NASHVILLE, Tenn. (AP) — Top editors at National Public Radio challenged the firing of an affiliate reporter who covered meetings between high school students and legislators who said they were secretly recorded talking about LGBT issues.
Reporter Jacqui Helbert was dismissed from her job at WUTC-FM last week by the University of Tennessee at Chattanooga, which holds the radio station's license. Her firing raised questions about whether legislators, who control the university's funding, pressured the school into dismissing her. Legislators disputed those allegations.
NPR news director Michael Oreskes and standards editor Mark Memmott said in a statement that while Helbert should have announced herself as a reporter, her media credential and recording equipment were "obvious signs" that she was gathering news for broadcast.
The reporter's editors didn't consider Helbert's mistake a firing offense, and Oreskes and Memmott said 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. "We strongly urge the university and WUTC to reach an agreement that ensures the station's editorial independence in the future."
Helbert had joined members of Cleveland High School's gay-straight alliance club on a visit to the state Capitol complex. The gay rights club met with Republican lawmakers to speak out against a bill requiring transgender students to use bathrooms corresponding to the gender listed on their birth certificates. The bill later failed in a Senate committee.
Republican Sen. Mike Bell said he greeted each of the visitors when they came to his office and again when they left. He said Helbert could have identified herself then, but didn't.
While Bell said he doesn't take issue with the substance of the report, he was upset about the circumstances.
"It's not right for somebody to secretly record you, period," he said. "She should have identified herself."
The report quoted Bell as asking the students about how transgender should be defined.
"Is it how I feel on Monday? I feel different on Tuesday? Wednesday I might feel like a dog," Bell was quoted as saying.
At another meeting, the students were told by Rep. Kevin Brooks that he didn't think the bill would make it beyond its first committee vote.
"If it does I probably will not — will not support it," Brooks said.
Bell said he complained to colleagues, but did not demand that the reporter be fired. A few days after the report aired, three fellow Republicans had a previously scheduled meeting with university officials.
George Heddleston, the school's senior associate vice chancellor of marketing and communications, told the Chattanooga Times Free Press that Helbert's story was discussed at the March 17 meeting. Heddleston made the decision to fire the reporter, according to the school.
Sen. Todd Gardenhire, a Chattanooga Republican, said the decision was made before the lawmakers attended the meeting.
Gardenhire and Bell have taken on the state's flagship public university system in the past over an annual Sex Week organized by students and over diversity initiatives that included urging the use of gender-neutral pronouns for transgender students. Gardenhire led the charge last year to strip the diversity office at the University of Tennessee-Knoxville of $337,000 in funding.
Gardenhire said Helbert wasn't fired at his behest.
"She's got a martyr status now, and I understand that," said Gardenhire. "She dug her own grave. And UTC is the one who makes the policy and that makes the decisions."
Helbert told the Times Free Press on Tuesday that she felt vindicated by the statement from NPR.
"I was completely floored the moment I saw they did a response," she said. "WUTC was caught in the crossfire, they are a scapegoat just like I am."
The university, which contributed more than $500,000 to the station in 2016, stands by its decision to fire Helbert because lawmakers weren't "treated equally" in her story, spokesman Chuck Cantrell said.
"The decision was based on the fact that identifying yourself as a member of the media is such a basic fundamental issue," he said. "Every beginning reporter knows that."