CPB Office of the Ombudsman

Conflicts at KNAU

Joel Kaplan

March 4, 2014

When the U.S. Forest Service decided to award a nearly $300 million contract as part of the Four Forests Restoration Initiative (4FRI), freelance reporter Claudine LoMonaco approached KNAU news director Mark Bevis with an idea for a story.

Ms. LoMonaco's sources in the initiative, made up of an unlikely coalition of industry, environmentalists and government, were concerned that the winning contractor did not have the ability to conduct the largest restoration effort in Forest Service history. Ms. LoMoncao, who had originally reported on the initiative for Marketplace the previous year, did some preliminary digging. Once she began investigating the winning bidder, she discovered a much larger story.

Mr. Bevis thought that this was an important and relevant story for KNAU's listeners and commissioned a five-part series that was to run in September 2012.

All sides agree that then-KNAU general manager John Stark killed the series by Ms. LoMonaco into the awarding of the $280 million grant to a company that had ties to Northern Arizona University, which is the license holder for the radio station.

Where they disagree is over why Mr. Stark killed the series.

From Mr. Stark's perspective it was simple:

"I killed the series for editorial reasons and not because of influence from anybody else. This was agenda driven journalism. It was partisan and it was sour grapes."

But from the perspective of Ms. LoMonaco, the news director, Mr. Bevis, and an environmental activist who was one of the reporter's sources, the motivation of Mr. Stark is far more sinister.

They claim that Mr. Stark killed the series because of pressure from his superiors at the university and from Northern Arizona University Prof. William Wallace Covington, an advocate of the company that received the contract and who was in the midst of providing Flagstaff-based KNAU with a $10,000 matching grant for one of Mr. Stark's pet projects.

"We knew the story would be controversial, so I spent months carefully reporting and crafting the series with (News Director) Mark (Bevis) to ensure we were being fair," said Ms. LoMonaco. "My findings were strong, and pointed to serious problems, including violations of federal law, with the contractor and Forest Service's screening process. As it turns out, the Forest Service and an influential, Forest Service-funded research institute also housed at Northern Arizona University (the NAU of KNAU), the Ecological Research Institute (ERI), called to complain about my reporting."

"The circumstances around how the story got killed are very suspicious. Stark's narrative doesn't add up. Given the serious nature of my findings, he was supposed to run my scripts past the university's lawyers. But he never did. Instead, he sat on the first one for nearly a week, then simply declared it biased and killed it. When I offered to conduct more interviews and asked what, specifically, was the problem, he didn't respond and just stated that he was killing it."

Mr. Bevis backs up what Ms. LoMonaco said and adds that Mr. Stark had never reviewed any other story during the more than a year he was KNAU news director.

"I was really excited about the stories," he said. "It was an interesting story that nobody was talking about.

"John said he wanted to read it. At one point he wanted to take the scripts home and read them. He came back with no suggestions and just said we shouldn't run this."

"The situation was pretty disappointing and I just wanted to get out of there."

The stories were set to begin running in September 2012. A day after Mr. Stark killed the series, on Sept. 6, 2012; Mr. Stark received an email from Prof. Covington's assistant that the grant for $10,000 he requested had been approved.

Both Dr. Covington and Mr. Stark said there was no connection between his decision to kill the stories and the grant.

"I didn't kill any story or ask anyone to kill any story," said Dr. Covington. "I never talked to John Stark about the story."

"I understand that there is an allegation about some money for the emergency notification network. At the time we were concerned about large landscape fires burning over and people needing notification."

"John's interest was far beyond fires. I talked to him about that and after I talked to (NAU) president (John Haeger) we agreed to put $10,000 into that."

Mr. Stark also denied that there was any connection between the $10,000 matching grant and his decision not to run the series.

Ms. LoMonaco was paid a kill fee for her report, and she then sold a version of it several months later as a freelance piece to the Santa Fe Reporter.

Within months, both Mr. Stark and Mr. Bevis left KNAU. Mr. Stark became the general manager at KLCC, the public radio station licensed to Lane Community College in Eugene, Oregon. Mr. Bevis became the newscast editor at Colorado Public Radio in Centennial, Colorado.

The conflict and controversy over the killing of the story would likely have died out had it not been for a complaint filed by Dr. Robin Silver, co-founder of the Center for Biological Diversity in Flagstaff, Arizona.

Dr. Silver, a retired emergency room physician, is an environmental activist and was one of Ms. LoMonaco's several sources for the series. He said that when members of the initiative became concerned that the series was not going to be aired as planned, representatives of all three entities (industry, environmentalists and government) contacted her for an explanation. "She told us she thought the story was not going to run as it had been suppressed," he said.

Dr. Silver subsequently filed several freedom of information requests with NAU officials. He then filed a formal complaint with the CPB ombudsman, charging the station with the suppression of an investigative news series and lack of impartiality by the station manager.

"Hardcopy documents and extensive interviews establish that the NAU investigative news series was suddenly and unexpectedly killed following lobbying efforts by NAU officials," Dr. Silver wrote while providing several emails between the reporter, the news director, the station manager and other NAU officials.

"One of these NAU officials was apparently threatened by the findings of the investigative news series. The correspondence also documents a conflict of interest by the KNAU station manager. The KNAU station manager was raising money from a NAU professor at the same time the NAU professor was lobbying against the KNAU investigative series."

The ombudsman has attempted to contact everyone involved in Dr. Silver's complaint. Tom Bauer, director of public affairs for NAU responded on behalf of John Haeger, the president of the university, and Mason Gerety, NAU's vice president of university advancement and Mr. Stark's immediate boss.

"I know the president played no role," said Mr. Bauer. "He does not get involved in editorial decisions. He's president of the university so KNAU falls under his reign as president but I couldn't find anything that backs up Robin's accusations."

Mr. Bauer added that Mr. Gerety told him that "he's never ever interfered with any editorial decisions."

Both Dr. Covington, who was interviewed for the stories, and Mr. Stark also contends that there was no connection between the $10,000 grant and the killing of the story.

An email from Dr. Covington's assistant was sent to Mr. Stark on Sept. 6, the day after Mr. Stark told Mr. Bevis he was killing the series. Dr. Covington also sent an email to Mr. Stark on that day confirming the awarding of the $10,000 grant. Neither of those emails mentioned the series and both Dr. Covington and Mr. Stark said the timing of the award was coincidental with the killing of the series.

Ombudsman's observations:

This is a difficult and complex story to get to the bottom of. It is made more difficult in that the perspective of all of the principals involved is so different. I have tried to present all those sides as dispassionately as possible.

That said, I have two observations from my investigation of this matter:

  1. This series should not have been killed.
  2. KNAU had a major conflict of interest here and did not handle the matter appropriately.

Let me begin with my first observation. Having read the story that Ms. LoMonaco published in the Santa Fe newspaper based on her reporting for KNAU, I can say that it was reported fairly and completely and she presented all sides to the story.

The thrust of her story was that the Four Forest Restoration Initiative, known as 4FRI, was a major program designed to prevent catastrophic fires like the kind that killed six firefighters during Arizona's devastating Dude Fire. The best part of the initiative was that it brought together groups that were often opposed to each other's goals: environmentalists, industry and the U.S. Forest Service.

However, the problem, as Ms. LoMonaco pointed out, was that the Forest Service regional office awarded the $280 million 4FRI contract in May 2012 to a little-known company, Pioneer Forest Products, which came as a surprise to many of the 4FRI partners.

As Ms. LoMonaco wrote:

"In May 2012, the Forest Service regional office in Albuquerque awarded the 4FRI contract to an under-the-radar company from Montana called Pioneer Forest Products. But more than a year later, Pioneer hasn't thinned a single overgrown tree, because it's failed to attract any investors, and the project has stalled."

She goes on:

"In addition, one of Pioneer's main partners is a former Forest Service supervisor who worked at the same regional office in Albuquerque that selected the company. This link has fueled further questions. Critics say missed deadlines, insufficient funding and a harebrained scheme suggest that even though Pioneer may have lacked the ability to fulfill the contract, political connections trumped reason."

Mr. Stark said he killed the series because it read like "sour grapes" from an entity that did not get the contract. Mr. Bevis confirmed that Mr. Stark used the phrase "sour grapes" repeatedly when he explained why he killed the series.

But most investigative reporters and editors know that the best information about wrongdoing or corruption comes from "victims and enemies", those in the know about what happened and why, even if they have an ax to grind.

The fact that much of the information came from competitors who lost out on the contract does not mean that the awarding of the contract was not suspect or that the criticism was not valid.

And in this case, Ms. LoMonaco was correct. More than a year after the contract was awarded, nothing had been done because Pioneer was not able to perform its end of the contract.

It may have been sour grapes, but it was accurate. When it was pointed out that Ms. LoMonaco was proven correct in what she wrote, Mr. Stark only said, "hindsight is 20/20."

The other aspect of this that is troubling is, according to Mr. Bevis, this was the first and only time Mr. Stark ever killed a story while he was news director.

"I thought it was excessive to devote so much airtime after the fact to sour grapes," Mr. Stark said.

When asked why he then just didn't ask the reporter and news director to trim the story, Mr. Stark said, "As general manager I say no to a lot of things and yes to other things. I say no to proposals to protect KNAU's integrity. You certainly can second guess me but that was my independent judgment."

Which leads me to my second observation. KNAU and Mr. Stark had a major conflict of interest here. Northern Arizona University, through its Ecological Research Institute, backed the Pioneer contract. ERI is also the entity that awarded KNAU a $10,000 grant. As such, it should have taken extraordinary efforts to insure that nothing compromised its objectivity or willingness to pursue the story.

Public broadcasters often have the same potential for conflicts as commercial broadcasters, who must guard against allowing advertisers to influence their news judgments.

In the case of public broadcasters, particularly those affiliated with educational institutions, the burden is on the institution to ensure there are safeguards to prevent such undue influence.

Such was the case more than two years ago involving Penn State and its public broadcaster, WPSU, during the Jerry Sandusky scandal. WPSU implemented guidelines and sought outside counsel to be sure that the university did not color the station's coverage of a major university scandal.

This did not happen here. Instead, Mr. Stark on his own killed a series, even though he and the institution he works for has a major conflict of interest. It is reasonable to question here whether Mr. Stark's judgment was, in fact, independent.

Here's what Mr. Stark should have done. He should have picked up the phone and contacted Dean Chris Callahan at Arizona State University, who runs one of the top journalism schools in the country. Mr. Callahan then could have taken the story and given it to one of his experienced, award-winning faculty members who could have served as an outside editor/independent evaluator. Such a move would have insured that a story with editorial problems would not run and it also would have insured that a story that was fairly and accurately reported should run.

(My note: Even if ASU had a contract with the Forest Services, the school and faculty do not report to the same entities trying to get the contract; they could exercise their independent judgment purely from a journalistic perspective).

Instead, Mr. Stark made the unilateral decision to kill the series. Today, nearly a year and a half after the events described in this report, nothing can really be done. All the principals have left KNAU and the station is under new management. "This entire story is moot in that everyone is gone," says NAU's Mr. Bauer.

Nevertheless, this remains a black mark on the history of the radio station and one would hope that both KNAU and the NAU administration will learn from this experience.

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