Fred Grimm

Carvalho threatens independence of WLRN and the reporters who took up his cause

Miami-Dade Schools Superintendent Alberto M. Carvalho speaks to the media during a press conference on Aug. 29, 2016, outside of a Northwest Miami-Dade home where an 8-year-old girl, Jada Page, and her 32-year-old father, James, were shot.
Miami-Dade Schools Superintendent Alberto M. Carvalho speaks to the media during a press conference on Aug. 29, 2016, outside of a Northwest Miami-Dade home where an 8-year-old girl, Jada Page, and her 32-year-old father, James, were shot.

The superintendent’s always there, standing vigil after yet another of his school kids has been gunned down on some grim urban street corner. It’s Alberto Carvalho’s great cause, demanding that the public and officialdom pay attention to this ongoing horror, all these murdered children.

He’s there too often, stays too long, spends too much time comforting stricken parents and teachers for anyone to doubt the sincerity of his melancholy crusade.

Oh, we’re there too, newspaper reporters and TV crews, congregating just beyond the yellow crime-scene tape, doing our job, giving witness to yet another child killing.

But you know which media outfit embraced Carvalho’s cause? Who took the reporting on this gun violence epidemic beyond the superficial? Who dug into the underlying causes, who examined the lives of the lost children, who reported the effect on their families, who spent time with the maimed? Who talked to trauma docs and psychologists and cops and social workers and even — oh God, it ripped your heart out — funeral directors who’ve become expert in burying murdered elementary school kids?

It was WLRN, South Florida’s public radio station (with whom the Herald has a news reporting partnership). When the rest of us gladly abandoned those grim murder scenes to chase after the Zika virus, nicely situated in the lovely environs of Wynwood and South Beach, WLRN’s reporters stayed with Carvalho’s lost children.

That added a sense of betrayal to the news this week, when my colleagues David Smiley and Kyra Gurney reported that Carvalho was intent on taking over control of WLRN. The school administration, which has owned the WLRN broadcast license since 1948, sent over a new operating agreement that would require the radio station’s 19 reporters and editors to reapply for their jobs — this time as school board employees. Their new boss would be the school district’s communications director.

The administration has played down the notion that the school district would have say over editorial content, but there was nothing in the actual 19-page operating agreement that says otherwise. Ostensibly, the school district is unhappy with issues like financial transparency and employee background checks. None of those purported reasons quite justify a government takeover of an estimable media operation.

Reporters who’ve dealt with the notoriously prickly Miami-Dade School District suspect another motivation might be at work here. Carvalho and company can hardly abide critical stories from the rest of us. Imagine their reaction when Rowan Moore Gerety from the district’s very own radio station cranked out a series of stories exploring problems with the school district’s alternative school for suspended students. As one reporter (not with the radio station) told me, “That’s got to drive them crazy. Do you think that the district keeps him on when they force everybody to apply for their jobs?”

The timing didn’t help. The Herald’s story on the takeover ploy was published Sunday, just two days after Donald Trump’s notorious tweet declaring the media “is not my enemy. It is the enemy of the American people. SICK.” Which makes us enemies of the people a tad paranoid.

Of course, Carvalho is no Trump. The superintendent has rung up amazing accomplishments running the fourth-largest school district in the nation, despite impossible challenges of poverty and language skills juxtaposed against state testing regimes more appropriate for the upper class suburbs. But a WLRN takeover seems such an unworthy blemish on that record. And just plain politically unwise. Public radio listeners and especially its donors aren’t a bunch to be dismissed. National audience profiles compiled in 2015 and 2016 found that 70 percent of NPR listeners have a bachelor’s degree or higher (compared to 28 percent of the greater population) and 74 percent of those listeners had voted in local, state or national elections within the previous year. They’re 162 percent more likely to be in a professional or managerial role, 133 percent more likely to be in upper management. They spend more money, attend more art shows, own more electronics, make more money, invest more. They’re a lot more likely to hold postgraduate degrees.

They’re hardly a segment of the local population that someone as savvy as Carvalho should risk rousing. But roused they are. Friends of WLRN Chairman Dwight Hill, who felt sandbagged with the new operating agreement and its 30-day deadline, told me that with a single exception, WLRN listeners he has heard from are upset over the prospect of a station takeover. Gurney and Smiley had another story Thursday reporting that listeners were downright outraged.

Hill said he hoped he could negotiate a less Draconian arrangement with the school district. But he won’t compromise on journalistic independence.

Surely, Superintendent Carvalho, of all people, can see what the station’s independence has done for his community.