Row over ethical conflict prompts radio station manager to resign

By Ben Mook

After a combative online exchange with CPB Ombudsman Joel Kaplan over a perceived conflict of interest between his political aspirations and his role as president of an NPR-affiliated public station, Marshall Miles of WHDD-FM/AM in Sharon, Conn., temporarily resigned from his pubcasting job Oct. 15.

Miles

Miles

Miles, who until last week ran the station that calls itself “Robin Hood Radio,” recently decided to run for a seat on the Region One Board of Education, which oversees a largely rural district in northwestern Connecticut. After local critics complained that Miles’s candidacy conflicted with his work as a pubcasting manager, Kaplan agreed with them in an online column published Oct. 10.

“There is nothing wrong with Mr. Miles running for a seat on the regional board of education,” Kaplan wrote. “There is also nothing wrong with his presiding over a public radio station. What is wrong is that he should not do both at the same time.”

Miles initially denounced the CPB ombudsman for weighing in “on prevailing issues you know nothing about,” but later decided to follow Kaplan’s advice after talking with him on the phone.

“He and I did something that doesn’t happen in Washington,” Miles said, referring to his conversation with Kaplan. “We met in the middle ground and I’m happy about that.”

Until the Nov. 5 school board election — and beyond if his campaign succeeds — Miles has stepped aside as president of Tri-State Public Communication Inc., the nonprofit that operates Robin Hood Radio and the local cable access TV channel. Its CPB-qualified radio service broadcasts into parts of New York state and Massachusetts. CPB community service grants accounted for 25 percent of the station’s $731,787 in reported revenue in 2012.

Jill Goodman, Miles’s partner in building WHDD from an Internet-only radio station into a broadcast outlet, stepped up as interim president. Miles continues to play a role as a volunteer programmer, hosting the morning show The Breakfast Club.

Pubcasting’s voluntary code cited

An outspoken critic of local educators who writes a political blog devoted to the rural school district, Miles’s affiliation with the station has come under outside scrutiny before.

Last year the FCC investigated whether Miles had violated FCC regulations by endorsing a school board candidate. The commission ruled that he had sufficiently positioned his opinion as personal, and not an endorsement by the station.

The latest complaint, initially sent to NPR, alleged that Miles’s decision to run for the school board conflicted with the NPR Code of Ethics. NPR has no oversight of local station broadcasts, but forwarded the complaint to Kaplan at CPB.

Kaplan agreed with Miles’s critics in a strongly worded column, which concluded that running for office while running a station is a conflict of interest.

“It is wrong; it is unfair; it is a conflict of interest and it should stop,” Kaplan wrote.

Kaplan, a veteran journalist who teaches at Syracuse University’s S.I. Newhouse School of Public Communications, pointed to pubcasting’s Code of Editorial Integrity for local stations. Specifically, its “admonishment” to all public media employees — including those who aren’t working as journalists — “to be sensitive to conflicts of interests between personal interests and their professional public media responsibilities,” he wrote.

The code was drafted by local pubcasting leaders in 2011–12 through a CPB-backed project to update the field’s editorial standards and assist stations in defining their own ethical guidelines. Its recommendations were intended to be voluntary and adopted by local licensees at their discretion.

Miles reacted defiantly to Kaplan’s conclusion in a post on his blog, asserting his right as an American citizen to run for political office and pointing to factual errors in Kaplan’s column.

Among his objections, Miles noted that WHDD doesn’t employ journalists or produce news programs, even though it airs some NPR programs.

After a cooling-off period, Miles later reconsidered his objections. In an interview, he attributed his change of heart to the phone call with Kaplan in which they hashed out their differences. Miles agreed to step down and Kaplan to revise inaccuracies in his column, in which he misidentified the city in which Miles is running for school board.

“We really weren’t that far apart,” Miles said in an interview. “I wasn’t as upset with the decision as I was upset about the way it was written. We had a very good conversation, and I think we see each other in a totally different light.”

Despite the factual errors in his column, Kaplan said, his central belief that Miles had to choose between his candidacy and his position as a pubcaster remains steadfast.

“I’m not Zeus sitting on high telling people what they can and can’t do,” Kaplan said. “I respond to complaints, and I give my best journalistic opinion about it. And, in this case, I didn’t think it was a gray issue — it was pretty straightforward.”

Questions, comments, tips? mook@current.org
This article was first published in Current, Oct. 21, 2013.

ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT