In the final days of the General Assembly session that ended Saturday, there was no winner in the ongoing struggle between the Perdue Administration and Alcoa for control of the Yadkin River. But there was one clear loser: UNC-TV, the public television arm of the University of North Carolina.

In a flurry of actions triggered by a state Senate committee’s subpoena, UNC-TV:

  • Acknowledged that its “priorities” did not include producing a documentary program about Alcoa’s controversial history on the Yadkin despite the fact that one of its reporters, Eszter Vajda, compiled about 200 hours of interviews and related footage on the subject.
  • Caved in to the Senate Judiciary II Committee’s subpoena by handing over the raw footage, all 200 hours of it.
  • Rushed three Alcoa segments to air after that, a total of about 24 minutes of programming spread across three evenings, as part of its NC NOW news program.
  • Ran the three segments, however, accompanied by disclaimers to the effect that it was not standing behind what Vajda was reporting. “For the first time in its network history,” its on-screen statements said, “UNC-TV has made the decision to refrain from exercising its customary editorial review over an individual reporter’s project.”

Why would a television news organization put segments on the air with what in effect was a no-confidence statement about their validity? UNC-TV said it was doing so to “alleviate any concerns surrounding unfounded and untrue allegations of inappropriate suppression by UNC-TV management” of Vajda’s reporting.

The allegationsflying around in the hallways as the J-II committee metwere that Alcoa was somehow behind UNC-TV’s decision not to let Vajda finish her project, ostensibly because Alcoa feared the effect on its “good corporate citizen” image.

Alcoa denied any such role, as did UNC-TV. There was no suppression, UNC-TV spokesman Steve Volstad said. Rather, the decision that Vajda’s material wasn’t worth a stand-alone documentary “was a matter of priorities” among the “many projects the [station] tries to produce.”

In short, the Alcoa footage wasn’t ready for prime time, but it was suitable for a legislative committee to view, UNC-TV said, because as an arm of the university system, the station felt it should comply with a General Assembly directive.

The station’s actions were widely condemned by journalists and legal experts. One of the most vociferous was Laura Leslie, a reporter for WUNC, the university’s public radio arm, who is also president of Capitolbeat, a national association of statehouse reporters and editors.

“UNC-TV rolled over … with barely a whimper” when it received the legislative subpoena, Leslie wrote on her WUNC blog, because of legal advice that as a state agency, the television station’s reporters might not be protected under the journalists’ shield law. “That’s a pretty creative read of the shield law statute, which makes no such allowances,” Leslie continued. “And it sets a nasty precedent that sends chills down the spines of other journalists in public broadcasting, including me.”

Leslie expressed disdain as well for UNC-TV’s stated priorities. “I’m still wondering how half-hour segments on local golf clubs, botanical gardens and the Andy Griffith Museum rated higher on UNC-TV’s priority list … [T]he station had the resources to air all those segments in May, but nothing on Alcoa. So help me out here.”

UNC-TV’s priorities were already under fire from the disclosure in April that some of its NC NOW reports were paid for by the same state agency showcased in those reports. The agency, the Golden LEAF Foundation, takes money from the tobacco industryreceipts from the decade-old national tobacco settlementand makes grants for economic development. Golden LEAF also funneled $412,000 to UNC television, where it helped to pay for a half-dozen “sunny stories,” as The News & Observer put it, about projects funded by none other than Golden LEAF.

Before a Senate Judiciary II Committee meeting last week, as aides were preparing to show some of Vajda’s subpoenaed footage, Raleigh lawyer Hugh Stevens suggested that it might be time for UNC-TV to be reconstituted as an independent, nonprofit organization outside of UNC and state government.

Stevens, one of North Carolina’s leading First Amendment lawyers, said that if UNC’s top brass wouldn’t stand up for the integrity of its news organizations, the organizations should be spun off so they can protect themselvesand their sources of information.

Otherwise, Stevens asked, “Who’ll want to talk to them after this?”

Meanwhile, the battle over the Yadkin goes on (see our report, “Give back the Yadkin, dammit,” Nov. 18, 2009). According to State Commerce Secretary J. Keith Crisco, the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission (FERC) has indicated that it won’t decide on Alcoa’s application for relicensing of its hydropower dams until the issue of a state water-quality permit is settled. The permit, sought by Alcoa and opposed by Stanly County and the Yadkin Riverkeeper, is currently in mediation but is likely to be decided by an administrative law judge after hearings this fall. That decision is subject to appeal in the state courts.

The Perdue Administration petitioned FERC to deny Alcoa’s application for relicensing and instead allow the state to initiate a process of “recapture” under which it would take control of Alcoa’s four dams and power plantspaying compensation to the company based on a formula in the federal licensing law. The state would then own (“recapture”) the power of the river for public purposes.

Alcoa built the dams to generate electricity for an aluminum smelting plant in Stanly County that it operated for almost a century before closing it in 2007. The dams were licensed by FERC and then relicensed in 1958 for a period of 50 years, a term that ended in 2008.

State officials, including Crisco, backed legislation in the General Assembly to create a Yadkin River Trust Authority to take over the damsand the profits from the electricityshould the recapture effort succeed. The legislation passed the Senate but stalled in the House, leading to passage by both houses of a weaker, compromise bill creating an advisory-only Uwharrie Regional Resources Commission.

The chief sponsor of the stronger authority bill was Sen. Fletcher Hartsell (R-Cabarrus, Iredell), who chairs the Senate Judiciary II Committee which issued the subpoena for Vajda’s material. Hartsell, ironically, helped draft the state’s shield law for journalists when it was enacted in 1999. He acknowledged that the subpoena was inconsistent with journalists’ rights. But he indicated, and Vajda confirmed to WUNC, that Vajda wanted the information in her interviews to come out and was cooperating with Hartsell’s committee because UNC-TV declined to help her finish her documentary.

Her interviewsat least those shown by NC NOWraised questions about whether Alcoa properly protected the workers at its Stanly County smelter from carcinogens present there, and also about the degree to which the smelter polluted the Yadkin. Alcoa’s spokesmen said, as they have previously, that the dangers weren’t understood in the early years of the plant’s operation, and that Alcoa followed best practices as soon as scientists developed them.