WFDD: Licensee Interference

In fall 1999, Wake Forest University’s public radio station found itself caught between serving its journalistic purpose and keeping the lid on a campus controversy. The controversy arose from a Wake Forest trustee’s refusal to allow a lesbian commitment ceremony on campus. The WFDD news department was barred from reporting on the story beyond the official press release. The gag order came down from the head of University PR who had direct authority over the station. The public fallout that ensued led to a series of news department resignations and severe embarrassment by the WFU administration.

For a full recount of the incident, see the account published in Current.

NPR Newscaster Paul Brown was Program Director at WFDD during the incident and resigned in protest.

Paul Brown provides this case study of what might have been done to avoid the crisis:

WFDD did have a policy of non-interference. The news department had a simple, straightforward mission document outlining the department’s purpose, what we intended to cover, and why. The station itself had a short, straightforward mission document. One of its paragraphs stated that WFDD best represented the university by being the best station it could be.

They were, in my opinion, models of mission statements. To my knowledge, the station’s university supervisor, who interfered, had copies of both. If she did not, it’s my opinion that she was not doing her job properly.

Given our situation at WFDD, reporting to a public relations official, I believe we could have — and should have — done one thing differently. When we decided to do this story because we thought it reflected an important developing social issue in the community, we should have advised the station’s supervisor that it was on the way, and heard her concerns. It is possible that this vice president would have then tried to kill the story or control its content and development, as she eventually did anyway. But we could have dealt with that through negotiation, by resigning, or whatever other steps were necessary to resolve the conflict. At least we would have let this stakeholder know what we were doing.

We could also have hired a freelancer to do the story and another station news department to edit it, so that WFDD station staff members themselves were not reporting on the behavior of their licensee. We actually considered this. But we knew other news organizations from newspapers to TV stations, from time to time reported stories that involved themselves. We decided against hiring a freelancer because we knew we had a responsible news mission statement, intended no harm to anyone, and would do our work with integrity. Today, I’m not convinced that hiring an outside journalist and editor would have resulted in a different outcome from the one we experienced.

Paul Brown’s “Words to the Wise:

  • Whoever your station reports to, be sure you have a good mission statement and a non-interference statement regarding editorial content and newsgathering.
  • If your station reports to a university public affairs or public relations department, understand that this creates an instant and major conflict of interest. Leave as soon as possible and find a job elsewhere. If you can’t or don’t want to do that, work to move the station to another supervisor not responsible for the university’s self-promotion or fundraising. If you can’t do that, get a non-interference agreement in writing, and make it as ironclad as possible.
  • Take the measure of your station management. In our case, the new station manager, unlike the one who wrote the station’s mission statement and supported the creation of our news department, was a former PR person with little or no journalistic background. She was hired by the university’s public affairs vice president with no public input and with no search committee. She was loyal to the vice president, not the news mission or her news or management employees. When the conflict over this story arose, she sided with the vice president, betraying her employees, the station’s mission, its listeners and financial contributors. All of this is public record. The conclusion you might draw: If you feel you do not have the principled support of your station management, either leave or work to create a situation that will allow you to maintain your integrity as a jounalist. You should be able to look at yourself in the mirror without wincing.

Note: By spring 2000, Wake Forest published a Statement of Integrity about the station, named a Community Advisory Board, and transferred oversight of the station to the provost’s office. Also, a faculty committee issued a report demanding that university journalists be granted freedoms consistent with “academic habits of speaking and operating.”