Reporter firing shows real threat to public-media independence

Former WUTC reporter Jacqui Helbert. Photo by Megan Hollenbeck.

I ALWAYS CHUCKLE WHEN PEOPLE ALLEGE corporate sponsors or major donors are compromising the editorial integrity of American public broadcasting. In my dozen years in public media, I’ve never seen sponsors or donors improperly influence coverage. I’ve barely even heard rumors of it happening, and I intercept a lot of gossip as the host of a podcast about the public media industry.

Not enough public media outsiders seem worried about the constituency that, in my personal experience and according to my reporting, actually does compromise editorial integrity: the organizations that hold stations’ FCC licenses. And there’s no better example of the cause for concern than the recent firing of Jacqui Helbert.

Helbert, a reporter at the University of Tennessee at Chattanooga’s WUTC public radio station, angered some of the state legislators who hold the university’s purse strings. As Helbert pursues a lawsuit against the university, ShameOnUTC.org—a site launched after her termination—has provided jaw-dropping documentation of Helbert’s saga, including her surreptitious audio recordings of meetings with colleagues.

The relationship between Helbert, WUTC and the University of Tennessee offers the public a laundry list of everything that can go wrong in a system where universities hold the licenses of—and therefore effectively own—47 percent of the public radio station organizations and 34 percent of the public television orgs. (Figures were provided to me by the Station Resource Group.) In the wake of Helbert’s firing, people across public media are reckoning with a serious ethical hazard that was built into their system—and that may be impossible to fully exorcise.

 

JOHN MCCORMACK HAD A RULE for the reporters who worked for him: avoid stories about politics and religion. McCormack ran WUTC from 1984 to 2015, and grew it from a mere repeater of Knoxville’s WUOT into a full-fledged NPR member station, albeit one with a hamstrung news department.

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“If we did a story about domestic violence, it would be a story about a nonprofit helping domestic violence victims,” says a WUTC employee who spoke on condition of anonymity because she or he was not authorized to do so. “We would not, by contrast, be allowed to do a story about a controversial state law restricting gun ownership of people convicted of domestic violence.” (Emails to McCormack seeking to confirm the employee’s claim went unanswered.)

That changed after McCormack’s retirement, when UTC Associate Vice Chancellor for Marketing and Communication Chuck Cantrell took on an additional role as station manager for WUTC. While handing direct management of a public radio station to a university PR flack would typically horrify most journalists, Cantrell actually set the reporters free to cover whatever they wanted, my source says.

“We did mostly arts, fluff, community events and feel-good stories,” the employee says. “Until Chuck.”

Ironically, that freedom led to the ongoing episode that, for some people, is the only reason they’ve ever heard of WUTC. On March 21, Cantrell’s boss—UTC’s head flack George Heddleston—fired WUTC reporter Jacqui Helbert over a story she’d reported, according to the lawsuit Helbert’s lawyer filed Thursday.

For her story, Helbert followed Tennessee high school students on a trip to their state capital and recorded them talking to legislators about a now-stalled bill that would compel transgender people to use the public school bathroom corresponding to their sex as assigned at birth. One legislator, state Sen. Mike Bell, shocked the students by blithely dismissing the legitimacy of transgender identities.

According to Helbert’s lawsuit, the lawmakers recorded by Helbert complained after they found out about her story, saying they didn’t realize they were on mic. (The story, which was taken down on Heddleston’s orders, is preserved here.) While the suit acknowledges Helbert did not verbally announce herself as a reporter when tagging along with the students, which would have been the best practice, it makes the case that Helbert was still conspicuous:

“[Helbert] greeted Senator Bell wearing a lanyard stating ‘WUTC’ with her press credentials. She also wore large headphones, visible gear with 3 wires, a satchel and recorder, and a large fuzzy microphone. She looked, in her words, ‘cartoonishly like a reporter.’”

To appease the legislators, from whom UTC receives crucial state appropriations, university officials fired Helbert, according to the suit. Heddleston wrote on Facebook that Helbert’s firing “was based on a violation of journalism ethics.” But NPR officials, in a statement expressing their concern about UTC’s actions, argued that Helbert’s misstep was not “a firing offense,” and that her dismissal “did more to undermine the station’s credibility than the original infraction.”

 

THE ENTITIES THAT EFFECTIVELY OWN American public radio and television stations include colleges and universities, state and local governments, K-12 school systems, and community boards founded for the sole purpose of holding the license. Government licensees would seem to be the most ethically problematic; however, they generally erect an editorial firewall by delegating management of the station to an independent authority. After all, the only difference between public media and state media is editorial independence.

But universities, especially those in small towns, are virtual city-states unto themselves. And many exert direct control over the stations licensed to them—almost like a CCTV for Collegetownistan.

WUTC is not the only station to find itself under the marketing and communications branch of the university org chart. As public media newsroom consultant Judith Smelser wrote apropos of Helbert’s firing, “This organizational structure is a holdover from a time when local public stations did little in the way of journalism, but times have changed, and this structure is no longer acceptable.”

I asked Smelser to spell out exactly why it’s so unacceptable. She wrote back:

“Journalists are accountable to the public. Their first responsibility is to provide accurate and complete information without regard to the agenda or image of any party involved. PR professionals are accountable to their employers. Their first responsibility is to advance and protect the employer’s agenda and image, often by attempting to influence and control the media. An organizational structure that puts journalists’ livelihoods into the hands of those who would control what journalists know, write, and say is fundamentally flawed.”

The conflict Smelser articulates is even more pronounced for reporters at university-based stations, where much of the news they need to report either directly or indirectly involves the institutions that cut their paychecks.

This is not to say that individual PR professionals cannot be valiant defenders of independent journalism. The top spokesperson at Mercer University, where I’m on the journalism faculty, is such a valiant defender—and no, he didn’t make me type that.

But editorial integrity cannot hinge solely on the personalities of the people who happen to be in power, because they won’t be there forever.

 

THERE ARE OTHER ORGANIZATIONAL structures designed to better institutionalize editorial independence at university stations. At my first station, Indiana University’s WFIU/WTIU, the general manager reports to the provost. At the University of Missouri, KBIA’s general manager reports to the dean of the School of Journalism. If I ran a station, I’d rather report to an academic official than a flack.

“Editorial independence is the equivalent of academic freedom in the classroom,” says Malcolm Brett, who is in charge Wisconsin’s public radio and television networks and is employed by the University of Wisconsin Extension.

Many universities are accustomed to delegating control over things like scholarly publications and course content for which they could nonetheless be held legally or politically liable.

“The university, as license holder, will always be ultimately liable,” says Tom Rieland, general manager of Ohio State University’s WOSU. “But it’s to the institution’s benefit, as well as our station’s, to have the editorial firewall.”

In recent years, both Rieland and Brett contributed to the Editorial Integrity for Public Media initiative, which developed model policy language by which stations can assert their editorial independence from their overlords. Of the 470 distinct organizations that operate public TV and/or radio stations in the United States, 319 have adopted that model language or something similar, according to the Station Resource Group, which co-organized the initiative.

Not surprisingly, WUTC is not among those 319. I’d argue that audiences of WUTC and other station orgs that don’t have editorial integrity codes on their websites should demand to see one before giving another dime during pledge drive.

WOSU’s code is a particularly good example of what you should expect from your station, because it leaves no wiggle room: “WOSU operates in the public interest by serving the needs of its audiences with editorial independence from University administration, and the OSU Board of Trustees.” Simple, definitive, and clear as day.

 

FOR THEIR PART, PUBLIC MEDIA INSIDERS everywhere are feeling the distant seismic vibrations from Helbert’s firing. Public Radio News Directors Incorporated added a session titled “Conflicts Between Newsrooms and Station License Holders” to its upcoming annual conference in June. The conference location, Miami, is particularly appropriate; the Miami-Dade School Board recently moved to wrest control of its station, WLRN, from the independent nonprofit that now manages it, thus eliminating one editorial firewall.

However, no amount of policy language or organizational distancing will change the reality that all journalists, unless they work for free, answer to someone with money.

Minnesota Public Radio founder Bill Kling has famously argued for years that the missions of public stations and universities are fundamentally incompatible and that they should seek to part ways. KPLU and Pacific Lutheran University did just that last year; the rechristened KNKX is licensed to a community group created specifically for that purpose.

“With all due deference to Bill Kling,” says Ted Krichels, the former general manager of Penn State’s WPSU, “there are lot a lot of radio and televisions stations that would not be able to exist—I mean, they’re off serving in very rural areas—that would have a very hard time functioning without that kind of institutional support.”

Krichels, now a senior vice president at the Corporation for Public Broadcasting, disputes the idea that university stations face particularly deep ethical pitfalls. “Frankly, the same is true for state licensees and even community licensees,” he says.

From my perspective, the ultimate solution to the problem isn’t organizational, but professional. Strong, universally agreed-upon professional standards for journalists are what enable The Washington Post to report on damning lawsuits against its owner’s company, or allow me to have my students report unflattering stories about my university. You do your work without fear or favor and, if someone interferes, you either quit or get fired and proceed to tell the world what happened, as Helbert is doing now.

After that, it’s up to the public to bring the outrage. In that respect, the system for ensuring editorial integrity at WUTC is working just fine—at least, for everyone but Helbert.

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Adam Ragusea is a journalist in residence and visiting assistant professor at Mercer University’s Center for Collaborative Journalism and hosts Current.org’s podcast The Pub.