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Media: Grading EdWeek's Big Arne Duncan Profile

EdWeek pulled out all the stops with this lengthy multimedia profile of Arne Duncan's first year as education secretary written by star reporter Michele McNeil (Duncan Carves Deep Mark on Policy in First Year).  And it's clear that the profile was reported with lots of cooperation from inside the Department.  But we all know that access often kills good journalism.  Ditto for the traditional style of "objective" journalism that EdWeek features.  So did McNeil's story do a good job of capturing the Secretary's accomplishments and mis-steps?  Well, no. Not really. I give it a "C."

U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan, right, talks with Dell Computers founder and CEO Michael Dell after leaving the White House on Jan. 6. CREDIT: Christopher Powers/Education Week

To be fair, the piece includes the obligatory quotes (pro and con) about the possibility that Duncan has been overstepping, and it gives some interesting in-the-room details about Duncan's days and workstyle.  There's thankfully little about basketball playing and what a nice guy Duncan is.  And there are no major errors of fact or any obvious unfairness. 

And yet, despite all the time and effort, the piece is still missing two necessary ingredients:  Analytically, the piece gives only the merest clues as to what McNeil herself thinks of Duncan, based on her extensive time spent with him.  Because of outdated journalistic convention in which McNeil isn't allowed to tell us her impressions we're deprived of the insights that might be most interesting and useful. The piece is balanced to within an inch of it's life. 

Substantively, there's not enough about the woefully under-sized & weakly researched elements of the Race To The Top initiative -- and nothing about the small but growing set of articles in mainstream publications like the Post and the Tribune that indicate that Duncan's success in Chicago was overstated and perhaps even willfully misrepresented. A golden boy for nearly the entire first year, Duncan's stock has been trending downwards lately in ways that aren't adequately captured here. 

Like I said, access kills.

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