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Alaska journalists take radio station to court on ethics

ANCHORAGE, Alaska. - Two Inupiat Eskimo journalists filed a lawsuit against an Alaskan broadcast corporation claiming the radio station they worked for violated their journalistic ethics.

National Native News Producer Host Nellie Moore and D'Anne Hamilton filed suit against the Koahnic Broadcast Corporation (KBC), a publicly funded station based in Anchorage.

Robert H. Wagstaff, attorney for the two journalists, said KBC planned to begin a new news program called "Pathways" that would focus on Alaska Native rural and urban news issues. Moore was assigned as the producer while Hamilton was the trainer on the show to be aired on public radio stations across Alaska.

During initial format discussions, President and CEO Jaclyn Sallee insisted two other people "of her choice" be included as permanent participants. The two journalists objected, on the grounds that the two individuals were too closely involved with KBC's parent company, Cook Inlet Region Inc. Foundation (CIRI).

"It was the corporation's idea to control the content of the new show and Moore and Hamilton objected to it," Wagstaff said. The two full-time, permanent journalists approached the board of directors with the issue and were fired shortly after "for being trouble makers."

Moore has worked with the KBC for the past six years as a national program manager, producer and host for the "National Native News," a daily five-minute newscast distributed to 130 radio stations across the country. She also was an executive producer for "Native America Calling," a national Native American radio show.

Hamilton has been employed with KBC since 1998, as the training director, overseeing training programs for KNBA and other tribally owned radio stations. She was formerly a producer and host for the Alaska Public Radio Network (APRN) for six years.

"We want to live up to our mission of being a national leader in Native American broadcasting," Moore wrote in a letter to Sallee. "We want to instill journalistic values into the program and provide a quality product to the stations that have agreed to carry the show."

"Pathways" was two weeks away from airdate when this issue occurred.

"I'm feeling good," Hamilton said. "We are standing by the truth and our journalistic ethics. We have received a lot of support." Hamilton said since the day they were fired, they have been receiving calls from individuals, mostly journalists from across the country, offering support. The University of Alaska journalism program has offered its support and is discussing the case in the classes, Hamilton said.

Wagstaff believed that it was their legal and constitutional right to bring to the attention of the board of directors that the credibility of the new show was being compromised.

The journalist's code of ethics states, in part, "a journalist should be free of obligation to any interest other than the public's right to know ? and be vigilantly courageous about holding those with power accountable."

The two individuals Sallee insisted be hired as on-air hosts were an in-house attorney for CIRI and the executive director of the Alaska Native Claims Settlement Act. In court transcripts, Moore and Hamilton stated that Sallee insisted on their participation because of "internal CIRI corporate politics."

"It's purely a journalistic call," said Moore, who believed the integrity of the show would have been at stake if those two individuals sat in as co-hosts. "We shouldn't be rewarding supporters with air time. It's not good broadcast journalism and the listeners would have seen right through it."

KBC issued a press release stating that both Moore and Hamilton handled the "internal dispute" in an inappropriate manner. "They did not follow proper management channels and improperly involved other employees in the dispute with management. It is not about ethics or freedom of speech."

Moore and Hamilton have charged Koahnic Broadcast with five counts breach of contract, wrongful termination, defamation, wrongful interference with contractual rights and violation of civil rights.

As of March 23, KBC has yet to receive court documents and unable to comment on all the counts. However, spokeswoman Cassandra Shumate said, "There was no violation of ethics.

"This was a disagreement between two senior producers and the president."