University backs off from censoring N.C. station
Originally published in Current, Oct. 4, 1999
By Steve Behrens
The Wake Forest University official who ordered its public radio station to limit coverage of a story involving the school has apologized and backed off from enforcing her order.
WFDD, which serves the area of Winston-Salem, N.C., has been reporting freely for more than a week on the controversy, which started earlier this month when the university refused to let a lesbian couple take commitment vows on campus.
The order came down from Sandra C. Boyette, v.p. for university advancement, who not only oversees WFDD but serves as Wake Forest's public relations chief. Her order was delivered Sept. 8  by Station Manager Linda Ward: to report only the content of the university's press release about the wedding decision, and thereafter not to report on the decision at all.
"We were asked to lie, cover up the lie and were threatened with loss of job security if we didn't," Program Director Paul Brown told Current.
Boyette began backing off from the order after one week and formally apologized after three weeks of controversy.
"I apologize to you for my decision that inserted me into an editorial process," Boyette told the faculty's University Senate Sept. 29, according to attendees and the Winston-Salem Journal.
The senate earlier had urged the university to let WFDD cover the news as it sees fit.
"We are still concerned about the possibility that anyone at Wake Forest could be penalized for their willingness to speak out on a matter of conscience," said senate President Carole Browne, in an interview with Current. "We did not get assurances from Sandra Boyette that there would not be changes made in the news staff as a result of this."
Boyette told the senate that "no one has been fired and no one will be fired," according to the Journal. "In a tension filled situation," Boyette explained to the senate, "there were a lot of things said that people really didn't mean."
But Carole Browne said that Boyette, under questioning, did not deny that the station manager had threatened to fire anyone at WFDD or change their authority, and she did not deny that she had discussed possibly realigning management responsibilities.
Boyette did not return Current's call; the station manager, Ward, referred calls to university spokesman Kevin Cox; and Cox did not return calls before deadline.
Faculty committees may determine what happens next in the controversy.
Two weeks after Boyette's order to the news department, the university appointed an "interim faculty advisory committee" to help the university and WFDD to develop an editorial policy.
The committee will advise on the selection of a journalist to work on the policy, Boyette announced Sept. 24. The committee includes professors from the politics, communication, English and art departments and the law school.
Station staffers say WFDD already has a mission statement and news policies. Its statement of "News Objectives and Practices" says the news department "seeks to avoid conflict of interest or the appearance of conflict of interest with station employees or departments, the licensee or any special interests." The documents were on file in Boyette's office, according to Michelle Johnson, WFDD news director.
"It may happen [the faculty committee] will say we've got a good policy," says Paul Brown, the program director. "Of course, that's what we hope, because that's what we believe is true."
"The senate is saying the editorial policies in place were adequate," said senate President Browne. "What needs to be looked at is the fact that the public radio station is reporting to the Office of University Advancement. We want to look at other organizational structures." The senate will form its own committee to recommend a course of action, she said.
WFDD's Brown and Johnson endorse the idea of moving the station out from under the university public relations office.
Boyette herself has highlighted the difficulty of serving as both university spokesman and overseer of radio journalists.
She explained to the Winston-Salem Journal that WFDD's reporting might have been perceived as the university's opinion. Her Sept. 16 letter to the Wake Forest community explained: "Because all WFDD staff members are employees of the university, it seemed important to avoid creating any perception of bias in the release of a university statement on a very sensitive issue," Boyette wrote. "I regret the confusion that grew from good intent to ensure the station's neutrality."
"I do not condone censorship"
The conflicts grew out of a request last year by two women for a union ceremony at Wake Forest Baptist Church, a relatively liberal congregation that meets in a university chapel on campus. The university chaplain, who schedules events at the chapel, took the question to the university Board of Trustees instead of setting a date. In March, the trustees referred the issue to an ad hoc committee. The women are still not hitched.
In the resulting decision, the trustees asked the independent church not to perform the ceremony in university facilities. Wake Forest is "not an ecclesiastical body empowered or authorized to render judgments on matters of faith and practice," the committee said.
The university presented its decision as a neutral stance, but the committee did comment that almost no Christian denomination is sanctioning same-sex marriages, that most Baptist congregations agree, and that there was "no compelling reason" to disagree with them.
University President Thomas K. Hearn, Jr., hastened to add that the board "rejects hatred and bigotry in any form" and opposes discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation.
Soon after the university put out its release, Station Manager Linda Ward came to her program director's office and told Paul Brown that her boss, Boyette, had asked the station to limit its coverage of the decision to a newscast item and include only information from the university press release, Brown said later. "And we were not to ask for reaction from any principles in the story, or to seek out experts on the story."
"She further stated we were not to report on the story in the future in any way that ties back to today's decisions by the trustees," Brown said.
Brown told Johnson, the news director, "who was understandably concerned." There was little more than an hour before the 4 p.m. newscast. A reporter already had calls out. Brown decided to honor Ward's request "because I didn't feel there was time enough to settle the issue in everyone's best interest."
Brown went to see his manager again, and asked whether she was prepared to possibly lose staff members who felt they were being muzzled. She indicated she could accept that. He said she observed that "this sort of thing might happen from time to time" in the future, and there should be more restrictions on stories.
Ward was backing Boyette's order rather than her staff. "I can tell you the staff felt quite thoroughly betrayed and left out in the cold," Brown said.
Ward, who had managed WFDD since 1997, was previously the station's development director, and a university public relations staffer before that.
News staffers also went to her and asked what would happen if they did a full news story, said Johnson, the news director. "She said to me, 'Someone could lose their job.'"
Neither Brown nor Johnson felt they could appeal to Boyette, who apparently originated the order, or to other higher officials. "To go higher would have been perceived as insubordination," Johnson told Current.
The next morning, Sept. 9, the Winston Salem-Journal was reporting freely the biggest story on campus, but WFDD had only the approved, truncated version. Brown, who had started the news department in 1994 and was its first news director, said its credibility "was seriously diminished."
Later in the day, when the associate pastor of Wake Forest Baptist brought a press release from the church, Brown revealed that WFDD couldn't broadcast the information. Worried that the station's integrity was at stake, Brown resolved to tell the story to the press. On Sept. 11, the Journal broke the censorship story.
The next Monday, Sept. 13, Brown and other staffers were called in separately to meet with Boyette and Ward, according to Brown. "At the meeting, my management of the staff was taken to task for not stopping them from speaking to the media and for not informing my superiors. Some possible job actions were discussed regarding me." He declined to discuss details on the advice of his lawyer. Brown went out on sick leave. That week the university said it would appoint a committee to develop a news policy for WFDD.
"It occurred to me repeatedly," Brown told Current, "how unfortunate it is that a group of station employees who have worked very hard to build a culture based on the high standards of quality espoused by NPR could find themselves having their integrity questioned and their culture torn apart. It made me very sad."
WFDD staffers were expecting the university to change news department responsibilities in a meeting Sept. 16, Johnson told Current, and when that didn't happen, "From that point forward we felt we had the green light to go with the story." The station picked up on the ongoing furor.
The same day, the University Senate called for the university to "declare, without equivocation, that WFDD is free to pursue and broadcast any story that it sees fit, in accordance with its existing mission statements."
The senate also said the university should let Wake Forest Baptist Church decide for itself "in free exercise of that community's religious faith" whether to recognize same-sex unions.
Boyette said in a letter to the university community: "I do not condone censorship. I am sorry that the events last week created a different impression, and I will be glad to meet with campus groups about this matter."
A week later, Sept. 24, Boyette announced the faculty committee to review WFDD policy, and added: "I remain sorry to have alarmed you about my commitment to objective reporting, because I do not condone censorship."
Then last week Boyette apologized again and assured the university senate that she would not permit the firing of anyone in connection with the dispute. The Journal reported that she answered faculty questions for an hour Sept. 29 and afterwards the senate applauded her.
The uneasy WFDD journalists still want assurances of independence. It's important to be able to tell listeners that the university isn't calling the shots, said reporter Mike Janssen. "Otherwise, what do people think is coming out of the radio? Is it trustworthy news, or 'Jeez, I wonder what the university did behind this one!'"
To Current's home page
Earlier news: WFDD involved in earlier controversy over federal aid to a station that carries religious programming, 1995. (The federal grant agency later backed off.)
Later news: Boyette recommends giving oversight over WFDD to another university office, but program director and news director quit anyway, October 1999.
Outside link: Wake Forest University's web site.
Web page created Oct. 6, 1999 Revised Nov. 2, 1999
The newspaper about public television and radio
in the United States
A service of Current Publishing Committee, Takoma Park, Md.