CPB Office of the Ombudsman

WAMU in the News

Joel Kaplan

March 2, 2012

WAMU made news this week and not in a flattering way. The Washington Post reported that its news director since 2006, Jim Asendio, 60, was leaving the public radio station, located at American University in Washington, D.C.

While Mr. Asendio declined to discuss his departure with the ombudsman's office, he told The Washington Post that his departure was due to an ethical breach by the radio station when it decided to allow donors to the station to meet with WAMU reporters at a breakfast.

To Mr. Asendio, such a gathering was a violation of the ethical firewall that is in place that would keep funders of public broadcasting from influencing news coverage. As a result, Mr. Asendio said he refused to attend, which prompted an email from station manager Caryn Mathes telling him that his "refusal to attend a major station event would send an irreversible and permanent statement on whether I was a member of our team," Mr. Asendio told the Post. "I felt it best to stand on my journalistic ethics and resign."

The Washington Post article on his resignation can be found here:

http://www.washingtonpost.com/blogs/erik-wemple/post/wamu-news-director-claims-firewall-transgression/2012/02/22/gIQAKw2UTR_blog.html

In response, Benae Mosby, communications manager for WAMU, issued this statement:

"Jim's departure was a personal decision; beyond that, we do not discuss personnel matters."

Ms. Mosby then went on to discuss the question of whether WAMU breached its ethical code by arranging a meeting between donors and WAMU staff. This is what she had to say:

"WAMU maintains a firewall between journalists and funders; journalists may not - and do not - discuss coverage planning with grant-making officials or individual donors. It is senior management's responsibility to manage contacts for their respective divisions with funders. Any one-on-one, private contact between a non-management journalist and a funder has high potential for putting that journalist in an awkward position and communicating the wrong message to the funder, and there is no situation where this should be allowed to occur.

"For example, this morning, the station hosted a Meet the Producers Breakfast as a 'thank-you' for approximately 30 people. The context was to give donor constituents an understanding of how the work is performed. Approximately nine of our reporters and producers spoke on a panel discussion moderated by program director Mark McDonald. They discussed how their work comes together, and entertained general questions from the audience, like 'how do journalists in the nation's capital decide what is a local or a national story?'

"Allowing people to see the impact that their investment makes in our work is completely appropriate. However, the station does not permit crossing the line between a funder seeing that impact and a funder being allowed input into the planning process for coverage."

Viewing this from an outsider's perspective, there appears to be a major discrepancy between what WAMU's former news director says and what the radio station says. Mr. Asendio believes that WAMU violated journalistic ethics and felt strongly enough that he resigned.

WAMU will not directly address Mr. Asendio's resignation, saying it is a personal decision and that it does not discuss personnel matters. But in this case, this is well beyond a personal issue. It is an issue that goes to the heart of the station's ethics.

The public deserves more from WAMU. It deserves to know exactly what is going on in its newsroom and at its donor conferences. At the very least, the public deserves transparency from WAMU.

WAMU needs to release all records pertaining to its Meet the Producers Breakfast as well as all other meetings that involve newsroom personnel and donors. It should particularly release the list of those who attended, including the journalists, producers and donors.

If there is a transcript of the breakfast or other meetings, that should also be released. If future such meetings take place, they should be announced publicly, as well as a list of those who attend. WAMU should also consider video streaming such future meetings.

The WAMU controversy comes the same week that both NPR and the Editorial Integrity for Public Media Project have released new codes of ethics:

http://www.cpb.org/ombudsman/display.php?id=79

WAMU should make sure that all its personnel read them.

In another, unrelated matter involving WAMU, a longtime listener, Ruth Burke, complained about a report about a transgender woman who was beat up in a bathroom. The report included 12 seconds of shouting and screams from the beating victim, which were taken from a YouTube video of the incident.

http://wamu.org/news/12/02/22/baltimore_county_enacts_transgender_protection_measure

"Please don't do that again," Ms. Burke said. "It was very disturbing. I listen to NPR stations because I know I won't get that kind of sensational news reporting."

Ms. Burke said that she remains a loyal listener but wanted to voice her reaction and give feedback.

Sharon Rae, senior news editor at WAMU, said in response, that the station should have aired a warning before running the report and would share the complaint with her staff so that similar reports in the future would carry such a warning.

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