Anchor Lee Cruse apologizes for racist joke made on air
WLEX 18 has dismissed host Lee Cruse after comments he made two weeks ago that the station called inappropriate.
The decision was swiftly met with reaction that ranged from ‘devastated’ and “sickened” to demands for additional ‘fundamental changes’ at the station.
Cruse, co-host of ‘Live with Lee & Hayley,’ was kept off the air this week as WLEX further evaluated comments he made regarding a tweet about the Royal Baby.
Cruse said he was sorry May 10, one day after his on-air reaction to a BBC radio broadcaster who was fired for using a chimpanzee to represent Prince Harry and Meghan Markle’s newborn baby. Initially, Cruse laughed and said, “this is my new favorite disc jockey.”
In a statement released Wednesday morning, WLEX 18 said it carefully considered its Cruse decision. The statement did not say if Cruse was fired or if the departure had been negotiated in other ways.
“WLEX is committed to reflecting our diverse audiences through our coverage and to upholding equitable, diverse and inclusive practices in our workplaces,” the statement said.
Station Vice President and General Manager Pat Dalbey said WLEX stands “by our commitment to a respectful work environment and respect for all of our viewers.” He would not comment on the terms of Cruse’s dismissal.
In a Facebook post about Cruse’s dismissal, co-host Hayley Harmon said she is “devastated” and in “utter disbelief.”
Speaking through tears to open Wednesday’s ‘Live with Lee & Hayley,’ Harmon said she stood by Cruse.
In the five years she had known him, “he’s never once showed a racist tendency or a racial insensitivity whatsoever,” Harmon said.
“Today is the hardest day of my career,” Harmon said. “I cannot express to you how truly shocked I am at this decision.”
She later wrote on Twitter she would be taking off the remainder of the week “to process all of this.”
Cruse, who was at LEX 18 for more than 20 years, called his error “egregious” in his on-air apology. He further apologized a week later. He said he did not read his script regarding the image and did not realize its content.
“That’s not me. That isn’t me at all,” Cruse said May 10. He later called himself a “full-blown moron idiot” and said he deserved to be called the “vile and ugly” names people were calling him on social media.
When announcing last week that Cruse would be kept off the air this week, Dalbey said Cruse “exhibited a lack of judgment on air.”
In addition to his show with Harmon, Cruse has appeared regularly on “Hey Kentucky,” which is hosted by Kentucky Sports Radio founder Matt Jones. Jones said he was “saddened and disappointed” to hear of Cruse’s dismissal.
“Lee has been a tremendous asset to @Hey_Kentucky and more importantly, a wonderful friend,” Jones said. “It is true @LeeCruse made a mistake. But I hope people will judge him by the entirety of his career. He has done so much for this community and has a kind soul.”
In Wednesday’s broadcast of ‘Hey Kentucky,’ Jones said he understood LEX 18’s decision. But that decision “absolutely breaks” his heart.
The Lexington-Fayette County NAACP branch called for the station to take action in a statement it released last week, but the group stopped short of demanding Cruse be fired.
“Rather than celebrating the birth of a child as an emblem of royalty for people of African descent, Mr. Cruse chose to continue the disrespect, hate and ridicule that had already been deemed to be inappropriate by another television station,” the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People said.
It also recommended the entire WLEX staff enroll in a 10-week racial bias training course.
Rev. L. Clark Williams last week wrote an op-ed saying the station’s initial lack of action spoke “louder than words.” After Cruse’s departure was announced Wednesday, Williams said, “It’s certainly not over.” Williams is president and chairman of the People’s Campaign and is the director of ministries at Shiloh Baptist Church in Lexington.
“When he spouted racism, Papa John’s fired ‘Papa John,’ but they didn’t stop there,” Williams said. “They made fundamental changes to how they do business. So, far beyond Lee Cruse, the bigger issue is the dire need for a measurable and sustainable plan for a more diverse and culturally competent LEX18. And that’s what I’m still waiting to see from them.”
Kristen Pflum, a former LEX 18 anchor and reporter who left in 2016 to join a Chicago station, wrote on Twitter she is “sickened to hear how @LEX18News did @leecruse.”
“I will defend Lee’s character to anyone who wants to listen,” said Pflum, who is returning to Lexington to join WDKY’s Fox 56. “Two decades on TV without a blemish and one incident where he was ill-informed and misspoke costs him his job? If this is the price to pay, we’re all doomed.”
A Change.org petition has been created asking LEX 18 to rehire Cruse. Dozens of social media users have claimed they are now boycotting the station.
During Wednesday’s ‘Live with Lee & Hayley’ show, Harmon told viewers to stay tuned to learn about the future of the show.
Cruse, also a stand-up comedian, is slated to perform three shows at Lexington’s Comedy off Broadway in early July. Those shows are still scheduled, the comedy club said Wednesday.
Jeremy Kappell, a former meteorologist for Louisville’s WDRB, was similarly terminated from a New York station this year after viewers claimed he used a racial slur on air. A segment for WHEC in Rochester showed the city’s Martin Luther King Jr. Memorial Park, and Kappell appeared to refer to it as “Martin Luther Coon King Jr. Park.”