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
The interim general manager of KUT and KUTX abruptly resigned Monday amid turmoil following allegations that staff for years were mistreated by a newsroom leader and the surfacing of a recent recording in which a prominent host joked about the Spanish language.
Patti Smith accepted the interim position on May 14, intending to serve through December. In an interview, Smith said she decided to resign Monday morning after talking to her family. Her resignation is effective Oct. 8, according to an email she sent staff. UT College of Communication Dean Jay Bernhardt accepted her resignation, the email states.
“As I leave my role, I do so knowing that I’ve tried my very best to help the stations succeed despite many long-time challenges that remain to be addressed,” Smith’s email read. “I wish everyone the strength and commitment to work together to overcome the burdens that hold you back, so that KUT and KUTX can reach their full potential.”
Smith’s email hit staffers’ inboxes at 2:29 p.m. Smith was scheduled to be interviewed at 3 p.m. in her office by an independent reporter for a story for KUT about allegations that station management and newsroom leaders failed to address a troublesome workplace culture that affected staffers of color in particular. That interview was canceled. The allegations primarily focused on Emily Donahue, KUT News founder and the station’s director of journalism sustainability and impact.
Smith’s resignation stunned the newsroom.
“I’m dumbfounded,” said Joy Diaz, producer of KUT’s daily newsmagazine, Texas Standard, as she left the station Monday. “I’m also worried, because I don’t want the search for a new general manager to be rushed just because there’s a void.”
Diaz is on the search committee looking for a permanent general manager to replace Stewart Vanderwilt, who left in May. Vanderwilt had been with KUT for 18 years and envisioned the newsroom that Donahue created.
Bernhardt said Smith’s role will be filled by Associate Director Sylvia Ponce-Carson, who has been at KUT since 2002.
“I will work closely with Sylvia as we conduct investigations and reviews of recent concerns and engage outside experts to help us identify and address our problems with culture and operations,” Bernhardt said in an email to KUT staff.
Tensions had been rising in the newsroom following Smith’s response to a Sept. 12 article in Current, a nonprofit news outlet that reports on public media. In the article, current and former KUT employees aired grievances about Donahue. They described a harsh-tongued management style that occasionally left employees in tears. Staffers also described frequent newsroom shouting matches between Donahue and her husband, David Brown, who hosts Texas Standard.
Donahue was hired as KUT’s first news director in 2001. Her husband joined the station in 2006, and together, the couple created the Standard, which launched in March 2015.
In a staff meeting following the article, Smith told staffers they should “move on” from the troubled past.
“At some point, you need to decide that you’re on the team, OK?” Smith said in a recording of the meeting. “And that you’re willing to make whatever changes are necessary to move us forward and not wallow in the past.”
Smith said her comments were taken out of context. “I manage with optimism,” she said, adding that she was hoping to focus on how to make improvements and apologized if staffers were offended.
Smith said she did not know about the allegations regarding Donahue and Brown before she took the job.
She declined to comment about an ongoing human resources investigation into a recent recording of derogatory comments Brown made regarding the Spanish language.
“Silvestre, ‘rrrrrrrrr,’” Brown is heard saying on the recording, exaggerating the roll of an R. “I can’t do that crap.” He called people who pronounce foreign words or names in the vernacular “pretentious pricks” and said he was against “playing the accent game.”
After the recording was leaked last week to The Texas Tribune, Editor-in-Chief Emily Ramshaw reached out to the Texas Standard, where she is a regular guest. She expressed concern and “let them know we were seriously considering putting our relationship with them on hiatus,” Ramshaw wrote in an email to her staff.
The relationship was salvaged, Ramshaw’s email said, after Smith emailed to outline the station’s next steps and Brown sent an apology.
Taken out of context, Brown said, “I can easily hear how what I said could be misunderstood as me mocking Spanish speaking people. ... To those who have heard the tape – or portions of it – and drawn such a conclusion, I profoundly and sincerely apologize and want (sic) assure them that was not my meaning,” he wrote in an email to Ramshaw and Tribune CEO Evan Smith.
When asked about the Brown investigation, Shilpa Bakre, a spokeswoman for UT, said, “Generally we do not comment on specific personnel matters.”
As she left the building Monday, Smith said she had the utmost respect for KUT staffers. Smith previously was general manager of KVUE-TV.
“I took the job because I had a commitment to that station,” Smith said. “I’m really going to miss these people.”
Correction: A previous version of this story incorrectly stated KVUE-TV was owned by the Belo Corporation.