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Television station policy upsets some state lawmakers

September 26, 2001
By: Robert Sandler
State Capital Bureau

JEFFERSON CITY - A few Missouri lawmakers are threatening to take a closer look at MU's budget because KOMU-TV's decision to ban news presenters from wearing signs of patriotism.

Stacey Woelfel, news director for Columbia television station KOMU, issued a notice Sept. 17 via e-mail to most of his on-air news staff, telling them they should not show signs of support for any cause.

"...our news broadcasts are not the place for personal statements of support for any cause--no matter how deserving the cause seems to be," Woelfel's memorandum said. "This includes the little red, white, and blue ribbons that a lot of people are sporting these days. Our job is to deliver the news as free from outside influences as possible.

The e-mail was obtained by some members of the state legislature, and Rep. Matt Bartle, R-Lee's Summit, is leading a charge against it.

"This is not a matter of journalistic even-handedness," Bartle said in an e-mail to Woelfel. "This is a matter of simple decency and respect for our fellow human-beings.

"As a member of the state legislature in Missouri, I am going to be evaluating far more carefully state funding that goes to the school of journalism. If this is what you are teaching the next generation of journalists, I question whether the taxpayers of this state will support it," Bartle's e-mail said.

KOMU is owned by the university, but MU spokeswoman Mary Jo Banken said the university gives the station no funding. The station earns all its funding through advertising, she said.

Woelfel e-mailed a response to Bartle, referring to the policy as a matter of ethics.

"Not all ethical decisions are popular with either the public or those who must exercise them," Woelfel's e-mail said. "But it is a measure of the strength of the ethical position and the person who holds it to see if it can remain intact against prevailing sentiment."

Bartle said Wednesday he hadn't received anything from Woelfel to back that up. "I haven't been shown any canon of journalistic ethics that would require a reporter not to show an American flag. And I think it is very easy for journalists to shroud themselves in a nebulous canon of ethics.

"My sense is, this is censorship of journalists. It's basically saying that if you choose to become a journalist, you are basically giving up your right to display that you are an American citizen," Bartle said.

Woelfel refused to comment Wednesday.

Rep. Chuck Purgason, R-Caulfield, also got involved in the controversy. He e-mailed Woelfel asking for confirmation of the station's policy, while also noting that he serves on the House Budget Committee.

"I think we need to review the policy as a state and make sure it's an acceptable policy," he said.

Rep. Carl Bearden, R-St. Charles, inquired into the situation as well.

"I don't see how wearing an American flag has anything to do with being impartial or unbiased," Bearden said Wednesday. He specifically noted that while he disagrees with the decision, he was not threatening to try to withhold university funding.

The other major mid-Missouri television news operations have no similar policies.

Lee Gordon, station manager at KRCG, said his station left it up to the employee to decide what symbols to wear on the air. "A reporter in my opinion has First Amendment rights, and has the right and duty to report news as well as possible," he said.

Andy Lee, general manager of KMIZ, said his station did not have a policy similar to that of KOMU.

Dean Mills, the journalism school's dean, said the responsibility for making the decision fell to Woelfel. But, he added, "we try very hard to observe the ethical guidelines of the profession."

Tuesday, Woelfel sent Bartle an e-mail that admitted the two would probably have to "agree to disagree."

Bartle, however, says the media's goal of objectivity must always be examined with skepticism.

"The viewers are smart enough to figure things out," Bartle said. "It's incumbent on all of us to review any report for bias. We do it all the time. We're all evaluating reporters all the time and evaluating their bias all the time... Banning the American flag doesn't get rid of any bias."

The university also operates the Columbia Missourian, Missouri Digital News and KBIA-FM.