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$3,000 Payment Lands UNC-TV, Reporter More Scrutiny

Public television station UNC-TV has turned over several hundred e-mails and other material to aluminum maker Alcoa. Alcoa filed a Freedom of Information Act request to get the material following a series of stories that negatively portray the company. But some of the information in the e-mails do not help the credibility of UNC-TV. If you're a reporter, you don't accept payment from sources or the people you're covering. It's a basic tenet of journalism ethics. But the e-mails that Alcoa received from UNC-TV show that money did change hands. A researcher received $3,000 from former House Speaker Richard Morgan for his work on the series. That's significant because Morgan now works for the North Carolina Water Rights Coalition, which is the most vocal opponent of Alcoa's hyrdropower operation on the Yadkin River. "It's further confirmation that the TV report was part of the opposition's effort to seize Alcoa Generation's property," says Alcoa spokesman Mike Belwood. Martin Sansone is the researcher Morgan paid. He doesn't see the big deal. "I'm a good researcher. I have skills to provide. If somebody wants to make out that for $3,000 I spent six months working on the project, I think I'd be broke if I did that all the time." Sansone has a research and marketing business in England but was so intrigued by the story his friend Eszter Vajda was working on for UNC-TV that he came to the states to help her. But the volcano erruption in Iceland last spring grounded him in London. Sansone says that's when Morgan helped him out. The $3,000 helped him afford the extra flights he needed to fly around the volcano debris that stranded many travelers in Europe. "Mr. Morgan basically wanted to just help out as a friend to Eszter because UNC-TV had refused to give extra assistance to the project." He says UNC-TV knew that he was assisting Vajda, but wasn't aware of the payment Morgan made. "To be honest, it wasn't even an issue to me. I haven't got a problem with it. The money allowed me to come back and help my friend." Two of the three stories that aired on the program North Carolina Now last month included a disclaimer from station management. It said that UNC-TV refrained from exercising its customary editorial review. It did this to alleviate concerns over what it called unfounded and untrue allegations that management tried to suppress the story. Those allegations surfaced earlier this summer when state Senator Fletcher Hartsell of Concord demanded that UNC-TV turn over raw footage of the reports before they even aired. Hartsell wants the state to take control of Alcoa's Yadkin River dams, a move supported by Governor Perdue since the company no longer has a smelter in Stanly County. The station turned over the footage. Both UNC-TV and reporter Eszter Vajda have been widely criticized. A committee of journalism professors at UNC-Chapel Hill wrote a draft report that says station management abdicated its editorial responsibilities, and that the result was a series of stories that promoted a point of view unsupported by facts. The report calls the stories "unbalanced" and "slanted." Those stories attempt to connect Alcoa's working conditions and environmental problems to deaths and illnesses of workers. Meanwhile, Sansone says he expects UNC-TV to fire Eszter Vajda. "Take that to a bank," he says. Sansone is also Vajda's agent. He says Vajda is no longer speaking to the media, but that she was the subject of a disciplinary hearing last Friday. He says there should be a ruling this week. "Everyone feels sorry for Alcoa and Eszter's the one who's going to lose her job. It's just ridiculous." A UNC-TV spokesman declined an interview request, but by e-mail said all UNC-TV reporters are expected to abide by the Society of Professional Journalists ethics policy. That policy says journalists should refuse gifts and favors, and avoid conflicts of interest, real or perceived.