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Media's Failing Grade on Education 'Debate'

Fairness and Accuracy In Reporting (FAIR)

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:


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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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