Why the press promotes the powerful, marginalizes dissent

By Caroline Grannan

Parents Across America founding member, San Francisco

The press attitude toward corporate education “reform” has baffled me for more than a decade – since the national mainstream media was championing the education fad of that era, for-profit, New York-based Edison Schools – and beating up on the school board here in San Francisco for attempting to hold one Edison charter school here accountable for its commitments.

As a newsroom veteran myself, I thought of my colleagues as sharp-witted, tough-minded skeptics, fearless about questioning the powerful and quick to understand complexities. Why were they eagerly embracing something as dubious as allowing investors to buy Edison Schools shares on the NASDAQ and profit from public education funding? Why were they marginalizing, ignoring or scoffing at critics – including me? And not just on a personal level: What was “60 Minutes,” usually admired for exposing the abuses of the powerful, doing producing a puff piece on Edison?

With Edison’s star long since fallen, I’ve never reconciled all that – and some of those press voices were people I’ve considered friends. It may be that I never will. And with corporate education reform continuing to hammer public education – with a stunning lack of consistent, “scalable,” replicable success – that mass attitude in the press hasn’t changed all that much. Skeptical coverage shows up here and there, but the dominant story is still the tale told by the corporate reformers: Our public schools are failing. Bad teachers and their unions are the heart of the problem. “Innovations” such as private managers, high-stakes testing, merit pay, Teach for America novices, and regimented “no excuses” schools for poor kids (though never for the “reform” advocates’ kids) are the solutions. (The dissection of that story falls outside the scope of this post; Diane Ravitch’s book “The Death and Life of the Great American School System” is the definitive source.)

Fads come and go, the current one being virtual education – kids learning from computer programs at home or in front of a screen in classrooms, with dozens of students monitored by a paraprofessional. Press skepticism is visible here and there, but the dominant, mainstream attitude changes little.

My poli-sci-student son, home from college for winter break, pointed me to some sharp press criticism that interprets much of this. NYU journalism professor Jay Rosen blogs infrequent but thoughtful and well documented posts at PressThink: Ghost of Democracy in the Media Machine. At least Rosen’s views help define what’s going on here.
For whatever reasons, the tenets of corporate education reform are viewed as being in the “sphere of consensus.” This is a concept that Rosen picks up from another press scholar, Daniel C. Hallin, in his commentary “Audience Atomization Overcome: Why the Internet Weakens the Authority of the Press.”

The sphere of consensus is the ‘motherhood and apple pie’ of politics, the things on which everyone is thought to agree. Propositions that are seen as uncontroversial to the point of boring, true to the point of self-evident, or so widely-held that they’re almost universal lie within this sphere. Here, Hallin writes, ‘journalists do not feel compelled either to present opposing views or to remain disinterested observers.’ (Which means that anyone whose basic views lie outside the sphere of consensus will experience the press not just as biased but savagely so.)

As part of the same viewpoint, critics of education reform fall within the “sphere of deviance,” Rosen writes:

In the sphere of deviance we find ‘political actors and views which journalists and the political mainstream of society reject as unworthy of being heard.’ As in the sphere of consensus, neutrality isn’t the watchword here; journalists maintain order by either keeping the deviant out of the news entirely or identifying it within the news frame as unacceptable, radical, or just plain impossible. The press ‘plays the role of exposing, condemning, or excluding from the public agenda’ the deviant view.

In a comment that rings painfully true, he says: “Anyone whose views lie within the sphere of deviance – as defined by journalists – will experience the press as an opponent in the struggle for recognition.” That was an extra shock to me in real life, since “the press” included my colleagues, people with whom I’ve worked and shared life experiences and broken bread.

Rosen also portrays the press as pointedly, consciously unsusceptible. “It is important for (journalists) to demonstrate that they are not on anyone’s ‘team,’ or cheerleading for a known position,” he writes in “Clowns to the Left of Me, Jokers to the Right: On the Actual Ideology of the American Press.”

” ‘True believer’ is a universal term of contempt in newsrooms, skeptic a term of praise.” That’s hard to reconcile with what I’ve seen in press coverage for more than a decade now — little-questioned acceptance of the view of education “reform” promoted by well-funded and powerful think tanks; foundations created by Bill Gates, Eli Broad and the Walton family; and leadership in both political parties.

I speculate that that’s because those forces — with, unsurprisingly, highly sophisticated publicity operations — have been so successful in deceptively framing the policies they promote as challenges to the “failed status quo,” the “entrenched bureaucracy,” and what are invariably described as “the powerful teachers’ unions.” That cunning PR strategy allows reporters and editorial writers to believe that they are practicing the requisite skepticism, and blinds them to the reality that they are actually often behaving like unquestioning true believers, trustingly swallowing what’s fed to them by the powerful.

Then there’s this, from Rosen: “One of the consequences of the contempt for true believers is that street protests and marches aren’t taken very seriously in political journalism.” Advocates who challenge the education “reform” story — parents, teachers, bloggers — are surely viewed in the same light as street protesters, whether or not we actually Occupy anything.

There’s hope that we’ve recently seen the beginnings of what Rosen describes: “Powerful and visible people can start questioning a consensus belief and remove it from the ‘everyone agrees’ category.” (This concept echoes the Overton Window theory, which I’ll describe in an upcoming post.)

That may have started to happen when education historian Diane Ravitch, a former insider in corporate education reform, started to see that the favored reform policies weren’t succeeding in improving schools and were actually doing harm. She wrote candidly about her change of heart. As a former voice of the “sphere of consensus” policies, Ravitch already had the high profile and credibility to win attention to her views (and has stepped into a role as leading light for those who consider ourselves “real reformers”).

Rosen writes that 10 years ago, the press assigned the decision to go to war in Iraq to the sphere of consensus and marginalized critics and protesters in the sphere of deviance. He calls that a “category mistake.” That’s the case with corporate education reform too. It would be a good thing if the mainstream media’s most powerful voices would somehow experience an epiphany and learn to exercise actual skepticism, not the mindless pseudo-skepticism displayed by giving full credibility to billionaires who attack public education.

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