NPR raises concerns about firing of Tennessee reporter

Several employees at UTC say local lawmakers threatened to cut some state funding to UTC, complaining that Helbert did not explicitly identify herself as a reporter for WUTC, an NPR affiliate, while reporting on Tennessee's transgender bathroom bill.

The Chattanooga Times-Free Press ( ) reports that lawmakers said WUTC-FM reporter Jacqui Helbert failed to properly identify herself as a reporter during meetings March 7 between lawmakers and a group of high school students. Helbert was wearing an NPR press pass and headphones and carrying a 22-inch fuzzy microphone which she pointed at speakers during the meetings.

UTC spokesman George Heddleston said in a statement the university's decision to fire Helbert was "based on a violation of journalism ethics".

Jacqui Helbert was reporting on students from a Gay Straight Alliance who met with Republican lawmakers in Tennessee to oppose a controversial bathroom bill that is similar to one enforced in North Carolina.

"In both cases we at NPR believe the decisions should have been left to the journalists in charge", Oreskes and Memmott said in the statement.

"The situation is no small matter because lawmakers are meeting with UTC officials very soon to talk about funding - UTC gets state funds, of course, and lawmakers like Brooks and his colleagues may be able to cut funding, or might threaten to, if something UTC-relate [d] has raised their ire", said WUTC news director Mike Miller.

Lawmakers voted past year to strip state funding for UT-Knoxville's Office for Diversity and Inclusion, demanding the campus be punished for its annual "Sex Week" student activities, as well as controversies over the diversity office's suggested use of gender-neutral pronouns and avoiding the word "Christmas" in holiday party announcements. The station's license is held by the University of Tennessee at Chattanooga.

"Is it how I feel on Monday?"

Helbert's story aired on WUTC on March 9 and 13 and was posted on the station's website. "Wednesday I might feel like a dog", Bell can be heard saying.

Gardenhire said Helbert wasn't fired at his behest.

"I stood at the door personally and shook hands and asked their names, as I do with anyone who comes to my office", he said.

The students were from a high school. "She dug her own grave, and UTC [officials] are the ones that makes the policy".

"Absolutely not", Bell said in response to whether he requested her firing. "WUTC was caught in the crossfire, they are a scapegoat just like I am".

  • Larry Hoffman