WTTW fires news director Hugo Balta after staff erupts over social media

Hugo Balta

Hugo Balta was forced out Tuesday as news director of WTTW-Channel 11 and executive producer of “Chicago Tonight” following a staff uprising over his use of social media to express personal views.

“I am writing to let you know that Hugo Balta is no longer with the organization,” Sandra Cordova Micek, president and CEO of Window to the World Communications, told employees in a terse internal email.

Notably absent from Micek’s message were any of the usual good wishes for the senior executive she’d called “uniquely qualified” to lead WTTW News when she hired Balta one year ago.

Jay Smith, a seasoned 30-year veteran of the public television station and senior supervising producer of “Chicago Tonight,” will serve as acting executive producer. He’ll also oversee the newsroom on an interim basis. A spokesperson for the company declined further comment.

Balta, 50, was put on administrative leave last week after three “Chicago Tonight” anchors — Phil Ponce, Brandis Friedman and Paris Schutz — took their concerns about Balta’s social media posts to Micek.

In addition to questioning the propriety of Instagram videos showing Balta doing bare-chested push-ups and another of him dancing in his boxers, sources said, staffers came forward to complain about Balta’s tweets and Facebook posts that expressed political views and support for liberal candidates and causes.

WTTW

News personnel at WTTW are governed by a code of news standards prohibiting expressing political views on any social media.

“Throughout my career, I have vocalized my commitment to a mission of transparency over the antiquated practices of objectivity,” Balta said in a statement he emailed to me. “I give everything in my power to combat inadequacy in representation and systemic racism which often cripple newsrooms.

“After a year of high-impact news coverage and a clear focus on diversity, equity, and inclusion, the intolerance I’ve encountered over the last seven days saddens me and has inevitably led to my separation from WTTW.”

Balta earned praise for the ingenious way he led “Chicago Tonight” in covering the initial impact of the pandemic and the reckoning on social justice. Every night for more than three months, Schutz anchored the show from a different neighborhood in the city and suburbs while Friedman anchored from the studio.

But as time went on, insiders said, staffers worried that Balta’s numerous outside interests — not to mention his tweets — could undermine the credibility and legacy of “Chicago Tonight.” It appeared to some that he viewed the job as a platform for advocacy and self-promotion.

In addition to his full-time job as WTTW’s top news executive and on-air host of the weekly “Chicago Tonight: Latino Voices,” Balta makes no secret of his outside roles as a media advocate and diversity consultant who twice served as president of the National Association of Hispanic Journalists. He also identifies himself as publisher and executive editor of Latino News Network, a group of websites in New England.

Balta said he plans to address “the entirety of the situation” at WTTW in the near future, pointing out that he declined a severance offer that presumably would have carried non-disclosure and non-disparagement clauses.

Balta joined WTTW in January 2020 from MSNBC, where he oversaw editorial and production of weekend shows and was a member of the NBC/MSNBC editorial board. It marked his second stint at the network, following a run as news producer from 1999 to 2001.

Earlier Balta spent seven years at ESPN as senior director of multicultural content. He also worked as managing editor of WCBS, the CBS-owned station in New York, and vice president of news at WNJU, the Telemundo station serving New York.

A native of Paterson, New Jersey, Balta is a graduate of Seton Hall University and Columbia Journalism School.

Here is the full text of Balta’s statement:

Throughout my career, I have vocalized my commitment to a mission of transparency over the antiquated practices of objectivity. I give everything in my power to combat inadequacy in representation and systemic racism which often cripple newsrooms.

After a year of high-impact news coverage and a clear focus on diversity, equity, and inclusion, the intolerance I’ve encountered over the last seven days saddens me and has inevitably led to my separation from WTTW.

I can only hope that at such a critical time due to COVID-19, racial reckoning following the death of George Floyd, and divisive presidential election – I have been able to lead the news team in shedding light on the inequities plaguing Chicago’s diverse communities and bring much-needed fair and accurate coverage by a local newsroom.

I am extremely proud of the progress of the WTTW News Team, and together, we have made a greater effort to engage and listen to community members and leaders. We owe a great deal of thanks to the public who help shape our coverage in a more meaningful way than we could ever do on our own.

I will issue a full statement addressing the entirety of the situation. Still, I want to express my gratitude to the colleagues at WTTW News who exhibited their commitment to excellence in journalism. Above all, I am forever grateful to my family for the investments they have made since the beginning of this journey, including moving across the country, and for their unconditional support at this moment to speak our truth, in lieu of the severance offered for my silence.

Hugo

Tuesday’s comment of the day: Harry M. Politis: I know nobody wants to contemplate a future Chicago with only one daily newspaper, but today’s actions by Alden Global Capital may well have been the beginning of the end for what was once deemed The World’s Greatest Newspaper. It’s been a long precipitous fall from there and we may be about to see what it looks like at rock bottom.