Sarah Garrecht Gassen: Questions about cuts to AZPM

2014-07-03T00:00:00Z 2014-07-13T15:39:54Z Sarah Garrecht Gassen: Questions about cuts to AZPMSarah Garrecht Gassen Arizona Daily Star Arizona Daily Star

Let’s take a trip down memory lane, prompted by UA President Ann Weaver Hart’s decision to eliminate a quarter of the university’s funding to Arizona Public Media, the local PBS and NPR affiliate.

And we’ll stipulate that the University of Arizona has never had enough funding to do all it can or should do. It often seems, of course, that there’s money for high-priced administrators with lofty titles, and athletics is its own world, but let’s not get distracted.

Hart’s move isn’t the first time the University of Arizona has sought to save money by cutting journalism.

Twenty years ago the target was the UA department of journalism.

Killing an academic department that educates students and reducing funding to a standing station aren’t synonymous, but both actions stem from a point of view that undervalues the deep connection people have to the principle of a free press and the value of information.

The protests that sprang up in 1994 when the journalism department was put on the chopping block by university administrators who said tight budgets forced tough choices are echoed by AZPM supporters who oppose President Hart’s decision to cut $2 million from the station.

In both instances, top university administrators explained their rationale as being financial. The UA budget was corset tight in the 1990s and prompted a wide swath of cuts across the university and a hiring freeze.

The Legislature has continued to eviscerate the state’s (read: taxpayer) portion of the UA’s budget and contributes $180 million less now than it did in 2008.

Times are tight. No question. Hart and university officials say that AZPM must make sacrifices as other parts of campus already have. The $2 million, which is about a quarter of the total AZPM budget, will be phased in over five years. The UA will continue to cover about $2 million in in-kind contributions such as human- resource services and utilities.

Explaining the budget wherefores and whys won’t ameliorate the feeling that UA administrators are trying to stifle a news source that hundreds of thousands of Tucsonans rely on to learn what’s going on in their community, nation and the world.

The unease is more powerful, perhaps, because of the relative puniness of the amount in question. Yes, $2 million is a significant part of the AZPM budget, but in the scheme of the overall UA budget, it’s a pittance at a time when the university is also undertaking an enormous fundraising campaign.

Hart has said that AZPM needs to turn to donors for more funding, and that’s probably true. They should become more efficient and look for savings away from the newsroom. But that doesn’t quell the questions about Hart’s decision.

Twenty years ago I was a journalism student working at the Arizona Daily Wildcat, the campus newspaper. It was a terrible time. We didn’t know if our department would survive, if we could finish our degrees, what was next.

What we did know, however, was how to cover the hell out of a story. We put our classroom learning to use, tracking the arcane twists and turns of university committee recommendations, subcommittee reports, reaction from alums, faculty, students. We followed the money. We told the story.

Finally, in 1996, two years after they started the fight, the UA president and provost decided the public fallout was too costly and sent the department chair this terse memo: “I want to assure you that there is no plan under discussion with the administration for the elimination of the journalism department.”

The thread that outraged us young journalists, and others, is that the leaders of a public, taxpayer-funded university would try to quash the press — and thereby questions and criticism. If you don’t like the message, unfund the messenger. What were they afraid of, we asked.

Today, with 18 years at the Star, appearances on AZPM and the Bill Buckmaster radio program, and more than a decade teaching at what’s now the UA School of Journalism, those questions are the same. I understand the financial explanation. I’m just not satisfied with it — maybe it’s the journalist in me.

Those administrators never understood, I think, that decisions send messages beyond what they can control.

Hart faces the same incredulity. When an institution as powerful as the UA wants to cut funding to a major community news outlet, it tends to make people suspicious.

Sarah Garrecht Gassen writes opinion for the Arizona Daily Star. Email her at sgassen@azstarnet.com and follow her on Facebook.

Copyright 2014 Arizona Daily Star. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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