The Alcoa Story

By Laura Leslie, WUNC 91.5
After a "technical difficulties" delay of more than 10 hours, Senate Judiciary 2 finally got to see a screening of a “rough cut” of the documentary it subpoenaed from Eszter Vajda and UNC-TV. This is a really complex issue, and I need more time to dig around the story itself. But here’s a quick recap of the flags the meeting raised for me. 

(In the interest of full disclosure, I’ve weighed in on this already in my role as president of Capitolbeat, the national association of statehouse reporters and editors.)

Sen J2 Chairman Fletcher Hartsell (R-Cabarrus) started the meeting by explaining the subpoena process and reading a sworn affidavit from Vajda into the record.  In it, Vajda says she had been working on this assignment for UNC-TV, but after collecting some 200 hours of tape, she got some bad news.

“I understood from my managers at UNC-TV that the station lacked the resources to produce and air a documentary of the story that I had researched, and that is referenced in Paragraph 2. Because I believe in the story and because I continued to hope that one day the station might have the resources to produce it as a documentary, I have worked over the past four months with the raw footage, on my own equipment, to develop a program (“the Program”) that might become that documentary. Mindful of the station’s limited resources, I produced the Program on my own time.  The Program is approximately one hour in length and is still not final.”

You can hear Hartsell read the affidavit here.  It starts at about 2:30.

"The Program"

The Program – “The Alcoa Story” – is what the committee saw tonight.  What’s in the documentary is a mix of public record – court cases, studies of pollution, and the history of the Yadkin River Dam – and interviews with a lawyer and several local residents who allege Alcoa knew about the pollution but covered it up.  It was clear from the beginning whose side Vajda was on.  And I don't think Alcoa’s NC manager Gene Ellis, as edited, helped his company's case much.

After the screening, Hartsell conceded he didn’t learn anything from the documentary that the state couldn’t have found out on its own.    But he still says it was worth it to trespass on the state’s shield law.

There are issues that were addressed and identified, that certainly were not common knowledge before, that hopefully will spark further inquiry associated with this project.  And that’s what we gained.

Hartsell said it was timing that prompted him to order the story turned over to the committee – the legislature is about to adjourn for the year.  He said he’d been told the story would air weeks ago, at which point he could’ve presented it in committee without any special measures.

He wouldn’t say why he thinks the station might have chosen not to produce it.  But when I asked him whether he thought it would have ever emerged if he hadn’t ordered it to, he answered, “I seriously doubt it.”

Vajda was more ambivalent: “I don’t know.”   After the screening, she explained why she not only cooperated with the order, but assisted by producing a special version of it for the committee:

It was a very unique situation and the information was for the public interest….and I still think I’m shielded by the laws, by the journalistic laws, but I strongly felt that in this instance, this information needed to get out …and it took a lot of thinking, and a lot of going through, you know, who I am as a journalist. I became a journalist – this is the type of story why I became a journalist. It encompasses everything of why I became a journalist.  Hear it here.

Now showing

Vajda blamed “tight economic times” for UNC-TV’s decision not to develop the story for air. Some were skeptical, including Senator Joe Sam Queen (D-Haywood).  During a pretty feisty round of questioning after the screening, Queen asked Alcoa VP Bill O’Rourke whether his company had had any discussions with UNC-TV about their plans for the documentary. 

Queen: Was there efforts on behalf of Alcoa in discussions to our public TV stations about what sort of documentary they were doing, and any relationship of support you may have, or threats of any kind – legally or otherwise - if such and such is not done to your satisfaction? Do you know of any such discussions?

O’Rourke:  I know of none. I know there were discussions that went on, and they talked about it, but threats, I know of none.

Queen: Do you think folks involved could perceive those as threats, those sorts of discussions that you say you’ve had?

O’Rourke:  I don’t think I could put myself in their shoes and perceive that.

Hear that exchange here.

Following up

I emailed UNC-TV spokesman Steve Volstad to ask why the station decided not to develop the story.  It seems odd to me that a station would pay for extensive groundwork on a story, but then let it die because it couldn’t afford to put it together (especially after the reporter pulled a rough cut together on her own in her spare time.)   And the station isn’t exactly broke, either.  According to its 2009 annual report, it had a $26.8M operating budget for FY08-09.  $9.8M of that went into production and programming. 

Volstad’s response:

Regarding the documentary, today is the first time anyone from UNC-TV saw it, or even knew that it existed. We had been told by Eszter that she was editing some sound bites together for ease of presentation to the committee. We did air the first report on this issue on North Carolina Now this evening, and the plan is to air the other two over the next two days.

Regarding the issue of our budget and the production of a documentary, the management in our Production Division was of the opinion that with the many projects the division tries to produce, we couldn't devote the time and resources to the production of the documentary without short-changing our other work and priorities. There was never a question about whether our total budget was enough money to pay for one project, it was a matter of priorities….

I also asked Volstad about the exchange regarding “discussions” between Alcoa and public TV stations.   Does UNC-TV receive funding from Alcoa? And was he part of any such “discussion”?

…We do not receive funding from Alcoa, I had never heard of Bill O'Rourke until I read your e-mail; in fact I have never met anyone who works for Alcoa, and if there were ever any "conversations" between anyone from UNC-TV and anyone from Alcoa, it is news to me. The only person I am aware of from UNC-TV who has spoken with anyone from Alcoa is Eszter herself. And frankly, I find this entire situation astounding.

(Well, I think we can all agree on that last item.)

Putting on my Capitolbeat hat, here’s what I’m left pondering tonight:

Senator Hartsell helped draft the state’s 1999 shield law, GS 8-53.11.  If he’s willing to trample on his own work to force UNC-TV’s hand here, it seems to me he also ought to be willing to come clean about why he felt that was necessary.
Vajda claimed in her affidavit that she has decided to cooperate “without waiving my right to exercise my journalist’s privilege.” That’s like deciding to have a car wreck without waiving your good driver’s discount.  You can’t have it both ways.
UNC-TV rolled over in record time with barely a whimper, citing legal advice that the state’s power to demand information from its agencies supersedes its journalists’ shield law rights. That’s a pretty creative read of the shield law statute, which makes no such allowances. And it sets a nasty precedent that sends chills down the spines of other journalists in public broadcasting, including me.
And 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 than allegations of contamination in one of NC's most popular lakes.  The station had the resources to air all those segments in May, but nothing on Alcoa.  So help me out here.
I wish this case had a silver lining, but so far, I can't find one.

Comments?  Drop me a line.