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Tennessee University Fires NPR Reporter After Politicians Complain

The firing of Jacqui Helbert exemplifies why universities need strong policies and procedures to protect freedom of the press on campus.

Jacqui Helbert, a temporary broadcast assistant employee at WUTC, the NPR station run by the University of Tennessee at Chattanooga (UTC), could not have imagined the trouble that would come from boarding a bus with members of a high school Gay-Straight Alliance visiting their legislators at the Capitol on March 7 to discuss a proposed “bathroom bill” forcing transgender students to use the bathrooms associated with the gender listed on their birth certificate.

Now Helbert has been fired by the university, after legislators objected to her report and complained that she hadn’t identified herself to them. Helbert has filed a lawsuit in response, while freedom of the press activists have organized rallies and petitions in her defense.

Helbert’s report was posted online March 10, and included Sen. Mike Bell calling transgender identity “all hogwash;” comparing it to someone saying, “I might feel like a dog.”

These shockingly bigoted statements should have caused a controversy when they were reported, but instead the controversy that erupted was over the fact that Helbert recorded another Republican legislator, Rep. Kevin Brooks, who met with the students and said that he “will not support” the anti-transgender bill, calling it “a divisive solution, in search of a problem.” That reportedly sparked enormous concern from Brooks, who apparently feared that his conservative constituents might suspect that he’s not a hateful bigot, and then vote him out of office.

On March 17, UTC officials, led by Chief of Staff Terry Denniston, had a regular meeting with three Republican legislators, Sen. Todd Gardenhire, Sen. Bo Watson and Rep. Patsy Hazlewood to discuss University issues. At the end of the meeting, Gardenhire mentioned the WUTC story and said “he had issues with the journalistic ethics of the reporter,” according to George Heddleston, the senior associate vice chancellor of marketing and communications who controls WUTC. Denniston then told Heddleston about the issue.

Mike Miller, the WUTC news director, emailed Helbert about the problem her story was causing:

Apparently local lawmakers friendly with Brooks contacted the UTC Chancellor, saying Brooks is unhappy about the story. The assumption being, Brooks didn’t want the general public to hear what he said to the students, perhaps worried that he’ll lose voter support if he’s viewed as gay-friendly. The situation is no small matter because lawmakers are meeting with UTC officials very soon to talk about funding — UTC gets state funds, of course, and lawmakers like Brooks and his colleagues may be able to cut funding.

After a rapid investigation that revealed Helbert had not specifically told the politicians she was from WUTC — though, as others later pointed out, she was openly wearing press credentials on a lanyard — Helbert received a termination letter from Heddleston on March 21 that said: “You did not identify yourself properly as a journalist, by your own admission, which is a violation of the NPR ethical standards that all WUTC Radio Station employees are required to uphold. It is of utmost importance that all UTC employees conduct themselves in an honest and respectful manner, upholding all expected ethical standards.”

The Allegations Against Helbert

Heddleston told me that the part of the NPR ethics handbook that Helbert violated was this: “Journalism should be done in plain sight, and our standards are clear. When we are working, we identify ourselves as NPR journalists to those we interview and interact with. We do not conceal our identities, pose as someone or something we are not, use hidden microphones or cameras to collect information, or record phone calls without the permission of all parties on the line, except in the very rarest of circumstances, outlined below.”

However, that’s a guideline against trying to hide or disguise oneself, which Helbert wasn’t doing. Even though Helbert violated NPR’s strict guidelines on identification, it was at most a minor violation of the rules (and not unethical journalism).

Activist Samantha Boucher noted, “I was personally at the Legislative Event, and Jacqui plainly was easily identifiable as a journalist from NPR & WUTC.” According to Boucher, “she was wearing a VERY large ‘WUTC NPR’ bag, press credentials with a lanyard, a 22″ microphone with a fuzzy cover, professional grade headphones and a large digital recorder on a strap.”

As Helbert noted, “It was glaringly obvious who I was.”

At one point, to justify the dismissal, Heddleston accused Helbert of having “edited comments from Brooks that seemed to fit her story.” The Nashville Scene reported that “the audio and the transcript of the audio provided by Helbert of the students’ meeting with Brooks shows no such thing.”

The transcript of Bell’s session with the students showed that Helbert, rather than trying to smear the politicians, had not reported on a blatant falsehood peddled by Bell: “I could show you countless assaults that have happened in bathrooms from people of the opposite sex even from people who were, quote, transgendered, because again there’s no scientific way to define that.”

Bell’s statement is patently false: There have been no recorded incidents of assaults committed by transgender people in public restrooms.

Although Heddleston did not make the allegation of bias in formally dismissing Helbert, it seems likely that his harsh penalty was connected to his belief that Helbert had been unfair to Tennessee politicians by reporting what they said.

When I asked Heddleston what “process was used to determine the question of journalistic ethics,” he responded: “There was no process in regard to the dismissed reporter; the process was in place,” referring to the NPR Principles. According to Heddleston, “I made the decision, strictly based on journalistic ethics violations, nothing else.”

I asked Heddleston, “What is your background in journalism and expertise in journalism ethics?” He refused to answer, and added, “I’m insulted.” Heddleston started his temporary position at UTC on February 27, only a few weeks before he fired Helbert, and a press release for his previous job at Wright State University praised “his background in public relations, management, marketing, advertising and development,” but mentioned nothing about any journalism experience.

University Digs In Heels, Despite Censure From NPR’s National Leaders

NPR’s national leaders strongly disagreed with Heddleston’s interpretation of NPR ethical guidelines. Michael Oreskes (NPR’s senior vice president of news and editorial director) and Mark Memmott (NPR’s supervising senior editor for standards and practices) issued a statement condemning UTC for firing Helbert and censoring her story: “We at NPR believe the decisions should have been left to the journalists in charge. Taking the decisions about enforcing ethics out of their hands did more to undermine the station’s credibility than the original infraction.” They noted, “Removing a story — except in the most extreme circumstances — is a breach of the standards practiced by NPR and other credible news organizations.”

Heddleston said: “The University’s decision to release the employee from the station was based on a violation of journalism ethics. We believe the newsgathering process must be conducted in a manner that instills trust in the public. Failure to do so undermines journalistic credibility just as much as inaccurate information. We strive to maintain the faith of our listeners and the community we serve.”

In reality, recording a meeting between politicians and a large group of their constituents isn’t a general violation of journalism ethics, and it’s only a technical violation of NPR’s highly restrictive practices. By contrast, firing reporters and censoring stories because politicians complain is definitely a violation of journalism ethics, one that seriously undermines journalistic credibility.

Helbert was not the only journalist at WUTC punished by the university for offending politicians. Heddleston also told me, “The station news director has received a letter of reprimand” in connection with this controversy. Heddleston refused to explain what the reprimand was for, but it may have been for disagreeing with Heddleston about the seriousness of Helbert’s mistake and whether it should have been a firing offense.

Heddleston told me, “Having to terminate Ms. Helbert was an unfortunate event — for her, for me personally, and for the university.” In reality, it was a series of unfortunate events, not just one.

One key event was the March 17 meeting with legislators. UTC and legislators have both denied that politicians threatened the university’s funding. Denniston claimed, “At the end of the meeting funding for the station came up — it was just mentioned, that’s all,” Denniston says. According to Heddleston, “Ms. Denniston did not respond and that was the end of that conversation.”

However, Sen. Gardenhire has a very different recollection of what happened. On March 27, he told the Times Free Press that the situation with Helbert was already handled by UTC before he brought it up during the Friday, March 17, meeting: “They had already reached their conclusion by the time we started the meeting.”

Top administrators have said that they knew nothing about Helbert until Gardenhire mentioned it. So why would Gardenhire think it was already concluded? One possible explanation is that UTC officials must have immediately assured him that his concerns would be dealt with, and responded so enthusiastically that Gardenhire assumed they not only were already addressing the issue, but had “reached their conclusion” of firing the reporter. Another possibility is that politicians had contacted UTC before the March 17 meeting to demand action, since WUTC staffers were discussing pressure from the administration about threats to funding on March 15 and March 16.

Sen. Bo Watson claimed that during the March 17 meeting, “Nobody threatened to do anything to anybody. We made the university aware of the circumstances.”

Gardenhire and his Republican colleagues never needed to directly threaten UTC’s funding. The university’s top officials were more than willing to do his bidding without any need to be explicitly threatened. Appeasing politicians who hold the purse strings is part of their job, and their job is to protect the funding of the university, not the journalistic integrity of a radio station.

Gardenhire said about Helbert, “She dug her own grave, and UTC [officials] are the ones that make the policy.” Of course, legislators like Gardenhire never say that when UTC officials make policies he doesn’t like, and Gardenhire sponsored the 2016 bill that stripped $436,000 in funding for UT-Knoxville’s Office for Diversity and Inclusion after lawmakers were offended by a student-run “Sex Week” and suggestions for gender-neutral pronouns. Although that bill violated this principle that universities should make the policies, many higher education officials were grateful for Gardenhire’s compromise that limited the damage to one year and diverted the money to minority scholarships.

That case less than a year ago proved that Gardenhire might be the most important figure in the Tennessee Senate, and any university needed to have him on their side and could pay a serious price for alienating him. So when Gardenhire brought up Helbert as a major concern and mentioned the funding for WUTC, administrators would always respond to this as a crisis that threatened future money for the university.

Threats to Freedom of the Press on Campuses

The problem of protecting freedom of the press on campus was the focus of a fall 2016 report by the American Association of University Professors in conjunction with the College Media Association, the National Coalition Against Censorship and the Student Press Law Center, titled “Threats to the Independence of Student Media.”

Although that report focused on protecting the student press and their faculty advisers, it did include this key principle deeply relevant to this case: “Administrative efforts to subordinate campus journalism to public relations are inconsistent with the mission of higher education to provide a space for intellectual exploration and debate.”

The report noted that “the knowledge that continued financial support for a journalism program, adviser, or publication may be contingent on pleasing campus authorities imposes a chill on the independence of journalistic coverage that invariably will produce more timid journalism that ill serves the public interest. Effective campus journalism requires a source of financial support fully insulated from content-based judgments by those who are the subjects of the journalists’ coverage.” When politicians can threaten administrators by cutting budgets, those administrators cannot be making decisions about the livelihoods of journalists who cover politicians.

The report also recommended, “Absolute boundaries should separate the selection of editorial content from the financial and managerial oversight by campus administrators or appointed publication boards.” Yes, campus administrators must make sure that WUTC is being properly run and not misallocating funds. But making journalistic decisions — about what disciplinary action should be taken against a reporter who makes a mistake, and about when to revise or remove a story — should be the job of the experienced journalists hired to do this work. As the report noted, “True editorial independence requires that news judgments be self-policing within the workplace and that campus disciplinary authorities be categorically forbidden from imposing sanctions based on the decisions made by journalists in their editorial discretion.”

The report concluded, “ensuring a campus environment conducive to substantive journalistic coverage requires a significant cultural readjustment that begins with those at the topmost levels of higher education.” That cultural readjustment means seeing WUTC as a journalistic enterprise and not as a subunit of the marketing wing’s brand management.

According to Oreskes and Memmott of NPR, “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.” They noted, “We strongly urge the university and WUTC to reach an agreement that ensures the station’s editorial independence in the future.”

Most news organizations try to keep a barrier between news and business operations in order to protect journalistic ethics and credibility. Normally, state politicians have little direct influence over the funding of a media outlet that is supported by advertising and subscriptions. Even local public broadcasting outlets are typically insulated from political pressure. But when a public radio station is owned by a university, as at UTC, legislators can endanger the university’s funding in order to wield control over news reports. That makes it even more essential for universities to have strong policies and procedures to protect freedom of the press on campus.

Helbert told a protest march at UTC on March 29, “I will not be silenced.”

On March 30, Helbert’s attorney filed a million-dollar lawsuit against UTC, accusing administrators of violating her constitutional rights in order to appease Tennessee politicians. UTC officials are not backing down, and they have released no plans to protect the autonomy of the news division at WUTC.

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