Republicans got a journalist fired for accurately reporting lawmaker’s anti-transgender comments
Republicans have been accused of conspiring to get a public radio reporter fired for accurately reported a lawmaker’s bigoted comments about transgender people.
The controversy blew up in Tennessee after reporter Jacqui Helbert of public radio station WUTC posted an online report featuring comments from state Senator Mike Bell on Tennessee’s proposed anti-transgender ‘bathroom bill’.
Ms Helbert cited a meeting she had attended between Senator Bell and students from the Gay-Straight Alliance Club in Cleveland, in which the lawmaker claimed of gender identity: “Is it how I feel on Monday? I feel different on Tuesday? Wednesday I might feel like a dog.”
He attacked trans equality, citing the supposed case of a transgender prisoner who “demanded to be placed in a female prison… [and] after three months they had to take him out because he was having sex with all the female prisoners”.
After the report was published accurately quoting the lawmaker, Bell claimed that he had not been aware that Ms Helbert was a journalist when he made the comments.
Ms Helbert, who had attended the meeting as a reporter, had been holding a 14-inch long shotgun microphone while wearing press credentials, a digital recorder and radio headphones.
Though there was no question of any inaccuracy in the report, Ms Helbert was dismissed from her post at the station, which is owned and operated by the University of Tennessee at Chattanooga. The university also ordered her report pulled down from the website.
The decision was reportedly taken by the university over the heads of the radio team, after a complaint to the university’s vice chancellor from Republican Sen. Todd Gardenhire, a colleague of Bell.
National Public Radio, which oversees the public radio network, spoke out about the row in a statement.
NPR alleged: “The decision to terminate the employment of reporter Jacqui Helbert was made by university officials, not the news editors at WUTC. The decision to remove [the story] from WUTC’s website… was also made by university officials, not WUTC’s editors.
“Serious questions have been raised about whether university officials were pressured to take those actions by state lawmakers — who could cut state funding to the school and WUTC.
“In both cases we at NPR believe the decisions should have been left to the journalists in charge. Taking the decisions about enforcing ethics out of their hands did more to undermine the station’s credibility than the original infraction.
“This chain of events underscores why it is critical that newsrooms such as that at WUTC not be subject to pressure from the institutions that hold their licenses, the sponsors who give them financial support or the politicians who sometimes don’t like the stories they hear or read.”
NPR added: “Removing a story – except in the most extreme circumstances — is a breach of the standards practiced by NPR and other credible news organizations.
“We at NPR agree with the editors’ thinking. They should have been allowed to handle the situation as they – the journalists – felt was right. We strongly urge the university and WUTC to reach an agreement that ensures the station’s editorial independence in the future.”
The Association of LGBTQ Journalists has also called for Ms Helbert’s reinstatement, alleging she had been “ousted from her job after covering Tennessee state officials in a way they didn’t like”.
However, the university defended the actions.
The university’s comms chief George Heddleston insisted: “The University’s decision to release the employee from the station was based on a violation of journalism ethics.
“We believe the newsgathering process must be conducted in a manner that instils trust in the public. Failure to do so undermines journalistic credibility just as much as inaccurate information. We strive to maintain the faith of our listeners and the community we serve.”
Ms Helbert, who says she has been “completely floored” by the support from the rest of the journalistic community, has since published a full transcript of Bell’s recorded comments.
In it, the lawmaker baselessly claims: “I could show you countless assaults that have happened in bathrooms [from] people who were, quote, transgendered because again there’s no scientific way to define that.”
He also insisted: “I’ve never seen the science to back it up. I’ve had countless discussions with doctors. My officemate is a doctor who thinks it’s all hogwash.”