Jim Asendio's sudden departure as news director of WAMU in Washington, D.C., was triggered by an internal dispute over his reporters' participation in private meetings with major donors.
Asendio objected when he and two journalists from his newsroom were required to participate in a "Meet the Producers" breakfast and panel discussion, which the station hosted this morning (Feb. 22). Involving WAMU reporters in the meeting was an unethical breech of the station's editorial firewall, Asendio said in an interview with Current, and the sort of interaction that he forbid during his six-year tenure as news chief.
"I maintain a strict firewall between the working journalists in the newsroom and the funders who fund the station," Asendio said. "It's my responsibility to keep them separate." Donor-only events involving reporters are especially problematic, he said. "Journalists should not participate in those events."
Asendio challenged Program Director Mark McDonald about the meeting and later took his objections to General Manager Caryn Mathes, who gave him an ultimatum. "She said that by not participating in a major station event I would be making a 'permanent and irreversible statement about whether I was part of her management team,'" Asendio recalled.
"I could either not show up and be in trouble, or show up and violate my ethics, so I tendered my resignation," Asendio said.
In a statement, WAMU said the donor meeting had been structured to prevent one-on-one contact between reporters and donors. Nine WAMU reporters and producers participated in the panel talk, which McDonald moderated, discussing the process of producing news reports and talk programming and taking questions from the audience.
"Allowing people to see the impact that their investment makes in our work is completely appropriate," the WAMU statement said. "However, the station does not permit crossing the line between a funder seeing that impact and a funder being allowed input into the planning process for coverage."
Washington Post media critic Erik Wemple, who broke the story of Asendio's resignation on Feb. 21, believes that Asendio may have over-reacted to the donor meeting. "Holding a panel discussion exclusively for donors to discuss the station’s mission and approach to the news — that seems like a fair way to keep your funders feeling appreciated while at the same time preventing the corruption of your news product," Wemple wrote. "Asendio appears to believe that the alarm should sound whenever a WAMU journo gets close enough to a WAMU donor to smell her breath. Too often such encounters are genuinely innocent social exchanges."
"A bona fide breach of Asendio’s firewall takes place when donors exert pressure on the newsroom’s story choices and execution," Wemple wrote.
A veteran of CBS Radio who led WAMU's news room through a dramatic expansion, Asendio had become increasingly uncomfortable with efforts within public radio to reel in big gifts by introducing donors to journalists, he told Current. He recalled a recent meeting with development staff from NPR and WAMU in which he was told: "'Major donors expect access.'"
"I said, 'I don't do that. They can have access to me, but not my reporter. I'd rather not have the money.'"
WAMU officials declined requests for interviews.
Disclosure: WAMU is licensed to American University, which manages Current as a separate journalism unit within its School of Communication. This post has been updated.