Local Politics

UNC-TV complies with subpoena for program footage

Posted July 5, 2010 2:47 p.m. EDT
Updated July 5, 2010 3:57 p.m. EDT

— The state's public television network on Monday handed over material from a not-yet-aired series of reports about Alcoa Inc.'s activities along the Yadkin River to lawmakers to comply with a subpoena.

A Senate judiciary committee on Thursday demanded that the general manager at University of North Carolina Television and a correspondent turn over all footage, data and records they had gathered about Alcoa's activities in Stanly County.

The subpoena and a separate request for information from a public agency would have required that UNC-TV General Manager Tom Howe and senior legislative correspondent Eszter Vajda attend the committee's meeting Tuesday morning.

The subpoena covers information about licenses from the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission for hydroelectric power plants that Alcoa operates on the Yadkin River, UNC-TV spokesman Steve Volstad said.

The network decided not to fight the subpoena, Volstad said in a statement, because state law requires public agencies to turn over information sought by any legislative committee. Also, UNC-TV lawyers weren't sure withholding footage would fall under the state's 1999 press shield law, which protects journalists from having to disclose information not yet published or broadcast, he said.

"We understand that there are those who will disagree with our decision, but given the legal uncertainty as to the application of the press shield law to UNC-TV, and because of the fact that UNC-TV is a state entity, we believe we have responded to this difficult situation in a manner that is legal, ethical and responsible," he said in the statement.

Sen. Fletcher Hartsell, R-Cabarrus, a top critic of Alcoa's use of the river and a member of the judiciary committee, has pushed legislation that would create a public trust responsible for managing the Yadkin River and its dams.

The House rejected the trust idea last year, but another Senate committee revived the idea late Thursday by inserting the provision into an economic incentives bill.

Gov. Beverly Perdue's administration is fighting Alcoa's effort to renew a 1958 federal license to operate the dams, which powered an aluminum plant that once employed hundreds. The plant is closed, but Alcoa receives millions of dollars selling the electricity generated by the dams.

UNC-TV decided to forgo its usual editorial review to be able to air the programs as soon as possible and to head off any criticism that officials would try to suppress parts of it. The three-part report will be broadcast at 7:30 p.m. Tuesday, Wednesday and Thursday.

"Neither the public's right to know nor UNC-TV's ability to use this material for reporting purposes would be compromised in this instance," Volstad said in the statement.