From newsroom to spotlight

Renee Rosenow

Believe it or not – not all journalists are untrustworthy.

At least that’s what nontraditional senior Glen Mabie hopes he has proven.

Mabie, 48, former news director for Eau Claire’s WEAU-TV 13, resigned in January after discovering the station was planning to enter into an unethical business agreement with Sacred Heart Hospital.

Since then, Mabie has won the Society of Professional Journalists’ 2008 Ethics in Journalism Award, as well as the Northwest Broadcast News Association’s Presidents Award.

Without a full-time job to hold him back, Mabie is now hitting the books again at UW-Eau Claire to finish his journalism degree.

Mabie returns to campus after a 25-year career in broadcast news. He has about 13 credits left in the degree he left behind in the early ’80s to work full-time at WEAU-13.

A man of principle

WEAU’s general manager first approached Mabie in early December of 2007 to inform him officials at Sacred Heart Hospital would be paying the station to write two health stories per week featuring only that hospital’s personnel, programs and facilities.

For other health-related stories, Mabie said the deal required WEAU to interview Sacred Heart employees before any other health institution’s staff.

The exclusivity and financial aspects of the deal were “immediate red flags” for unethical journalism, he said.

Though the news department openly protested the deal, the manager called Mabie back into his office the first week of January, and told him to announce to the staff that it would soon become official. The manager said the station needed the revenue, Mabie said.

“At one point he asked me, ‘What is their problem with this? Is it that capital J they have on their sweater for journalist?’ I said, ‘Yeah, it is.’ His response to me was, ‘Well, you have to tell them to wipe that capital J off their sweater because that’s not the way it is anymore.’ He said, ‘Do it or we’re going to have issues.'”

Mabie took the following day off to weigh his options.

Discussing the issue with his wife Jana, Mabie knew he didn’t want to be insubordinate to his boss and lose his job, but he said he definitely did not want to enforce a corrupt policy that neither he nor his staff believed in.

“We kind of made the decision that if I was going to be leaving the station, I was going to leave it on my terms,” Mabie said of their decision. “So that Monday, I went in and gave them my resignation.”

For about a month until he decided to resign, Mabie said the stress of the situation kept him up at night, and gave him chest and stomach pains during the day.

“That Saturday after we decided what we were going to do, I slept through the night the first time in a month,” he said. “I woke up and I didn’t have a pain in my chest or a knot in my stomach and I thought, ‘Alright, I made the right decision.'”

Before handing in his letter, Mabie called a family meeting. This time, instead of announcing a move, he taught his children a lesson in ethics.

“We sat down and we talked to them and said ‘There are certain attributes to being a journalist and among the three most important are being honest, being objective and maintaining your integrity. I’m being asked to do something that diminishes my ability to be objective as a journalist. It diminishes my ability to be honest as a journalist, and that in turn reflects on my integrity as a journalist. And because of that, I’m going to be resigning.'”

Mabie said a newsroom without those three elements is one for which he doesn’t want to work.

“My 16-year-old looked at me for a few seconds, thought about it and said ‘You know, Dad, that’s cool,'” Mabie said, “And I thought, ‘Oh, yeah. Bonus points!'”

Jana Mabie said she and their three children are very proud of him.

“I’m very proud of the way he handled everything,” she said. “It was not an easy thing for him to do, but it was the right choice.”

More than just 15 minutes of fame

This past weekend, Mabie flew to Atlanta to accept SPJ’s 2008 Ethics in Journalism Award at their annual convention.

David Gordon, a UW-Eau Claire professor emeritus of journalism, said he nominated Mabie “because he had the guts to stand up for crucial ethical principles to the point of saying ‘I’ll go unemployed if I have to.'”

Gordon said he initially suggested to SPJ that Mabie be on the program at the convention, but then they responded that “he seemed to be a perfect candidate for the ethics award.”

SPJ accepted Gordon’s nomination for Mabie two weeks after the award’s deadline.

At the convention, Gordon said he discovered two others had also nominated Mabie for the award – one of whom was Allan Siegal, who won the award in 2006 with The New York Times.

“It struck a chord with a lot of people because . one, it was a difficult stand to make and two, I kind of suspect that a lot of people think this (news selling) is going on in more places than Eau Claire,” Gordon said.

At the convention, SPJ also introduced a new resolution against exclusive financial deals between hospitals and newsrooms, that Gordon said was molded after Mabie’s situation.

Mabie won this year’s award from a pool of about five other nominees, Gordon said.

“That says something about how people reacted to the stand he took,” he said. “I was very pleased, because you never know what the competition is. I felt from the beginning that he should get an award this year.”

Jana Mabie said both she and Glen never expected he would attract so much attention.

“I knew he had a lot of friends in the business, so I assumed a lot of those people would stand by him,” she said.

What surprised her was the response Glen received from journalists and strangers all over the country and world.

“You hear so much about lack of ethics and selling of the news, how journalists are somewhere between Satan and a used car salesman as far as popularity, and things like that, but it really meant a lot to get that support from my peers,” Glen Mabie said. “Even more importantly, I think it shows there is knowledge that this kind of stuff happens out there and there are those who stand up and fight it.”

For Mabie, the decision was just a matter of making peace with his conscience, he said.

“It’s a slippery slope; where does it end? Before long, it’s not a newscast anymore. It’s information given to the public provided by the highest bidder.”

Mabie said he appreciates the support he received from both Gordon and Henry Lippold, Mabie’s former broadcast journalism professor. Mabie confided in Lippold while deciding whether to resign.

“My reaction was that he should stick by his guns, which he did,” Lippold said. “Unfortunately, it led to his leaving his job. That was a very brave move on his part.”

Mabie also won the 2008 Presidents Award from the Northwest Broadcast News Association (NBNA) at their March convention in Bloomington, Minn.

“He received a long standing ovation there when he won that,” Lippold said. “I was very proud of Glen.”

Though Mabie said winning the awards has been an honor, it’s one for which he can’t claim full credit.

“I don’t work there anymore, so I can comment on it, and my comment is that all the credit in the world has to go to those seven or eight people on the news staff,” he said. “They stood up, they fought this, they kept going and eventually, I think in large part because of their efforts, the deal eventually died and it didn’t happen.”

Mabie said many of the reporters had also been prepared to leave the station if the deal had gone through.

“The only difference is I guess I was willing to put my career on the line and as the boulder started to roll downhill, it hit me first. I’m happy none of them had to face that decision.”

Lippold said sharing credit with his former staff also makes Mabie very worthy of praise.

“That was a tough situation at Channel 13,” he said. “Glen is a big man in physical stature, but he’s also a big man for sharing credit.”

Life without journalism

Though there are parts of his job he does miss – the adrenaline rush of a deadline, for one – Mabie said he doesn’t miss the newsroom as much as he thought he would.

“Really, this is what I’ve done for about 25 years,” he said. “There was trepidation on my part when I left, thinking ‘I’m really going to miss this.'”

After moving his family around the country to seven TV stations in the past 25 years, Mabie said this time they wouldn’t move again.

So once he resigned, Mabie went on a job hunt in the Chippewa Valley, getting nothing but rejection after rejection. Either he had too much experience, or not enough, he said.

Then at the NBNA convention in March, an old acquaintance offered Mabie a teaching position in the journalism department at UW-Milwaukee. But since Mabie left Eau Claire without his degree, he couldn’t accept.

The offer regenerated his interest in finishing his degree, because Mabie said helping young, aspiring journalists has always been his favorite part of the industry.

“One of the things I like most about the business is watching them grow and develop as a producer or a reporter, and then watching them go on to that next job, that bigger market, that bigger paycheck.”

Back to school

For Mabie, this semester is his first on campus in nearly 25 years.

“I made the decision to face my fears, go back to school and see if I’m smart enough to do this college thing,” he said. “My wife and I have been married for 17 years. She’s been telling me to do this for 18.”

Mabie said he has at least 13 credits left in his degree, depending on how his credits from nearly 30 years ago will transfer into current graduation requirements.

“In a perfect world, two semesters and maybe a couple of summer sessions and I’d be done,” he said.

Right now, Mabie is carrying a 12-credit course load and is working two part-time jobs, including one in the campus broadcasting lab.

Though Mabie has stepped down from professional journalism for now, it’s an industry he said he’s not quite ready to leave permanently.

If he doesn’t end up pursuing his Master’s degree and teaching journalism, Mabie said he’d still like to stay involved with journalism somehow.

“If you take the last three months of my job out of the picture, I was very fortunate because for 24-plus years, I looked forward to going to work every day,” he said. “There’s not a lot of people who can say that.”