(UPDATED throughout with new information) Netflix’s long-time communications chief and former journalist was ousted today for using the ultimate derogatory term for African-Americans on what we now know was two separate occasions.
Chief Executive Reed Hastings sent an awkward email to Netflix employees saying he had fired the chief communications officer, Jonathan Friedland, for showing an “unacceptably low racial awareness and sensitivity” that is out of line with the company’s values.
In the staff memo, Hastings described two instances in which Friedland dropped the “N-word,” once several months ago in a PR meeting about sensitive words. Friedland apologized after several people told him how inappropriate and hurtful his use of the term was, Hastings said.
“We had hoped this was an awful anomaly never to be repeated,” Hastings wrote. “Three months later he spoke to a meeting of our Black Employees @Netfix group and did not bring it up, which was understood by many in the meeting to mean he didn’t care and didn’t accept accountability for his words.”
Hastings said he learned this week that Friedland, who is caucasian, had used the derogatory term again a few days after he first uttered the offensive term, in a meeting with two black Human Resources employees who were trying to help him deal with the original offense.
“The second incident confirmed a deep lack of understanding, and convinced me to let Jonathan go,” Hastings wrote. “As I reflect on this, at the first incident, I should have done more to use it as a learning moment for everyone at Netflix about how painful and ugly that word is.”
Hastings said his privilege caused him to “intellectualize” and “minimize” the incidents, and acknowledged, “I need to set a better example by learning and listening more so I can be the leader we need.”
In a move very telling of a communications professional, Friedland tried to get ahead of the disclosure Friday by turning to Twitter to announce his exit after making “insensitive” comments to members of his team.
“I’m leaving Netflix after seven years,” Friedland tweeted. “Leaders have to be beyond reproach in the example we set and unfortunately I fell short of that standard when I was insensitive in speaking to my team about words that offend in comedy.”
Friedland, the Wall Street Journal’s one-time Los Angeles bureau chief who’s known for his acerbic wit, said via tweet that he feels “awful” about the distress that his lapse caused the company and its staff and said he considered it an honor to work for the company.
Netflix confirmed his departure, but would say nothing more.
Friedland’s ouster comes a week after Netflix Director of Original Programming Tara Duncan has left the Internet network after four years, as Deadline first reported. Her departure came within days of the exit of fellow Netflix TV development executive Layne Eskridge who went to Apple, a move that had been in the works for months.
Duncan and Eskridge were the only African American TV executives on the team.
The c-level executives at Netflix are all caucasian, and major shareholders in the company such as the SEIU have raised concerns about the lack of racial and ethnic diversity on the streaming giant’s board of directors. There is only one African American, former ambassador Susan Rice, and a total of four women among the 11 directors.
Friedman joined Netflix in February 2011, after serving as senior vice president of communications at The Walt Disney Co. Before that, he spent over 20 years as a foreign correspondent and editor, mainly with The Wall Street Journal, in the U.S., Asia and Latin America and co-founded the Diarios Rumbo chain of Spanish-language newspapers in Texas.
Friedland was elevated to chief communications officer after guiding CEO Reed Hastings through the Qwikster naming debacle (you’ll recall the ill-fated plan to re-name Netflix’s DVD business that was met with plenty of rotten tomatoes).
Hastings ultimately apologized, saying, “I messed up. I owe everyone an explanation.”
The executive shakeup comes as Netflix has been on a roll, with its market cap soaring past established media players like Disney amid investor enthusiasm for the company’s growth.