Jim Asendio leveled some pretty heavy charges at his former employer, WAMU radio, as he went out the door. The way Asendio framed it, a clash over newsgathering ethics divided him and his management team. He suggested that the station’s executives had recruited newsroom employees to hobnob with major donors at a breakfast meeting on Wednesday morning.
Asendio refused to take part in those festivities and ended up resigning over the matter. In an interview this morning, Asendio intimated that there’s a journalistic ethics crisis at the station: “When it comes to crossing the firewall, that’s where I draw the line. That questions our credibility and trustworthiness,” he said.
WAMU management declined to discuss these questions when I recounted Asendio’s allegations in a phone call this morning. They cited station policy of not discussing personnel issues.
Even so, Asendio was making charges about how WAMU operates — charges that have nothing to do with personnel questions. How could the station stay quiet in the face of Asendio’s brief?
It couldn’t. This afternoon, WAMU Communications Manager Benae Mosby sent me a statement on the very items addressed by Asendio. Perhaps the most pivotal part of the statement noted that Asendio’s departure was “a personal decision.” That flourish dismisses the notion that the station and Asendio had a dispute of any consequence about how the place was administered. Here’s the rest of the statement:
WAMU maintains a firewall between journalists and funders; journalists may not — and do not — discuss coverage planning with grant-making officials or individual donors. It is senior management’s responsibility to manage contacts for their respective divisions with funders. Any one-on-one, private contact between a non-management journalist and a funder has high potential for putting that journalist in an awkward position and communicating the wrong message to the funder, and there is no situation where this should be allowed to occur.
As we discussed earlier, this morning, the station hosted a Meet the Producers Breakfast as a “thank-you” for approximately 30 people. The context was to give donor constituents an understanding of how the work is performed. Approximately nine of our reporters and producers spoke on a panel discussion moderated by program director Mark McDonald. They discussed how their work comes together, and entertained general questions from the audience, like “how do journalists in the nation’s capital decide what is a local or a national story?”
Allowing people to see the impact that their investment makes in our work is completely appropriate. However, the station does not permit crossing the line between a funder seeing that impact and a funder being allowed input into the planning process for coverage.
Management’s words have the ring of reason. Holding a panel discussion exclusively for donors to discuss the station’s mission and approach to the news — that seems like a fair way to keep your funders feeling appreciated while at the same time preventing the corruption of your news product.
The dispute boils down to just what constitutes a “firewall” violation. Asendio appears to believe that the alarm should sound whenever a WAMU journo gets close enough to a WAMU donor to smell her breath. Too often such encounters are genuinely innocent social exchanges.
A bona fide breach of Asendio’s firewall takes place when donors exert pressure on the newsroom’s story choices and execution. Asendio didn’t lay out any instances in which such a scenario played out. Perhaps that’s because he’s been there standing guard as WAMU’s ethical sentry. Or perhaps WAMU’s donors and management aren’t too inclined to tinker. I suppose we’ll see how this plays out now that Asendio is gone, but I’m not instituting a Google Alert titled “WAMU Firewall Watch” just yet.