Leaders of West Virginia Public Broadcasting are denying claims that state officials influenced the network to dismiss a reporter over her coverage of a state agency.
In a Dec. 28 tweet, reporter Amelia Knisely said she was “let go” from her job “following threats” from West Virginia’s Department of Health and Human Resources about her reporting on the agency. Knisely declined an interview request for this story.
Her reporting included a Nov. 3 article highlighting a report from lawmakers about people with disabilities being abused in DHHR facilities. Bill Crouch, then secretary of the DHHR, wrote to WVPB Executive Director Butch Antolini seeking a full retraction of the story, according to reporting by local journalist Steven Allen Adams. WVPB has not retracted the story or any others that Knisely wrote about DHHR.
Knisely told Adams in a statement that on Dec. 6, WVPB News Director Eric Douglas informed her that she could no longer write about DHHR and that the decision was an “order” from Antolini. WVPB told her Dec. 20 that her “services were no longer needed,” she told Adams.
Knisley said she had also been told that Crouch and a DHHR spokesperson had “contacted WVPB leadership and threatened to discredit WVPB if I continued reporting on the health department.”
Adams’ reporting included excerpts from December emails exchanged between WVPB and state legislature communications officials, which were obtained through a Freedom of Information Act request. The emails show that after a station producer asked for state legislature press credentials for Knisely on Dec. 15, WVPB COO Eddie Isom withdrew the request the same day.
In an email to WVPB News Director Eric Douglas, State Senate Communications Director Jacque Bland said, “It feels kind of gross and shady to me that someone else would dip in and say that one of your reporters won’t have any assignments related to the session … I definitely wanted you to be aware that Butch and Pals were trying to stick their fingers in the pie.”
The next day, Douglas replied, “I don’t appreciate (Isom) going behind my back, but for now it is out of my hands. You don’t need to worry about credentials for Amelia after all. And you’re right, it does feel gross and shady.”
Knisely told Adams that she filed a complaint with WVPB’s human resources department Dec. 15. The station published her last piece on its website Dec. 19.
“It is crucial for the press to hold government agencies accountable,” Knisely said. “It must be emphasized that these events followed my reporting on the mistreatment of people with disabilities, who are in state care.”
Adams’ reporting drew condemnation of WVPB from West Virginia State Senate President Craig Blair, who wrote in an Jan. 5 op-ed that “Adams’s reporting about DHHR’s (alleged) interference in the Public Broadcasting news department and pressure on it to silence negative stories is disturbing, and that behavior would not be tolerated in the Senate. I hope the Executive Branch disavows this blatant abuse of the First Amendment and holds the management of West Virginia Public Broadcasting responsible for it.” Knisely wrote about Blair’s concerns about DHHR in her Nov. 3 piece.
‘WVPB stands by its reporting’
In his statement to Current, WVPB’s Antolini said that he was “never coerced or influenced by anyone from the West Virginia Department of Health and Human Resources or the Executive Branch.” He declined to speak to Current beyond the written statement.
Antolini told Current that Knisely was not fired and remains on WVPB’s payroll. He added that she was “a part time reporter that was employed until we found a candidate to fill a full time position on our staff.”
“She was clearly aware of this before she started working” at WVPB in September, he said.
Antolini also said that after a new full-time reporter was hired and completed an introductory period, “no other assignments were given to Ms. Knisely.”
“I also think it is extremely important to note that when our news director informed her that she would have no other assignments as a part-timer that he also told her that she would be welcome to apply for another full time position that had become available and is still being advertised today,” Antolini said in the statement.
William File, chairman of the West Virginia Educational Broadcasting Authority, also addressed the controversy in a Dec. 29 statement published by the Register-Herald. The EBA is the governing body of WVPB.
“It has been suggested that Antolini received pressure from the Justice Administration and DHHR to retract both stories, neither of those stories have been retracted,” File wrote. “Antolini also reported to the WVEBA executive committee that he was not coerced or pressured by anyone.”
“WVPB stands by its reporting on the DHHR and will continue to report on the DHHR in the future,” File added.
File also said that Knisley’s HR complaint “did not contend that she had been fired from her part time position. The full-time employee has completed her introductory period and along with others will assume the responsibility for reporting on the DHHR.”