Ombudsman seeks details on WAMU ‘meet the producers’ event

CPB ombudsman Joel Kaplan has urged WAMU-FM in Washington, D.C., to release more information about a gathering of major donors and station journalists that prompted the Feb. 22 resignation of WAMU News Director Jim Asendio.

The “Meet the Producers Breakfast” featured a panel discussion among WAMU reporters and producers for an audience of about 30 donors who had recently increased their annual contributions to at least $1,000. Asendio said he resigned because he believed the event had breached an ethical firewall insulating station journalists from funders.

In Kaplan’s comments, posted March 2 on CPB.org, the ombudsman did not explicitly condemn the event but wrote that the issue “goes to the heart of the station’s ethics.”

“The public deserves more from WAMU,” Kaplan wrote. “It deserves to know exactly what is going on in its newsroom and at its donor conferences. At the very least, the public deserves transparency from WAMU.” He said the station should release any records related to the event, including a transcript and a list of the journalists and donors involved, and should publicly announce any future meetings and attendees as well. He also suggested that WAMU offer video streams of the events.

Caryn Mathes, WAMU’s g.m., listed the producers and reporters involved in the event but declined to name the donors, citing confidentiality agreements. No transcript was available. The station had discussed offering video streams of meetings of the station’s advisory council, but council members feared live streaming would discourage participants from speaking candidly. As for whether the station would announce future events involving donors and journalists, Mathes said it would prefer to keep the events invitation-only.

“I think perhaps Joel had the idea that this was something unusual,” Mathes said of the breakfast. “This is not unusual. . . . It’s not in and of itself unethical.”

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