Update 12:45 p.m.: A school board spokesperson sent New Times a statement defending the plan and arguing the board "has the responsibility of protecting the interests of WLRN, its employees, supporters, and stakeholders by ensuring financial integrity, professional hiring practices, and transparency in all transactions."
Update 5 p.m.: Dwight Hill, the volunteer chairman of Friends of WLRN, called New Times to push back on the school board's statement. He says any claims that the organization hasn't been transparent are ludicrous. "This is a red herring... Our books are audited, they are made available to the school board, and a school board member sits on our board," Hill says. "But for the prior two years, the school board's representative never showed up for our meetings."
This might be the most precarious moment in history for the free press. The president recently called reporters "the enemy of the American people" and wants to defund PBS. The internet has murdered daily newspapers. Made-up stories routinely go viral on social media.
Now in South Florida, the Miami-Dade School Board is trying to take full control of WLRN, Miami's vital independent public radio affiliate. In a proposal that has outraged journalists and funders, the board wants to take over direct management of the station, including the ability to hire and fire reporters and to dictate programming.
Unless you're a big fan of Pravda, it should be self-evident that giving elected officials direct control over a news outlet is a very bad idea.
As Dwight Hill, president of Sabadell United Bank and volunteer chairman of Friends of WLRN put it to the Miami Herald this past weekend: “How would these journalists be able to do their job independently if they’re reporting directly to the school district administration?”
The school board's answer? Just trust us!
A school board spokesperson didn't immediately respond to New Times' request for comment about the plan but told the Herald that the board wouldn't mess with WLRN's news coverage. Bizarrely, the board claimed the real issue is security.
As it stands, the school board owns the station, but WLRN is operated through an independent nonprofit called South Florida Public Media. Unlike employees in the rest of the school district, the station's employees don't go through a full criminal background check — a situation that supposedly could "endanger" interns working at the station. The nonprofit has offered to begin performing school-district-level background checks, but the school board says that's not good enough.
Instead, the board wants to eliminate the nonprofit and force all 19 journalists at WLRN to reapply for their jobs directly with the school district.
If that sounds like flimsy reasoning to take away the independence of one of Miami's major media outlets, it is. The real motivation? Probably power and money.
The board has grappled in recent years with Friends of WLRN, a nonprofit that handles fundraising for the station. That group came under fire when it emerged that its chief fundraiser was earning more than $400,000 while the station's journalism staff faced growing cutbacks.
“They have not been transparent in their finances,’’ Daisy Gonzalez-Diego, a school board spokesperson, told the Herald.
Fair enough, but forcing journalists to work directly for elected school board members is a terrible idea. Several current staffers declined to speak to New Times, citing warnings from management not to discuss the situation, but it's clear reporters and editors are deeply concerned by the plan.
WLRN produces two dozen broadcasts a day and routinely wins Edward R. Murrow Awards. This year, the staff has been producing a fantastic series about young victims of gun violence.
Whatever the board claims about its motivations, none of that would be possible in a newsroom reporting directly to elected board members.
For now, the board has given Friends of WLRN 30 days to respond to the new operating agreement. It's unclear what would happen if the nonprofit refused to agree to the terms or whether WLRN's staffers would even consent to reapply for their jobs directly with the school board.
Update: Daisy Gonzalez-Diego, a school board spokesperson, denies the plan would affect the station's ability to produce independent journalism. Here's her full statement:
This isn't about silencing journalists or limiting free speech. The school district, as the station’s owner, has the responsibility of protecting the interests of WLRN, its employees, supporters, and stakeholders by ensuring financial integrity, professional hiring practices, and transparency in all transactions. Over the years Friends of WLRN has grown and become engaged in activities that have exposed M-DCPS to liability. Serious concerns exist with Friends’ financial disclosures, personnel matters, and operations, as noted by an independent auditor. Misrepresentation of contributions in a federal government audit has resulted in the resignation of their CFO and fines against the district by the Corporation for Public Broadcasting. Using the First Amendment as a cover is a disservice to the quality programming which has come to define WLRN.