“We have to make sure that we always explain our institutional conflict here every time it’s referred to,” Heimel said. “Even though it might really be a minor story in the news, we still have to devote undue amount of time and attention and valuable airtime to just spelling it out, once again … it’s cumbersome and inconvenient.”
For his part, Washington says he applied to be on the board last fall, before the chairman was fired and other stories put the board in the news. He thought the volunteer role would be a way to contribute to the community, he said.
“I sit on lots of boards,” Washington said. “I have a lot of good valuation expertise. I have an undergraduate degree in engineering and an MBA. So I’ve done lots of valuations … I thought it’d be a great two-day, three-day intellectual challenge. There was an opening and I applied.”
Even now, Washington doesn’t see the situation presenting a conflict. An appearance of one, perhaps, but no more so than the fact that APM is funded in large part by state grants and underwriting from oil companies—something all public broadcasters have to deal with.
“The audience really probably doesn’t care unless certain individuals keep bringing up the issue,” Washington said. As for the newsroom’s concern about the appearance of a conflict, he said: “If I tried to worry about what everyone was thinking, I’d go nuts.”
The people in the newsroom I spoke to would prefer that Washington withdraw from consideration, and that APM establish a policy that addresses the situation—just as the ethics code for APM journalists already says they “may not serve on government boards or commissions.” Lindbeck and Townsend pointed out that they have tried to create a policy in the past that might have covered this issue, but APM’s board turned it down.
Lindbeck said he understands the newsroom’s concerns and was proud of the journalists for being passionate about the issue. But “in a small place like this it’s very difficult to avoid those things completely,” he said.
The solution, he said, is the existing firewall between editorial and business. He called that “the very best possible protection.”
In fact, the one thing both sides seem to agree on is that APM’s “firewall” is strong, and editorial coverage has not been and will not be influenced by anything on the business side, including Washington’s appointment. The newsroom just doesn’t think that’s enough.
“As citizens increasingly consider public broadcasting a trusted source of news and information compared to commercial and especially cable news organizations, it is all the more critical that we fiercely guard our autonomy and capitalize on that public trust momentum,” Townsend said. “We have that trust because dedicated people have worked for years to build it at 26 member stations across the state. I like to say we’re The New York Times of the Alaskan airwaves, but trust is fragile and must be constantly protected.”
For now, those concerns aren’t winning out. But Lindbeck said he’ll continue to monitor the situation and “keep an open mind about it.”
“The subject is not closed,” he said. “This might fall into one of those categories of ‘no good deed goes unpunished.’”