Opinion

Who pulled the plug on ‘NC Spin,’ a UNC-TV show that criticized UNC leaders?

Watch excerpts from NC Spin’s show on the departure of UNC’s Spellings and Folt

Excerpts from the Jan. 18, 2019 NC Spin show discussing the "the confusion, controversy and crisis in our university system, starting with president Margaret Spellings departure then UNC Chancellor Carol Folt’s Bombshell resignation."
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Excerpts from the Jan. 18, 2019 NC Spin show discussing the "the confusion, controversy and crisis in our university system, starting with president Margaret Spellings departure then UNC Chancellor Carol Folt’s Bombshell resignation."

“NC Spin” on UNC-TV is an earnest public affairs show driven by discussions of policy and politics, but now it has transformed into an intriguing “whodunit.”

The mystery isn’t about what’s being said on the program. It’s about why there will be no program in 2020.

In short: Who killed “NC Spin”?

Tom Campbell, the show’s 74-year-old host who founded the program in the late 1990s, said he received a cryptic email at 5 p.m. last Friday saying UNC-TV managers had decided the show would not be renewed once its contract expires in December.

The show, which ran on WRAL-TV from 1998 to 2017 and moved to UNC-TV in 2018, airs at 7:30 p.m. Friday and 12:30 p.m. Sunday. Campbell said “NC Spin” is watched by a total of 27,000 viewers a week, a drop from the 100,000 viewers it drew at WRAL.

Campbell thinks he knows who’s behind his show’s demise — members of the UNC Board of Governors. The show featuring Campbell and four guests has included criticism of the board’s role in the resignations and forced departures of two UNC system presidents and the chancellors of UNC-Chapel Hill and East Carolina University. Specifically, Campbell said he wrote a column critical of the board as out of control.

“I know I was poking the bear, but our job as journalists is to speak out when we perceive injustices,” he said. “The bear doesn’t like being poked.”

UNC Board of Governors Chairman Harry Smith said Campbell’s claim is baseless. “The Board of Governors didn’t have anything to do with it,” he said Tuesday. “We’re not management. We don’t put out edicts to management.”

That Smith and other board members do not take action against critics who have ties to the university would surprise many UNC employees, especially UNC law professor Gene Nichol. The board shut down his Center on Poverty, Work and Opportunity at UNC-Chapel Hill after he wrote columns in The News & Observer critical of the Republican-led General Assembly, which appoints the Board of Governors.

The decision to end “NC Spin” looks like another instance of retaliation. The public should worry about losing one of the few public affairs TV shows that regularly discusses state policy. Beyond that, there should be concern about how politics may be affecting all programming on the state’s public TV station.

Smith is adamant that he and fellow board members did not directly call for Campbell to lose his platform, but he is equally clear about his unhappiness with Campbell’s reporting and commentary. He said the “NC Spin” host made inaccurate statements about the board and never sought comment from Smith to clarify the reasons for the board’s actions.

“He owes the Board of Governors a lot of apologies,” Smith said.

Email and other correspondence Campbell and The N&O are seeking from UNC may reveal who pulled the trigger on “NC Spin.” But regardless of who did it, Smith said it’s not a matter of suppressing free speech.

Campbell “has the right to do what he wants to do,” Smith said, but he can do it elsewhere.

“I hope he does get picked up,” Smith said. “If he has demand, he shouldn’t need public tax dollars to support his show.”

Given his strong feelings about Campbell’s commentary, it’s surprising to hear Smith say, “I have never watched his show one single time.”

Yet Smith is convinced that Campbell has “shown a reckless pattern.”

How does he know that? He said, “I get emails.”

Barnett: 919-829-4512, nbarnett@newsobserver. com
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