CPB Office of the Ombudsman

Marshall Miles Resigns

Joel Kaplan

October 17, 2013

The president of Tri-State Communications, the license holder for WHDD radio in Sharon, Conn., has decided to resign from his position pending the outcome of the November school board election in which he is a candidate.

The decision by Marshall Miles to resign comes after a report here following a complaint by local citizens that Mr. Miles was violating public broadcasting ethics by maintaining his position at WHDD while seeking office.

"In response to a letter to the CPB ombudsman from three local residents complaining about my running for a volunteer office while President of Tri-State Public Communications, and due to the ombudsman's report (which we strongly disagree with) I agree to the following," says a letter from Mr. Miles to the station's board of directors.

Mr. Miles has agreed to resign as president through Nov. 5 and his co-founder, Jill Goodman will become acting president. He said that he would continue as volunteer morning show host on WHDD's Breakfast Club. Mr. Miles said that he has in place an agreement with the Democratic Party of Salisbury that will allow him to remain on-air as show host through the election. He will also assist in any technical problems or equipment failures as needed.

In a follow-up conversation, Mr. Miles said that if he wins election to the school board he would permanently resign as president.

Following the complaint and report, an outpouring of support for Mr. Miles was generated by a number of local citizens and supporters of him, pointing out that he was running for school board as a public service for the community. Mr. Miles also took issue with those who filed the complaint, questioning their motives and arguing that they were waging a political attack on him that had nothing to do with his role at the radio station.

Mr. Miles also pointed out two mistakes in the report. First, he was running for the school board in Salisbury, Conn., not in Sharon, which is where the station is based. And secondly, that WHDD does not employ journalists. Mr. Miles said that none of the station's employees are considered journalists and that the news and information run on the air is the product of the reporting by local newspapers. He said the radio station simply discusses the local news reported elsewhere.

Among those upset at the tenor of the ombudsman report on WHDD was Ms. Goodman, who is now its president:

As co-founder of WHDD (a public radio station that tries its utmost to be inclusive in an area known, kindly, for its divergent views, and owes much of its success to the fact that neither Marshall nor I are mini-Alan Chartocks), I am not at all clear how you arrived at the opinion that it is it's "wrong, unfair [and] a conflict of interest" for Marshall Miles to run for a seat on the Region 1 Board of Education (in Salisbury, NOT Sharon, CT - and, it should be noted, a "HYPERLOCAL" VOLUNTEER board and thus a volunteer position to boot) while presiding over a public radio station.

1. He sought out and received the relevant clearances, first from our FCC attorney (at no small cost) and thence from the relevant town committees.

2. He scrupulously avoids speaking about Region One ON THE AIR, and excuses himself using the language agreed upon by the relevant parties, including the mention of the other candidate's name.

Moreover, I am baffled that your examination failed to connect Mr. Mauer, Mr. Cowgill, and Mrs. Clayton with the at this point highly politicized, vehemently pro-administration, anti-Marshall Miles position. How did that get missed? Who else did you speak to? How many people did you speak to? It seems unlikely that not one person out there mentioned the ongoing, multi-year assault on Marshall, and by extension, our radio station. [Marshall, like all Americans, has one vote. It's wonderful to give him credit for six budget defeats (long saga, available in news stories for anyone who takes the time to look, next referendum October 17), but at last check he didn't control 580+ voting robots.]

If I sound a little miffed, it is because both Marshall and I have invested a fair amount of energy, time and money attempting to first create and then sustain a radio station that welcomes views and people across the spectrum. And, it defies credulity, given the amount of public support and encouragement we receive, that your impartial review somehow failed to uncover that there are two sides to every story. Unless - and this is the only thing I can think of - the impartial review began with the preconceived notion that Marshall Miles and Alan Chartock were the same person: the flaw being that if Alan and his relentless, unremitting (mostly national, regional) opinions were so adored and appreciated, why on earth would our listeners embrace another public radio station offering more of the same?"

Gale Courey Toensing, a current member of the Region 1 Board of Education who is retiring from the board at the end of the month, registered a similar opinion:

It was disappointing to read your opinion on "WHDD and Tri-state Politics" today on the Corporation for Public Broadcasting website. I respectfully disagree that it's "wrong, unfair [and] a conflict of interest" for Marshall Miles to run for a seat on the Region 1 Board of Education while presiding over a public radio station. Here's why:

I think, unfortunately, that you've only heard the point of view of a person or group of people who may have personal gripes against Marshall.

At the core of this situation is an intense community division that has developed around the Region 1 School District over the past four-plus years that can simplistically be reduced to pro- and anti-administration camps. The dissatisfaction is widespread - voters in the six-town school district have voted down the Region 1 School Board's proposed 2013-2014 budget six times and are about to vote at the seventh referendum on Oct. 17. Voters' main complaint is centered around the top two education administrators and the board's refusal to listen to the public.

I believe that in addition to having personal gripes against Marshall Miles, the people that you heard from are all in the pro-administrators' camp and this complaint is just one more arrow they've shot off against those who don.t agree with them. For example, John Mauer, who filed the complaint against Marshall Miles, is an ardent supporter of the superintendent and expresses his opinions on his blog Stoneforge, harshly criticizing anyone who he perceives as anti-administrators. (He's also filed a Freedom of Information Act complaint against me for an email I sent to the board -- an acknowledged public document, as I'm a big advocate of open government.) Mr. Mauer's comment that Miles' "strident voice is one of the major factors in the five defeats of the regional school budget" is not only speculative but also disregards the intelligence and will of the region's voters who have always enthusiastically supported the school board budgets -- except when they have a beef against the administrators. Mauer's claim that Miles' "attacks are personal" is ironic -- a review of Mr. Mauer's blog would lead one to believe he's projecting when he accuses others of being strident and making personal attacks.

I believe Terry Cowgill's agenda may be driven in part by solidarity with a friend who left the local public access TV channel after he had a falling out with Marshall Miles, who I believe holds the license for the channel. I believe Susy Clayton, an elected member of the North Canaan board of selectmen, was hired by Marshall Miles at a previous radio station and may fall into the "disgruntled former employee" category.

There are several fallacies in your opinion, beginning with its title: "WHDD and Tri-state Politics" While it's true that WHDD broadcasts to areas on Connecticut, New York and Massachusetts, the local situation with the school district and upcoming elections doesn't involved "Tri-State Politics" at all - if anything, it is hyper-local, limited to the six towns of the school district. Also, Marshall Miles and Jill Goodman are correct in asserting that they aren't journalists: they host an entertaining and valuable three-hour morning show that focuses on local events, PSA's, interviews with farmers, gardeners, local book store or other business owners, local elected officials etc. - it is community radio at its best. And while Marshall Miles did indeed provide personal commentary - with the blessing of the FCC - about the Region 1 board and budgets, he always made it clear that it was his opinions, not the stations or its sponsors.

But the most important thing is he stopped all mention of the school district once he became a candidate for the school board, which I believe completely comports with your statement that "all who work for public media [need] to be sensitive to conflicts of interests between personal interests and their professional public media responsibilities."

When I look at the CPB's Code of Editorial Integrity, I see that Marshall Miles and WHDD abide by its tenets:

  • Contributing to the civic, educational, and cultural life of our communities by presenting a range of ideas and cultures and offering a robust forum for discussion and debate
  • Supporting a strong civil society, increasing cultural access and knowledge, extending public education and strengthening community life through electronic media and related community activities -- not only broadcasting the morning show but also spending endless hours almost every weekend broadcasting at events out in the community.
  • Understanding community needs, issues, and interests
  • Providing respect and civility in our forums and discussions - regardless of John Mauer's claims of stridency
  • Providing opportunity for people of differing opinions to speak
  • Being accessible, accountable and transparent and so on.

I truly don't understand how your prohibition against someone presiding over a public radio station while running for public office meshes with the Constitution's protection of free speech especially when the person is scrupulously not using the radio station to broadcast that free speech. It seems to me that Marshall Miles is not abusing his position as president of WHDD if he is not promoting his candidacy, or even talking about the school district on the air. I also truly don't understand how gagging a broadcaster in his personal off-the-air venues can jibe with free speech protections. It seems to me that's is wrong and unfair is the CPB's policy, and perhaps it's time to revisit it.

Just a quick comment on what both Ms. Goodman, Ms. Toensing and others have mentioned in regard to this report: that as part of the investigation of a complaint, the ombudsman should also investigate the complainants and their motivations for complaining.

As both a journalist and an ombudsman I would like to point out that the backgrounds or motivations of those complaining about unethical behavior or a lack of objectivity and balance is irrelevant. The only thing relevant is the complaint itself and whether or not the complaint has merit. In this case, the complaint was relatively straightforward. Mr. Miles is president of a public broadcasting station and is running for elected position. Is such a circumstance a conflict of interest? I believe it is.

Others, however, do not agree that this is a conflict.

Here is Amy D. Schuchat:

You end your report by saying, "There is nothing wrong with Mr. Miles running for a seat on the regional board of education. There is also nothing wrong with his presiding over a public radio station. What is wrong is that he should not do both at the same time. It is wrong; it is unfair; it is a conflict of interest and it should stop."

Like any good citizen who chooses to spend countless, thankless hours to serve the public interest, Mr. Miles simply wants to volunteer his time to a cause he is passionate about … the proper public education of local schoolchildren. I believe that Marshall Miles has every legal right to do so. Like every other citizen he too has a constitutional right to free speech. Like every other citizen, he has a legal right to run for public service. I cannot find any FCC regulation, case law or any other ethical code, which denies him the right to voice a personal opinion or run for a seat on a local board, even though he also happens to be an officer in a public radio station. If the majority of the people choose to vote Marshall Miles into such office, you are wrong to singlehandedly reject the voters and their children, the best candidate for the position. It disgusts me that you are denying an excellent candidate the opportunity to serve the public good due to a few angry people, with personal agendas. That is wrong. That is unfair. If anyone has a conflict of interest, I suggest it is the very persons who wrote you purporting to be "concerned citizens". I suggest you get your facts straight, do your research and review the law, and then reconsider your decision.

And Leila Baroody also weighs in:

Your October 10th opinion about WHDD and Tri-State Politics makes me wonder if CPB is genuinely an advocate of free and fair speech when it comes to Marshall Miles. Perhaps it is an attempt to discriminate against an independent candidate and affect a local election? After all, our 2-party system is badly broken and we need more people to genuinely speak up about some of the reasons why this is happening. And by your opinion you appear to be enabling a small cadre of people to inflict harm on elections at the local level in NW CT.

I know Marshall Miles is an honorable man, and was wondering recently why he stopped editorializing about Region 1 ...until I read the news he was running for the school board as an independent candidate. I normally listen to 3 different public radio stations in my area of travel, and articulate editorializing is what keeps the listening juices at higher volumes. It is a valid public service that I believe we are losing, perhaps due to 1-sided opinions like yours affecting local politics, as well as the influence of money at a state and national scale.

Unless you can produce truly legitimate grounds and equally applied reasoning to personnel at other radio stations, you should be ashamed to be representing CPB and immediately and publicly apologize to Marshall. The public respects genuinely balanced and good behavior from public broadcasting, and you appear to be driving a sharply biased stake into the heart of public radio broadcasting by your actions.

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