After building three stores in rapidly developing Washington, D.C., neighborhoods, Walmart announced it would not build two additional stores planned for low-income communities. Right-wing media are falsely claiming that the District's recent increase in its minimum wage killed these stores when in fact, Walmart originally agreed to build them only to get support for the three stores it wanted to open in better-off areas, and the company has since decided to close over 150 stores in the U.S. this year due to poor sales.
Newspaper editorial boards are urging support for President Obama's executive actions to curb gun violence, calling them "an important step," and "the beginning of sensible reform."
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.
Public school educators and their unions in major cities made national headlines in 2015 following strikes, contentious contract negotiations, school board elections, and funding battles. While research shows that teachers unions benefit students, educators, and communities, state newspapers editorializing on these union activities have ignored the facts and framed unions and educators as selfishly seeking higher pay at the expense of others. Amidst a victory year for teachers unions on several fronts, here are some of the most inaccurate claims state newspaper editorial boards pushed.
A Media Matters analysis found that four of the ten largest-circulation newspapers in the country published op-eds, editorials, or columns that denied climate science while criticizing the international climate change negotiations in Paris, including The Wall Street Journal, USA Today, the New York Post, and The Orange County Register. Altogether, 17 percent of the 52 opinion pieces that the ten largest newspapers published about the Paris conference included some form of climate science denial, and many of them repeated other myths about the climate negotiations as well.
On December 9, the Supreme Court heard oral arguments in the case Fisher v. University of Texas at Austin (Fisher II), which challenges the university's use of race in admissions policies. Many media outlets connected the case to recent campus unrest and cited research on racial representation in higher education, ultimately urging the Supreme Court to uphold affirmative action policies that enhance student diversity and are "crucial to the success of [an] institution and its students," while warning that banning affirmative action would "leave universities without the tools they need" to properly educate future leaders.
Media outlets roundly urged Congressional leaders to pass gun safety legislation in the wake of the deadly San Bernardino mass shooting -- including stronger gun violence prevention laws on military-style weapons, background checks, and rolling back concealed-carry laws -- and chastised politicians for their complicity in the "crisis in American society" where "gun carnage ... has come to define America."
The Washington Post editorial board claimed that ExxonMobil "deserves criticism for playing down the danger of climate change," but that the company's actions are "not a criminal offense." That conclusion is premature, given an ongoing investigation and evidence that Exxon knowingly deceived shareholders and the public about climate change. And this is not the first time the Post has argued against the government pursuing a legal response to corporate malfeasance; in the early 2000s, the Post also criticized the Department of Justice lawsuit against tobacco companies that it is now citing to try to distinguish the tobacco companies' wrongdoing from that of Exxon.
In the wake of the November 13 Paris attacks, Republicans rushed with their conservative media allies to call for a halt to the admission of Syrian refugees into America, claiming that they would pose a significant threat to the United States. Major editorial boards slammed Republicans for "def[ying] what the nation stands for" and pushing divisive rhetoric that could "provide propaganda benefits to the Islamic State."
In recent months, media investigations have revealed that Exxon Mobil peddled climate science denial for years after its scientists recognized that burning fossil fuels causes global warming, prompting New York's Attorney General to issue a subpoena to Exxon and all three Democratic presidential candidates to call for a federal probe of the company. But despite these developments, the nightly news programs of all three major broadcast networks -- ABC, CBS, and NBC -- have failed to air a single segment addressing the evidence that Exxon knowingly deceived its shareholders and the public about climate change.
A regular contributor to the Los Angeles Times is criticizing the paper for funding the salaries for its education journalists through donations from foundations that fund efforts in the field, stating that the decision "inflicts the appearance of a conflict of interest on every local education story or opinion piece the Times runs."
On October 29, The Washington Post reported that the Los Angeles Times' "Education Matters" local education reporting project, which launched in August, is funded by three philanthropic foundations with extensive ties to education reform efforts in the Los Angeles area. Then-publisher Austin Beutner, the Post reported, spearheaded the project, accepting enough funding from the Eli and Edythe Broad Foundation, K&F Baxter Foundation, and the Wasserman Foundation "to cover the salaries of two education journalists for at least two years."
Eli Broad, chairman of the Broad Foundation, has also recently offered to buy the Times from its current owner, Tribune Publishing, in a move that would return the paper to local ownership but could also further conflict-of-interest concerns.
The Post noted that recent education coverage in the Times has not been consistent in disclosing its connections to the Broad Foundation. An article breaking the news of the Broad Foundation's plan to expand charter schools in Los Angeles in September included a disclosure that the foundation funds "Education Matters." However, an editorial supporting the plan did not. According to the Post, the LA Times' managing editor has stated that funders have no editorial control, and has already made efforts to add disclosure statements to stories that directly report on Broad and others.
On November 4, American Prospect executive editor and frequent Los Angeles Times opinion writer Harold Meyerson responded to the Washington Post article, outlining the disclosure issues he believes the Times will now face in their local education reporting:
Whatever possessed [then-publisher Austin] Beutner to accept funding from partisans in an ongoing battle that the Times was already covering in its news pages and editorializing about in its opinion pages--and not just funding, but funding specifically targeted at covering that very battle? Would he have accepted funding from either Catholic Charities or Planned Parenthood to bolster the Times's coverage of the battles over abortion and reproductive rights? Would he have accepted funding from the local teachers union, or a pro-union foundation, to cover the same beat that the Broad and Baxter money are now funding? I suspect he would not--and that what made the Broad/Baxter money different in Beutner's eyes was that he felt comfortable with their positions, and probably believed that their commitment to charter schools was widely shared throughout the city's power elites--of which Beutner was a member in very good standing.
[A]ccepting funds to cover the very beat in which his funders were inevitably going to be the subject of the paper's coverage was not his right, and is profoundly damaging to the Times. It inflicts the appearance of a conflict of interest on every local education story or opinion piece the Times runs.
As a longtime Los Angeles journalist before I moved to D.C., I know a number of the Times's reporters and editors who cover this topic on the news and opinion pages. They are among the most principled journalists I've ever known. Howard Blume, my onetime colleague at the L.A. Weekly, included an acknowledgment of the Broad Foundation's funding of Times education coverage in the story in which he broke the news about the Foundation's plan to increase the number of charter schools. Howard's work aside, it's not clear that the paper's management felt such disclaimers were even necessary until the Post story ran last Friday. Presumably, such disclaimers will now have to accompany the scores of stories about the future of L.A. schools that Howard and his peers will be turning out over the next several years, to the point where the disclaimers will become something of a standing joke. Howard and his paper need this like a hole in the head. [The American Prospect, 11/4/15]
NPR executive editor Edith Chapin and ombudsman Elizabeth Jensen agree it is "unfortunate" that NPR has thus far failed to cover groundbreaking reports documenting that ExxonMobil funded efforts to sow doubt about climate science for decades after confirming that burning fossil fuels causes climate change.
In a November 2 post on NPR's website, Jensen noted that NPR received criticism from some listeners for failing to report on the recent reports by The Guardian, InsideClimate News, and the Los Angeles Times documenting that Exxon amplified doubt about climate science after Exxon's own scientists confirmed the consensus on global warming. Jensen quoted Chapin as saying of the Exxon story, "NPR should have reported on it in some fashion on at least one of our outlets/platforms," and Chapin also said "[i]t is unfortunate that this topic didn't come up [in NPR's daily editorial discussions] or in any conversation or email that I was a part of." For her part, Jensen agreed that the story "seems to have fallen through the cracks," and that given the growing calls for an investigation of Exxon, "the lapse was unfortunate." Jensen noted that the story was addressed in September by WNYC's On the Media, which was at the time distributed by NPR but is no longer affiliated with the outlet.
Since the media investigations were published, climate scientists, members of Congress, and Democratic presidential candidates Bernie Sanders, Hillary Clinton, and Martin O'Malley have called for the Department of Justice to investigate either Exxon specifically or oil companies more broadly to determine if they knowingly deceived the public about climate change.
As one listener wrote to NPR: "Considering the importance of the issue and the prominence of Exxon's role, this story deserved, and still deserves, to be headline news on the national broadcast." Jensen agreed, concluding that "the issue is still a live one, and it's not too late for NPR to find some way of following up."
Andrew Ratzkin, a listener to the New York City member station WNYC, wrote that the only reporting he heard on the issue was in September, by On the Media, which is produced by WNYC (at the time, the show was distributed by NPR, but that business deal ended Oct. 1 and it is no longer NPR-affiliated). That reporting, examining the InsideClimate News reports, included a contentious interview by On the Media co-host Bob Garfield with Richard Keil, a spokesman for Exxon Mobil, who disputed the InsideClimate News claims.
"This is not enough," Ratzkin wrote. "Considering the importance of the issue and the prominence of Exxon's role, this story deserved, and still deserves, to be headline news on the national broadcast."
Edith Chapin, NPR's executive editor, told me by email that she believes NPR dropped the ball.While it was not a major headline story, I think it meets the interesting test and thus NPR should have reported on it in some fashion on at least one of our outlets/platforms. Exxon Mobil is the world's largest publicly traded multinational oil and gas company and the debate and research decades ago is interesting in light of contemporary knowledge and action on climate change. Daily conversations at our editorial hub typically cross a range of subjects and stories from across the globe. It is unfortunate that this topic didn't come up there or in any conversation or email that I was a part of. It should have been flagged by someone so we could have discussed it and made an intentional decision to cover or not and if so, how.
My take: The story was on the radar of at least some in the newsroom, but it seems to have fallen through the cracks. Given the latest repercussions--Democratic presidential candidate Bernie Sanders is among those calling for a federal investigation--the lapse was unfortunate. But the issue is still a live one, and it's not too late for NPR to find some way of following up.
As newspapers' ad revenues have fallen over the years, prestigious publications have been going to increasingly extraordinary lengths to make up for the financial shortfall. Consider the Los Angeles Times, which has recently provided prime front page real estate to advertisements for companies like American Airlines and products like the Universal Studios film, Minions.
But while these kinds of advertising arrangements aren't particularly new for the Times, the same cannot be said for a newly-launched oil industry propaganda website the newspaper created for California Resources Corporation, an oil and gas spin-off company of Occidental Petroleum. The website, called poweringcalifornia.com, has raised concerns despite assurances from the Times that it is produced by a department of the Times company that is wholly independent of the reporting and editorial staff.
The Powering California website features a fearmongering video that asks viewers to "imagine a day without oil" as a young man helplessly watches many of the products he relies on every day suddenly disappear. The site's text asserts that because "a majority of products that you use every day are made from petroleum," a day without oil and natural gas "would be a huge disruption for you and the people you depend on." It goes on to allege that a day without oil could even be "life-threatening."
After Western States Petroleum Association President Cathy Reheis-Boyd promoted the website in an October 27 tweet, it caught the attention of Clean Energy California, a non-profit organization that worked with businesses, consumer, health, faith, labor and environmental groups to pass Senate Bill 350, California's landmark climate change legislation. Specifically, Clean Energy California asked why the Los Angeles Times and its parent company, Tribune Publishing, were sponsoring this "oil propaganda project."
As Politico reported on October 29, the original disclaimer on the Powering California website identified it as "a joint copyrighted effort of the Los Angeles Times and the California Resources Corporation":
Following criticism from Clean Energy California and others, the Times changed the copyright disclaimer to remove mention of itself and added an additional statement on the Powering California website that read:
Powering California is sponsored content produced by The Los Angeles Times Content Solutions team for California Resources Corporation. The Los Angeles Times reporting and editing staffs are not involved in the production of sponsored content, including Powering California.
But the updated disclaimer has not settled all of the concerns that have been raised about a major U.S. newspaper company sponsoring an oil industry propaganda website.
In an October 30 article, LA Weekly wrote that "[e]ven as the Times was publishing [a] hard-hitting story" detailing evidence that ExxonMobil may have purposely deceived its shareholders about climate change science, "the business side of the paper was presenting a much rosier view of the oil industry through a sponsored content campaign." Noting that the Times' editorial board recently suggested that California legislators had fallen for "oil industry propaganda," LA Weekly observed that it is "thus a little awkward, or at least ironic, that the Times is simultaneously getting paid to create promotional material for the oil industry." (It's worth pointing out that the Times' recent environmental coverage hasn't all been good; the newspaper also received heavy criticism from scientists for publishing a deeply flawed article that disputed the link between California's recent wildfires and climate change.)
LA Weekly concluded by noting that even though it could be argued the oil industry is helping fund journalism that is sometimes aimed at "exposing" the oil industry, "some in the environmental community see this as a troubling sign":
"I understand the concept behind sponsored content, but when it's being used to defeat climate action by Big Oil, it goes way beyond Zappos," said Jonathan Parfrey, executive director of Climate Resolve. "To see the most prestigious paper in the Western U.S. cozying up to these well-heeled interests is deeply disturbing."
Following the October 28 CNBC Republican presidential debate, Fox News repeatedly championed the performance of Sen. Marco Rubio and his claim that Hillary Clinton "got exposed as a liar" during her Benghazi testimony for supposedly misleading the public about the cause of the Benghazi attacks. That allegation has been repeatedly debunked by journalists at numerous media outlets for disregarding the fact that intelligence was rapidly evolving in the immediate aftermath of the attacks and ignoring the possibility that "the attacks could be both an example of terrorism and influenced by outrage over the video."
The Los Angeles Times has published several letters to the editor by scientists and other experts criticizing its October 18 article that wrongly challenged the link between climate change and the wildfires that have been ravaging California. The Times article baselessly claimed that "experts" say California Gov. Jerry Brown's comments describing such a link are "unsupported," when in fact numerous scientists and major scientific reports have detailed the connection global warming has to both recent and future wildfires in the Southwest United States.
The assertions in the deeply flawed Times article were subsequently echoed by several on-air figures at the Fox News Channel, including Fox & Friends co-host Elizabeth Hasselbeck, who declared: "Brown blamed wildfires on global warming, and now scientists say there's no data linking the two. How about that?" The Times story was also praised by right-wing outlet Breitbart News, in an article that directly contradicted the scientific consensus that human activity is the primary cause of climate change.
On October 24, the Times published letters to the editor from three experts who, as the Times explained, "have written to say the article was wrong to assert that climate change isn't fueling the state's historically large fires." The experts included UC Berkeley environmental scientist Max Moritz, who said the "troubling" Times story "implies more uncertainty about climate change than there really is among experts;" Climate Resolve Executive Director Jonathan Parfrey, who said, "The Times really blew it in this piece;" and UCLA climate researcher Alex Hall, who said the article "misleads readers by implying that science" linking wildfires to climate change "has been disproved."
From the letters section of the October 24 edition of the Los Angeles Times:
Max Moritz, a UC Berkeley environmental scientist, says raising awareness is what's important:
It's splitting hairs, as scientists often will, to note that we may not know conclusively whether climate change has caused this particular drought and these specific wildfires. As a wildfire scientist, I find it troubling that this nuance became front-page news because it implies more uncertainty about climate change than there really is among experts.
In fact, there is relatively strong agreement among fire scientists about links between climate change and wildfire, even if quantitative attribution poses challenges. To raise awareness about climate change and to reduce its long-term impacts, we need our leaders to speak out.
Climate Resolve executive director Jonathan Parfrey bluntly assesses the article:
The Times really blew it in this piece.
For example, the recent UC Irvine wildfire study was wildly misinterpreted. The Times failed to note the study's most likely outcome for the period of 2040-60: The area to be burned by Santa Ana-wind-induced fires will increase by 64%, and acres consumed by summer fires will increase by 77%.
It's important to get the science right because good science leads to good policy. And with higher temperatures predicted, Southern California will need to adapt to worsening fire conditions in our hills and mountains.
Alex Hall, director of the UCLA Center for Climate Change Solutions, clarifies what we do and don't know:
The article misleads readers by implying that science is in on this and any link between fires and climate change has been disproved. In fact, a detection-and-attribution study -- an analysis of the probability that the current fire season in California would play out as it has, if climate change were not in the picture -- has not been done.
Even if the link has not been definitively proved, the scientific works referenced in the article provide plenty of reason to suspect climate change is playing some role in the severity of this fire season. Climatologist Park Williams' study shows that human-caused warming is contributing to drier conditions, which would make fuels more susceptible to burning. The study I co-wrote with UC Irvine and UC Davis colleagues shows that heat is an important determinant of how much area is burned by fire -- particularly in those fires, like the ones we have been experiencing all summer, not driven by Santa Ana winds. So the warming climate we're already experiencing should increase the area burned.
The Times should take care to more accurately characterize scientific evidence in the future.
Image at top via the U.S. Department of Agriculture's Photostream on Flickr using a Creative Commons license.