Funding concern factored in public radio firing

Funding concern factored in public radio firing

NASHVILLE — University officials who fired a Chattanooga public radio reporter for not identifying herself in sessions with Tennessee lawmakers were worried about losing state funding if they didn’t take action, according to emails obtained by The Associated Press.

The University of Tennessee-Chattanooga terminated Jacqui Helbert last month following her report about a high school gay rights club’s visit to the state capitol. The club went to speak out against a bill requiring transgender students to use bathrooms corresponding to the gender listed on their birth certificates.

The university emails, released under state public records laws, show a flurry of correspondence among officials after Republican lawmakers complained that they didn’t know they were being recorded during the meetings. Chancellor Steven Angle fretted about the financial impact the report could have for the university’s public radio station, WUTC-FM.

“The potential repercussions for the state representative and UTC are HUGE,” Angle wrote on March 20. “We could easily lose all funding we are providing to WUTC.”

“We need to make a decision on this quickly,” he said.

The school holds the license to the station, and contributed about $500,000 to its budget last year.

George Heddleston, the university’s senior associate vice chancellor of marketing and communications, said in an email to Angle that he worried about the situation becoming fodder in the national debate over President Donald Trump’s budget decisions.

“I remind you that Trump is talking about pulling funds for NPR stations, and somehow I suppose Jacqui’s firing could impact that messy business,” he said.

Heddleston suggested that Helbert shouldn’t have been allowed to cover the event involving high school students at the state capitol in the first place, and that her conduct was “completely unethical.” He said he was having his office draft a new ethical code of conduct for the news staff at WUTC.

The chancellor ultimately decided to fire the reporter and issue a letter of reprimand to her supervisor, station manager Michael Martin. While Angle acknowledged that Helbert might take her termination public, he warned that Martin “needs to keep quiet and toe the line on this.”

“We cannot control her, but he should not cause problems,” he wrote.

National Public Radio issued a statement criticizing Helbert’s firing, saying that while she should have announced herself as a reporter, her media credential and recording equipment should have been “obvious signs” that she was gathering news for broadcast.

NPR’s news director, Michael Oreskes, and standards editor Mark Memmott, noted that the reporter’s editors didn’t consider her mistake a firing offence, and that decision should be left to them, not the university.

“Taking the decisions about enforcing ethics out of their hands did more to undermine the station’s credibility than the original infraction,” they said.

Helbert has filed a lawsuit against the university, seeking her job back and damages of up to $1 million.

The report included comments from Republican Sen. Mike Bell of Riceville telling students that he considers psychological arguments about transgender identity to be “hogwash.”

“Is it how I feel on Monday? I feel different on Tuesday? Wednesday I might feel like a dog,” Bell was quoted as saying.

Bell told reporters he complained to colleagues about the reporter, but did not call for her firing.

Republican state Sen. Todd Gardenhire of Chattanooga was one of three Republican lawmakers who held a previously-scheduled meeting with university officials after the report was aired. Gardenhire said Helbert wasn’t fired at his behest.

“She’s got a martyr status now, and I understand that,” Gardenhire told reporters afterward. “She dug her own grave.”

The emails show that university leaders had consulted with Tom Griscom, a former Chattanooga Times Free Press publisher and onetime White House communications director in President Ronald Reagan’s administration.

Griscom initially recommended a suspension for the reporter.

“I would like to leave some manoeuvr room if Todd comes back and says, no, the reporter should be fired,” he wrote. “If we put all our cards on the table at the start, the options are limited if he asks for more.”

Griscom, who was also a transition adviser to Republican Gov. Bill Haslam after he was first elected in 2010, did not immediately return a message seeking comment.

Angle later wrote that after speaking to Griscom he made his decision to fire the reporter.

“We will not resort to tricking people or misrepresentation to play gotcha,” he said.

Erik Schelzig, The Associated Press

Just Posted

More Qualicum Beach, Nanoose Douglas-fir ecosystem protected from logging

B.C. Gov’t announces 980.5 hectares of protected land added

Qualicum Beach mayor plans to run for re-election

Teunis Westbroek hopes to continue serving needs of Town’s residents as mayor

25th year for TOSH’s Grand Prix d’Art in Qualicum Beach

Dozens of artists to take part in painting competition July 28

Royals finish second at 18U provincials

The Save-on-Foods Parksville Royals missed a golden opportunity to earn a ticket… Continue reading

Artists explore light at MAC in Parksville

OCAC members’ exhibit showing July 21-Sept. 1

BC Games’ Athletes Corner: What’s your favourite pump up song?

Check out what’s playing in the earbuds of BC Summer Games athletes before they compete

RCMP help to save goats from wildfire

The fast-approaching wildfire, sparked Thursday, forced the evacuation of five homes

VIDEO: Near drowning captured on popular B.C. river

Search and Rescue manager says the popular pastime of floating in the summer is inherently dangerous

Crosswalk vandalism leaves black mark for Cowichan as B.C. Games begin

Rainbow crosswalk defaced just days after being painted

Photo gallery: BC Games Day 1

A brief look at action from the 2018 BC Summer Games in the Cowichan Valley

UPDATED: Anti-pipeline campers digging in as eviction deadline expires

The City of Burnaby had ordered the Kinder Morgan pipeline protesters out for violating bylaws

Trump was taped talking of paying Playboy model: AP source

Source says former personal lawyer Michael Cohen secretly recorded discussion prior to 2016 election

BC toddler with ‘allergy’ to sun waiting for bone marrow transplant

Charlie Lock, 2, needs treatment for damage caused by rare disorder EPP

VIDEO: How to throw a frisbee

Ultimate frisbee player Amy Mackay shows off the proper technique

Most Read