NOTE: In order to avoid any appearance of or actual conflict of interest, the reporter and editor of this story were hired by KUT on a freelance basis. KUT news staff was not involved in the reporting or editing of this story. We do stand by the reporting. – KUT Managing Editor Matt Largey
KUT’s founding news director created “a legacy of mistreatment of newsroom employees,” Current, a news outlet that reports on public media, reported in a story posted online Wednesday.
The allegations focus on Emily Donahue, the station’s director of journalism sustainability and impact, who assembled the public radio newsroom, which launched in 2002. She later became the founding executive producer of the daily statewide program Texas Standard.
April Simpson, who wrote the Current's story, reported interviewing 19 former and current employees who collectively described a newsroom filled with tension, uncertainty and discomfort. People of color also reported that she made racially insensitive remarks and that they felt overlooked for career advancement.
Donahue disputed staff members' allegations via email, Simpson reported. Donahue described newsroom tensions as typical for any newly launched news program and denied allegations she made racially insensitive remarks.
According to the article, a 2015 report created by consultants who spent months interviewing KUT staff states that Donahue's interactions with her husband, David Brown, who hosts Texas Standard, were "the greatest source of tension" in the shared KUT/Texas Standard newsroom. The report described screaming matches between the two and said the dysfunctional environment affected editorial quality and staff morale at the Texas Standard.
"Staff members are extremely uncomfortable witnessing intensely personal, hostile interactions between them," Simpson wrote, quoting the report.
Donahue told Simpson it "was the decision of KUT management - which I protested - to assign us to work together.”
Additionally, KUT staff members reported race-based remarks that made them uncomfortable. One former reporter told Simpson about a conversation in which Donahue referred to Juneteenth as “Black People’s Day.” Another former reporter recounted that while Donahue interviewed him for a full-time position, she asked a question that amounted to, "Why should I hire you - other than because you’re black?"
In response to Simpson’s questions, Donahue said in an email that “both the letter and the spirit of these assertions are untrue.” She added, “I do not and never have condoned nor sat silently for anyone to say such things in my presence.”
Six months after the consultant's report, Donahue was moved out of the newsroom into a new position, director of journalism sustainability and impact, where she remains today. The apparent promotion came despite staff complaints about Donahue's behavior to newsroom management, including former General Manager Stewart Vanderwilt and Assistant General Manager Hawk Mendenhall, Simpson's story states.
A dozen staff members of color aired their concerns to Vanderwilt in a meeting in January, Simpson reported, but Vanderwilt left KUT in July after 18 years to head Colorado Public Radio.
Mendenhall told Simpson he addressed issues in staff evaluations, took complaints to Vanderwilt when they rose to a certain level and encouraged staff members to file human resources complaints.
"When employees who were involved in a contentious situation don't speak up for themselves directly, and don't want to be identified to HR, it makes a supervisor's job very, very difficult," Mendenhall told Simpson.
Attempting to address concerns about the culture, KUT management has undertaken efforts to diversify the newsroom, sources and reporting. Consultants have also been hired to help KUT improve its newsroom culture, Simpson reports.
KUT Managing Editor Matt Largey and Rhonda Fanning, senior producer of Texas Standard, called an editorial staff meeting Wednesday morning to discuss the Current story.
"[Largey] wanted to be clear that this wasn't something that we had to whisper about in our cubicles; this should be a newsroom discussion, and there was one," said Ashley Lopez, a KUT reporter who attended the meeting.
While discussions have been going on for months for many employees, Lopez said, some didn't know about previous problems with Donahue. "One reporter said she is now on the fence about working here," Lopez said, adding that the reporter wanted clarity on how the station was addressing the allegations.
Neither Donahue, who no longer works in the newsroom, nor Brown attended the staff meeting, Lopez said. Because the station’s interim general manager was also not present, newsroom staff remain unclear about how KUT will proceed.
In an emailed statement, KUT spokeswoman Erin Geisler wrote, “We don’t comment on personnel issues. KUT strives to provide a diverse and inclusive workplace that fosters a culture of open dialogue. These matters have been brought to the attention of the station’s GM [General Manager] and will be carefully reviewed.”
Upper management held meetings with KUT and Texas Standard staff on Thursday to address concerns related to the Current story.