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    Categories: FacesIn the MagazineTelevision

Big Bird Plays Hard Ball

written by: Glen Warchol      photo by: Adam Finkle

General Manager James Morgese seeks journalistic distance from the KUED‘s benefactors.

KUED’s General Manager James Morgese sits behind his desk in the Eccles Broadcast Center at the University of Utah with a plush Arthur doll gazing on from a shelf. The sprawling glass-walled building was funded by an influential Utah family—hence the name. Morgese is discussing the challenges of producing credible journalism at a station that is so obviously beholden to powerful donors and state funding.

“There are all kinds of pitfalls in this business—you have to be very careful about any undue influence on the content of the program,” says Morgese, who joined KUED in 2013. “We really have to be careful.”

Especially now, as KUED, along with the Corporation for Public Broadcasting, faces an all-out attack from the political right.  Last spring, President Donald Trump, who overwhelmingly carried the state of Utah, called for an end to government funding of arts-and-culture organizations including the CPB, which receives $445 million in federal funding (0.01 percent of the U.S. $3.9 trillion budget). Trump vowed to eliminate all funding for the CPB, which supports Public Broadcasting Service and National Public Radio, not to mention Morgese’s officemate, Arthur. The threatened cuts would come in October.

Federal money, by the way, accounts for only 7 percent of PBS’s budget—most support comes from contributions. Ironically in arch-conservative Utah, public broadcasting, a form of socialism, is beloved because of its preschool programming in a state that spends very little on early education. “I was stunned last year when the Legislature unanimously passed a proclamation praising public broadcasting,” Morgese says. “KUER just started a 24-7 kids channel. Nobody does kids like we do.”

That praise, of course, might also mean that KUED isn’t doing enough hard-hitting public-affairs programs to draw the ire of Utah’s politicians or the station’s donors. Viewers clearly love KUED’s nostalgic documentaries, like Lagoon: Rock and Rollercoasters and its sepia-toned Brigham Street and cinematic celebrations of Utah’s natural beauty.

It’s the station’s mission to address edgy issues that keeps Morgese up at night. And trouble may be ahead—the station is working on an in-depth program about public lands, including the controversial Bears Ears National Monument that Utah’s conservative political leadership, including the governor, the Legislature and the entire congressional delegation, are pressing the Trump administration to roll back. This kind of hot-button coverage could easily suck KUED into the ongoing debate of so-called fake news and denunciations of “elite” media.

A more nuanced and tangled problem for Morgese is protecting the station’s integrity when it digs into issues that might bruise the station’s sensitive benefactors. A case in point is the controversial firing of University of Utah Medical School President Vivian Lee after the U fired Huntsman Cancer Institute CEO Mary Beckerle. The fiasco peaked with campus demonstrations and a vindictive attack on Lee by billionaire Jon Huntsman Sr.

The Machiavellian power struggle behind Lee’s firing and the hunt for her replacement is a story that cries out for explanatory journalism from a trusted source (think: PBS’s Frontline).

But Morgese admits it would be a touchy story for KUED to tell because it would require investigating the university itself—which technically owns KUED—and the Huntsman clan, who control the state’s largest daily newspaper, and whose patriarch doesn’t hesitate to exact vengeance on perceived foes. “That was pretty big [the Lee saga]—somebody has to do something on it,” Morgese says. Such public-affairs coverage challenges the distance between public stations and their funders, he says.

KUED took a credibility hit after a 2014 documentary on the Wasatch Front’s deadly air pollution The Air We Breathe. It leaned heavily on state sources for its science. Morgese had arrived at the station a week after it aired and was confronted by clean-air activists complaining the documentary pandered to the conservative Legislature and Gov. Gary Herbert’s industry-friendly administration. “We outsourced journalism to an independent contractor,” says Morgese. “I will not do that again. Journalism will be internal so we can watch over it.” KUED may take another run at the air-quality issue—if it can get independent research, he says.

Because the relationship between public stations and their supporting universities and large donors is a perennial problem, Morgese says he would like to see the Legislature provide some guidelines to protect KUED’s independence from U of U administrators. “Somebody’s got to step up at the next Legislature and fix this somehow,” he says. “There has to be an arm’s length distance between the funders and the institution. There are some very wealthy, important people in the community who step up large and most of them respect the fact we are professionals and know what we are doing. But others don’t.”

MAKE KUED GO

$4 million
(Private contributions)

+

$1.9 million
(Federal grants)

+

$2.5 million
(State funding)

+

$2.5 million
(Various)

=

$11 million
total budget

Detailed information available at KUED.org

See more inside our 2017 September/October Issue.

Glen Warchol :