Missouri Legislature Threatens University over Ethical Question

By Pollack, Joe | St. Louis Journalism Review, May 2002 | Go to article overview

Missouri Legislature Threatens University over Ethical Question


Pollack, Joe, St. Louis Journalism Review


KOMU-TV, a commercial television station, has a relationship with the University of Missouri School of Journalism much like that of the Columbia Missourian, a commercial newspaper. Both are owned by Mizzou, but each is operated as an, independent entity. In good years, they pay their own way. They also teach many students.

The operations are about 10 miles apart, one on campus and one on Highway 63, about halfway between Columbia and Jefferson City.

Managerial types at both places are professionals, and they work as news or advertising people for their employer. But they also deal with the students who make up much of their staffs. They teach classes, they give grades and they go to faculty meetings.

In the interest of full disclosure, let me say that I have worked (or gone to class) in both places. I was a Missourian sports writer as an undergraduate in 1950-51, and when I was in graduate school in 1954, I was sports editor, writing a column and covering events and trying to teach undergraduates about writing sports. I also did some work with copy editing classes and received a small stipend.

KOMU-TV went on the air in January 1954, and I came out of the Army and joined it the following month. I spent a lot of time there, helping set up the station's sports files, visiting high school coaches in the area, writing sports stories for on-air delivery by Harold Ratliff, an Alaskan who had a good voice but little knowledge of, or interest in, what Red Smith used to call the toy department. I was told I could use the title of sports director, which made me the station's first. Dale Spencer, whom I had known since our undergraduate days, taught copy editing at the Missourian and delivered weathercasts at KOMU.

At the end of the semester, Phil Berk, the station manager, asked if I'd be taking another class in the summer so I could continue organizing the sports department. He alluded to the fact that I'd probably get a chance to be on the air (something I'd achieved once in the spring semester). I allowed as how it was a great honor, but that the GI Bill and the university's stipend were minimal, and was there a chance of receiving some money, instead of just air time. Thus ended my career at KOMU-TV.

Stacey Woelfel, the station's news director, laughed when I told the story. "We have a slightly larger budget now," he said with a chuckle.

Woelfel and the station have been battling a lot of public patriots since Sept. 11, with minimal public support from the university. He almost university $500,000 because, last Sept. 17, having seen newscasters everywhere wearing buttons and ribbons pointing out their Americanness, he reminded his staff that existing newsroom policy did not permit on-air displays of symbols supporting any cause. The policy had been in effect for the 11 years Woelfel has been news director.

His e-mail said, simply, "Leave the ribbons at home when reporting or anchoring for KOMU news. What you do on your own time is up to you, though I would urge you to consider the fact that you are always on the clock in terms of being known as a reporter or representative of the station."

Unfortunately, while the station staff knew about the policy, and knew it had been in force for a decade, it was not in writing, nor posted on bulletin boards.

Woelfel admitted that he knew of one violation and was sure there had been some others, mainly out of ignorance.

Woelfel, a St. Louisan and a Mizzou alumnus, didn't realize the storm that was brewing, but the State House of Representatives chopped $500,000 from the university's budget. The station does not receive state funding, but the School of Journalism does. …

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