‘Hasty mistake’ at WFDD prompts talk of ideals

By Steve Behrens

For the faculty of Wake Forest University, the hush order given to reporters at the university’s WFDD-FM last September came too close for comfort.”I’ve never seen anything rile the faculty on this campus like this did, and I’ve been here 11 years,” says law professor Ronald Wright. “A lot of faculty members identified with those reporters. We’re both in the business of telling the truth.”

“What has occurred on our campus violated certain ‘givens’ about what a university should be: a place where freedom of thought and expression thrive,” said this month’s report by an ad hoc committee appointed by the faculty senate.

The defense of free speech on the campus in Winston-Salem, N.C., has whipped up antagonisms, uprooted most of WFDD’s news staff, and required lots of long, tense meetings, but the issues may be nearing resolution. Early this month, Wake Forest published a Statement of Integrity about the station, named a Community Advisory Board, and began filling WFDD vacancies. The school had already transferred oversight of the station from the fundraising office to the provost’s office in October. The new overseer is Samuel T. Gladding, an associate provost who also supervises the admissions office and other academic-support units.

Out of the long meetings came a call for the university to give journalists more freedom than they might have in some commercial media. The faculty committee report this month said the clash last fall arose out of “the uneasy co-existence of ‘corporate’ methods of managing risks alongside ‘academic’ habits of speaking and operating.”

Last Sept. 8, Vice President Sandra Boyette, who oversaw WFDD as well as Wake Forest fundraising and publicity, was managing the risk that someone at the university would give press statements about a controversial trustees’ decision to forbid a gay marriage on campus. WFDD should limit its coverage of the trustees’ decision to their formal statement, she said. Station Manager Linda Ward conveyed the directive to the radio staff.

Boyette later defended the order as a common practice in media. After the WFDD issue blew up, she counseled one of the news staffers, Mike Janssen, that he had “unrealistic” expectations of freedom from supervision, according to his statement to the faculty committee. She reportedly told him that “this sort of thing happens all the time at other places.”

Perhaps it does, the faculty senate committee observed this month, but the professors asserted that a university, which tries to teach students to see things as they are and to express themselves openly, should give precedence to public-interest and journalistic concerns.

Boyette’s order squelched WFDD coverage of the trustee decision for a number of days, but the order itself became bigger news on campus and elsewhere after news staffers talked with the Winston-Salem Journal. By early November, three of the four WFDD news staffers—Program Director Paul Brown, News Director Michelle Johnson and reporter Janssen—had quit. [Disclosure: Janssen has joined the Current staff.] The faculty committee this month noted that the station lost three journalists “who demonstrated a strong, unwavering commitment to freedom of the press and the highest journalistic ethics.”

Boyette later apologized publicly for inserting herself in the editorial process.

Paulette Cott, newly named news director at WFDD, doesn’t expect it to happen again. “. . . I would not have signed on as news director if they had not had the statement of editorial integrity in place,” she says. “What this entire statement means to me is that Wake Forest University will no longer have any editorial control over WFDD news. I have assurances . . . there will be no micro-managing of the news.”

In its Statement of Integrity about WFDD, Wake Forest said it “is committed to maintaining the full confidence of the public in the editorial integrity of our news and programming, and to assuring all citizens that station management has the freedom necessary to provide WFDD’s services effectively.”

The statement then defines “editorial integrity,” emphasizing journalists’ duties to the public rather than simply asserting press freedom: “Editorial integrity in this context is defined as the responsible application by professional practitioners of a free and independent decision-making process ultimately accountable to the needs and interests of all citizens.”

The definition, endorsed by the faculty senate, was borrowed from the University of South Florida policies manual that governs WUSF. The Tampa station was one of several public radio operations that Gladding visited in a fact-finding tour.

WFDD, meanwhile, is getting back on its feet. The university promoted Cott to succeed Johnson as news director and appointed Bob Workmon to succeed Brown as program director. Cott came to Wake Forest last summer after working as news director of South Dakota Public Broadcasting’s KCSD in Sioux Falls. Workmon previously worked at the station — as chief announcer in 1989-93 and music director in 1993-97 — before moving to the Winston-Salem Journal as an arts reporter. The station also promoted Kimberlea Daggy, an announcer at the station since 1993, to music director.

Wake Forest also named a Community Advisory Board, including NPR newscaster Ann Boozell, a local resident who teaches at Wake Forest; Julian C. Burroughs Jr., a professor emeritus of speech; station supporter and businessman Jim Fletcher; and retired schoolteacher/WFDD volunteer Hazel Flack.

Recommendations from the faculty senate’s Ad Hoc Committee on WFDD covered two areas of concern:

  • The committee called for Wake Forest to operate WFDD “not to further its own interests but to further the public interest,” as FCC rules require. It said “constitutencies outside the university should remain at the heart of news decisions at WFDD.”
  • Declaring that “sunshine is the best disinfectant,” the committee objected to “confidentiality” rules that are “enforced through ‘personnel’ actions,” such as management’s warnings that WFDD staffers could lose their jobs if they discussed internal matters with anyone outside the university. “We believe that WFDD employees should be free to speak publicly about any station policy or decision that touches on a matter of public concern,” the faculty report said.

The university has not yet addressed these “whistleblower” issues, says law professor Wright, a member of the committee.

The faculty report elaborated:

“1. Employees at WFDD should be free to comment publicly on decisions that could have some impact on the content of broadcasts. They should suffer no adverse job consequences for speaking publicly on these questions.”

“2. An employee’s public comments should deal with issues of public concern and should be consistent with journalistic ethics.”

“3. The university might decide to insist on a brief period of internal debate about decisions at the radio station. An employee would be free to raise the matter in a public forum only after the supervisors of the radio station have had the chance to discuss and reconsider the issue. The length of time necessary for the internal debate should be short, giving due regard for the need to report the news in a timely manner.”

Boss, are you sure you mean that?

This consultation is already called for by university personnel rules, says News Director Paulette Cott. She’s confident that if she and the station manager took a timely issue to Associate Provost Gladding, it would be handled that day.

This moment of consultation was unfortunately missing in the WFDD episode, says Michael Curtis, a law professor on the faculty senate’s ad hoc committee.

“If there’s a limitation on reporting,” Curtis says, “the journalist should be free to go public with it, but before they do, they ought to raise it with whoever is imposing it. So you have both a sunshine requirement, and you avoid misunderstandings.”

In the situation last fall, if the staff had met with Boyette, “I think it is entirely likely she would have reconsidered in light of their strong objections,” Curtis contends. Instead, Boyette heard about the objections when a Journal reporter called her.

WFDD journalists correctly had wanted to object to Boyette, Curtis says, but they received “mild discouragement” from Station Manager Linda Ward. News staffers later informed the faculty committee that Ward told them it “wouldn’t do any good” to appeal to Boyette. Janssen said he tried unsuccessfully to reach Boyette before talking to the newspaper.

“It’s too bad,” Curtis remarks, “that the station manager didn’t take the position that we ought to talk about this: ‘We should have a meeting right away.’” Ward did not return Current‘s phone calls.

“There were probably mistakes and misunderstandings on almost everyone’s part,” says Gladding, the associate provost who now oversees WFDD. Boyette’s directive was a mistake, but it was probably also a mistake that the news staffers didn’t go directly to Boyette instead of stopping at Ward, he says.

As law professor Curtis puts the events together, the clash “seems to have been almost an accident,” he wrote in a statement concurring with this month’s faculty report. Boyette made a “hasty mistake.” She was not trying to suppress free discussion. “Apparently someone asked the vice president about the no-comment mandate and WFDD, and she only then transmitted her instruction limiting reporting. It seems to have been an unfortunate afterthought.”

Though Boyette had no “sinister design,” Curtis wrote, her order still had a “chilling effect” on reporting, and it was still important for journalists and professors to defend their ideals of free speech. “In the end,” he said, “people have the liberties they demand.”

EARLIER STORY

University vice president orders limited coverage, 1999.

DOCUMENTS

Complete text of faculty senate committee report and Michael Curtis’s statement on WFDD conflict.

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