IOWA CITY, Iowa – As a prominent reporter and anchor at one of Iowa’s biggest local television stations, Sonya Heitshusen was known for doggedly investigating injustices and holding the powerful accountable.
A year after WHO-TV in Des Moines abruptly let her go, she is turning those skills on her former employer with a lawsuit challenging what she calls a widespread practice of removing older, female staffers from the air because of their looks.
Heitshusen filed an age and gender discrimination lawsuit Tuesday against WHO-TV’s parent company, Nexstar Media Group, Inc., which calls itself “America’s largest local television and media company,” with 199 stations.
The lawsuit alleges Heitshusen, 54, was “thrown out to pasture” because she was no longer seen as camera-worthy, after years in which she saw her male colleagues receive better treatment from management.
“Where are all the women who are in TV broadcasting over 50? You don’t see women on TV with gray hair and wrinkles,” she told The Associated Press last week. “It has to change. Women are relevant after the age of 50. They have a lot of great ideas. They are hard workers and can make a difference."
She said she was bringing the lawsuit to help spur a “cultural shift" in the industry that makes discrimination no longer acceptable.
Nexstar spokesman Gary Weitman declined comment, “as this is a matter of pending litigation.”
Nexstar, which has characterized Heitshusen’s firing as a reduction in its workforce, has faced other lawsuits in recent years from female reporters and anchors. Company statistics show that nearly 80% of its managers last year were men.
Heitshusen, now public information officer for the Iowa State Auditor, got emotional recounting how the firing ended her award-winning journalism career. She said she was devastated last August when she realized she could not report on the derecho, the powerful wind storm that ripped across the state.
Heitshusen left WHO-TV last summer after what the station called a remarkable 17-year stint in which she was a hard-hitting news reporter and an anchor also known for softer segments on fitness. In farewell segments, the NBC affiliate did not mention any reason for her departure.
Heitshusen said she was blindsided in April 2020 when the station’s news director, Rod Peterson, informed her that the station was exercising a clause in her contract to fire her without cause as a “business decision." She said she was told the company valued her and might be able to find her a lower-paying digital position, but nothing on the air.
“I thought, ‘I’m good enough to work here but I’m not good enough to be on camera?’” recounted Heitshusen, who was the oldest female anchor in the station’s history. “The only thing that signaled to me was that it’s my appearance.”
Heitshusen is represented by Des Moines civil rights attorneys Tom Newkirk and Jill Zwagerman, who specialize in showing how implicit biases can impact the workplace and have won landmark cases in the past.
The lawsuit alleges that Heitshusen faced numerous “micro-aggressions” over the years, as her bosses treated male anchors more favorably and her age ultimately became seen as a liability.
The lawsuit recounts an incident in which Peterson told the newsroom that Heitshusen had a reaction to the shingles vaccine but that others need not worry because only her “advanced age” caused her to need the shot in the first place. While seemingly a joke, the comment reflected a deeper truth that her age was a concern to management, it alleges.
The lawsuit also alleges that male anchors received higher pay, more vacation time and more on-air recognition for journalism awards, and that they were not judged by their appearances.
Meanwhile, the suit claims that managers told Heitshusen she could not negotiate for more time off, that one once commented to her and another female anchor about losing weight, and that managers gave her more support for pursuing “softer” feature stories than investigative news, it claims.
In addition to Nexstar, the lawsuit names Peterson and general manager Bobby Totsch as defendants.
The lawsuit seeks orders requiring Nexstar to pay Heitshusen unspecified damages and to take remedial actions, including training for management on gender and age stereotypes and an analysis of how female employees have been treated.