Shame on the University of Tennessee at Chattanooga for firing a WUTC reporter after local lawmakers complained about how she reported on a state transgender bathroom bill.
And shame on the local lawmakers who not only complained, but did so while reminding UTC that the state funds the university and the university in 2016 contributed more than $510,000 to the WUTC radio station.
In reporting and producing the transgender bathroom bill story for WUTC, the reporter, 32-year-old Jacqui Helbert, followed a group of Cleveland High School students as they traveled to the state capital March 7 to meet with Sen. Mike Bell, R-Riceville, and Rep. Kevin Brooks, R-Cleveland, about the legislation.
The students were advocating against the bathroom bill, which would force Tennessee students to use restrooms and locker rooms matching the gender listed on their birth certificates, offering no exception for transgender students.
The story aired on WUTC March 9 and 13, and was posted on the station's website. After it was posted, the lawmakers said Helbert failed to properly identify herself as a reporter during the meetings.
Helbert acknowledged to Times reporter Kendi Rainwater that she did not verbally identify herself as a journalist. But she said she never concealed her reporting intentions or her bulky radio equipment or the large NPR press pass hanging around her neck.
"It was glaringly obvious who I was," Helbert said. "I even had to fumble with all my equipment to shake Bell's hand."
So one wonders what part of her headphones and 22-inch fuzzy microphone our lawmakers failed to understand. After all, members of the Tennessee General Assembly are certainly no strangers to media attention.
But more distressing is that they thumb their noses at the fact that they should be accountable for what they say, and even worse, that they should know not to bully the university over funding.
Brooks told Rainwater that he was never given explicit notification that a reporter was in the meeting and what he shared with the students was personal — not for the public. He said the WUTC reporter must have been hidden in the crowd of high-schoolers.
A 32-year-old with headphones and a big fuzzy mike was "hidden" in a group of high-schoolers?
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, according to a statement from George Heddleston, senior associate vice chancellor of marketing and communications for UTC. At the end of the official meeting, Gardenhire mentioned the WUTC story and said "he had issues with the journalistic ethics of the reporter," Heddleston wrote in the statement to the Times Free Press.
On Friday, in a statement posted on WUTC's Facebook page, Heddleston said the University's decision to "release" the employee from the station was "based on a violation of journalism ethics."
It was not the first time our lawmakers threatened the University of Tennessee with pulled funding. They 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.
So, lawmakers, which is more unethical? A reporter fully identified with a NPR press pass and an armload of recording gear who does not wave her ID in lawmakers' faces and say, "Hey, I'm recording for WUTC," or a group of lawmakers who abuse their power by threatening to withhold funds after they don't like the way a story was reported?