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Cabarrus Senator Hartsell Seeks UNC-TV's Alcoa Footage

Public television station UNC-TV plans to air a series of reports on the Yadkin River and efforts to keep Alcoa from getting federal approval to operate dams for another 50 years. But Republican Senator Fletcher Hartsell of Concord plans to beat the station on its own story. He believes UNC-TV has material that will help his efforts to put the dams under state control. So Hartsell and the judiciary committee he heads have subpoenaed all footage that was shot for the stories. Here's how Senator Hartsell sees things. UNC-TV is part of a state agency. The General Assembly funds roughly 50 percent of the station's funding. That's about $12 million. So, if he asks for information, he expects it to be delivered. In this case, the deadline is noon Monday. "There's a statute that says they have to provide information," Hartsell points out. But North Carolina also has a shield law for journalists. It's supposed to protect reporters so they don't have to give up sources or information they obtain during the newsgathering process. The reasoning goes that journalists need this law so they can protect their sources and don't have to worry about being an investigative tool for the government. And in this case, that's pretty much what UNC-TV would become. "They have information that is useful, beneficial and helpful for people of the state, and it's appropriate for it to be released as promptly as possible," Hartsell says. Hartsell opposes Alcoa's application to renew its license to run its Yadkin River dams. They were built years ago to power a smelter that shut down in 2002. Alcoa now sells the electricity the dams generate. But with the smelter jobs gone, Hartsell is pushing legislation that would put the dams, and the flow of river, in state control. Hartsell says he believes UNC-TV has evidence of environmental contamination in Stanly County, but wouldn't give specifics. Stories are being produced for the program North Carolina Now, but Hartsell worries the program won't air enough of the footage. He says he can't afford to wait to see if the station airs what he thinks it needs to broadcast. "It has everything to do with the timing of the legislative session, which may close as soon as next Friday." Raleigh attorney Hugh Stevens says most stations "would tell them to go spit in the ocean. They wouldn't' stand for this for a minute." Stevens represents several newspapers and broadcasters, including WRAL-TV and the News & Observer. He also represents Alcoa in public records lawsuits against Stanly County and the North Carolina Water Rights Committee. He likens current situation to that of a state college newspaper. Just because it receives public funding doesn't mean lawmakers can force reporters to turn over their notes, or order which stories to print and not print. "UNC-TV has the same First Amendment rights as any commercial television broadcaster would and is just as eligible to assert the Shield law..." I think the threshold question is will they do that, or willl they feel so subservient to the Legislature and knuckle under?" UNC-TV hasn't reached a decision. Spokesman Steve Volstad says station officials are waiting on legal advice before responding to Senator Hartsell's demand. "We're hoping we can find a way to protect our independence and editorial integrity. While this is an important issue to the Legislature, so is our ability to function as a credible journalistic source." Hartsell doesn't see a problem. "Frankly, I think they would enhance their credibility. We're not talking about holding something back. We're talking about releasing to public as a whole." And he intends to do that when his judiciary committee meets again, next Tuesday at 9 a.m. Update Portions in bold were added to the following paragraph Friday afternoon: Stevens represents several newspapers and broadcasters, including WRAL-TV and the News & Observer. He also represents Alcoa in public records lawsuits against Stanly County and the North Carolina Water Rights Committee.

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