Why Did KUT-FM Muzzle Its Watchdog?
Austin’s NPR affiliate publishes, then removes two investigative stories detailing a troubled newsroom culture
After asking freelance journalist Eva Ruth Moravec to investigate and write about its own newsroom culture and practices, KUT-FM has now taken down both of her previously published stories from its website. The move isn't a particularly good look for Austin's troubled NPR affiliate, plagued by accusations of workplace hostility and threats to journalistic autonomy by leadership at the station and by its ultimate owner, the University of Texas at Austin.
A note to replace each of Moravec's stories – which were published online in September but then removed on Tuesday, Nov. 6 – has been revised at least twice and now reads in full: "Following the publication of the article previously on this page, it was subsequently reviewed by outside legal counsel. Fairness and accuracy are core to our guiding principles, and to that end, we have removed this story pending further review. We appreciate the work of the independent reporter and independent editor who worked on these stories in good faith. We will seek to provide more information on these matters in the coming days based on the outcome of ongoing reviews."
Current, a nonprofit news service that covers public media trade news, published an in-depth piece in September that detailed ongoing concerns about KUT workplace issues. As that piece came to fruition, the station itself hired Moravec and an outside editor in August to cover those issues as a commitment to transparency. Moravec's first piece was a summary of Current's reporting, which detailed a pattern of alleged employee mistreatment by former KUT news director Emily Donahue and hostile interactions between her and her husband, Texas Standard host David Brown. Donahue, who was also the first executive producer of the Standard, was moved into a fundraising role outside of the newsroom in 2016 after a consultant's report detailed a "dysfunctional" culture within Texas Standard, including staff members "being berated and spoken to in an unprofessional manner," reported Current.
Moravec's second piece covered the unexpected resignation of KUT's interim general manager Patti Smith, and a UT human resources investigation into allegedly inappropriate comments from Brown. On her way out, Smith was prepared to kill that piece until KUT journalists spoke up and challenged her decision, according to Current. Moravec had a third investigative story coming down the pipe, but she says that'll now likely never see the light of day.
While Moravec has refrained from on-the-record comment to the Chronicle, she laid out her response in a string of Twitter messages this week. She and her editor asked KUT to remove the language in the note that "insinuates" they were "unfair or inaccurate," but KUT instead doubled down on the "defamatory insinuations," and added sentences that "read like a pat on the back." Even now, writes Moravec, the disclaimer note doesn't explain why the stories were quashed.
KUT spokesperson Erin Geisler tells the Chronicle that newsroom leadership wanted to have the stories reviewed by outside legal counsel before publication, since they involved personnel matters and allegations of inappropriate behavior. However, that review didn't happen; subsequently, KUT retained an independent lawyer to review the stories after they had already been published. Last week, that counsel and the UT legal department recommended that KUT take down the stories. "The decision to remove these two stories from the website was not taken lightly. It also did not in any way reflect the freelance reporter's or editor's work," said Geisler.
Moravec defends her reporting in the face of the KUT pushback. "I want to be clear – my reporting was fair and accurate, based on interviews with dozens of people and hundreds of pages of records, and I stand by it 100%," she wrote. In a slightly cryptic final message on the thread, Moravec hints at a larger, systemic problem that – thanks to KUT and UT officials – the public may forever be left in the dark about. "I believe that KUT newsroom leaders intended this reporting to be independent. But to me, at this point, this all reeks of a cover-up. Thanks for reading this thread, and hearing me out in this limited way."