Vajda gone from UNC-TV; her associate took anti-Alcoa aid

Eszter Vajda, the reporter on UNC-TV’s Alcoa story, no longer works for the state pubTV network, as of Aug. 17, according to Gail Zimmerman, associate g.m.

Vajda told Current that she took part in a disciplinary hearing at 4 p.m. Aug. 13 in UNC-TV offices. She said she learned the outcome in a 5:30 p.m. e-mail from station managers that afternoon, but she declined to reveal what it said. Hearings have three possible outcomes at UNC-TV: No action, a written warning or termination.

The controversy around Vajda’s Alcoa reporting resurfaced in August with a disclosure about a friend who was helping her with the expanded documentary she was developing at home on her own time.

Her friend Martin Sansone had flown in for an unrelated visit in February, Vajda said, but he became intrigued by the project and stayed on as her research assistant.

On Aug. 14, news outlets in the state reported that Sansone received $3,000 for travel expenses from Richard Morgan, former state House of Representatives speaker. Morgan is now with the North Carolina Water Rights Coalition, a leading opponent of Alcoa’s dam re-licensing request.

On Aug. 17, Sansone identified himself as Vajda’s “agent” to a reporter from NPR affiliate WFAE in Charlotte, N.C. Sansone said while he didn’t see the $3,000 payment as troublesome, he expected UNC-TV to fire the reporter.

Vajda had also received a bad review from journalism professors at Chapel Hill. Before broadcast of her Alcoa series, General Manager Tom Howe had approached the University of North Carolina journalism school to request a review of the work. Jean Folkerts, dean of the journalism school, appointed a three-professor panel including a former editor of the News & Observer in Raleigh and a former g.m. of WRAL-TV, also in the city.

Howe asked the professors whether the series met “universally accepted standards of journalism” and whether they would have approved the work for broadcast.

“Simply put, our answer is a collective no,” the three wrote in a five-page draft report.

“Holes” in the series, they noted, were Vajda’s failure to contact the Environmental Protection Agency directly about Alcoa’s record; her lack of interviews with sources from the state Department of Environment and Natural Resources (DENA); and her overdependence on information from an attorney representing hundreds of lawsuits against Alcoa.

Vajda told Current she did deal directly with the EPA and DENA, has the documents in her possession and was planning on using them in future coverage. She said she interviewed that attorney at length because the attorney knew so much about the North Carolina situation.

The report also faulted UNC-TV for relinquishing editorial control of the final two segments. During the production process, station execs heard rumors of accusations that they were trying to “destroy” Vajda’s work, Zimmerman said. So Howe preceded the broadcasts of those segments with a disclaimer that UNC-TV “refrained from exercising its customary editorial review over an individual reporter’s project” in order to alleviate “unfounded and untrue allegations of inappropriate suppression” of the story.

The professors said UNC-TV editors could have transferred responsibility to a neutral outside contractor, such as a retired news executive, to properly edit the project. “Granting free rein to this reporter, or any reporter, is no substitute — no option — in our opinion.”

Before the three professors had completed their work, Howe asked them to postpone releasing their findings because the situation was evolving rapidly. The panel’s report was never formally issued; it became public only after several reporters discovered it through open-records requests.

“We had every intention of asking them to finish,” Zimmerman said. But now there is no need, as the draft is out.

Vajda said, “My goal to finish the story and make sure that it is somehow told properly.”

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