Basnight swayed UNC-TV decisions

Staff writerAugust 18, 2010 

Worries about rumors that it was covering up for corporate giant Alcoa helped persuade UNC-TV to air a series of reports without the usual editorial scrutiny.

Senate leader Marc Basnight, one of the state's most powerful politicians, was the source of some of those rumors.

Alcoa is seeking to renew its federal license to operate hydroelectric dams on the Yadkin River. The state is fighting the relicensing, and wants to take over the operation.

In a June 24 telephone call to UNC-TV General Manager Tom Howe, Basnight passed along rumors of efforts to suppress the report on Alcoa. According to Howe's notes, Basnight told him that correspondent Eszter Vajda's supervisor was "challenging her work and is not letting her tell her story as she found it."

E-mail, letters and memos exchanged among station managers reveal their worries over the rumors and their decision to respond by airing her report with minimal review. UNC-TV released those documents in response to a public information request.

Other e-mail exchanges showed that a friend of Vajda's who did research for her report took $3,000 from a consultant working for an anti-Alcoa group. Alcoa has challenged the accuracy and fairness of Vajda's reporting and released a draft memo from three UNC-Chapel Hill journalism faculty members that said they would not have accepted the work for broadcast in its current form.

An array of forces hostile to the company were pushing for the release of Vajda's story, one highly critical of Alcoa that aimed to present a case for a state takeover.

Basnight said in an interview Tuesday that he heard the cover-up allegations from two senators he trusted, Sens. Fletcher Hartsell and Stan Bingham.

"From what I got from Fletcher and Stan, someone above her was stopping her from the story," said Basnight, a Manteo Democrat. "That may be occurring. I did not know that to be occurring."

Vajda interviewed Hartsell, a Concord Republican, and Bingham, a Denton Republican, for her Alcoa report. Both senators want the state to take over control of Alcoa's Yadkin River dams. According to Howe's notes, Basnight told him during the telephone call that "Alcoa has exploited our state."

In the interview, Basnight said he didn't push Howe to get Vajda's story on television. But according to Howe's notes, Basnight told him, "I want you to make sure this story is told in an honest, unjaded, truthful appraisal of the situation without influence from anyone associated with Alcoa."

As the legislature was nearing votes on bills connected to the dams' ownership, Hartsell demanded UNC-TV send to his committee interviews Vajda had recorded.

Basnight's telephone call, along with second- and third-hand rumors getting back to station management about legislators' suspicions of a cover-up led UNC-TV to air Vajda's work without the usual oversight from producers. The story aired over three nights as segments on the evening news and information show "North Carolina Now." Two of the three carried a disclaimer that the station was taking the unprecedented step to air the reports without customary editorial reviews.

"Members of the General Assembly were persuaded we were suppressing Eszter's work," said Gail Zimmermann, UNC-TV's associate general manager. "One of our sources told us they were told if we got Eszter's material we would destroy it to protect Alcoa. We are not trying to protect Alcoa."

State Commerce Secretary Keith Crisco spoke to UNC-TV managers twice this year about Alcoa, once in April with Howe, and once on June 28, when he met with director of productions Shannon Vickery at the station's headquarters. Both Crisco and UNC-TV managers described the meetings as informational.

Crisco's spokesman, in ane-mailed response to questions, described the June 28 discussion as "an informational meeting advising UNC-TV of some of the legislative timing surrounding these issues and offering that sharing a story with viewers sooner than later might provide valuable and timely information while important policy discussions were taking place. There was no assurance that stories would be running at any particular time."

Vickery said she did not feel Crisco was pressuring the station to air the story.

Howe was not available for an interview, but according to his notes, Basnight went on to suggest improper influence by Alcoa over Vajda's supervisor and told Howe that no one at the station should punish Vajda.

Vickery, Vajda's supervisor, said she was not working with Alcoa to suppress the story and doesn't know how such rumors got started.

E-mail exchanges between Vajda and Vickery suggest a disagreement over whether the Alcoa story should run as segments on "North Carolina Now" or as a documentary.

The day after his telephone conversation with Basnight, Howe wrote to assure him that Alcoa was not influencing the station's actions.

"I am completely confident that no impropriety of any sort exists in regard to the editorial or production processes associated with this project," he wrote.

Three faculty members at UNC-Chapel Hill's journalism school drafted a scathing critique of the Alcoa segments.

"It is our view that UNC-TV management should have not wavered in light of such criticism; should have maintained editorial control and reported the story."

lynn.bonner@newsobserver.com or 919-829-4821

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