Fired Reporter in Age Discrimination Trial: NBC "Set Me Up for Failure"

Frank Snepp, who filed suit in 2013 after his firing at 69, said a KNBC executive suggested he resign when he expressed concern he was overworked (and described an HBO movie in development about him).
Frank Snepp

In the second week of his age discrimination trial against NBCUniversal, former KNBC reporter Frank Snepp testified the network increased his duties to "set me up for failure."

Snepp, 72, said in a 2013 lawsuit the network fired him in 2012 because of his age. He contends the network implemented a 2009 reorganization, in which Snepp and other reporters became "content producers," to expedite the removal of older employees. He cites comments he allegedly heard from superiors, like "some people just see you as a grumpy old man who oughta just quit."

Snepp said under the "content producer" system, his bosses demanded he record voiceovers and perform other newsroom jobs while requesting he continue the longer investigative reporting for which he won an Emmy in 2008 (for a KNBC story).

He repeatedly said Wednesday the content producer duties interfered with his "mission" of investigative reporting. "It wasn’t my concern that my job was going to become impossible. It was that I was going to be asked to do the same thing with resources that were not adequate. I would have to use Scotch tape or whatever I had to do to make my mission go forward," he said Wednesday, though he said Thursday, “My content producer duties were my main mission."

The content producer duties required he work in the newsroom, while investigative reporting required he work in the field. "I couldn't be in several places at once," he said.

Testifying for Snepp Thursday morning, economist Karl Schulze said Snepp has incurred $1.3 million in economic damages from the firing, a number calculated from the earnings and benefits Snepp would have earned in the six years he planned to work after 2012.

On Wednesday, NBCUniversal counsel Bart Williams suggested Snepp brought on the firing. He referred to Snepp's writing an email to a friend and former colleague about a meeting in which he said he told KNBC news director Vicki Burns the network would have to fire him if he would be required to do voiceovers and other "scut work."

"The exact language was more complicated. I said, 'I'll do whatever you want me do. I'll do editing. I'll do voiceovers. The thing is you can't have me doing all of this at the same time,' " answered Snepp.

"What I said was, 'If you give me two overlapping assignments, if you give me a situation where I have to be in three places at once, you’re setting me up for failure, and you might as well fire me,' " he continued. "It broke my heart, because what they seemed to be doing was proposing to set me up for failure."

He said Thursday that Burns then "said, 'Why don't you just resign or retire?' I said, 'I don't want to do that. I will do anything you want me to do.' "

During the meeting, KNBC exec Keith Esparros called him an "outlier," he added, "like I was some kind of rogue operative, which is interesting because his boss signed off on everything I did."

Questioning Snepp's inability to do the content producer job, Williams brought in an unexpected Hollywood connection: Snepp apparently had worked with an agency pitching a TV series about a newsroom and optioned his books for an HBO movie being written by Jesse Wigutow, whose credits include the upcoming remake of The Crow.

Snepp does have an interesting story: A former CIA agent, he wrote the book Decent Interval, about the CIA's operations in Vietnam, prompting the United States to sue him for breaking a contractual requirement the CIA could review the book before publication. He lost the fight at the Supreme Court in 1980 and then entered journalism. He’s covered topics from the Iran-Contra affair to Seal Team 6 and has won numerous awards including a Peabody.

Presumably to indicate Snepp was not overworked, Williams displayed a 19-page treatment for the series (Snepp included a "Frank Snepp" character and suggested Josh Brolin play him) and pages of scene suggestions for the HBO project, Irreparable Harm (Eugene Jarecki would have directed, but the project entered turnaround when the option on Snepp's books ended).

"It took some weekends, and yeah, it took some time," Snepp said. Williams indicated Snepp had worked on Irreparable Harm during work hours, sending emails on weekday afternoons to Wigutow and Jarecki.

Snepp called the process of documenting and dramatizing his career his "life's work."

"Would you agree with me that the activities you’re describing are quite detailed and time-consuming?" inquired Williams.

“Yeah, life's work is pretty time-consuming,” replied Snepp.

In opening statements Dec. 3, Snepp lawyer Suzelle Smith said KNBC and NCBUniversal discriminated against other older employees. "NBC acted intentionally. They papered [Snepp's] file with untrue criticisms. They did the same thing to other employees. They wanted Mr. Snepp out for age-related reasons," she said.

Williams said in his opening statement the content producer position was implemented due to the Great Recession and the changing media environment, and required reporters to learn every aspect of producing a story, including voiceovers, video editing and graphics. He added that Snepp refused to learn the new skills, leading to conflict with his bosses. NBCUniversal has stated Snepp was fired for unsatisfactory performance.

The trial will continue Friday. Snepp's testimony is not complete.

Age discrimination lawsuits are not infrequent in Hollywood (though they rarely reach trial). Recent defendants include Sony, Disney and Warner Bros.