The New York Times is failing in its coverage of DeSantis’ radical attacks on public education
The paper published two stories over two days that omitted key elements of the Florida governor’s extreme agenda
The New York Times this week published two stories over a 48-hour period that dramatically downplayed Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis’ reactionary attacks on public education. The Times coverage obscured DeSantis’ racist, sexist policy goals, instead laundering his extreme agenda through an exercise in false equivalence and vague appeals to unspecified controversies.
The first story’s issues begin with its headline: “DeSantis Takes On the Education Establishment, and Builds His Brand.” By immediately framing DeSantis as an underdog, the Times adopts the governor’s own messaging — he appears as a brave outsider, taking on the “establishment,” rather than the powerful executive authority that he is.
The problems only compound from there. The piece begins by characterizing DeSantis as “an increasingly vocal culture warrior, vowing to take on liberal orthodoxy and its champions, whether they are at Disney, on Martha’s Vineyard or in the state’s public libraries.” It would be more accurate to say that DeSantis is using his office to produce and perpetuate power hierarchies across race, gender, and sexuality, the ground upon which so-called culture wars are contested.
The authors then offer a sanitized account of DeSantis’ conservative interventions into public school curricula and policies.
He has banned instruction about gender identity and sexual orientation in kindergarten through third grade, limited what schools and employers can teach about racism and other aspects of history and rejected math textbooks en masse for what the state called “indoctrination.” Most recently, he banned the College Board’s Advanced Placement courses in African American studies for high school students.
This is propaganda by omission. In May, DeSantis signed Florida’s notorious “Don’t Say Gay” legislation into law, an attempt “to codify discrimination against LGBTQ people” that is otherwise ignored in the Times article. And DeSantis hasn’t simply “limited” instruction about racism – he has attempted to functionally ban teachers from addressing the topic at all under the guise of opposing so-called critical race theory, an academic concept he has repeatedly mischaracterized at the risk (or reward) of rendering it unrecognizable even in its proper context.
DeSantis opposed math books with help from members of Moms for Liberty, an anti-Black and anti-LGBTQ conservative organization, also on the grounds that they included discussions of race and gender oppression.
His move to ban an AP class on African American studies is the subject of the Times’ other article — more on that below — but for now suffice to say that right-wing media celebrated the decision, with Fox News host Mark Levin incorrectly saying CRT was based on “anti-white racism” and praising DeSantis for “setting the mark for other states” in banning it.
The piece then moves on to DeSantis’ most recent attacks on education.
On Tuesday, Governor DeSantis, a Republican, took his most aggressive swing yet at the education establishment, announcing a proposed overhaul of the state’s higher education system that would eliminate what he called “ideological conformity.” If enacted, courses in Western civilization would be mandated, diversity and equity programs would be eliminated, and the protections of tenure would be reduced.
This section again frames DeSantis as the outsider taking on “the education establishment,” inverting the power dynamic by casting the governor as a lone rebel against a powerful and implicitly unresponsive institution.
When the piece eventually returns to the specifics of those courses in “Western civilization,” the authors still take DeSantis at face value.
The programs emphasize the study of Western civilization and economics, as well as the thinking of Western philosophers, frequently focusing on the Greeks and Romans. Critics of the programs say they sometimes gloss over the pitfalls of Western thinking and ignore the philosophies of non-Western civilizations.
“The core curriculum must be grounded in actual history, the actual philosophy that has shaped Western civilization,” Mr. DeSantis said. “We don’t want students to go through, at taxpayer expense, and graduate with a degree in Zombie studies.”
The core problem here isn’t a reluctance to address “the pitfalls of Western thinking” or even a failure to include “philosophies of non-Western civilizations,” per se. The issue, again, is one of power, not specific pedagogy.
Responsible reporting would provide readers with the context that conservatives often use the phrase “Western civilization” not as a descriptor of geography or historical eras, but as a dog whistle for white supremacy. What DeSantis is doing by foregrounding “Western civilization” is defining whose perceived history and identity is important and deserving of rights and protection. The not-so-subtle message is that white people who fit into a specific conservative identity should sit atop the social hierarchy.
The Times describes these actions as DeSantis’ “pugilistic approach,” instead.
The piece also fails to adequately contextualize DeSantis’ appointment of anti-civil rights activist Christopher Rufo to the board of trustees at New College of Florida. Rufo is mentioned only twice in the article, in the 35th and 36th paragraphs of a 39-paragraph story.
The shake-up of New College, which also included the election of a new board chairwoman, may be ongoing and dramatic, given the new six board members appointed by Mr. DeSantis.
They include Christopher Rufo, a senior fellow at Manhattan Institute who is known for his vigorous attacks on “critical race theory,” an academic concept that historical patterns of racism are ingrained in law and other modern institutions.
At the time of his appointment, Mr. Rufo, who lives and works in Washington State, tweeted that he was “recapturing” higher education.
Characterizing Rufo’s attacks on CRT as “vigorous” is obfuscatory to the point of inaccuracy; he is one of the main influencers who first helped build up right-wing media’s campaign against it. His attacks are disingenuous by his own admission, reverse-engineered to make the term “toxic.” The goal is seemingly to make it impossible to teach about slavery, Jim Crow, mass incarceration, police violence, redlining, and other manifestations of anti-Black oppression in U.S. history. Already, professors in Florida have modified their curricula to avoid the consequences of the state’s new law, known as the “Stop WOKE Act”.
Rufo has also waged campaigns against LGBTQ communities, including spreading disinformation about children’s hospitals that provide health care to trans youth, then acting to downplay and dismiss the dangers those institutions faced as a result. But this important context on Rufo’s far-right background was left out of the Times article on DeSantis’ new education policy.
The Times’ second story is just as irresponsible. Headlined “The College Board Strips Down Its A.P. Curriculum for African American Studies,” the entire piece reads like a press release from DeSantis’ own communications team. Here’s how the article begins.
After heavy criticism from Gov. Ron DeSantis, the College Board released on Wednesday an official curriculum for its new Advanced Placement course in African American Studies — stripped of much of the subject matter that had angered the governor and other conservatives.
That lede fails to capture the racist nature of DeSantis’ “heavy criticism” and leaves the reader with the impression that what had “angered the governor” were legitimate grievances, rather than manufactured spectacles to further his own career. The article continues:
When it announced the A.P. course in August, the College Board clearly believed it was providing a class whose time had come, and it was celebrated by eminent scholars like Henry Louis Gates Jr. of Harvard as an affirmation of the importance of African American studies. But the course, which is meant to be for all students of diverse backgrounds, quickly ran into a political buzz saw after an early draft leaked to conservative publications like The Florida Standard and National Review.
The Florida Standard is not simply a “conservative publication.” It is led by Will Witt, a right-wing influencer who made trigger-the-libs-style bigoted videos for PragerU prior to founding the website. The Florida Standard is “the brainchild of pro-DeSantis donors in Florida,” according to Semafor, which reported that Witt would not disclose who owned it. The site is seemingly more like an arm of DeSantis’ growing media operation and less an independent news-gathering entity, and the governor has given preference in interviews to Witt’s outlet over more traditional media.
The piece then summarizes DeSantis’ latest push to mandate teachings about “Western civilization,” and, like the previous Times’ article, fails to contextualize what that code phrase means for the lay-reader. Further down, the piece goes into more detail about DeSantis’ policy:
The dispute over the A.P. course is about more than just the content of a high school class. Education is the center of much vitriolic partisan debate, and the College Board’s decision to try to build a curriculum covering one of the most charged subjects in the country — the history of race in America — may have all but guaranteed controversy. If anything, the arguments over the curriculum underscore the fact that the United States is a country that cannot agree on its own story, especially the complex history of Black Americans.
Here, the Times is engaging in an extreme version of false equivalency. The issue isn’t that the United States “cannot agree on its own story, especially the complex history of Black Americans.” The issue is that conservative pundits, activists, and politicians are deliberately obscuring and lying about the very well-known history of Black Americans. It would be better for the Times’ readers to understand DeSantis’ anti-education policies in the long line of conservative reaction to Black liberation movements.
The next line of the piece overtly depoliticizes DeSantis’ objections, and the College Board’s decision. “In light of the politics, the College Board seemed to opt out of the politics,” the Times writes, adding that “the study of contemporary topics — including Black Lives Matter, incarceration, queer life and the debate over reparations — is downgraded. The subjects are no longer part of the exam, and are simply offered on a list of options for a required research project.”
The Times here is naturalizing DeSantis’ position as somehow apolitical, even as it notes: “The expunged writers and scholars include Kimberlé W. Crenshaw, a law professor at Columbia, which touts her work as ‘foundational in critical race theory’; Roderick Ferguson, a Yale professor who has written about queer social movements; and Ta-Nehisi Coates, the author who has made the case for reparations for slavery. Gone, too, is bell hooks, the writer who shaped discussions about race, feminism and class.” The act of suppressing those topics is profoundly, definitionally political.
To the piece’s limited credit, it then quotes Crenshaw, an actual critical race theory scholar, but not before giving space to Chester E. Finn Jr., a senior fellow at Stanford’s Hoover Institution, a conservative think tank. Finn’s comments downplay the damage of omitting the “touchy parts” of America’s racial history: “I think it’s a way of dealing with the United States at this point, not just DeSantis. Some of these things they might want to teach in New York, but not Dallas. Or San Francisco but not St. Petersburg.”
The Times also includes comment from right-wing pundit Ilya Shapiro, who resigned from his position at Georgetown University after tweeting that President Joe Biden’s decision to nominate a Black woman to the Supreme Court meant the country would get a “lesser black woman” who would “always have an asterisk attached” to her name. “Fitting that the Court takes up affirmative action next term,” he added. Shapiro made similar remarks when then-President Barack Obama nominated Sonya Sotomayor to the court, writing Obama “confirmed that identity politics mattered to him more than merit.”
More recently, Shapiro could be found on Fox News spreading an unfounded rumor that Supreme Court Justice Samuel Alito was forced into hiding due to abortion rights protesters outside his house.
The Times chose not to include any of that context. Shapiro is instead only identified by his current title, director of Constitutional Studies at the Manhattan Institute. Nor does the Times provide readers with crucial context about the Manhattan Institute. It is a right-wing think tank that’s a home to Rufo, who serves as a senior fellow, and other hard-right figures such as Heather Mac Donald, a notorious apologist for racist policing.
The story also fails to mention DeSantis’ appointment of Rufo to the board at New College, crucial to understanding the governor’s full-scale campaign against public education.
Readers of The New York Times deserve to know DeSantis’ extreme attacks on public education are fundamentally anti-Black and anti-LGBTQ. These two stories do little to alert their readers to this reality, and instead serve to obscure his radical agenda.