Ex-TV Anchor Files Age Discrimination Suit Against Nexstar Media, Alleges Men Treated Better

A female former television anchor for WHO-TV in Des Moines, Iowa, filed an age and gender discrimination lawsuit Tuesday against the station's parent company, Nexstar Media Group Inc., alleging men were treated better by management, the Associated Press reported.

Sonya Heitshusen, 54, was suddenly let go from NBC affiliate WHO-TV last summer after 17 years of appearing on camera and was the oldest female anchor in the station's history.

The lawsuit claims she was "thrown out to pasture" because she was deemed no longer fit to appear on camera while male anchors at the station got higher pay, among other better treatment. This is not the first time Nexstar has been issued lawsuits by female anchors and reporters.

Nexstar has maintained that Heitshusen's firing was a matter of reducing its staff. The seasoned reporter said she was told the company might find her a lower-paying digital job but nothing on television.

"Where are all the women who are in TV broadcasting over 50? You don't see women on TV with gray hair and wrinkles," Heitshusen told AP 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."

For more reporting from the Associated Press, see below.

WHO-TV Anchor Speaks With Donald Trump
A former television anchor for WHO-TV in Des Moines, Iowa, filed an age and gender discrimination lawsuit against the station’s parent company, Nexstar Media Group Inc. Above, Donald Trump, as a Republican presidential candidate, speaks with moderator Dave Price of WHO-TV during a town hall meeting at Des Moines Area Community College Newton Campus on November 19, 2015, in Newton, Iowa. Scott Olson/Getty Images

WHO-TV is one of Iowa's biggest local television stations where Heitshusen was known for doggedly investigating injustices and holding the powerful accountable.

A year after she was let go, she is turning those skills on her former employer with the lawsuit challenging what she calls a widespread practice of removing older, female staffers from the air because of their looks.

Nexstar calls itself "America's largest local television and media company," with 199 stations.

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's company statistics show that nearly 80 percent 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 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 of 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.

"I thought, 'I'm good enough to work here but I'm not good enough to be on camera?'" Heitshusen recounted. "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 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.