as this is a matter of pending litigation.”

Nexstar, which has characterized Heitshusen’s firing as a reduction in its workforce, has faced other lawsuits in recent years from female reporters and anchors. Company statistics show that nearly 80% of its managers last year were men.

Heitshusen, now public information officer for the Iowa State Auditor, got emotional recounting how the firing ended her award-winning journalism career. She said she was devastated last August when she realized she could not report on the derecho, the powerful wind storm that ripped across the state.

Heitshusen left WHO-TV last summer after what the station called a remarkable 17-year stint in which she was a hard-hitting news reporter and an anchor also known for softer segments on fitness. In farewell segments, the NBC affiliate did not mention any reason for her departure.

Heitshusen said she was blindsided in April 2020 when the station’s news director, Rod Peterson, informed her that the station was exercising a clause in her contract to fire her without cause as a “business decision.” She said she was told the company valued her and might be able to find her a lower-paying digital position, but nothing on the air.

“I thought, ‘I’m good enough to work here but I’m not good enough to be on camera?'” recounted Heitshusen, who was the oldest female anchor in the station’s history. “The only thing that signaled to me was that it’s my appearance.”

Heitshusen is represented by Des Moines civil rights attorneys Tom Newkirk and Jill Zwagerman, who specialize in showing how implicit biases can impact the workplace and have won landmark cases in the past.

The lawsuit alleges that Heitshusen faced numerous “micro-aggressions” over the years, as her bosses treated male anchors more favorably and her age ultimately became seen as a liability.

The lawsuit recounts an incident in which Peterson told the newsroom that Heitshusen had a reaction to the shingles vaccine but that others need not worry because only her “advanced age” caused her to need the shot in the first place. While seemingly a joke, the comment reflected a deeper truth that her age was a concern to management, it alleges.

The lawsuit also alleges that male anchors received higher pay, more vacation time and more on-air recognition for journalism awards, and that they were not judged by their appearances.

Meanwhile, the suit claims that managers told Heitshusen she could not negotiate for more time off, that one once commented to her and another female anchor about losing weight, and that managers gave her more support for pursuing “softer” feature stories than investigative news, it claims.

In addition to Nexstar, the lawsuit names Peterson and general manager Bobby Totsch as defendants.

The lawsuit seeks orders requiring Nexstar to pay Heitshusen unspecified damages and to take remedial actions, including training for management on gender and age stereotypes and an analysis of how female employees have been treated.

Copyright © The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.


File - Security forces stand guard during a demonstration in front of the Iraqi central bank as cur...
Associated Press

Targeting Iran, US tightens Iraq’s dollar flow, causing pain

BAGHDAD (AP) — For months, the United States has restricted Iraq’s access to its own dollars, trying to stamp out what Iraqi officials describe as rampant money laundering that benefits Iran and Syria. Iraq is now feeling the crunch, with a drop in the value of its currency and public anger blowing back against the […]
1 day ago
FILE - A logo of Sony is seen at the headquarters of Sony Corp. on May 10, 2022, in Tokyo. Sony app...
Associated Press

Sony CFO to lead entertainment-electronic giant as president

TOKYO (AP) — Sony appointed a veteran executive as its president Thursday to lead the Japanese electronics and entertainment conglomerate through times of change. Hiroki Totoki, Sony’s chief financial officer, will become the president and COO, Sony Corp. said in a statement. Kenichiro Yoshida remains chairman and chief executive, signaling continuity at the Tokyo-based maker […]
1 day ago
People wearing protective masks stand near an electronic stock board showing Japan's Nikkei 225 ind...
Associated Press

Asian stocks rise after Fed sees inflation improving

BEIJING (AP) — Asian stock markets gained Thursday after the Federal Reserve said the U.S. economy is moving toward lower inflation but more interest rate hikes are planned. Shanghai, Tokyo, Hong Kong and Sydney advanced. Oil prices rose. Wall Street’s benchmark S&P 500 index closed 1% higher after the Fed raised its key lending rate […]
1 day ago
Traders on the floor at the New York Stock Exchange watch Federal Reserve Chair Jerome Powell's new...
Associated Press

Here’s what the Fed interest rate hike means for you

NEW YORK (AP) — The Federal Reserve raised its key rate by a quarter point Wednesday, bringing it to the highest level in 15 years as part of an ongoing effort to ease inflation by making borrowing more expensive. The rate increase will likely make it even costlier to borrow for homes, autos and other […]
1 day ago
FILE - A house burns on Platina Road at the Zogg Fire near Ono, Calif., on Sept. 27, 2020. A judge ...
Associated Press

PG&E to face manslaughter trial over deadly California fire

REDDING, Calif. (AP) — Pacific Gas & Electric will face trial for manslaughter over its role in a 2020 wildfire in Northern California that killed four people, a judge ruled Wednesday. The judge in Shasta County ruled after a preliminary hearing that there was enough evidence for the nation’s largest utility to face trial on […]
1 day ago
FILE - The logo of Honda Motor Company attached to a vehicle is seen at a showroom in Tokyo on May ...
Associated Press

Japan’s Honda outlines hydrogen power plans to go green

TOKYO (AP) — Honda is expanding the use of hydrogen to include trucks and construction equipment, electricity for buildings and even outer space, not just cars on the roads. Honda Motor Co. plans a new fuel cell vehicle for sale next year, packed with a fuel cell stack developed with General Motors Co. of the […]
1 day ago

Sponsored Articles

(Pexels Photo)...

Sports gambling can be fun for adults, but it’s a dangerous game for children

While adults may find that sports gambling is a way to enhance the experience with more than just fandom on the line, it can be a dangerous proposition if children get involved in the activity.
Day & Night Air Conditioning, Heating and Plumbing

Prep the plumbing in your home just in time for the holidays

With the holidays approaching, it's important to know when your home is in need of heating and plumbing updates before more guests start to come around.
(Photo via MLB's Arizona Fall League / Twitter)...
Arizona Fall League

Top prospects to watch at this year’s Arizona Fall League

One of the most exciting elements of the MLB offseason is the Arizona Fall League, which began its 30th season Monday.
Ex-Iowa anchor hopes her age bias lawsuit changes TV news