The U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, seeking to "send a message" to the television industry, filed suit in federal court here yesterday against WBAL-TV (Channel 11), charging that the station illegally discriminated against former anchorwoman Rudy Miller in wages and working conditions because she is a woman.
The ground-breaking suit -- which officials said was the first filed by the agency against a television station -- also contends that Ms. Miller was illegally fired by WBAL in July 1989 for demanding equal pay for equal work.
At the time of her dismissal, Ms. Miller was earning $141,000 a year -- tens of thousands of dollars less than WBAL's two male anchors, according to the EEOC. The suit seeks an undetermined amount in back wages and other damages.
"In normal circumstances, discrimination is intolerable, but discrimination in the television news industry seems worse than that," Evan J. Kemp Jr., chairman of the EEOC, said at a news conference to announce the filing of the suit.
"Most people look to the media as a watchdog -- ever vigilant in guarding against injustice. It is ironic and disturbing that an organization devoted to protecting the public's interest paid so little attention to illegal discriminatory activities within its own ranks," he added.
Mr. Kemp said the filing of the suit was intended to "send a message throughout the country" to television news organizations to adhere to federal anti-discrimination laws.
The television station, in a prepared statement issued by David J. Barrett, vice president and general manager, said it "strongly and emphatically" disagreed with the EEOC's position.
The Hearst Corp.-owned station did not deny that it paid Ms. Miller less than it paid its male anchors but said the disparity was the result of Ms. Miller's refusal to anchor the 11 p.m. newscast -- not the result of sex discrimination. It contended that it had been "fair and professional" in its dealings with her.
Ms. Miller, who worked as a news anchor at WBAL from 1980 until her dismissal last year, said she was "pleased, to say the least" at the EEOC's decision to file suit on her behalf.
Ms. Miller, 41, said she "never had any plans to be a symbol" when she first demanded that WBAL pay her the same salary as it paid its male anchors, but she added that if the EEOC's action "helps other women, God, that's great."
Chris Roggerson, district director of the EEOC in Baltimore, said that since Ms. Miller's complaint was filed in January, other women had informally told him of similar instances of discrimination.
Patricia A. Mahoney, national president of American Women in Radio and Television, said she did not know the merits of the Miller case but added, "We hope this action by the EEOC will encourage all broadcast licensees to review their employment practices and their treatment of women."
However, a spokesman for the National Association of Broadcasters said the industry trade group regarded the suit as a battle between the EEOC and one television station.
"You can be sure the industry takes its equal employment opportunity obligations seriously, and we think that's reflected at all levels of the newsroom and at broadcast stations," said Doug Willis, a spokesman for the association.
The EEOC suit does not cite a monetary figure for Ms. Miller but asks that she be paid "appropriate back wages," an equal amount in damages and compensation for loss of income since her firing.
The suit also demands that she be reinstated.
In addition, the suit asks for a permanent injunction against WBAL from discriminating against its employees on the basis of sex.
The EEOC suit is separate from a suit Ms. Miller filed against ZTC WBAL in federal court in January under the Equal Pay Act, in which she sought a minimum of $200,000 in damages.
Ms. Miller now hosts a daily radio talk show on WCBM-AM and a weekly segment titled "Rudy's Kids" on WMAR-TV (Channel 2). She is also publisher of Maryland Family Magazine, a new monthly. She said she had experienced a "substantial" decrease in income since being fired by WBAL but would not say how much she was earning.
Officials at the EEOC said yesterday that the suit, brought under Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, was broader than individual cases seeking damages from discrimination because it included working conditions as well as wages and sought to enjoin alleged violators from future discrimination.
The EEOC suit comes four months after the agency found that Ms. Miller had been paid tens of thousands of dollars less than male anchors at WBAL (see accompanying chart) and that she was refused choice news assignments and subjected to increased scrutiny of her clothes and hairstyle because she is a woman.
The EEOC also said that when Ms. Miller -- who was offered a new contract for $145,000 in 1989, which would have been some $50,000 less than the station's two male anchors were making -- demanded she be paid the same as her male counterparts, she was fired.