A WUTC public radio reporter got fired, and the firestorm immediately started

Photo: Anthony Moretti 19Jan2017

About two weeks ago, a public radio reporter in Tennessee was fired. At the time, I thought the details of her dismissal didn’t ring true. I noted

I’m not suggesting [Jacqui] Helbert is blameless here. But let’s weigh the evidence; and as we do I think we will agree that she was fired not because she didn’t verbally identify herself [as a journalist], but because her employers caved to political pressure.

This story likely is not over.

Guess what? The story is far from over.

The Columbia Journalism Review is the latest to examine what took place.

As Helbert pursues a lawsuit against the university, ShameOnUTC.org—a site launched after her termination—has provided jaw-dropping documentation of Helbert’s saga, including her surreptitious audio recordings of meetings with colleagues.

The relationship between Helbert, WUTC and the University of Tennessee offers the public a laundry list of everything that can go wrong in a system where universities hold the licenses of—and therefore effectively own—47 percent of the public radio station organizations and 34 percent of the public television orgs.

Among those conundrums:

But universities, especially those in small towns, are virtual city-states unto themselves. And many exert direct control over the stations licensed to them—almost like a CCTV for Collegetownistan.

WUTC is not the only station to find itself under the marketing and communications branch of the university org chart. As public media newsroom consultant Judith Smelser wrote apropos of Helbert’s firing, “This organizational structure is a holdover from a time when local public stations did little in the way of journalism, but times have changed, and this structure is no longer acceptable.”

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