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Media: More Skepticism Needed -- But Not More Paranoia

image from www.voiceseducation.org Journalists and others will be gathered at Columbia's Journalism School this weekend to discuss the role of foundations both in shaping school reform and in shaping media coverage of education issues.  Stories about philanthropic influence are turning into something of a cottage industry what with the Dissent story (Got Dough?), the Newsweek/Center on Public Integrity takedown (Back to School for the Billionaires ) and the Charlotte Observer story (Who's the power behind CMS?). Having written about these topics frequently over the years, I've found them all interesting -- it's important for reporters and others to understand how the media and the reform movement are being shaped -- but not entirely convincing, in that they generally seem to ascribe a certain all-powerfulness to private foundations at the same time they're gleefully reporting that privately funded efforts haven't worked.   There's also a certain whiff of witch hunt that can easily get into stories like these: the notion that anyone who's taken foundation money or done anything reformy has lost all capacity for independent thought or credibility.  And yet, I agree with the basic notions that funders and reformers are trying to influence public opinion through the media, and education reporters should be much more skeptical and critical than they have been. Image via.

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A lack of skepticism is not your vice, Alexander.

Excuse me -- witch hunt against education reformers? The ones who have all the money, the White House, the major media on their malevolent side? That's like referring to a witch hunt against the House Un-American Activities Committee by defenders of the First Amendment.

I think the media is just really flummoxed. When I worked in newspapers I had no idea that we the press were so very influenced by whatever the powerful and wealthy told us. I thought we were exercising smart skepticism. Now I know I was just plain wrong -- the press largely parrots unquestiongly, as long as the message is pervasive and comes from the powerful. We saw that with the runup to the Iraq war, not just in education, of course.

But then they do realize in concept that they're supposed to be questioning and exercising healthy skepticism, so I think we see some strangely bifurcated coverage -- a lot of fawning and some occasional surges of skeptical journalism.


i like flummoxed -- let's go with that.

but remember that reformers and funders are outnumbered by a large margin by teachers, administrators, and everyone else in the education system. you don't think they're out there trying to win hearts and minds, too? you don't think that lots of media coverage skews their direction, also? (you don't think that you might be unintentionally aiding the NEA or AASA?)

i'm calling for a balance, for skepticism going both ways.

The numbers of warm bodies involved are irrelevant. Educators would like to win hearts and minds, but PR and image-building aren't their daily work, and often aren't on their radar at all. It's not their focus or their skillset. And larger school districts have overwhelmed, not-all-that-polished public information operations trying to put out a million little fires.

But the wealthy foundations automatically set up PR operations and of course can afford the Rolls-Royce version. And the thing I think you're not getting about grantees is that they have to shape their message and their operations to continue to please their funders, in the quest for continued funding. Doing powerhouse PR is a big part of that.

Green Dot and Parent Revolution are both repped by the high-powered Rose Group PR operation in Culver City, for example. Do the public schools that they target for hostile takeovers have anything remotely parallel? Rhetorical question ... Compton Unified? I think not. That's probably one reason Parent Revolution targeted a struggling, smaller district rather than an LAUSD school.

The media has been the biggest sucker for these PR messages for years now. I first got involved in this type of education advocacy 10+ years ago over Edison Schools, the for-profit operator that was being hailed as the savior of public schools. At the time, it hadn't been that long since I had taken a sabbatical from my newspaper career at the San Jose Mercury News. O ... M ... G ... I was floored. My own ex-colleagues would just print any BS Edison sent them, without question -- and take up the story and promote it further, also without the tiniest effort to check its veracity -- rather, they automatically treated critical voices and questioners with contempt. They weren't the skeptical professionals I thought I knew. (I can give you reams of examples, if you like -- I still have years of links and clippings!) And that attitude and behavior continue to this day among much of the press. If you search for "charter school" on Google News at any given time, you'll usually get a series of gushes punctuated by reports of scandals and the occasional thoughtful, informed article -- it's the weirdest thing, like they are different species.

Now we're seeing some expose-type reporting popping up amid the fawning coverage of corporate education reformers and their projects. That's what I mean about bifurcated.

Of course there should be balance going both ways, but most of the press has been guilty of years and years of unquestioning gushing and fawning over the billionaires and their brand of corporate education reform. And simultaneously, they've promoted those forces' message that public schools are failing and teachers are to blame. Yes, balance should be restored, but the imbalance has been so extreme that the remedy isn't just "OK, let's tell both sides of the story now." It's kind of like affirmative action is needed.

As to whether I'm unintentionally aiding the NEA or AASA -- well, I have to go look up what AASA is, so I'll put that aside. But the loaded phrase "unintentionally aiding" inherently conveys a very strong negative message about the beneficiary of the "unintentional aid." The NEA represents teachers; I am a big supporter of teachers and their profession; I would be pleased and proud to INTENTIONALLY support the NEA. But that's not the reason I engage in this volunteer advocacy. If I am "unintentionally aiding" them, great.

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