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Media: "This American Life" Vs. Oprah Winfrey

DonttalkSome of the people who've seen Blackboard Wars -- the Oprah Winfrey Network reality series about the effort to fix a New Orleans high school -- are objecting to the depiction of the kids, teachers, and school.

One blog post against the show calls it “Cops” meets “Dangerous Minds,” describing the show as promoting a tired trope about urban teen violence and exploiting poor kids "for ratings and national school reform cred."

To be sure, the decision to invite cameras into John Mac was a controversial one -- not only in the school community -- where 90 percent of kids but only half the teachers signed release forms -- but also within Future Is Now Schools, the nonprofit charged with making things better there. I've written extensively about FIN founder Steve Barr and am no stranger to his strengths and weaknesses as a school reform leader.

But I have to ask, how is Blackboard Wars really all that different underneath it all from This American Life's recent depiction of life at Garfield Harper High School in Chicago, which generated widespread admiration and (so far as I know) very little backlash locally or otherwise?  

After all, both shows focus on struggling neighborhoods and low-income, minority kids, as well as the educators who are trying to help them.  Both shows address school safety and violence issues, and focus on conflict and violence.  It's uncomfortable, at times, and hard to tell whether depicting the dysfunction will lead to help and improvements or just tittilate viewers/listeners.

I'm not saying that the shows are identical in every regard.  Seeing things happen  -- literally -- is arguably a more visceral experience than hearing them on radio. Documentary television on a commercial cable channel is obviously different from nonprofit public affairs journalism.  The tone of the coverage on This American Life -- the scenes, the voiceover -- is slower, more in-depth.  I've only seen two of the six Blackboard episodes.

But as you think about media depictions of schools, I'd urge you to think about the underlying assumptions and reactions you might have. As NOLA's Jarvis DeBerry notes, part of what makes Blackboard Wars so hard to watch is that you're seeing a lot of dysfunction that you probably don't see or want to see on a daily basis.  This is true of both nonprofit journalism and documentary TV.  

And Blackboard Wars isn't just depicting the dysfunction of a school and community, which is what This American Life does.  It is depicting the attempt to make things better, which generates conflict among adults and stakeholders.  (This American Life touches on the SIG turnaround issue very briefly -- and sympathetically -- but doesn't focus on policy issues. The reaction might have been different if the show had focused on how much better things have gotten at Garfield Harper thanks to SIG.

I have the feeling that it's the trying-to-change-things aspect of Blackboard Wars -- not the mere depiction of the dysfunction -- that is what is behind the backlash against the show.  If you don't like school turnarounds, or reformers, or charters, or Barr, it's easy to find a reason to bash the show.  

Previous posts:  What's New, What's Familiar In "Blackboard Wars",  What Happens When Harper's SIG Ends?TV Series Trailer Heats Up Charter Meeting,  Oprah Network Features NOLA Turnaround Story"This American Life" At Chicago's Harper High School

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It sounds to me like the whole point -- the reason the reaction is news -- is that people who are NOT informed about school "turnarounds," "reformers," charter schools or Steve Barr are offended by the show.

The opinions of the fairly small number who have followed those issues have never been treated as newsworthy, so why would that suddenly change?

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