USA: Political meddling threatens the independence of West Virginia Public Broadcasting
Alarmed by a pattern of meddling by political authorities in stories and staffing decisions at West Virginia Public Broadcasting (WVPB), Reporters Without Borders (RSF) calls for greater transparency in WVPB’s editorial decisions with a clear line drawn between political leaders and journalistic staff.
Interviews NPR conducted with more than 20 people show that West Virginia Governor Jim Justice and other state officials used their position to threaten WVPB and its journalists, leading to stories being suppressed and reporters employing self-censorship to save their jobs. In one particularly public confrontation, journalist Amelia Ferrell Knisely was fired in apparent retaliation for coverage critical of a state agency.
“Retaliating against the press for critical coverage is the stuff of petty dictators and has no place in the Mountain State or anywhere else in the US. West Virginians should expect better of their leaders when it comes to upholding the First Amendment. RSF calls for WVPB’s independence to be respected, greater transparency regarding how editorial decisions are made and for the results of the current investigation, which is being held in secret, to be made public.”
Clayton Weimers, Executive Director of RSF’s US Bureau
Governor Justice appoints the board that oversees WVPB, which hired Justice’s former communications director Carl Antolini as the broadcaster’s CEO in 2021. Staff have reported that soon after taking office, Antolini began to insert himself into the editorial process and made clear that coverage critical of the state government would fall under extra scrutiny.
Governor Justice has maintained an antagonistic relationship with WVPB since before his election, when the outlet published stories about his reported failure to pay millions in taxes and mining fines. After taking office, the governor pushed to cut all funding to the broadcaster, ultimately cutting $1 million.
Journalists in West Virginia say they have been self-censoring for several years to protect themselves. As one reporter said, “Gov. Justice's presence was always looming over us."
Amelia Knisley was a part-time reporter for WVPB until her dismissal in December 2020. She had been reporting on the abuse of people with disabilities in state-run facilities. Following her investigation, the news outlet was threatened by state authorities and Knisely’s boss reportedly urged her to drop the story. Eventually, she was fired. The chief executive for WVPB told NPR Knisely was let go when a full-time employee was hired and disputes much of the information reported on her dismissal.
WVPB is the largest nonprofit media organization in the state with over 600,000 TV viewers and 90,000 radio listeners. It is vital for the outlet’s funding to be protected and its reporters given the freedom to do their jobs.
The United States is ranked 42nd out of 180 countries in RSF’s 2022 World Press Freedom Index