JoAnn Urofsky has had an interesting month.
It started when WUSF 89.7 FM, for which Urofsky served as interim station manager, came under fire for her decision not to allow the group Democracy Rising to purchase advertising for Ralph Nader’s April 13 visit to the Sun Dome. Urofsky said her decision was based on the fact that Democracy Rising is a political organization, a fact which the group disputed.
About three weeks after the incident, Urofsky received good news from the university. She was promoted to general manager for WUSF Public Broadcasting and given the title of associate vice president for university advancement, under which WUSF operates. The new position gives her control over both WUSF 89.7FM and WUSF-TV 16, USF’s campus-run television station.
Urofsky said her new position will a give her a chance to deal with broader issues.
“The radio station manager only dealt with the radio station,” she said. “It’s not the kind of position where you look over somebody’s shoulder.”
However, the trouble for Urofsky may lie in an organizational situation for which WUSF has taken criticism for several years. In addition to WUSF broadcasting, university advancement houses public affairs, donations and gifts, marketing, foundation scholarships, the alumni association and media relations. Some people, most notably those on the Faculty Senate, have asked in the past if WUSF can provide unbiased news while working in the realm of advancement, which controls university public and media relations.
Urofsky said the station is in no way affected by this arrangement.
“We’re not in the public relations wing, we’re in university advancement,” Urofsky said. “We have business relationships with the foundation in advancement. That’s all part of what university advancement does.”
Urofsky, who has worked at WUSF since 1994, said her station has never delivered a biased report. She said pressure from public relations would not be allowed.
“Since we have been in this position, there have been no repercussions or influence on the news,” she said.
Michael Reich, director for media relations, said Urofsky’s title of associate vice president for advancement is a technical term required by the state to designate her job and that her working title is station manager. He said the WUSF stations are completely independent of administration.
“We wouldn’t have it any other way,” Reich said. “We don’t see it at all as being a conflict of interest.”
Reich said the USF administration sees WUSF as advancing the mission of the station and having a strong news staff.
“Does that mean they have independence, and does the news operation have independence? Absolutely,” he said.
Manny Lucoff, a retired USF professor in mass communications who served as general manager of WUSF from 1973-1974, said he has disagreed with the station’s move to university advancement since it occurred in 1998.
“I think any time news media, radio or TV are put under an agency whose job it is to function as a public relations agency, it is a very poor decision,” Lucoff said. “From my perspective, it has a negative impact on the station’s ability to report.”
Lucoff said he appealed to the Faculty Senate when the station’s move to university advancement took place. He said the Senate established a committee to investigate the move, which concluded that the move was not a good idea.
Lucoff said while administration officials may not control what the station’s news reporters cover, there exists a level of unspoken pressure, and therefore, some stories are not covered.
“I (as a reporter) might suffer from my contract not being renewed. So they don’t cover the story, and the public doesn’t know about it,” he said. “When that kind of pressure is put on young people, I think it’s a travesty.”
Lucoff said an example is the story of ousted professor Sami Al-Arian, which he said the station did not cover in any depth. Also, Lucoff said, the station did not cover any of the controversy surrounding Democracy Rising and the Nader visit.
“I asked Ms. Urofsky face-to-face why the station would not cover this story. Guess what her answer was: ‘We don’t cover ourselves,'” Lucoff said. “(News director) Rick Stone said, ‘I didn’t think this story rose to the quality of something that we would report.’ That told me right away we don’t bite the hand that feeds us.”
As for Urofsky’s title as associate vice president, Lucoff said it was probably a way for her to earn more money. He said despite what others may say, her title is important.
“How can you say that it doesn’t mean anything?” Lucoff asked. “She works closely with the people at the top of advancement. She has mingled with the top people in advancement long before this. She is very comfortable with talking with the people charged with putting a rosy, happy face on the USF campus.”
Michael Rierson, the vice president for advancement, said he disagrees. Rierson serves as Urofsky’s superior and head of advancement, making him responsible for all of its branches. He said he appointed Urofsky as the WUSF general manager, and that there is no advancement impact on news coverage.
“I would hope (people) here at USF would think better of me than that,” Rierson said. “My No. 1 job is to protect integrity at USF. No one understands more than I do that this is a special jewel of a responsibility.”
Rierson said his media and public relations wings, as well as WUSF, report to him but have no relationship to one another. “I am the firewall between public affairs and public broadcasting,” he said.
Rierson said he bears the internal and external responsibilities for all parts of advancement, and he takes that seriously.
“I will quit over anyone trying to influence your reporting and your news,” Rierson said. “They’re going to have to march over my dead body if they want to.”
Rick Stone, news director for WUSF, said he is pleased with Urofsky’s promotion but can see how people would perceive the move as presenting a conflict of interests.
“This has been coming up ever since broadcast was moved to advancement,” Stone said. “I can see how on paper there looks like there would be a conflict. (But) up to this point we have never had any practical problems being part of the publicity wing of the university.”
Stone said the station’s leadership is too smart to influence news reporting in any way. He said, however, with his experience in reporting, the questions about integrity do upset him.
“As a reporter, I would have all of those questions, too. It’s on us to demonstrate every single day there is not (any influence),” Stone said. “The questions are understandable.”
Stone said he knows Lucoff has been upset with the situation for some time. But he said the station and university advancement are committed to maintaining journalistic integrity.
“Well if all (an observer) saw was the organizational charts, I could see how whey would reach those conclusions,” Stone said. “But there is an absolute commitment to autonomy at the upper reaches of (advancement).”
Lucoff said the responses of Rierson and Stone are telling. He said he feels Rierson is sensitive about the subject.
“I think that the vice president for advancement is sensitive to the fact that this isn’t the way that it’s supposed to be,” Lucoff said. “That’s my perception of why he is defensive.”
Lucoff said Stone’s responses shows that the issue is on the reporter’s mind.
“If in fact Rick Stone admits that there is a perception as being part of a public enterprise, there is a problem,” Lucoff said.
Aly Colon, a media ethics faculty member at the Poynter Institute in St. Petersburg, said the responsibility for WUSF is to address the situation and allow the public to learn its philosophy.
“What is critical to a news operation is to seek the truth and report it as accurately as possible, and to act independently,” Colon said. “If you act in any way that either compromises integrity or damages credibility that would call into question your ability to carry out those principles, then you run the risk of undermining your credibility as a news source.”
Colon said if the issue is in question, it must be discussed openly for the listeners and viewers.
“It needs to be clearly addressed and disclosed in a way that makes the public able to understand what WUSF radio believes in as an institution,” Colon said.