June 4, 2002







No flag, no funding:
Lawmakers move to cut budget of Missouri station after journalists refuse to wear flagpins.

Since September 11, American flag pins and ribbons have joined big hair and happy talk as the newest emblems of American television news. Within days of the attack on the World Trade Center, these patriotic accessories appeared on the lapels of almost every television news anchor in the nation.

But one station, KOMU in Columbia, Missouri, bucked the trend when less than a week after the tragedy. The station decreed that its staff would be prohibited from wearing flag pins or ribbons on the air.

KOMU said the no-flag rule was meant to ensure its journalistic neutrality and "to deliver the news as free from outside influences as possible." But critics immediately accused it of stifling free expression and snubbing the national mood of patriotic unity. Beth Malicki, an evening news anchor at KOMU, received e-mails calling her a terrorist and a murderer. "Suddenly, I was thrust in the middle of a patriotic war," she says. "My suit jacket was the battleground."

With most TV stations, the controversy might have stopped there. But because KOMU is owned by the University of Missouri, its opponents have launched a campaign to slash its funding. (Though KOMU's newsroom is used to train journalism students, the station is also a full-fledged NBC affiliate.)

"There is a huge difference between this station and other TV stations. This one is owned by the people," says Martin "Bubs" Hohulin, a state representative spearheading the campaign against KOMU. Hohulin, a Republican, says his constituents demanded he do something about what he sees as a blatant case of homegrown liberal media bias. "There's never a bad time to show patriotism, certainly not now," he says. And for those who support KOMU, he advises, "If they don't want see broadcasters wearing the flag, they should move."

The attempt to punish KOMU by withholding money is unconstitutional, says Lucy Daglish, executive director of the Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press. "The state cannot censor based on content," she says. Daglish supports the no-flag policy and says it is no different than newsroom policies requiring anchors to wear ties or have neat haircuts.

KOMU's Beth Malicki says that over time, more viewers have come to see the policy not as a political statement but as a decision to protect the station's journalistic credibility. "People are not so emotional now," she says. "They're beginning to see that we are here to report the news, not propaganda."
But time has not softened Missouri lawmakers' crusade against the station. In April, the Missouri House of Representatives voted to cut $500,000 from KOMU's $6 million annual budget. Representative Hohulin is waiting to see if the state senate and governor will approve the cut. In the meantime, he's already sent a strong message to a TV station whose signal he doesn't even receive: he lives 200 miles from Columbia, far beyond viewing range of the KOMU news anchors' flag-free lapels.

- Dave Gilson

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