Chattanooga NPR reporter fired after legislator complaints

The University of Tennessee at Chattanooga has fired a reporter at WUTC, a National Public Radio affiliate, after state legislators complained about her reporting on the so-called transgender bathroom bill, reports the Times-Free Press.

Jacqui Helbert, 32, followed a group of Cleveland High School students as they traveled to the state capital March 7 to meet with Sen. Mike Bell, R-Riceville, and Rep. Kevin Brooks, R-Cleveland, about the legislation. They were advocating against the measure, which subsequently failed in a Senate committee.

(Note: The text of the offending story HERE. Much of it concerns a confrontation with Bell.)

The legislators say Helbert failed to properly identify herself as a reporter during meetings with the students. Helbert says it was “glaringly obvious” that she was, though she did not specifically say so, since she was wearing headphones, carried a 22-inch microphone and had an NPR press pass hung around her neck.

Brooks said he was never given explicit notification that a reporter was in the meeting and what he shared with the students was personal — not for the public. The reporter must have been hidden in the crowd of high-schoolers, he said.

“I don’t recall anyone having recording gear at all, or anyone looking or feeling like a reporter,” Brooks said Friday. “I was meeting with kids. These were young children.”

…On March 17, UTC officials met with Sen. Todd Gardenhire, R-Chattanooga, Sen. Bo Watson, R-Hixson, and Rep. Patsy Hazlewood, R-Signal Mountain, to talk about business not related to the bathroom bill, according to a statement from George Heddleston, senior associate vice chancellor of marketing and communications for UTC…  Gardenhire mentioned the WUTC story and said “he had issues with the journalistic ethics of the reporter,” Heddleston wrote in the statement to the Times Free Press.

During this conversation, at least one lawmaker mentioned the state provides funding to UTC, Heddleston said. In 2016, UTC contributed more than $510,000 to WUTC.

In a statement posted on WUTC’s Facebook page Friday, 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.”

…Heddleston fired Helbert on Tuesday, and WUTC removed the story from its website.… Helbert said she’s concerned about how lawmakers and UTC are controlling the press, noting that the meeting she reported on was public and involved about 20 high school students.

“If the politicians can threaten to withhold money from the University and control the reporters, it totally discounts having [the] press,” she said. “… the fact that lawmakers seem to be emboldened to bully people until they get their way and censor the press is just absurd.”

Note: The Nashville Scene’s Cari Wade Gervin has a more detailed report, HERE. It says Bell, who declined comment, apparently did complain directly to UTC officials, as well as to Gardenhire ,while Brooks did not — though others apparently did so on his behalf. There’s a full rundown on UTC concerns about loss of funding, including this excerpt from an email sent by UTC News Director Mike Miller:

“(A)pparently 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,” Miller writes. “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, or might threaten to, if something UTC-relate[d] has raised their ire.”

Miller goes on to note that UTC officials could be worried about a similar situation arising as happened at the University of Tennessee at Knoxville last year, when the diversity office was completely defunded after being perceived as too “politically correct.” WUTC receives about $500,000 in annual funding from the university, along with office space on campus — the rest of its budget comes from donations and underwriting, like most public radio stations throughout the country.

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