Photo courtesy iStock: avdyachenko
By LEAH WILLINGHAM, Associated Press
CHARLESTON, W.Va. (AP) — A West Virginia journalist lost her job last month after she reported about alleged abuse of people with disabilities within the state agency that runs West Virginia's foster care and psychiatric facilities.
Amelia Ferrell Knisely, a reporter at West Virginia Public Broadcasting, said she was told to stop reporting on the Department of Health and Human Resources after leaders of the besieged agency "threatened to discredit" the publicly funded television and radio network. She later learned her part-time position was being eliminated.
In a statement, Knisely said her news director told her the order had come from WVPB Executive Director Butch Antolini, former communications director for Republican Gov. Jim Justice. Antolini has served as executive director since 2021, when his predecessor was ousted after Justice overhauled the agency's governing board.
Justice has tried unsuccessfully to eliminate state funding for WVPB in the past and was accused of appointing partisan operatives to the board. WVPB receives around $4 million a year in state funding.
Antolini refused to comment, but other officials denied any effort to influence coverage. West Virginia Educational Broadcasting Authority chairman William H. File III said Antolini told the board "he was not coerced or pressured by anyone."
File said in a statement that Knisely was never fired and remains on the WVPB payroll, though she said her door key and email were deactivated.
Knisely's departure comes during a tumultuous time for West Virginia news media. Days before she left WVPB, three reporters for the Pulitzer Prize-winning Charleston Gazette-Mail said they were fired after publicly criticizing an editorial decision by their company president Doug Skaff, who is minority leader in the state House of Delegates. Skaff approved and led a video interview with Don Blankenship, a coal-company executive convicted of safety violations connected to one of the worst coal mining disasters in recent U.S. history.
The departures leave a diminished capitol press corps to cover the upcoming legislative session, which begins Jan. 11.
Knisely's stories detailed alleged mistreatment of people with disabilities under state care. The department cares for some of the most vulnerable residents in one of the poorest U.S. states.
After Knisely's departure from WVPB was first reported by The Parkersburg News and Sentinel last week, both Republican Senate President Craig Blair and Democratic Party Chair Mike Pushkin called the circumstances around her departure "disturbing."
Pushkin said Knisely's coverage of "the glaring issues at DHHR" was "detailed, in depth, and most importantly true."
"There's a very clear difference between not liking what the media reports and actively working to silence them," Blair wrote on Twitter Dec. 29.
Knisely was hired as a part-time reporter at WVPB in September. In November, she was copied on an email from then-DHHR Secretary Bill Crouch alleging inaccuracies in a story and asking for a "complete retraction."
That never happened, but in early December, Knisely said she was told by WVPB news director Eric Douglas that she could no longer cover DHHR because of threats by state officials to discredit WVPB.
A week later, amid mounting criticism, Crouch announced he was resigning.
Douglas confirmed to The Associated Press that he was instructed to tell Knisely she would no longer be reporting on DHHR, and that Antolini had directed him to do so.
As for threats from DHHR officials about discrediting WVPB, he said: "I'd rather not comment on that."
On Dec. 15, Knisely filed a human-resources complaint about interference with her reporting.
Things came to a head later that same day over Knisely's press credentials for the 2023 legislative session, according to emails obtained by the AP and first reported by The Parkersburg News and Sentinel.
Douglas initially informed legislative staffers that Knisely would "serve a vital role" in WVPB's 2023 legislative coverage. But then the station's chief operating officer left him off an email saying she wouldn't need credentials after all.
That troubled Senate spokeswoman Jacque Bland, who emailed Douglas to ask about it.
"It feels kind of gross and shady to me that someone else would dip in and say that one of your reporters won't have any assignments related to the session," she wrote. She added: "I definitely wanted you to be aware that Butch and Pals were trying to stick their fingers in the pie."
Responding the next day, Douglas said he had been pulled into Antolini's office and told "things had changed with Amelia." He said he didn't like WVPB leadership's going behind his back, "but for now it is out of my hands."
"And you're right, it does feel gross and shady," he wrote.
Knisely said she was informed Dec. 20 that part-time positions were being eliminated. Her email and key card were deactivated around that time.
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