by Brian Bannon
A Complicit Atlanta Press Corps
As the largest newspaper in the state, the Atlanta Journal-Constitution seemed the natural place to look for a detailed investigation of the controversial partnership deal between GPB and GSU. The AJC would have the resources, experience and commitment to exposing public corruption necessary to cast daylight on all the shadiness. Instead, its coverage consisted mostly of favorable interviews with Becker, Ryan and the new radio hosts. Rodney Ho’s interviews with Ryan never question her about the ethics or intricacies of the WRAS takeover. As calls for Ryan’s dismissal were mounting on social media, the AJC’s Business section published a profile interview painting her as a courageous leader making tough decisions. It does ask about Chip Rogers but lets her answer, which basically admits it was all political cronyism, go without follow up.
“Q: Although Rogers was recently ousted from the job, how do you defend his initial employment?
A: Political influence can come into public media, which is partly financed by state government. But I would challenge anyone to see where that actually influences the quality of the product. I don’t think it’s there.”
As for the WRAS controversy, the approach is similar to Rodney Ho’s interviews: mention it but then only ask how it makes her feel.
“Q. You’ve also been criticized for wasting taxpayer money by adding another public radio station in Atlanta to compete with WABE. Your critics say your partnership with Georgia State University’s radio station duplicates local programming. You say you’re expanding the all-news, all-information options, given WABE’s classical music format during much of the day. In general, how do you deal with hot-button issues?
A. I’m not a neophyte to public controversy. It doesn’t make me feel uncomfortable. You have to listen to the criticism. You have to be reflective. But the most important thing is that I really believe in the product. If you, as a CEO, really believe in the integrity of what you are doing, that will give you the strength to get you through any difficult time.”
Cronyism, lack of transparency and wasting taxpayer dollars all so you can recreate your days as a media magnate. That’s integrity? As a public servant, you can’t think of yourself as a private-sector CEO.
AJC reporters now regularly appear on GPB’s “On Second Thought” to promote their upcoming stories in the paper. The AJC also promoted—and was the place to get tickets to—the Whigs performance at GPB that WRAS fans urged the band to cancel.
Rodney Ho did cover the open letter written by WABE’s Board Chairman to GPB and The Board of Regents as well as GPB’s response, but he never covered the passionate open letter penned by the WRAS staff refuting many of GPB’s claims. Once again the people most affected were the least listened to.
The AJC has never covered the contentious GPB Board Meetings at which WRAS supporters spoke. That includes the meeting this January when they called for Teya Ryan’s firing and followed up with an e-mail campaign urging supporters to write GPB’s Board Chairman Mike McDougald and then state legislatures to remove Ryan. The AJC has yet to mention any calls for Ryan’s ousting. However, the AJC’s editor Kevin Riley was recently a guest on Bill Nigut’s “Two Way Street.”
In its pre-partnership days the AJC strongly criticized GPB. A January 30, 2013 column titled “Why Chip Rogers’ new GPB job flunks the cronyism test,” Political Insider columnist Jim Galloway wrote about the stench of corruption bordering on a Soviet-Era propaganda machine wafting from its 14th St. headquarters:
“On Tuesday evening, GPB for the first time—very gingerly—addressed the [Rogers] controversy during a broadcast of ‘Prime Time Lawmakers.’ GPB board Chairman Mike McDougal[d] addressed GPB’s editorial independence. ‘I do not believe that there’s anybody on our board that would just fall down and bow down if they were requested to come in and allow that kind of interference,’ he said.
“Another board member on the broadcast was Bert Brantley, former spokesman for Gov. Sonny Perdue. ‘There is that independence,’ Brantley said. ‘It’s a state-owned media, but not in the sense you’d see [in] other countries, where the state runs the media and delivers the content.’
“So there’s the good news. We’re not a recreation of the Soviet Union. But we may be reliving Machiavelli’s Italy.”
“Lawmakers” was, and is, hosted by Bill Nigut. Jim Galloway is now a weekly panelist on Nigut’s TV and radio shows. It’s hard to escape the GPB Borg.
Much of Atlanta’s press and media establishment seems to think that however GPB may have acquired WRAS’s signal (It was stolen! It was stolen! It was stolen!) we should ignore all that and make use of it as if it were as legitimate as any other NPR affiliate. More outlets for journalists is a net good. Such a sentiment echoes the cliquish, good-ole-boy mentality that leads to backroom deals and Georgia’s culture of corruption. The longer GPB’s theft of WRAS continues, and the more other media organizations “partner” with it, the more the ethics and credibility of all of Atlanta’s press corps will suffer. Being the most corrupt state in the country doesn’t speak well of its fourth estate.
GPB’s Do-Nothing Board
Mike McDougald was first appointed to the Georgia Public Telecommunications Commission in 2004. He became Board Chairman in 2010. This article from the Rome News Tribune shows Teya Ryan already cultivating his allegiance: “Earlier this year, McDougald brought new GPB executive director Teya Ryan to Rome, where she revealed that plans are in the works to make the local GPB affiliate station much more actively involved in localized programming.”
During the Chip Rogers controversy, McDougald was quoted as saying that Rogers was being paid too much but did nothing about it—or about holding the integrity of the agency he oversees above political cronyism and outside influence.
On July 2, 2014, WABE published an open letter by its Board Chairman Louis Sullivan criticizing the GPB takeover of WRAS and calling for its ending or modification. GPB responded with an open letter by Chairman McDougald defending the deal as filling a need in Atlanta for public radio news and talk programming during the day while WABE played music. (WABE dropped daytime classical music in January of this year, 2015, and now broadcasts news and talk with an emphasis on local news, arts and culture.)
McDougald also promised GPB’s new initiative into Atlanta would not use taxpayer dollars but would be funded by an anticipated growth of new underwriters and pledges from the lucrative Atlanta market. It’s hard to believe that’s the case as anecdotal evidence from social media suggests many former GPB supporters canceled donations, and others took pride in running GPB canvassers off their yards.
The actual dollars GPB has gained or wasted since the announcement is hard to gauge. Minutes to the July 16, 2014 meeting of the Foundation for Public Broadcasting in Georgia, obtained through an Open Records Request, includes a bullet point on Fundraising stating “Mr. Huffman reported the numbers from the last television campaign and the door-to-door canvassing initiative.” There’s no mention of what those numbers were or even a characterization of whether things were looking up or down.
Many of the Board minutes read like children’s theatre. Introductions of new hires, “[Teya Ryan] considers Ms. Ott a ‘rock star’ in the public radio universe,” plans for the Downton Abbey gala, screenings of promos and trailers, a program in development about childhood obesity titled The Weigh We Were. There’s no discussion of the Chip Rogers controversy or the negative public reaction. No discussion of the GSU partnership negotiations that were ongoing.
In an article for the SPLC website, McDougald claims that the deal dates back eight years. This is the same misleading statement Mark Becker made in his interviews. GPB first approached Georgia Tech in 2007 about acquiring WREK. This went through an open process with ample opportunity for students and the public to weigh in. They hated the idea, and it was dismissed. Then in 2008, GPB approached GSU’s previous administration and was rejected handily. As The Signal’s Ciara Frisbie and colleagues revealed—quoted in Part I of these articles but worth reiterating—GSU’s then Senior Vice President for External Affairs Tom Lewis wrote: “While GPB is offering compensation, the value to our University of our 100,000 Watt FM signal and our ability to maintain an independent program format is much greater. In our efforts to engage students in student life at Georgia State, we believe WRAS is one of our greatest assets, and one which should not be compromised.”
McDougald goes on to defend the secrecy of the negotiations as if both GPB and GSU were commercial businesses instead of public agencies: “‘Well, think about it just a minute,’ McDougald said. ‘Thirty-thousand students you’re just going to slip around and ‘oh yes, here are all the details.’ That’s not the way you handle the business.’”
Shockingly, McDougald reveals that “Teya Ryan, GPB’s president, announced the partnership to the organization’s board of directors in an email on May 6, the same day the student radio leaders were notified in the meeting with university administrators and GPB representatives. She attached a press release in the email explaining the details of the agreement.” Apparently that’s all the oversight GPB’s Board needs to give their scandal-plagued organization. It’s the agency one Facebook review calls “Perhaps the most corrupt institution in the state, and that’s saying something.”
After the January 2015 Board meeting where students and alumni called for Ryan’s termination, McDougald released a statement laughably proclaiming “Ms. Ryan’s development of the partnership with Georgia State University to broadcast GPB Radio programming has been completely above board…. On a personal note, it is my observation that she has led the organization with great integrity and fairness while developing these initiatives.”
Why Won’t They All Stop Talking?
In a Teya Talk dated Feb. 13, 2015 and published on GPB’s website, no more video talks for now, she uses an NPR story about driverless cars to worry about the future of today’s youth: “We have already reduced the language interaction between our teenagers to 140 character tweets. Now they are not even going to have to learn to drive. Perfect. They can spend their drive time becoming even more self-absorbed with selfies.”
She’s bemoaning the shortened attention spans and cross-platform cacophony of information and opinion she once sought to pioneer on “Talk Back Live.” She seems to wish young people would avoid the temporary glamour of selfies and the empty click bait of listicles to instead put in the time and effort necessary to make the cover of Georgia Trend’s coveted “Most Influential Subscribers to Georgia Trend” issue.
She ends by assuring us that the story was just the kind of thought-provoking story NPR specializes in. “That is what makes me so proud to be heading up Public Radio in Georgia [not Georgia Public Radio]. And I am extremely proud that we have launched a new radio station in Atlanta, 88.5, Atlanta’s NPR Station. All News, All Information, All Day. Give it a try. Let me know what you think.”
Here are some thoughts: 88.5 is not new, it’s over 43 years old. WABE is Atlanta’s NPR Station and has been for almost as long as 88.5 has been Georgia State’s student voice. Teya Ryan has damaged her agency’s credibility, fired committed public service employees in favor of loyalists from her private sector days and has put all of GPB’s staff through hell. A broadcasting service meant to enrich the lives of the public it serves has alienated that community, brought damage to WRAS, GSU and the profession of public broadcasting as a whole. Much like the damage to the seriousness and credibility of CNN she caused, GPB has become a laughingstock. That this secret, backroom deal continues to hold despite public outrage, canceled donations, an exodus of GPB employees and low ratings is a testament to how removed and unaccountable Georgia’s ruling aristocracy has become.
E. B. Du Bois wrote “The Souls of Black Folk” while teaching at Atlanta University one hundred plus years ago. It includes a chapter on the city filled with lyric praise and sober warning.
On Atlanta’s virtuous work ethic but tendency to fall victim to the vice of greed:
“Atlanta must not lead the South to dream of material prosperity as the touchstone of all success; already the fatal might of this idea is beginning to spread; it is replacing the finer type of Southerner with vulgar money-getters; it is burying the sweeter beauties of Southern life beneath pretence and ostentation.”
“The need of the South is knowledge and culture,—not in dainty limited quantity, as before the war, but in broad busy abundance….”
On the purpose of a University:
“…The true college will ever have one goal,—not to earn meat, but to know the end and aim of that life which meat nourishes.”
On the beauty of the city only an unhurried mind can take in:
“South of the North, yet north of the South, lies the City of a Hundred Hills, peering out from the shadows of the past into the promise of the future. I have seen her in the morning, when the first flush of day had half-roused her; she lay gray and still on the crimson soil of Georgia; then the blue smoke began to curl from her chimneys, the tinkle of bell and scream of whistle broke the silence, the rattle and roar of busy life slowly gathered and swelled, until the seething whirl of the city seemed a strange thing in a sleepy land.”
And in another chapter, “Of the Sorrow Songs,” he notes the importance of music in the lives of otherwise anonymous people:
“What are these songs, and what do they mean? I know little of music and can say nothing in technical phrase, but I know something of men, and knowing them, I know that these songs are the articulate message of the slave to the world.”
But if seeing the fight for WRAS as a struggle for the Soul of Atlanta Folk is too grandiose or sentimental, here’s a more practical way of putting it: No one wants to live in a kleptocracy.
Georgia’s ethics commission is currently leaderless. Its last Executive Secretary was fired after a judge fined her $10,000 for unethical conduct. She had withheld evidence in a case involving the wrongful termination of a previous Executive Secretary … of the Ethics Commission. That and other lawsuits by ousted employees—of our Ethics Commission—resulted in the state paying millions of dollars in fines and settlements for its unethical treatment of employees … of its ETHICS COMMISSION. All because they dared to investigate ethics complaints against the Governor.
In his order fining the now rightfully-dismissed Executive Secretary (not the wrongfully-dismissed one that the rightfully-dismissed one had withheld evidence about), the judge called her (the unethical one the Gov. hand-picked to replace the ethical one he’d forced out) “dishonest and non-transparent throughout these proceedings.”
Are there no honest men and women left in Georgia? At least ones that haven’t been wrongfully dismissed?
If Georgia continues its descent into an ethical backwater where entrenched, unaccountable Boss Hogs can lie, cheat and steal at whim, the people’s faith in the integrity of all its institutions, both public and private, will suffer. Young people looking for a vibrant place to build roots will go elsewhere. Creative people of any age will feel unwelcome. Long-time residents will feel more and more powerless and simply withdraw from civic life. (“They’re all just a bunch of crooks.”)
Thank you for writing this series!