Top National Public Radio officials released a statement Monday saying Jacqui Helbert, the former WUTC reporter, should not have been fired by the University of Tennessee at Chattanooga last week, and urged the university and WUTC to reach an agreement that ensures the station's editorial independence.
UTC fired Helbert, 32, after local lawmakers complained she did not explicitly identify herself as a reporter for WUTC, an NPR affiliate.
Helbert maintains she was wearing an NPR press pass and carrying bulky radio reporting gear, which included her pointing a 22-inch fuzzy microphone at Sen. Mike Bell, R-Riceville, and Rep. Kevin Brooks, R-Cleveland, as they spoke about Tennessee's transgender bathroom bill with students from Cleveland High School earlier this month. Bell and Brooks told the Times Free Press they never noticed a reporter was in the room.
NPR's statement said WUTC's editors would not have removed the story from the station's website if not told to do so by the university, and did not view the story as "fatally flawed," as Helbert did not hide her equipment or mislead anyone, according to a statement released online by Michael Oreskes, senior vice president of news and editorial director, and Mark Memmott, supervising senior editor for standards and practices.
"Taking the decisions about enforcing ethics out of [WUTC's] hands did more to undermine the station's credibility than the original infraction," the NPR statement reads. "This chain of events underscores why it is critical that newsrooms such as that at WUTC not be subject to pressure from the institutions that hold their licenses, the sponsors who give them financial support or the politicians who sometimes don't like the stories they hear or read."
George Heddleston, senior associate vice chancellor of marketing and communications for UTC, said Tuesday morning that the university intervened in the situation because "the station is part of UTC's Marketing and Communications division."
NPR's statement states that questions have been raised about whether UTC officials were pressured to fire Helbert and have the story removed by Tennessee legislators, who control state funding to the school.
On March 17, UTC officials met with Sen. Todd Gardenhire, R-Chattanooga, Sen. Bo Watson, R-Hixson, and Rep. Patsy Hazlewood, R-Signal Mountain, to talk about business not related to the bathroom bill, Heddleston previously stated. After this planned meeting, Gardenhire mentioned the WUTC story and said he had issues with "the journalistic ethics of the reporter," Heddleston said.
And during this conversation at least one lawmaker mentioned the state provides funding to UTC, Heddleston said.
Tuesday morning Heddleston maintained that lawmakers never threatened the university with funding cuts over this situation.
"Not sure where this misconception began," Heddleston said in a statement to the Times Free Press.
In 2016, UTC contributed more than $510,000 to WUTC.
Lawmakers voted last year to strip state funding for UT-Knoxville's Office for Diversity and Inclusion, demanding the campus be punished for its annual "Sex Week" student activities, as well as controversies over the diversity office's suggested use of gender-neutral pronouns and avoiding the word "Christmas" in holiday party announcements. Gardenhire sponsored the bill.
In a statement posted on WUTC's Facebook page Friday, Heddleston said: "The University's decision to release the employee from the station was based on a violation of journalism ethics. We believe the newsgathering process must be conducted in a manner that instills trust in the public. Failure to do so undermines journalistic credibility just as much as inaccurate information. We strive to maintain the faith of our listeners and the community we serve."
The NPR statement said Helbert should have explicitly introduced herself to the legislators, but the fact that she had this gear "would be obvious signs to any public officials that they were being recorded — most likely for some type of public posting." The mistake she made was a "learning moment for a new reporter and she was counseled about her mistake," the statement continues.
NPR backs WUTC's editors, and said they should have been allowed to handle the situation as they — the journalists — felt was right, according to the statement.
"We strongly urge the university and WUTC to reach an agreement that ensures the station's editorial independence in the future," NPR's statement continues.