Column One:
Eye on Unmarried America

May 8,  2006  



CNN show distorts views on workplace fairness

By Thomas F. Coleman

Two weeks ago I was interviewed by a producer for CNN in Los Angeles.  She came to my office with a film crew and we spoke for more than an hour about employment practices affecting workers who have minor children at home as well as those who do not.

The interview was set up by a New York producer for the Paula Zahn Now show.  She had informed me that they were planning a segment on working mothers and wanted to give it some balance. 

I incorrectly assumed that this would be a typical show about working mothers juggling their work and family obligations, and discussing the ways in which many employers try to accommodate their needs.  I felt that I could give this topic some balance by warning that accommodating workers with children can have the effect, sometimes unintended, of trampling on the rights of workers without children.

During my hour-long interview, I explained that workplace policies -- such as leaves, required overtime, holiday scheduling, shift selections, vacation choices, flexible hours, and benefits compensation -- should be fair to everyone regardless of their marital status, parental status, or household configuration.  It's fine for employers to accommodate the needs of working parents, but they should give similar consideration to the needs of singles and workers without kids at home.

The interviewer asked questions which seemed like they were geared to elicit an anti-working-parent quote and to obtain comments showing support for employers who are skeptical about hiring working mothers. 

On several occasions, I was asked questions as if I were an employer.  At one point I was specifically asked whether I would be skeptical about having working moms on my staff.  Since I am not an employer with these concerns, I responded in general terms.

I did acknowledge that some employers could be leery, feeling that working moms want to have their cake and eat it too.  Some moms not only have a full work load but have a demanding family life with kids who have pressing needs.  If someone piles too much on their plate, something may fall off.  So, yes, there are employers with concerns that work performance may be sacrificed in a conflict between responsibilities at work and at home. 

At one point, I was asked whether a parent who received a call about an emergency at home involving her child would continue working or go home.  I gave an obvious answer: "A person with children is going to say I've got to go. There's no baby-sitter, I've got to go. "

Based on those two sound bites, taken out of context in a lengthy interview, Paula Zahn mischaracterized my position as follows: "Tom Coleman, the executive director of Unmarried America, a nonprofit advocacy group, believes employers are justified in being skeptical of working mothers."

Quite to the contrary, several times during the unaired portions of my interview, I emphasized that discrimination against workers on the basis of their parental status should be illegal.  Employers should not stereotype workers with children as being unable to perform the job at hand.

But the producers and editors of the Paula Zahn Now show apparently decided to use me as a stooge to support skeptical employers who discriminate against working moms.  So with a few snips out of an hour-long interview, they created what they wanted. 

When I saw the segment which aired on television, I almost fell off my chair.  How dare they distort my views on workplace fairness.

In turns out that the show was not about employers accommodating the needs of working moms, but rather about employers who discriminate by firing them after they take maternity leave.  I only realized the true nature of the segment when I saw the show.

I was furious. 

I sent off an e-mail to the producer, complaining that they had done a hatchet job on me and had distorted my positions on discrimination in the workplace.  I am against workplace bias, not in favor of it.

I feel that all workers should be treated fairly -- whether they have kids or not and regardless of whether they are single or married -- and that privileges, benefits, and flexibility for employees should not depend on marital status or parental status.

In the near future, the only skepticism I will be discussing is my suspicion of television producers who are so desperate for a sound bite to fit their agenda that they are willing to sacrifice balance and fairness in the process.

The good news in all of this is that the media has been quite fair to me over the years.  This is the first time in dozens of television interviews -- with ABC, CBS, NBC, Fox, PBS, and CNN -- that I have been the victim of such a blatant distortion of my views.  So the Paula Zahn show will now hold an unsavory place of distinction in my life.

By the way, I never received a response from the producer at CNN about my complaints regarding the show.  Perhaps she has too much on her own plate.

Unmarried America 2006

Thomas F. Coleman, Executive Director of Unmarried America, is an attorney with 33 years of experience in singles' rights, family diversity, domestic partner benefits, and marital status discrimination.  Each week he adds a new commentary to Column One: Eye on Unmarried America. E-mail: Unmarried America is a nonprofit information service for unmarried employees, consumers, taxpayers, and voters.