2015 was an important year in education policy, with the passage of the Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA), the beginning of the 2016 election campaigns, and local fights for teachers and public schools making national headlines. In an important year for students and teachers across the education spectrum, however, some media outlets used their platforms to push falsehoods. Here are five of the worst media failures on public education this year.
This summer, teachers union opponent and former journalist Campbell Brown launched a "non-profit, non-partisan news site about education," called The Seventy Four. In spite of the site's stated mission to combat "misinformation and political spin" with "investigation, expertise, and experience," Brown hired Eric Owens, who has a long history of attacks on students and teachers, to write for the site. Owens has a long history of attacking and mocking teachers and students with transphobic, sexist, victim-blaming, and racially insensitive rhetoric as the education editor at the Daily Caller.
This year, The Wall Street Journal continued its campaign of misinformation on teachers unions, pushing harmful, union-opposed policies such as a Louisiana voucher program that was found to violate desegregation requirements and a Washington, D.C. voucher program reported to waste federal dollars on "unsuitable learning environments." The WSJ editorial board often explicitly attributed its support of these unsuccessful policies to combating teachers unions. In an October editorial, for example, the board wrote that being "unpopular with unions... ought to be a requirement for any education leadership position," ignoring the troubling realities of the programs they attempted to defend in spite of well-founded union concerns.
As ESSA moved through Congress in late November, the editorial board doubled down on its teacher-blaming rhetoric, claiming that the new legislation was favored by "teachers unions who want less accountability," and advocating for the continuation of unpopular high-stakes testing and voucher policies in the states.
The Washington Post editorial board similarly advocated for continuing the extensive testing requirements of the No Child Left Behind legislation, lending support to a high-stakes testing policy with questionable public or research support, and villainized teachers unions in the process. In its February editorial on the issue, the Post claimed that teachers unions "give lip service to accountability as long as their members aren't the ones held to account," and cited this self-interest as the source of unions' opposition to flawed teacher evaluation models that utilize students' standardized test scores to punish teachers.
Fox News featured offensive and often inaccurate commentary on public education and the teaching profession throughout the year -- in some cases doubling down on the anti-teacher rhetoric many Fox figures pushed in 2014.
In February, Outnumbered co-host Kennedy kicked off the teacher-bashing by arguing that "there really shouldn't be public schools," before the hosts agreed that the federal Department of Education ought to be abolished. In April, Fox & Friends co-host Steve Doocy slurred prospective bilingual educators, referring to immigrants with legal permission to work in the United States as "illegals" during a segment highlighting an initiative to boost language learning in schools.
In August, Fox & Friends included a segment where Fox News regular Frank Luntz conducted a live focus group segment about public education. Questions for the focus group included "Who here has issue with teachers unions?" and "Doesn't it make you angry that you're putting all this money into public schools?" Luntz followed up his leading question about teachers unions by singling out a teacher from the group and asking him to "defend" himself.
In an October discussion about New York City schools on Fox's The Five, the co-hosts implored the city's public school teachers to "become a better teacher" and "don't suck at your job." That same month, co-host Juan Williams attacked unions' endorsement of Hillary Clinton in the 2016 presidential race, asserting that an "unholy alliance between education unions and Democrats" would be "dangerous for our kids" and would "hurt" "minority communities" and "poor people."
This year also marked the launch of the 2016 presidential campaign season, with five Republican and three Democratic debates held this fall. While candidates outlined their positions time and again on national security issues, women's health care, and taxes, the debates barely mentioned education issues. A Media Matters search of all eight full debate transcripts found only nine mentions of any variation of the term "teach." In fact, according to this review, no candidate or moderator uttered the phrases "No Child Left Behind," "Race To The Top," or "Elementary and Secondary Education Act (ESEA)" throughout the 2015 debate season, despite the recent passage of the landmark ESSA legislation replacing No Child Left Behind.
Moderators did discuss schools and teachers a handful of times throughout the debate season, mostly in relation to national security. In the August 6 Republican debate on Fox News, moderator Bret Baier questioned former Governor Jeb Bush (R-FL) and Sen. Marco Rubio (R-FL) on their disagreement on the Common Core state standards and asked former Governor Mike Huckabee (R-AR) whether he would abolish the Department of Education, among other federal agencies. The moderators of the October 28 CNBC Republican debate also mentioned teachers once, when moderator Carlos Quintanilla asked Donald Trump about his comments that educators ought to be armed. And on CNN's December 15 Republican debate, moderator Wolf Blitzer asked candidates about the closure of the Los Angeles Unified school district following an email threat.
The other five debates did not feature questions regarding K-12 education policy.
Public school educators and their unions in major cities made national headlines in 2015 following strikes, contentious contract negotiations, school board elections, and school funding battles. While research shows that teachers unions not only protect the rights of educators but also benefit students and their communities, state newspapers editorializing on union activities framed unions and educators as selfishly seeking higher pay at the expense of others.
Amidst a victory year for teachers unions on several fronts, Media Matters found that state newspapers in New York, Pennsylvania, New Mexico, California, and Washington published editorials distorting the facts to question the motives of teachers and attack their right to organize.
In Buffalo, New York, The Buffalo News repeatedly claimed that teachers unions supporting a parent-led movement against standardized testing want to maintain "the wretched, costly, dysfunctional status quo" and require children to "pay the price." In Scranton, Pennsylvania, The Scranton Times-Tribune lamented that teachers unions had the ability to strike and dismissed teachers' calls to be treated with respect and dignity. In Albuquerque, New Mexico, The Albuquerque Journal mocked teachers' concerns over an unfair evaluation method that was subsequently struck down by a district court that agreed with the unions. In Los Angeles, California, the Los Angeles Times dismissed unions' worries that a charter expansion plan created by one of the paper's education reporting funders would financially jeopardize local public schools, telling those who opposed the plan to "quit whining." And in Seattle, Washington, The Seattle Times repeatedly attacked the local union for "using their students as pawns," as they advocated for fair pay, guaranteed recess time, more funding for schools, and greater equity in school discipline policies.
These editorial board attacks on educators -- because of the readers they serve and the prominence of local priorities on education policy -- have the dangerous potential to shift public conversation away from the facts and to pit communities against the teachers who advocate for them. After a year where the importance of education policy has become more critical than ever, hopefully this disturbing trend will not continue in 2016.
Image by Ian MacKenzie under a Creative Commons license.
Since its launch this summer, education reform advocate and former broadcast journalist Campbell Brown's "non-partisan education news site," The Seventy Four, has published 11 pieces from contributor Eric Owens. Owens, the education editor at the conservative Daily Caller, has a long history of penning racially insensitive, sexist, and transphobic attacks on students and teachers, and has continued to publish this offensive content since becoming a The Seventy Four contributor.
The Daily Beast published a piece by former CNN host Campbell Brown on a controversial California education trial without disclosing Brown's ties to anti-teachers union groups.
Earlier this year, lawyers spent "more than two months" in state court arguing the Vergara v. California trial, a case which The Washington Post's Valerie Strauss called a "deeply misguided lawsuit" that "is ostensibly about one thing -- protecting students -- but is really about attacking teachers unions and the due process rights for teachers." On May 29, The Daily Beast ran a piece by Brown titled, "Vergara v. California: The Most Important Court Case You've Never Heard Of," which asserted that the trial "is about equity" because it "takes aim at laws that go directly to the heart of a good education":
Vergara v. California takes aim at laws that go directly to the heart of a good education: the ability to have, keep, and respect good teachers and dismiss utterly failing ones. Specifically, the suit challenges California laws that create three sets of problems, all of them undermining a school's ability to act in the best interest of students.
What Brown doesn't bother to mention and what The Daily Beast neglects to include in the post is that Brown has multiple conflicts of interest when it comes to matters of education, especially teachers. Brown's husband Dan Senor sits on the board of StudentsFirstNY, a group that actively opposes teachers unions and tenure. In addition, Brown launched a venture last year called the Parents' Transparency Project (PTP), a purported "watchdog group" that Mother Jones' Andy Kroll took a closer look at in October 2013:
Shortly after it was launched in June, PTP trained its sights on the New York mayoral race, asking the candidates to pledge to change the firing process for school employees accused of sexual misconduct. When several Democratic candidates declined, perhaps fearing they'd upset organized labor, PTP spent $100,000 on a television attack ad questioning whether six candidates, including Republican Joe Lhota and Democrats Bill de Blasio and Anthony Weiner, had "the guts to stand up to the teachers' unions."
Another consulting firm working with Brown's group is Tusk Strategies, which helped launch Rhee's StudentsFirst. Advertising disclosure forms filed by PTP list Tusk's phone number, and a copy of PTP's sexual-misconduct pledge--since scrubbed from its website--identified its author as a Tusk employee. (Tusk and Revolution declined to comment. Brown referred all questions to her PR firm--the same one used by StudentsFirst.)
The New York Daily News also reported that Brown recently launched a website to "influence the direction of [New York City's] ongoing contract talks with the teachers union."
Vergara v. California has significant implications for the future of teaching in the state. LA Weekly referred to the case as the "Vergara Time Bomb," asking if "a judge [will] tear down California teacher protection laws," while Daily Kos concluded that "The Vergara lawsuit has nothing to do with a good education for the disadvantaged, and has everything to do with destroying the power of unions. And if it succeeds, it could set a very dangerous precedent across the nation."
The Wall Street Journal published an op-ed by former CNN anchor Campbell Brown that misleadingly accused teacher unions of "making it more difficult to protect children from molesters" and failed to disclose that Brown's husband is a board member of an anti-teacher union organization.
The Protecting Students from Sexual and Violent Predators Act of 2013 from Rep. George Miller (D-CA) passed in the House of Representatives in October 2013. Politico reported that the bill will "require school employees, applicants and contractors to pass a comprehensive background check that includes a check of the FBI fingerprint database, standardizing national background check policy. It would forbid school districts from knowingly transferring employees who have engaged in sexual misconduct, and it would allow districts to share background check information."
In a January 17, op-ed for The Wall Street Journal, Brown dismissed the objections of teacher unions such as the American Federation of Teachers (AFT) and the National Education Association (NEA) to the bill as "unconvincing," claiming the organizations' stance is "making it more difficult to protect children from molesters."
Campbell recounted two "horror stories" of sexual misconduct by teachers to paint the legitimate concerns of the AFT and NEA regarding the bill as an attempt by teacher unions to protect sexual predators:
These are sensible measures that are overdue. Yet the two most powerful teachers unions in the country have voiced objections to the bill. Both the National Education Association and the American Federation of Teachers complained about the bill before it passed the House. The NEA claimed in a letter to House members that background checks "often have a huge, racially disparate impact." Randi Weingarten, the AFT chief, warned of inaccuracies in the FBI database and cautioned that teachers would be inconvenienced by potentially long screening delays.
This response is unconvincing. Twenty-five states already use FBI searches in teacher hiring. More important, the bill includes an appeals provision for anyone who believes the results of background checks are mistaken.
However, the AFT, an organization that represents over 1.5 million teachers, does not oppose the bill. In an open letter to the House of Representatives the organization affirmed support for the bill while also addressing legitimate concerns and suggestions for "improving and strengthening the bill."
AFT specifically addressed parts of the bill that they believe need further consideration and deliberation including the possibility that imposing a national protocol could create inefficient duplication processes in states with already rigorous procedures, and that the data in FBI records used for background checks are often incomplete or inaccurate. AFT say they would also like the bill to consider how individuals will be burdened with addressing inaccurate data, and to address the possibility that this bill may cause serious backlogs and delay in the hiring process.
The NEA offered their view "that criminal background checks often have a huge, racially disparate impact. In addition, we are concerned that H.R. 2083, while well intentioned, may run counter to existing state laws requiring background checks." Although background checks have a history of acting as a racially discriminatory tool for companies, Campbell dismissed these points as "unconvincing."
In addition, WSJ did not disclose Brown's possible conflict of interest in writing about teachers' unions - her husband, Dan Senor, sits on the board of StudentFirstNY, an organization that actively opposes teachers' unions.
The WSJ has a habit of failing to disclose their contributor's conflicts of interest when it comes to conservative policies the paper supports. According to a 2012 Media Matters review, WSJ's editorial page published op-eds from 12 writers without disclosing their roles as advisers to Mitt Romney's presidential campaign. In 2012 the paper also did not provide Campbell's background when she wrote a similarly critical op-ed of teachers unions in New York.
Former CNN anchor Campbell Brown criticized New York teachers unions in a Wall Street Journal op-ed over the weekend without disclosing a possible conflict of interest -- her husband, Dan Senor, is a board member of an organization that opposes teachers unions.
On July 29, Brown criticized the New York teachers unions' handling of teachers accused of sexual misconduct:
Under current New York law, an accusation is first vetted by an independent investigator. (In New York City, that's the special commissioner of investigation; elsewhere in the state, it can be an independent law firm or the local school superintendent.) Then the case goes before an employment arbitrator. The local teachers union and school district together choose the arbitrators, who in turn are paid up to $1,400 per day. And therein lies the problem.
For many arbitrators, their livelihood depends on pleasing the unions (whether the United Federation of Teachers in New York City, or other local unions). And the unions--believing that they are helping the cause of teachers by being weak on sexual predators--prefer suspensions and fines, and not dismissal, for teachers charged with inappropriate sexual conduct.
But in her op-ed, Brown never disclosed that her husband, Dan Senor, is a board member of the anti-teachers union organization StudentFirstNY. This disclosure is even more important given the fact that one of the two teachers quoted in her piece, Michael Loeb, has blogged for StudentsFirst.org.
When confronted over the issue of her husband's work on Twitter and her lack of disclosure in her Wall Street Journal op-ed, Brown wrote: "B/c protecting kids from sex predator teacher is a partisan issue?"
This is at odds with a New York Times op-ed she wrote in May that was critical of President Obama, where she included the following statement:
I should disclose here that my husband is an adviser to Mr. Romney; I have no involvement with any campaign, and have been an independent journalist throughout my career.
Questions of disclosure over her husband's work for Mitt Romney also surfaced when she was a panelist during a Democratic presidential debate in 2007.
In contrast to Brown's attitude about disclosure over her husband's job, Washington Post education columnist Jay Matthews included the following statement about his wife's work in a July 27 post about declining test scores:
Disclosure: My wife, Linda Mathews, led USA TODAY's investigation of erasures, published in March 2011.
In a New York Times op-ed, former CNN anchor Campbell Brown wrote that Obama "made reference to how women are smarter than men" in his Barnard College commencement speech, saying he "sometimes sounds too paternalistic for my taste." In fact, Obama said that "founding mothers" were likely "whispering smarter things" to the Founding Fathers about whether a woman should sign the Constitution.
From the January 19 edition of CNN's Campbell Brown:
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So Campbell Brown is the latest journalist who fails to critically examine whether Fox News is any different than MSNBC. Eric Boehlert has done an excellent job taking down this argument here.
On her October 28 show, following an interview with White House adviser Valerie Jarrett, Brown stated:
So I am stating what I think is the obvious here. Jarrett seems loathe to admit that MSNBC has a bias, and that is where the White House loses all credibility on this issue. Just as Fox News leans to the right with their opinionated hosts in primetime, MSNBC leans left. I don't think anyone at Fox or MSNBC would disagree with that.
Of course, as Boehlert and Jamison Foser have repeatedly pointed out, those who call attention to MSNBC's primetime programming always seem to overlook that three hours of MSNBC's morning programming is dominated by unabashed conservative and former Republican congressman Joe Scarborough (who is often joined by old-school bigot Pat Buchanan).
But the problem with Brown's statement is even more fundamental. Brown -- like Jake Tapper and Howard Kurtz and others -- suggests that Fox News' conservative bias is merely the result of -- or exists solely in -- the network's opinion programming.
Brown states: "It would be great to talk honestly about how we draw important distinctions between the various media outlets." Okay, Campbell, let's break it down again. Here's an even easier way to distinguish between Fox News and MSNBC:
The list goes on...
Note that Fox News as a "news" organization is guilty of all of the above breaches of basic journalist ethics. It's not just Glenn Beck, Bill O'Reilly, and Sean Hannity.
Brown goes on to state:
Opinionated cable news hosts have a valid but very different role. They either cheerlead or criticize and in doing so they connect with those who agree with them. They validate the opinions of those on the left and on the right. They provoke one another, they fight with one another, and yes, they entertain us, and in a polarized country, that gets big ratings. I'm not critical of what my friends at Fox News and MSNBC do, but it is apples and oranges when compared to what we at CNN do and we should all just acknowledge that.
Brown completely ignores CNN's own "opinionated host in primetime," Lou Dobbs. "We should all just acknowledge that" Dobbs has repeatedly advanced conspiracy theories, including that the President of the United States hasn't released a valid birth certificate, spread numerous falsehoods about immigration, and associated himself and CNN with a right-wing hate group.
"We should all just acknowledge that" as long as Brown and others continue to advance this ridiculous false equivalency between Fox News and MSNBC -- while overlooking the problems in their own houses -- Fox News will continue with business as usual.
From the August 17 edition of CNN's Campbell Brown: No Bias, No Bull:
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From the August 3 edition of CNN's Campbell Brown: No Bias, No Bull:
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From the July 27th edition of CNN's Campbell Brown: No Bias,No Bull
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Via TV Newser (emphasis added):
CNN's Campbell Brown sat down late last week with Julie Menin. And right out of the gate, Brown explained what sets CNN apart from its competitors. "CNN is the only one who's still doing journalism," said Brown, anchor of CNN's 8pmET program. "I don't mean that as a criticism of what the other guys are doing, it's just...we're comparing apples and oranges. Fox has made a choice to go in one direction, MSNBC has made a choice to go in the other direction."
Okay, I'll bite, even though the smear against MSNBC is simplistic and misleading.
If all that is true, then what direction has Lou Dobbs gone off in? Furthermore, is crazy actually a "direction"?
From the July 20 edition of CNN's Campbell Brown:
Media have characterized Republicans' questioning of Sonia Sotomayor as "cordial," "civil," and "respectful," apparently ignoring the condescension by Sen. Lindsey Graham, who, after reading several anonymous criticisms of her, said: "[M]aybe these hearings are time for self-reflection."
From the July 1st edition of CNN's Campbell Brown:
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