FAIR Gives Media Failing Grade on Education 'Debate'

For Immediate Release

FAIR
Contact: 

Isabel Macdonald, Communications Director, FAIR (Fairness & Accuracy In Reporting)
212 633 6700 x 310
imacdonald@fair.org

FAIR Gives Media Failing Grade on Education 'Debate'

WASHINGTON - President-elect Barack Obama chose
Chicago schools superintendent Arne Duncan as his nominee for Education
secretary after an almost entirely one-sided media discussion that
portrayed the most progressive candidate in the running for the
post--Stanford educational researcher Linda Darling-Hammond--as an
unacceptable pick.

Corporate media accounts presented the selection as a choice between
"reformers who demand more accountable schools" and "defenders of the
complacent status quo," as a Chicago Tribune editorial put it (12/9/08),
claiming that the selection would determine whether Obama "wants to
revolutionize the public education industry or merely wants to throw
more money at it."

The Washington Post's December 5
editorial was headlined, "A Job for a Reformer: Will Barack Obama Opt
for Boldness or the Status Quo in Choosing an Education Secretary?" The
Post warned readers about "warring
camps within the Democratic Party," which they characterized as "those
pushing for radical restructuring and those more wedded to the status
quo."

Such loaded language was not confined to editorials. The Associated Press' Libby Quaid (12/15/08) summarized the debate this way:

Teachers' unions, an influential segment of the
party base, want an advocate for their members, someone like Obama
adviser Linda Darling-Hammond, a Stanford University professor, or Inez
Tenenbaum, the former S.C. schools chief.

Reform advocates want someone like New York schools chancellor Joel
Klein, who wants teachers and schools held accountable for the
performance of students.

These were almost the same terms adopted by conservative New York Times columnist David Brooks (12/5/08):

On the one hand, there are the reformers like
Joel Klein and Michelle Rhee, who support merit pay for good teachers,
charter schools and tough accountability standards. On the other hand,
there are the teachers' unions and the members of the Ed School
establishment, who emphasize greater funding, smaller class sizes and
superficial reforms.

Brooks' exemplar of the "establishment view" was Darling-Hammond, who
seems to have attracted the same kind of fury from the actual
establishment that was visited on Lani Guinier during the early days of
the Clinton administration (Extra!, 7-8/93). As the Tribune editorialized:

If Obama awards the post to Darling-Hammond or
someone else reluctant to smash skulls, he'll be telegraphing that the
education industry has succeeded in outlasting the Bush push for
increasingly tough performance standards in schools. That would,
though, be a message of gratitude to the teachers unions that
contributed money and shoe leather to his election campaign.

Newsweek columnist Jonathan Alter (12/15/08)
echoed the same theme: "Obama also knows that if he chooses a
union-backed candidate such as Linda Darling-Hammond, a Stanford
professor active in the transition, he'll have a revolt on his hands
from the swelling ranks of reformers."

Strangely, in corporate media's view, the selection of someone who
would continue the education policies of the Bush administration would
to signal that Obama favored serious change, even "radical reform" (in
Brooks' words). The Tribune again:

The Bush administration exploited this post not
only to help promote crucial No Child Left Behind legislation, but to
follow up by making schools more accountable for how well their
students do--or don't--learn.

Will that emphasis on accountability now intensify? Or will it wither
as opponents of dramatic change reclaim lost clout?... We trust that
Obama instead will make a statement for real improvement.

Voices in support of Darling-Hammond were hard to find in corporate
media: There was an op-ed backing her in her local paper, the San Francisco Chronicle (12/12/08), and a couple of prominent letters to the editor--one by Darling-Hammond herself (New York Times, 12/12/08) responding to the Brooks column, and another in the Washington Post (12/11/08):

The claim that Ms.
Darling-Hammond represents the "status quo" is ludicrous.... She was
the founding executive director of the National Commission for Teaching
and America's Future, a panel whose work catalyzed major policy changes
to improve the quality of teacher education. She has been a powerful
voice for the fundamental principle that all children deserve a
well-prepared and properly supported teacher. She has advocated for
strong accountability and has offered thoughtful alternatives--a
balanced system of measures to evaluate higher-order thinking skills.
And she has urged federal policies that would stop the micromanagement
of schools and start ensuring educational equity--an issue only the
federal government can tackle.

Corporate media have thus far been mostly pleased with Obama's
nominations--in large part because the president-elect's moves have
been seen as staying close to the media-approved "centrism." (FAIR
Media Advisory, 11/26/08). The media unease with the possibility of a progressive pick for Education secretary was dealt with by Alfie Kohn in the Nation (12/29/08):

Progressives are in short supply on the
president-elect's list of cabinet nominees. When he turns his attention
to the Education Department, what are the chances he'll choose someone
who is educationally progressive?

In fact, just such a person is said to be in the running and, perhaps for that very reason, has been singled out for scorn in Washington Post and Chicago Tribune editorials, a New York Times column by David Brooks and a New Republic
article, all published almost simultaneously this month. The thrust of
the articles, using eerily similar language, is that we must reject the
"forces of the status quo" which are "allied with the teachers' unions"
and choose someone who represents "serious education reform."

One prominent exception to the corporate media's one-sided presentation
of the Education nominee search was Sam Dillon's news article in the New York Times (12/14/08).
Not only did it avoid caricaturing Darling-Hammond by citing views of
both her critics and supporters, the article included some accurate
media criticism:

Editorials and opinion articles in the New York Times, the Washington Post and the Los Angeles Times
have described the debate as pitting education reformers against those
representing the educational establishment or the status quo. But who
the reformers are depends on who is talking.

Unfortunately, in most establishment media accounts, only one side has been allowed to do the talking.

 

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FAIR, the national media watch group, has been offering well-documented criticism of media bias and censorship since 1986. We work to invigorate the First Amendment by advocating for greater diversity in the press and by scrutinizing media practices that marginalize public interest, minority and dissenting viewpoints. As an anti-censorship organization, we expose neglected news stories and defend working journalists when they are muzzled.

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