Wednesday, March 29, 2017


One of reporter Jacqui Helbert’s first stories for NPR News station WUTC, Chattanooga [link], turned out to be her final report for the station. Helbert, a recent graduate of’s Story Workshop, started working part-time for WUTC last fall. 

Jacqui Helbert
On Tuesday, March 7th, Helbert travelled to the state capitol in Nashville to cover a field trip by students from a Chattanooga-area high school.  The students, members of the Cleveland High Gay-Straight Alliance Club, made the trip to voice concerns over Tennessee’s bathroom bill. The proposed legislation is similar to a controversial law enacted in North Carolina.

Helbert accompanied the students to a meeting with State Sen. Mike Bell, (R-Riceville). Bell is the sponsor of Tennessee’s bathroom bill and is a well-known Culture Warrior.  When Bell was asked why he proposed the legislation and he replied, in part:

State Senator Mike Bell
"Did ya’ll see the news where there a transgender person arrested in Oregon this past summer. He was a teen. He demanded to be placed in female prison. After three months they had to take him out because he was having sex with all the female prisoners.

How do you define it [gender identity]? Is it how I feel on Monday. Or do I feel different on Tuesday. Wednesday I might feel like a dog. It doesn’t matter what I present myself as. It’s in my DNA. It’s science."

Helbert recorded the meeting and included Bell’s remarks in her story for WUTC. After the story aired on March 9th, the news went viral across the state and caused quite a stir. State Senator Bell didn’t like the negative publicity and allegedly complained to officials at the University of Tennessee – Chattanooga (UTC), WUTC’s licensee, about it. A couple of weeks later, Helbert was fired. The university said she violated ethics guidelines.

I suggest that you listen to Helbert’s report here. To me, this is fair story that captures various viewpoints about the legislation.

Wednesday I might feel like a dog.

State Senator Bell’s complaint centers on Helbert’s failure to notify him that he was being recorded. But, Helbert’s presence and intentions were obvious. She worn a lanyard showing her press credentials, pointed a shotgun microphone at Bell and was carrying a digital recorder with a finger on the “record” button.

Helbert never hid what she was doing. But, Bell alleged she never said she never said: This meeting is being recorded. Because of that, Bell said he believed she recorded a private conversation and his privacy was violated.

Helbert was fired Tuesday (3/28) by George Heddleston, UTC’s senior Associate Vice Chancellor of Marketing and Communications. In a press release, UTC said the decision to terminate was made by university officials, not folks at WUTC. The university denied that State Senator Bell had used the state funding UTC receives as leverage to turf Helbert. According to the Nashville Scene report, WUTC receives about $500,000 a year in state funds via the university, along with office space on campus.

For more details, I recommend Nashville Scene’s excellent report here.

The first of what is likely to be many Congressional hearings on the fate of the Corporation for Public Broadcast (CPB) was held on Tuesday (3/28). PBS CEO Stacy Harrison testified before the US House of Representatives Committee on Appropriations. The hearing can be seen and heard on the committee’s website here.

I was listening to the hearing as I wrote this post.  Almost all of the questions and answers involved PBS programming. Republican representatives asked about Sesame Street's deal with HBO. A typical comment was: Big Bird isn’t being fired because he is now an independent contractor.

Harrison spoke about the success of PBS programming and other media services for kids. It was boilerplate stuff that hasn’t changed much since the 1990s.

Thank you to Sue Schardt for spreading the word about the hearing.  I wish (and hope) that someone, or some organization, will take the lead on behalf of the public radio system to publicize when future hears are scheduled.

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