Revisiting the Eszter Vajda case

by Keith Barber

The Society of Professional Journalists Code of Ethics dictates that journalists must be accountable to their readers. “Admit mistakes and correct them promptly,” the code of ethics states. That is why I want to revisit the case of Eszter Vajda, the former UNC- TV reporter who was fired by the public broadcasting station on Aug. 17.

In my column published in the Aug. 18 edition of YES! Weekly, I harshly criticized the management of UNC-TV for a series of blunders over the past seven weeks. When I filed my story, it appeared the station’s management team was building a case against Vajda.

My instincts proved correct. But now I realize that UNC- TV was completely justified in dismissing Vajda.

Two face-to-face meetings with Vajda, a six-year veteran of UNC-TV, and her researcher/collaborator Martin Sansone had left me with the impression that the station had purposefully distanced itself from Vajda’s documentary, The Alcoa Story, and her three-part series about Alcoa’s efforts to re-license the water rights to a 38-mile stretch of the Yadkin River for another 50 years. The series aired on “North Carolina Now” last month. But I only heard one side of the story in those meetings.

Each time I solicited input from UNC-TV, I was told to speak with the station’s spokesman, Steve Volstad. Typically, I would leave voicemail messages and Volstad would respond via e-mail. Volstad was responsive but would not comment on personnel matters. Vajda’s disciplinary review on Aug. 13 fell under that category.

And then there was the disclaimer that UNC-TV added to the beginning and ending of parts two and three of the “North Carolina Now” series. “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 disclaimer read. “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.”

The disclaimer threw me for a loop; I was not alone.

A panel of three professors from the UNC School of Journalism and Mass Communication blasted UNC-TV for its “ill-advised” decision to abdicate its editorial responsibilities. But once I learned the whole story, I understood the unorthodox move by the station’s management.

On Aug. 18, I traveled to Research Triangle Park to pick up a DVD that contained more than 5,800 internal documents from UNC-TV as part of a public-records request by YES! Weekly. When I began sifting through the internal e-mails and memos (many of which had been entirely redacted), my heart began to slowly sink.

In one e-mail message, Vajda thanked Roger Dick, a Stanly County community activist and one of Alcoa’s most outspoken critics, for taking her to dinner. The SPJ Code of Ethics states, in part, “Refuse gifts, favors, fees, free travel, and special treatment.”

Vajda’s e-mails also reveal her alliances with politicians, state officials and special-interest groups adamantly opposed to Alcoa’s bid for another 50 years of control over the Yadkin River. Richard Morgan, the former NC Speaker of the House and a paid consultant for the NC Water Rights Committee, paid Sansone $3,000 for his consultancy services. Considering Sansone and Vajda’s close personal and professional relationship, this represented a major conflict of interest for Vajda.

“Avoid conflicts of interest, real or perceived,” the SPJ Code of Ethics states. “Remain free of associations and activities that may compromise integrity or damage credibility.”

UNC-TV’s internal documents depict a power struggle between Vajda and station management over how the Alcoa story should be presented. Vajda lobbied hard for a full-length documentary, while Shannon Vickery, the station’s director of programming, and news anchor Mitchell Lewis maintained that the station simply didn’t have the resources to produce a lengthy piece on Alcoa.

It appears Vajda attempted to go over the heads of her direct supervisors and make her plea to UNC-TV Director and General Manager Tom Howe. But Vickery canceled the April 23 meeting and gave her a protocol warning. On at least two occasions, Vickery and Lewis reminded Vajda that her request to produce a documentary had been denied, and she should not give the impression UNC-TV was going forward with a long-form story. UNC-TV Production Manager Karen Pearce also complained about Vajda’s reluctance to follow station protocol, saying that Vajda pulled resources assigned to “Legislative Week in Review” for her story on Alcoa, and then canceled the shoot at the last minute.

On June 28, NC Secretary of Commerce Keith Crisco arrived at UNC-TV headquarters and met with Vickery to discuss the status of the Alcoa story. Crisco brought a release form that would allow for the Department of Commerce to take possession of Vajda’s tapes and incorporate the footage into a documentary production. Sansone composed the release form with Vajda’s full knowledge. The release form included language that would have allowed Vajda to edit her footage as a third party at some point in the future.

Vajda admitted she did not divulge her actions to Vickery, Lewis or anyone at UNC-TV. This end-run around management was orchestrated by Vajda, and constitutes insubordination on her part. Insubordination is grounds for dismissal.

Much to her credit, Vickery denied Crisco’s request. Vajda’s raw tapes remain in UNC-TV’s possession. Other e-mails reveal Vajda’s inappropriate reaction to her tapes being subpoenaed by NC Sen. Fletcher Hartsell for review by the Senate Judiciary II Committee. In an e-mail to

WUNC-FM reporter Laura Leslie, Vajda stated, “This is something I’m happy with!… Hartsell is saving my ass!” Critics called Hartsell’s action a violation of the First Amendment, but inexplicably, Vajda was pleased by the development.

Meanwhile, Howe and Vickery were fighting to protect Vajda’s privileged materials from the clutches of the Senate committee. While Vajda was ecstatic, UNC-TV management was pleading with UNC System President Erskine Bowles to persuade Hartsell to cease and desist. Bowles offered no support, and simply told UNC-TV management to follow their lawyers’ advice. There was no unanimity on the legal issues, and it wasn’t clear if North Carolina’s Shield Law applied to UNC-TV, but the laws regarding state agencies certainly did. With great reluctance, UNC-TV turned over Vajda’s footage. A dangerous precedent had been set, but it would be unfair to blame UNC-TV’s management for the reckless actions of politicians and state officials.

A June 25 letter from Howe to state Sen. Marc Basnight sheds light on the disclaimer. After a phone conversation with Basnight, Howe composed a letter denying any pressure from Alcoa or anyone else leading to decisions regarding the format and timing of the Alcoa segments.

“I am completely confident that no impropriety of any sort exists in regard to the editorial or production processes associated with this project,” Howe states.

It appears the pressure placed on UNC-TV management didn’t come from Alcoa, but from politicians like Basnight. Therefore, if UNC-TV management laid a finger on Vajda’s Alcoa segments, state legislators, Gov. Beverly Perdue’s administration and every single Alcoa opponent would’ve cried foul.

The SPJ Code of Ethics is a living document, and each story brings with it a unique set of ethical challenges. Vajda should be commended for diving into the Alcoa story, and telling the human drama behind the political battle. But Vajda found herself in over her head, and in her quest to make a name for herself she crossed the line time and time again. Vajda’s actions also set off a chain of events that led to a dangerous precedent, which has caused irreparable damage to UNC- TV’s credibility. In the end, the station’s management had no choice but to fire her.

Questions about the future of UNC-TV linger:

Can UNC-TV regain the trust of its audience and therefore, enable its reporters to tell important stories? Can the state’s Shield Law for journalists be extended to state agencies?

In the name of public enlightenment and the protection of our democracy, I pray the answer to both questions is a resounding “yes.”