Memo to UNC-TV management

by Keith Barber

It appears that UNC-TV is building a case to fire its senior legislative correspondent, Eszter Vajda. That would be a monumental mistake. If UNC-TV were to dismiss Vajda, it would further tarnish the reputation of the public broadcasting station and serve only to compound several major errors in judgment made by the station’s management over the past six weeks.

On July 13, Vajda, who produced the 53-minute documentary The Alcoa Story about the aluminum giant’s efforts to re-license a 38-mile stretch of the Yadkin River for another 50-year term, was called into a disciplinary review hearing called by Shannon Vickery, UNC-TV’s director of productions, and news anchor Mitchell Lewisone day prior to a newspaper article that revealed Vajda’s researcher, Martin Sansone, had accepted $3,000 from former NC House Speaker Richard Morgan.

If UNC-TV were To dIsmIss Vajda, IT woUld fUrTher TarNIsh The repUTaTIoN of The pUblIC broadCasT- INg sTaTIoN aNd serVe oNly To CompoUNd seVeral major errors IN jUdgmeNT made by The sTaTIoN’s maNagemeNT oVer The pasT sIx weeks.

The Aug. 14 edition of the News & Observer included a story by reporter Lynn Bonner that stated Morgan, who now works for the NC Water Rights Committee, paid Sansone $3,000 for research and consulting services. The NC Water Rights Committee is adamantly opposed to Alcoa’s efforts to win another 50-year license from the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission, or FERC.

Steve Volstad, director of communications and marketing for UNC-TV, said the information Bonner reported was included in public records UNC-TV provided at the N&O’s request. YES! Weekly has placed a public records request with UNC-TV to obtain all documents surrounding Vajda and Sansone’s collaboration on the Alcoa Story documentary and three “North Carolina Now” segments about Alcoa’s operations on the Yadkin River.

Despite this recent revelation, it seems clear that Vajda has surpassed every single journalist in the state by conducting the most thorough and comprehensive investigation of the issues surrounding Alcoa’s re-licensing efforts and allegations that the aluminum maker is responsible for PCB, PAH, arsenic and cyanide contamination of Badin Lake and the Yadkin River. And because Vajda had the courage to take on a multi-national conglomerate like Alcoa, she has found herself at the center of a firestorm. Still, Vajda has remained steadfast in her mission to seek the truth, and “sweep the dirt out from under the rug,” as she is fond of saying.

By contrast, Vajda’s supervisors at UNC-TV have consistently run for cover and made one poor decision after another. In every instance, they have left Vajda twisting in the wind. Last week’s disciplinary hearing was the final insult.

UNC-TV management’s first major blunder happened on July 2, when Director and General Manager Tom Howe agreed to turn over 13 DVDs containing some 14 hours of raw video footage gathered by Vajda to the NC Senate Judiciary II Committee. The week prior, Sen. Fletcher Hartsell (R-Cabarrus) sent a letter to Howe requesting Vajda’s footage. With the legislature’s short session due to end in a few days, Hartsell said he and Marc Basnight, president pro tem of the Senate, then issued a subpoena for Vajda’s footage. Vajda said she was served with a subpoena to appear before the Senate committee on July 6. However, UNC- TV management turned over all of Vajda’s footage before a subpoena ever arrived at their Research Triangle Park headquarters.

North Carolina’s shield law for journalists clearly states: “A journalist has a qualified privilege against disclosure in any legal proceeding of any confidential or non-confidential information, document, or item obtained or prepared while acting as a journalist.”

Volstad said the TV station’s lawyers could not agree on how to respond to the subpoena.

“There was no unanimity among our attorneys on that topic,” Volstad said. “We were told the only thing that would resolve that would be a court test. We were told there was no clarity that the shield law applied to UNC-TV, but the laws regarding state agencies did apply to UNC-TV.”

The second major blunder by UNC-TV management was abdicating its editorial responsibilities with the three “North Carolina Now” segments. A review of the pieces, which aired July 6-8, by a panel of three professors from the UNC School of Journalism and Mass Communication blasted UNC-TV management for its “ill-advised” decision to leave the final product in the hands of the reporter. Vajda said she vividly recalls a meeting with Shannon Vickery on July 2 when Vickery told her that she absolved any editorial oversight over the three “North Carolina Now” segments.

Later that day, Vajda received an e-mail notifying her that all of her scripts had to be vetted by Brooks Skinner, UNC-TV’s lawyer. Vajda sent Skinner the script for the first segment and “he didn’t see any problems with it.” Vajda admits she failed to send Skinner the script for Part 2 due to spending an entire day in the NC Senate Judiciary II hearing room. But Vajda said she made a DVD copy of the program for Galen Black, executive producer of internal productions for UNC-TV, to review before the show aired. Vajda also sent Skinner the script for part three and made another DVD for Black.

Vajda appeared to do essentially everything her employer asked of her, but UNC-TV put up a disclaimer at the beginning and end of her second and third pieces which stated, “For the first time in its network’s history, UNC-TV has made the decision to refrain from exercising its customary editorial review over an individual reporter’s project. The reason for this unusual step is to alleviate any concerns surrounding unfounded and untrue allegations of inappropriate suppression by UNC-TV management of the reporter’s ability to tell this important story.”

Sansone believes the disclaimer was a way for UNC-TV management to distance itself from Vajda and the story.

“They put Eszter out to dry,” Sansone said. “They were hoping it was all going to backfire and it looked really bad for her.”

Vajda said she felt the support of her colleagues began to wither months before the airing of the Alcoa segments. A critical meeting between Howe and Vajda in late April was canceled at Vickery’s order. Vajda said she had planned on sharing with Howe the environmental component of the story and the alleged contamination of Badin Lake and the Yadkin River by Alcoa, and the resulting impact on public health.

“This was a critical time because it was like a light bulb went on,” Vajda said. “It was around that time that I realized the severity, the extent of the impact this story would have on the state and the country.”

Vajda said she appealed to Lewis and Black to help her get a one-on-one meeting with Howe.

“I told Mitch and Galen, ‘Are you telling me right now that Shannon Vickery can cancel a meeting that I had with my general manager?’” Vajda recalled. “Mitchell and Galen said, ‘She’s my supervisor. I have to follow whatever she says.’” Calls placed by YES! Weekly to Howe, Vickery, Lewis and Black were directed to Volstad, who would not comment for this story.

The third major blunder by UNC-TV is the station’s attempts to block distribution of the three “North Carolina Now” pieces and The Alcoa Story documentary to the general public. Stanly County Manager Andy Lucas has started a letter-writing campaign to ask UNC-TV’s board of trustees to reconsider the public broadcasting station’s decision to deny a request from the county to rebroadcast the three episodes of “North Carolina Now” and The Alcoa Story documentary. A copy of the documentary that was previously available on Vimeo, a video-sharing

website, has been taken down. Sansone said he believes lawyers working on UNC-TV’s behalf are responsible for the documentary’s disappearance from the website. Volstad declined to comment on the matter. The three “North Carolina Now” episodes have also been taken off UNC-TV’s website.

There are two sides to every story, and last week, Vajda and Sansone offered their perspective on the controversy at UNC-TV. Sansone acknowledged that he accepted payment from the Morgan Group for his work as a researcher and consultant. Sansone, a UK citizen, used the funds to help pay for his travel from Great Britain to the US earlier this year.

“Clearly a mistake on my behalf seeing how things progressed five months later, and excellent ammunition for UNC-TV to try and cast doubt on Eszter,” Sansone said.