Imagine if politicians could exert financial pressure on newsrooms to fire journalists who air their controversial comments. It sounds like a gross violation of press freedom, right?
Well, it happens at state-owned media in places such as Russia, Egypt and China. And it may have just happened in Tennessee.
When public radio reporter Jacqui Helbert was fired March 21 from an NPR affiliate station licensed to the University of Tennessee at Chattanooga, university officials cited an ethical breach: She failed to verbally identify herself to two lawmakers while recording their meetings with students about a transgender bathroom bill.
But university emails obtained under open records laws last week by The Times Free Press of Chattanooga and The Associated Press show authorities at the state-funded university were worried that annoyed Republican legislators — who had previously cut funding to a university diversity office they didn’t like — would slash support for the radio station as retribution for the piece.
They moved swiftly to fire Helbert over the objections of her newsroom managers and advice from a consultant who was once President Ronald Reagan’s White House communications director.
"The potential repercussions for the state representative and UTC are HUGE," Steve Angle, the chancellor of the university, wrote in a March 20 internal email. "We could easily lose all funding we are providing to WUTC." The university gave $510,000 last year to WUTC, according to the Times Free Press.
Helbert has filed a lawsuit for wrongful dismissal, demanding to be reinstated and damages up to $1 million.
Contacted Friday after the emails were published, University of Tennessee officials continued to deny that threats of budget cuts played any role in Helbert’s firing, insisting she was sacked for unethical journalism.
"The decision to terminate a part-time WUTC employee was based on my concerns about credibility, transparency and upholding ethical standards in the process of news gathering," Angle said in a written statement.
What began as an ethics debate over whether a reporter who says she was wearing a press badge and visible recording equipment should have also verbally identified herself to politicians during a meeting with constituents has grown into a public controversy over political pressure, conflicts of interest and transparency at the state-funded university that fired her.
The case has also thrown a spotlight on questions over editorial independence and censorship at public radio stations that depend on state funding.
Helbert says she was wearing a press credential around her neck and carrying bulky recording gear, including a 22-inch fuzzy microphone, headphones and a WUTC bag, when she accompanied a visiting student group to two lawmakers’ offices, which she said made it obvious she was a journalist.
The lawmakers said they had no idea a journalist was among some 20 students and two teachers and accused Helbert of secretly recording them, which she denies. Several students present at the meetings validated the reporter’s version of events.
Helbert’s lawyer, Justin Gilbert, said in an interview Friday her only sin was to embarrass lawmakers, who "blackmailed" the university to remove the story and dismiss her as a "sacrificial lamb."
Michael Oreskes, NPR’s senior vice president of news, and Standards Editor Mark Memmott issued a statement March 27 criticizing the university, saying "taking the decisions about enforcing ethics out of [the station’s] hands did more to undermine the station's credibility than the original infraction."
“This chain of events underscores why it is critical that newsrooms such as that at WUTC not be subject to pressure from the institutions that hold their licenses, the sponsors who give them financial support or the politicians who sometimes don't like the stories they hear or read,” the statement said.
ShameOnUTC.org, a new website that bills itself as defending press freedom in Chattanooga, documents evidence that the university was concerned about retaliation by lawmakers over Helbert’s story. It includes conversations Helbert recorded with her newsroom supervisors in which one tells her the university has a "conflict of interest" and is bowing to lawmakers who are "blackmailing them."
Interviewed by phone before the emails became public, George Heddleston, the university’s senior associate vice chancellor for marketing and communications, denied being "overtly or covertly threatened with a cut-off of funding" and pointed to Helbert’s secret recording of her bosses as evidence of her unethical behavior.
Helbert’s lawyer says she was trained that Tennessee is a one-party recording state, making it legal to record a conversation without the other person’s consent, and that she had to protect herself once she realized the university was under pressure to fire her.
The saga began a month ago when Helbert accompanied high school students and chaperones from a Gay-Straight Alliance Club to the state capitol to meet lawmakers about a bill to require transgender people to use public bathrooms corresponding to their gender at birth.
In Helbert’s report, Republican Senator Mike Bell dismissed transgender identity as "hogwash," comparing it to waking up on a Wednesday deciding to "feel like a dog." In a separate meeting in his office, Republican Rep. Kevin Brooks told students he wouldn’t vote for the bill. (The university deleted the story from WUTC’s website, but it is archived here).
Both lawmakers were displeased by the report, and Bell complained to WUTC and to GOP Senator Todd Gardenhire of Chattanooga, who a year ago sponsored a bill defunding the University of Tennessee, Knoxville’s Office for Diversity and Inclusion after it promoted gender-neutral pronouns and "inclusive holiday celebrations."
In internal emails, Chancellor Angle refers repeatedly to a March 16 meeting with lawmakers including "Todd" and expresses concern about losing funds: "I feel we are gambling with the future of WUTC."
Heddleston said in another email that he worried their case could become fodder for the debate over President Donald Trump’s bid to slash funds for public broadcasting. "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 wrote.
When the university raised the lawmakers’ concerns with WUTC, Helbert’s bosses defended her. They said her press badge and equipment made it obvious she was a reporter. In any case, they said, the lawmakers were speaking to constituents in their official capacity, on the record.
Helbert, who has no formal journalism training and had only been a reporter for six months, told her supervisors she didn’t know she should introduce herself if she was wearing a badge. Helbert’s bosses sent her a link to NPR’s ethics guidelines, which state, "we identify ourselves as NPR journalists when we report," and advised her to do so in future.
It's standard practice for journalists to attend news conferences and public meetings such as legislative hearings or school board meetings without verbally identifying themselves, since they're open to the public and all comments are on the record. But in an interview setting, reporters should identify themselves.
The meeting Helbert covered between lawmakers and student constituents falls into a gray zone; it was a meeting for invited guests, but it was between elected officials and constituents in state-funded public offices. The reporter says she was not trying to conceal her identity, but best practice would have been to explicitly identify herself. Failing to introduce herself in this case was not considered a firing offense, according to the NPR statement.
Helbert is a youthful-looking 32, and it’s conceivable the lawmakers thought she was a student. Even so, politicians should assume any comments they make to members of the public in their official capacity are on the record unless specified — and that any constituent, regardless of age, might share those quotes on social media, student media or blogs without the lawmakers’ consent or knowledge.
Angle overruled WUTC News Director Michael Miller, who urged issuing a warning and giving Helbert more training. She was fired and Miller was reprimanded; Angle warned in emails made public that Miller "needs to keep quiet and toe the line on this."
Helbert’s lawyer says his client’s case goes to the heart of press freedom and the public interest in knowing what elected officials say on sensitive issues.
"We have some public officials who were embarrassed about their own comments, and she became the scapegoat," Gilbert said.
The revelations have also sparked a larger conversation about the limits of editorial freedom at NPR- or PBS-affiliate stations that rely on state funding.
J.J. Yore, the general manager of Washington, D.C.’s NPR affiliate WAMU, said it's "disturbing and disappointing to see this kind of thing happening in 2017, when most universities understand the responsibility they have if they own a public service media company to ensure that entity has the most freedom possible in terms of its editorial decision-making."
"Your integrity if you’re a news organization is your most valuable asset and anything that diminishes that or calls it into question is really destructive," Yore said. WAMU is licensed to American University, a private institution that doesn’t depend on state funding. (Disclosure: I’m the backup host for "1A," a news program produced by WAMU and distributed by NPR).
"What happened there suggests a real misunderstanding of the role of a news organization and a university — and the interests of one in contrast to the other," Yore said.