With all these accusations lately of fake news, activist journalism, and a president who encourages his base to hate on the “liberal media,” journalists have really had it rough. Sometimes it makes ya wonder what you can believe anymore. Is journalism still independent? Here’s one story about journalism at risk.
This is Jacqui Helbert.
Jacqui was a reporter for public radio station WUTC in Chattanooga, Tennessee. I say was because last week she was fired.
Let’s start at the beginning.
On March 7th, Jacqui (I hope you don’t mind I call her Jacqui. It’s not to be disrespectful, but to make her seem more human, more real) traveled to Nashville with the Gay-Straight Alliance of Cleveland High School in Bradley County to report on their experience lobbying the TN legislature during the Tennessee Equality Project’s Day on the Hill. Jacqui recorded the meetings held with Sen. Mike Bell, (R-Riceville) and Rep. Kevin Brooks (R-Cleveland).
Now this is important: Jacqui never told the legislators that she was a reporter with WUTC. HOWEVER… she was wearing her press credentials on a lanyard, carrying a WUTC tote bag, and during the meeting she held a 14″ long microphone, wore headphones and worked a digital recorder. Jacqui moved around the room recording each person as they spoke in one meeting and stood at the back of the room within eyesight of the senator during the other meeting. She later wrote a story based on the experience, submitted it to her editors for approval, and the story was posted on the WUTC website.
The story (that you can read here) says that Sen. Bell told the group of high school children that he supported a bathroom bill that would require people to use the bathroom associated with their biological gender at birth. He also said he thinks being transgender is hogwash. Yep, he said that to the faces of a bunch of LGBTQ kids. What a guy. Several of the kids were crying after the good senator cut the meeting short.
Senator Brooks told the kids he didn’t think the bill would make it out of committee so they had nothing to worry about, but if it did, he probably won’t vote for it.
Well, it seems both senators decided it wasn’t a good idea for their words to be in print, so they contacted fellow senator Todd Gardenhire, because UTC is in his district. Senator Gardenhire contacted the university and voiced his displeasure.
The UTC administration panicked and during a meeting with Jacqui insinutated funding for the radio station could be discontinued as it had been to the Office of Diversity at the University of Tennessee Knoxville because the office was, “too politically correct.” Jacqui was made to answer written questions, and the answers were discussed during a meeting between Senator Gardenhire and university administrative staff. After that meeting the university forced the radio station manager to fire Jacqui and remove her story from the WUTC website. The reason? She didn’t introduce herself as a reporter.
National Public Radio has issued a statement denouncing Jacqui’s firing and voicing concern that legislators may have threatened to withhold funding for the radio station when the station aired a story the legislators didn’t like.
Now the good senators are claiming they didn’t force the university to fire Jacqui, and the university has worked overtime trying to make this all Jacqui’s fault. But Jacqui was smart. She recorded her meetings with administrative staff, saved all emails, and kept her recordings from the day in Nashville, and she’s shared her information with journalists from other outlets whose jobs can’t be so easily touched by politicians.
So will anything change? Probably not. But I hope these senators have learned to never underestimate their opponent. If they’d just let this die, only a few kids in Cleveland and at UTC would know anything about it. Now the entire country does.
Sources of information:
Gay-Straight Alliance Students Visit Their Lawmakers To Discuss “Bathroom Bill” (this is Jacqui’s story)
Did Legislators Get a Public Radio Reporter Fired? (published in the Nashville Scene)
Reporter for Tenn. university station fired after lawmakers complain (published at CBS.com)
Three stories at Nooga.com:
And here’s the statement from NPR regarding Jacqui’s firing.