Stelter is full of speculation: “Cindy Michaels and Tony Consiglio came to work last Tuesday with a secret: this was going to be their last day co-anchoring the news together. The reason they quit remained shrouded in mystery — a reminder that television’s most interesting plots sometimes don’t show up on the screen at all.”
By the next morning, Ms. Michaels and Mr. Consiglio were stars in local newsrooms across the country. Their signoff video, picked up by a number of national Web sites, gave the pair their biggest audience ever and all but ensured them a paragraph in media ethics textbooks.
In interviews off the air, the anchors asserted that they quit to preserve their journalistic independence. Ms. Michaels, who doubled as the person in charge of all news coverage at the two stations, said that the managers of the stations had meddled with news coverage. Singling out Mike Palmer, the general manager of the two stations, she said, “The general manager’s philosophical beliefs played a role in what he wanted us to cover, or not cover.”
Furthermore, Ms. Michaels said, “there was disrespect toward some staff members and a constant hand in the entire newsroom operations to the point I was not allowed to make decisions as news director.” But she declined to share any specific examples of clashes with management.
Mr. Palmer pointed out in an e-mail at the end of the week: “There have been no examples of bias cited, none. We require both sides of issues to be presented, always.”
For instance, Mr. Palmer said, when the news staff arranged for a local Republican strategist to record editorials for newscasts, he told Ms. Michaels to either add a Democratic strategist as a counterweight or scrap the editorial segments altogether. He said she decided to scrap the segments.
Mr. Palmer’s small stations in northern Maine — WVII, an ABC affiliate, and WFVX, a Fox affiliate — were previously the subject of national news in 2006 when his e-mail message telling the staff to stop covering global warming was obtained by The New York Times. When “Bar Harbor is underwater, then we can do global warming stories,” Mr. Palmer wrote at the time.
“We do the local news” and leave national and international news to others, Mr. Palmer said in his e-mail last week, explaining the global warming comment.
When his anchors resigned without any warning on Tuesday, Mr. Palmer told the local newspaper that the situation “was unfortunate, but not unexpected.” Later in the week, he began to tell of a specific reason he expected it: “Tony Consiglio was going to be let go, Cindy Michaels knew this and decided she could not go on without him. That is the only reason things happened,” he said Friday.
Ms. Michaels said that Mr. Palmer’s account was not true.
The dueling stories about last week’s sudden signoff do “reflect the behind-the-scenes conflicts that often occur between those who run the business side of news organizations and the journalists who run the newsroom and report the news,” said Bob Steele, a DePauw University professor who has taught hundreds of ethics and values workshops for journalists.
Ms. Michaels was in a tense position as the news director (deciding what’s news) and the top anchor (reading the news to viewers) for both WVII and WFVX. Stations in small markets frequently operate this way, with one staff producing news for two stations and with one person holding down two or three jobs.
Ms. Michaels said she was told at one point that the news on WVII was not important “and that management didn’t care if paid programming was run instead.” None of these arguments were shared with viewers, though, before or after her signoff on Tuesday.
Without judging this specific case, Mr. Steele said the ever-present newsroom tensions around journalistic independence have intensified recently. “Many news organizations are struggling these days. Some are fighting for their survival,” he said. “That intense pressure leads some owners and managers to push extra hard on the journalists to do things differently. When strategy and tactics cross the ethical line, it’s a serious problem whether it’s small-market television stations, the major networks or metro newspapers.”
Whether that line was crossed in Bangor still wasn’t entirely clear several days after Ms. Michaels and Mr. Consiglio stood up from the anchor desk. In explaining why she wouldn’t detail what went wrong, Ms. Michaels said, “Sometimes it’s best to walk away from a fight rather than give each other black eyes.”
Mr. Palmer, for his part, said he met on Sunday afternoon with a potential new anchorman.