Thursday, September 20, 2018
Opinion

Column: Stand up for independent journalism

A Florida school board wants to run its local radio station's newsroom.

Why should you care?

You should care because this incident is about much more than one station and a handful of local politicians looking to expand their control. This is about your ability to get straight, unbiased news reporting without a government agency looking over the reporters' shoulders.

The Miami-Dade School Board is moving forward with a plan to take control of the newsroom of WLRN, Miami's highly respected public radio station. The proposal would give the school board the direct authority to hire and fire journalists. This could enable the school board to influence how the news — including news about the school board — gets reported on WLRN's airwaves.

WLRN is an affiliate of National Public Radio, with 19 reporters and editors who are currently employed by an independent nonprofit organization. This arrangement ensures that neither the school board, which holds the station's license to operate, nor donors to the station have any direct influence over journalists deciding what stories to cover and how to cover them.

This kind of firewall helps ensure that news is not driven or shaped by a political agenda, and it is a standard in the news business.

The school board argues that it wants to establish higher levels of criminal background checks for employees and greater transparency over the station's finances. However, there is nothing in the current arrangement that prevents these goals from being implemented now.

This move by the school board raises concerns that its real goal is editorial influence over the newsroom. For example, it has been widely reported that the school board was incensed by recent stories that were critical of the quality of school lunches being served to Miami-Dade students. Who hasn't complained about school cafeteria food?

Because of the prevalence of "fake news" and the declining trust Americans have in the news media, it is often said that these are tough times for journalism. But this observation misses the real point that these are tough times for all Americans.

Public radio stations like WLRN and many other news organizations believe in the mission of journalism to serve the people by reporting the truth as closely as that can be known, to report news that has an impact on your life, and to do it in a way that is impartial, fair and accurate.

In order to carry out this mission, newsrooms must be independent from the interests of the organizations they must cover.

WLRN already has a system in place that works. It has won numerous professional awards for the quality of its work, and it has thousands of devoted listeners who count on and trust their news reports and public affairs programming.

The Miami-Dade School Board should leave it alone.

Rick Johnson is chairman of the board of the Florida Public Broadcasting Service and the general manager of WGCU-FM/TV in Fort Myers.

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