By Mike Cavender, RTDNA Executive Director
The University of Tennessee at Chattanooga was wrong to fire Jacqui Helbert.
Helbert is the WUTC radio reporter who was dismissed after she did not explicitly identify herself as a reporter for the NPR affiliate despite, she says, she displayed a press pass and carried with her radio reporting gear.
Helbert was reporting on Tennessee’s transgender bathroom bill when she captured audio from two state lawmakers who were discussing the legislation with some high school students. They claim they never noticed a reporter was in the room.
As a part of the university’s marketing and communications division, WUTC is funded with state money and some believe the reporter’s firing was the result of political pressure on the school. Senior associate vice-chancellor for marketing, George Heddleston said he took the situation out of the hands of WUTC management and fired the reporter for the ethical violation of not identifying herself properly. This came after another lawmaker commented on the story and said he had issues with the ethics involved.
Frankly, we have a hard time accepting that reasoning. And so does NPR, where senior vice president of news Michael Oreskes said the decision undermined the station’s credibility more so than the original infraction.
RTDNA recognizes the economic realities which require many public radio and television stations to be funded with state money. It’s a fact of life for those who work for these stations. But we also strongly believe that it’s imperative the state licensees of these stations should go out of their way to keep political considerations far away from the newsgathering functions of these organizations.
There are certainly questions about that concept in this case. And in the end, it runs the risk of damaging the credibility of both the news department and the station itself. We don’t think this passes the smell test of being a legitimate personnel action. RTDNA believes there are a lot of losers in this case; the reporter, the station and, ultimately the listeners of WUTC Radio. They all deserved better.
Read our letter to the university's chancellor.