BANGOR, Maine — This week’s simultaneous resignations of two local news anchors on live TV may be a first, according to two longtime broadcast journalism experts, but reflect common tensions in news operations.
“I wouldn’t be surprised if [the on-air resignations are a first],” said Barbara Cochran, former Radio Television Digital News Association president and current public affairs chairwoman of the Missouri School of Journalism. “It’s getting attention in the trade press already, and I think there is a good discussion to be had with students and professionals about what your options are and what is the best way to handle situations like this.”
Citing frustration about upper-management practices that they said they both strongly disagreed with, news director Cindy Michaels and executive producer Tony Consiglio announced they were quitting their jobs at Bangor TV station WVII (Channel 7) at the end of their live 6 p.m. Tuesday newscast.
“I’ve been in journalism for 40 years, and I’m not aware of any situation like that in my experience,” Cochran said Wednesday. She began her journalism career at the Washington Star newspaper before taking a broadcasting job with National Public Radio when the paper folded in 1979, moving to NBC for almost six years, and then to CBS for eight.
Michaels, who had been at the station for six years, said Tuesday there was an expectation by upper management to do somewhat unbalanced news, politically, in general, to satisfy ownership or advertiser concerns.
Mike Palmer, general manager and vice president at WVII and sister station WFVX (Channel 22), disagreed, saying management plays no active role in the day-to-day news operations of his station’s staff.
“I don’t go to story meetings. I don’t assign stories. I am not involved,” he said Wednesday.
Bob Steele, a former University of Maine journalism professor who went on to spend almost 20 years at the Poynter Institute in St. Petersburg, Fla., and build the journalism school’s ethics program, said while the joint resignation of Michaels and Consiglio on live TV may be new, their struggle with higher-ups is not.
“Tensions between management and newsroom journalists over values are not new. They’ve always existed in TV, newspapers and radio, and in this digital era as well,” said Steele, who is now professor of journalism ethics at DePauw University in Greencastle, Ind., and director of the school’s Prindle Institute for Ethics. “They can often involve competing purposes and loyalties.
“The key is to protect the journalistic independence of the newsroom to make sure the legitimate business values of an organization do not undermine, nor conflict with the journalistic values of the newsroom.”
And do so in a way in which the station or paper’s ability to make money isn’t compromised or harmed.
“This era is one in which the business models for newspapers have shattered and the models for network and local TV have also changed dramatically due to the Internet, changing consumer habits, and a different ad mix and base and how advertisers use the media,” Steele said. “So it’s a very challenging period, but that is never an excuse for compromising the journalistic ethics and quality of the organization and the work it produces.”
According to Cochran and Steele, management shouldn’t be heavily involved in the day-to-day news operations.
“Certainly a GM has overall responsibility for the station and is the supervisor of those who they hire for the newsroom, but he or a publisher shouldn’t unduly influence the news coverage of their newspapers or stations,” said Steele, who was WVII’s news director for three years (1976-78) after being a reporter at WLBZ (Channel 2) from 1973 to 1975.
Palmer, however, has become directly involved in the station’s news operations more than once, calling a meeting to emphasize balance when reporting, particularly on controversial issues such as gay marriage and politics.
Peter Farrar, a master control operator at the station for the last year, says he has no personal experience with Palmer being involved in the news operation, but did say that regarding the few instances he’s aware of, Palmer only became involved to stress and promote balance.
“I never saw it. I never heard of it, really,” Farrar said Wednesday. “And Cindy never said anything to me in relation to feeling like her hands were tied journalistically here. I never really talked to Tony.”
Another current WVII employee, who asked to remain anonymous, supported Farrar’s position, noting in an email to the BDN on Wednesday that, “The only time there were issues with politically motivated stories was when the reporters were presenting stories with only one side of the issue being represented, and they were told that BOTH sides needed to be presented.”
David Esch, a former producer who worked at WVII for three months last year, said Wednesday that he had resigned because of what he considered questionable journalistic practices, citing one story involving a political candidate talking about the candidate’s views on gay marriage. The day after the story aired, Esch said Palmer called a meeting to tell staff members that any story including a controversial subject like gay marriage would not be run without including representatives of both sides giving their takes on the issue.
While she didn’t disagree with the reason for the meeting, Cochran says it could have been handled much better.
“That should ultimately come from the news director, and not the GM, who could have talked to [the news director], and then she could have talked to her staff,” Cochran said. “At any TV station, the GM and news director have to be able to communicate and get along.
“The news department should be protected from those outside pressures in order to safeguard its credibility. If she felt like she was constantly undercut and just not able to carry out the editorial mission as she thought best, she was just in a bad situation.”
Steele said that while he had read BDN stories about the resignations and an online MPBN story citing another disagreement between the anchors and Palmer, who disagreed with their choice of an openly gay man to moderate a gay marriage debate, he couldn’t comment specifically about the situation until he knew more details.
“Certainly people have their ideological beliefs, but the GM or manager shouldn’t push their beliefs on what is covered, how it’s covered, or the content of news stories,” said Steele. “There’s an inference that the GM was wearing big shoes and intruding on the journalistic news operation. If that was happening, and I can’t judge that, then you have a serious ethical problem.”
Consiglio said he’s hopeful that, at the very least, some thoughtful discussion and debate results from situation.
“I’ve always been one to take journalism ethics seriously, and if this becomes some sort of teaching point or lesson, I hope that it can be a valuable learning experience,” Consiglio said.