Bill sparks concerns over independence of West Virginia Public Broadcasting

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The West Virginia legislature has passed a bill that raises new questions about the editorial independence of West Virginia Public Broadcasting. 

Senate Bill 844 reassigns hiring authority for WVPB’s executive director from its governing board to the state’s Secretary of the Department of Arts, Culture, and History, an appointee of the governor.  

“This move certainly takes our public broadcasting closer under the wing of the government,” Elliot Hicks, chair of the Friends of West Virginia Public Broadcasting, told Current in an interview. The Friends of West Virginia Public Broadcasting is a nonprofit that solicits donations and manages annual membership donations for WVPB.

Hicks said that beyond WVPB and the Charleston Gazette-Mail, “there’s really nobody who has a newsroom dedicated to reporting what happens in the legislature or in state government. So the concern certainly has to be the independence of the reporting body. We need to maintain our independence.”

Hicks added that the move could seriously affect fundraising for WVPB. 

“People who give money, they don’t give money to the government,” he said. “So the question is, what happens with this? And will people still give, considering … our public broadcasting system here looks a lot more like the government?”

WVPB had faced questions about government interference in its reporting prior to the bill’s passage. In December 2022, WVPB reporter Amelia Knisely said in a tweet that 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. Butch Antolini, WVPB’s executive director at the time, said he was “never coerced or influenced by anyone from the West Virginia Department of Health and Human Resources or the Executive Branch.”

The bill was introduced Feb. 19 and passed overwhelmingly in both the state House and Senate. It was sent to Gov. Jim Justice Monday.  

Prior to the House’s passage of the bill earlier this month, Democratic House Delegate Larry Rowe expressed concerns about state interference in the newsroom.  

“It is possible the way this bill is written … that all it takes is a phone call from the Governor’s Office to the secretary to have everything changed, to pull news subjects that aren’t pleasant for the Governor’s Office,” Rowe said, according to a WV News report. “That’s not something that we want. Certainly whenever it’s news — and I hate to use the term — it creates an opportunity for propaganda rather than news for slanting of information about economic development or any sort of possibilities in the programming of Public Broadcasting.”

Independence shouldn’t be a concern because the governor already has a hand in the board’s makeup, Republican Delegate Chris Phillips said. “The governor already appoints the board, so we’re not really losing any independence on this,” Phillips said, according to the WV News report. “We’re simply combining it under the new secretary’s authority.” 

Hicks said he was surprised by the legislature’s actions. “We didn’t hear anybody tell us that this was in the offing,” he said. “Nobody said that this is something that they wanted to do. Nobody tried to talk with the people at public broadcasting about how that would affect anything, or whether it would affect anything.”

Prior to the Feb. 23 vote in the state Senate, Democratic Sen. Mike Caputo read a letter he had received from two WVPB donors who said they would stop giving if the bill became law. Caputo said he would vote “no” on the bill because of the letter but said he otherwise “never had strong feelings on this one way or the other.” 

The bill also renames the Educational Broadcasting Authority, WVPB’s governing body, as the Educational Broadcasting Commission and reduces the number of people on the commission from 11 to nine. 

WVPB interim director Eddie Isom declined comment and directed questions to William File III, board chair of the West Virginia Educational Broadcasting Authority, WVPB’s governing body. File did not respond to Current’s requests for an interview.

‘Nuclear option’

Members of the Friends board expressed concern and debated how to respond in a meeting Wednesday.

Rich Goldberg, a Friends board member, said during the meeting that he donates to WVPB and called the bill “a direct attempt of government to censor the free press.” He added that the board should consider a mass resignation. 

“How can I be a friend of public radio asking my friends to donate to a government agency that doesn’t permit free press?” he said. 

“If we do take, some might call it a nuclear option … do we leave our people ignorant by taking away one of the sources that you can have?” Hicks asked during the meeting. “But if that source gets corrupted, do we miss it anyway? We have to think about all of these things.”

One meeting attendee said they would “almost rather give my money to WESA in Pittsburgh and … donate to an independent press rather than a muzzled press.”

During the meeting, Marilyn DiVita, WVPB’s development director, said that an underwriting prospect “has objected about the state’s interference.”

“My fear is that once we lose people, bringing them back in might be difficult,” she said. She also urged the Friends board to take any actions “in a measured way, so not to implode the organization, because that’s what it will do.”

Another unknown speaker during the meeting said that “a protest resignation would do irreparable harm to what we’ve got.” They suggested watching closely how the law plays out. “I don’t know that we necessarily want to turn everything upside down right now,” they said. 

The board plans to write an op-ed about the bill.

‘I’m very concerned’

Members of the EBA expressed reservations about the bill in a Feb. 27 emergency meeting to discuss the changes. “I’m a little concerned about the whole thing because I believe that two-thirds of our funding comes from other sources besides the state,” said board member Carol Rotruck.  “And for them to then take away our authority or our power to oversee that, I’m very concerned about that.”

About 35% of WVPB’s annual budget came from the state in FY23, according to the station’s most recent annual report.  

File, the EBA chair, said that he was concerned that the legislation’s language weakens the authority of the new commission. The new bill states the Commission “may” have certain powers.

“‘May’ … it’s certainly much less authority than ‘shall,’” File said.

Randall Reid-Smith, who represents the governor on the EBA board, downplayed the changes as “an organizational chart move.” Reid-Smith is cabinet secretary of the state’s Department of Arts, Culture and History, and would appoint the executive director under the new law.

“I think everything is going to be OK,” he said. “It puts us all together. Together we’re stronger. … My concern is to keep money for all arts organizations.”

“I think it’s a good bill,” he said.

Reid-Smith’s title was changed to cabinet secretary during the same legislative session. 

One thought on “Bill sparks concerns over independence of West Virginia Public Broadcasting

  1. Is there enough independent support to create a community licensee? Perhaps Public Media Company could be helpful? This has the look and feel of interference. That is if it walks, and quacks like a duck…..

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