Cranking an already wrenching debate a few notches higher, Capitol Broadcasting, which owns WRAL, is pushing the value of diversity in Wake schools with a campaign of editorial messages airing on the television station.
"Diversity matters, and it begins in our schools," is the concluding message of the new 30-second spots on the area's most-watched news station. The spots come as members of a new majority on the county school board work to fulfill their campaign promises to ax Wake County's current diversity policy, which attempts to balance the number of students at each school based on economic backgrounds.
The spots drew an angry response from a key school board member who is part of the majority. But Capitol Broadcasting CEO Jim Goodmon said Thursday that they are not meant as a direct endorsement of the current policy but as a statement in favor of the principle of diversity.
"The company believes that diversity is a core community value, and we are just suggesting everybody think about it," said Goodmon, a booster of public schools asvital to the area's economic growth. "It doesn't say this policy's good or bad or do this or do that."
However, Goodmon said, diversity should be a key part of whatever student assignment policy the board adopts. The spot shows a succession of teenage students talking about the value to their educational experience of attending school with people from different ethnic and financial backgrounds. Another of the spots will show teachers talking about the same subject, Goodmon said.
"For me, diversity is bringing new ideas," says a young woman identified as Meera, a high school senior.
John Tedesco, a member of the school board majority, lashed out at Goodmon's move, calling it an attempt to influence the policy debate.
"He's wasting his money that could have been used to help people," Tedesco said. "He could have given it to the Rescue Mission or some other useful cause.
"Any company that is dividing the community would not be one that I'd choose to spend my advertising dollars with."
But Tedesco said he wasn't specifically calling for a boycott of Capitol Broadcasting's television and radio stations.
Goodmon noted that he has spoken out for years about the importance of a strong, diverse school system to the local economy. He also pointed out that Capitol Broadcasting was among the founders of the Wake Education Partnership, a nonprofit education advocacy group whose relations with the new board majority have been strained.
The day before last fall's school board elections, Goodmon spoke at a rally of community leaders who endorsed the schools' diversity policy. Goodmon also donated $750 last fall to losing school board candidates who backed the diversity policy.
Goodmon is also chairman of the board of the A.J. Fletcher Foundation, which is named for his grandfather.
Art Pope, a conservative businessman, is another influential Triangle figure taking an active role in the dispute over the direction of Wake schools. On Thursday, he questioned the Fletcher Foundation's backing of N.C. Policy Watch, a liberal group that has been highly critical of the new school board majority.
"He can do what he wants with Capitol Broadcasting," Pope said. "I don't think it helps the public debate for Policy Watch to be calling the new school board members racists."
Pope donated $15,015 to the Wake County Republican Party last year, which spent much of its money backing the winning school board candidates. Pope is also president of the John William Pope Foundation, which funds several local conservative groups such as the John Locke Foundation and the state chapter of Americans for Prosperity.
Kelly McBride, a media ethicist with the Poynter Institute, said it has traditionally been common for local media owners to engage in advocacy. She said it's not a problem as long Goodmon can keep it from affecting his company's news coverage.
"The fact that he's taking a political stance is not unusual" McBride said. "I'm sure he's doing what believes is right."
A station official said WRAL has received a handful of calls about the "diversity matters" spots - about evenly divided pro and con - since they started airing Wednesday. Goodmon said Capitol's editorial stance has no ties to WRAL's news coverage.
"If anyone believes that the news department has not fairly and accurately covered a particular story about anything, they should call the news department," he said. "WRAL-TV is not biased about anything."
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