Funding concern factored in public radio firing

AP News
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Posted: Apr 07, 2017 9:25 AM

NASHVILLE, Tenn. (AP) — 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.

Legislators, including Republican Sen. Mike Bell, later complained they did not know they were being recorded secretly. 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 at the time. "She should have identified herself."

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 offense, 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 Bell, the senator from 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 maneuver 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.