“A Surreal Thing”

Jennifer Livingston never meant to go viral. The La Crosse TV anchor got national attention last fall for her on-air lecture to a viewer who had sent an email message criticizing her weight. A video of the speech posted at Jim Romenesko’s website spread with dizzying speed, leading to stories at The Huffington Post, appearances on TV talk shows, and a debate over her decision to set aside her journalistic robes to grapple directly with the viewer’s criticism.   In an interview last week with Steve Schuster, president of the Milwaukee chapter of the Society for Professional Journalists, Livingston made…




Jennifer Livingston
never meant to go viral.

The La Crosse TV anchor got national
attention last fall for her on-air
lecture
to a viewer who had sent an email message criticizing her weight. A
video of the speech posted at Jim
Romenesko’s
website spread with dizzying speed, leading to stories
at The Huffington Post, appearances
on TV talk shows, and a debate over her decision to set aside her journalistic
robes to grapple directly with the viewer’s criticism.

 

In an interview
last week with Steve Schuster,
president of the Milwaukee chapter of the Society for Professional Journalists,
Livingston made clear that her on-air response wasn’t an off-the-cuff retort – she
only opened up after considerable deliberation, a process that included behind-the-scenes
discussions at the station, WKBT
Channel 8 in La Crosse, and encouragement from supportive viewers, who first
saw the critical email when Livingston’s husband posted it on Facebook.

 

In an email conversation after the SPJ interview, Livingston told
me she had full support from station management.

 

“I had several conversations with
my news director Anne Paape about
the email and the enormous amount of community reaction that resulted from
posting it on Facebook,” she says.

 

The fact that Livingston has worked
for the station for 15 years – she started there right out of college – and
that Paape has been a long-time mentor lent support to the idea of addressing
viewers directly.

 

“I’ve opened up a lot about
myself,” Livingston says. “My struggle with weight, my struggle with
infertility. And so it seemed natural to have a conversation about something
the community was already buzzing about.”

 

Livingston has written about
infertility on her station blog, and she’s also talked before about her weight
and even written about it for local publications. One article began this way:

 

I
know what you’re thinking.

Go
on, say it.

“Why
on earth is the chubbiest gal at News 8 writing a column for the Health and
Fitness issue?” Believe me – the irony does not escape me either.

Her brush with national notoriety started with viewer Kenneth Krause’s message taking
Livingston to task:

 

… I was surprised indeed to witness that
your physical condition hasn’t improved for many years.

Sure you don’t consider yourself a
suitable example for this community’s young people, girls in particular.
Obesity is one of the worst choices a person can make and one of the most
dangerous habits to maintain. I leave you this note hoping that you’ll
reconsider your responsibility as a local public personality to present and
promote a healthy lifestyle.

 

“I was a little taken aback,”
Livingston told Schuster last week. “A lot of people have shared with me,
especially in bigger markets, that they get emails like this all the time. We
really don’t get a lot of mean-spirited emails.”

 

She read it aloud to colleagues at
the station, more to laugh it off than anything. “The reaction in the newsroom
was not anything light-hearted at all,” she said. “One of my co-workers had
tears in her eyes.”

 

Livingston’s husband, WKBT evening
news anchor Mike Thompson, posted
the email message on his Facebook site. The reaction was overwhelming in its
support for her, Livingston said, and in community appearances in the days that
followed, viewers stopped her to wish her well. “I really felt people wrapping
their arms around me.”

The outpouring of community support is what ultimately prompted Livingston
to go on the air. “I felt like I needed to address this myself on my own
program because so many people were talking about it,” she said. That need
persisted even after her own email conversation with Krause.

 

“I always respond to viewer emails
whether they’re positive or negative,” she said. And on the subject of obesity,
she recalls telling him, “I am part of the problem, and I’ve never said
otherwise.”

 

Livingston said she wanted to
calibrate her on-air response so that it wouldn’t come off as simply being
about “poor Jennifer” who was “just being picked on.” Instead, she used it as
an opportunity to point out bullying of all kinds, urging victims to stand
strong and to accept themselves.

 

“I think it’s a sad, sad thing in
our society today that people so frequently spew anger and hate on the
Internet,” she told Schuster. “I realized through this whole experience just
how thick-skinned I am.”

It was the bullying angle that drove the extensive coverage – on
NBC’s Today and the network’s evening
news program, as well as on talk shows with Ellen DeGeneres and Katie Couric.

 

“It was sort of a surreal thing,”
Livingston told Schuster, to be on the other side of the news. “I hope people
grab hold of this topic in their own community and keep the conversation going,
and I don’t become as much of the focus; but the message becomes the focus.”

  

 
Rhonda Lee

But late last year, another TV personality who riposted a
critic ran into opposition from her station’s management, not reinforcement as
in Livingston’s case. Meteorologist Rhonda
Lee,
who is African American, was fired from the Shreveport, La., TV
station where she worked after replying on Facebook to a viewer who criticized
her short hairstyle. Station management later issued a statement claiming Lee’s
termination was for violating the station’s policy against responding to
Facebook criticism, although Lee has disputed aspects of that account. (The Lee
incident has been covered
extensively
on the Richard Prince online column Journal-Isms and at the Poynter
Institute’s website
.)
 

I asked Livingston what she thought of how the Lee matter had
turned out. “As a journalist, I don’t know that I have all the facts,”
Livingston tells me, noting the “he said/she said” nature of reports on the
incident.

 

“On one hand if an employee is
breaking a station policy, it seems within reason that they would be
reprimanded in some way. But for me – it all comes down to the policy itself. I
don’t understand or agree with banning employees from engaging with viewers on Facebook.
Isn’t that what Facebook is for?

 

“For me it has become a great tool
to engage with viewers on a new level. But to only engage with the people that
like me, or like the story I covered or the way I look, seems very one-sided. Bottom
line, if I were in her shoes, I absolutely would have responded.”

 

*

Crowded Locker Room: Will the switch of WOKY AM 920 from country
music to sports-talk programming
cause people at Milwaukee’s two existing sports-talk stations to break a sweat?

 

WAUK, which goes by the moniker 540-ESPN, and WSSP, aka SportsRadio 1250, have been the
area’s leading stations in the format. The most recent Arbitron data shows WSSP
well ahead of WOKY in listeners, but that’s from before the format change. (WAUK
doesn’t show up in the Arbitron ratings, but that appears to be because the
Jackson-licensed property of Good Karma Broadcasting isn’t an Arbitron
subscriber.)

 

On the one hand, WOKY’s owner Clear
Channel has very deep pockets (it’s the No. 1 radio station owner in the
country). That would give it the resources to boost the newcomer’s profile with
the sports-talk audience. But as Dave
Begel
points
out
, content for “The Big 890” is coming from Clear Channel’s Madison
sports-talk station. That means virtually no additional expense. Fans wonder,
too, whether hometown favorites like Marquette basketball will get ignored in favor
of Badgers chatter.

 

*

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Milwaukee Magazine Contributing Editor Erik Gunn has written for the magazine since 1995. He started covering the media in 2006, writing the award-winning column Pressroom and now its online successor, Pressroom Buzz. Check back regularly for the latest news and commentary of the workings of the news business in Milwaukee and Wisconsin.