Arne Duncan Departure: Read All About It, But Don’t Rely on the Boob Tube

By Mark Walsh — October 05, 2015 4 min read
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U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan’s announcement Friday that he will step down was pretty big news for some newspapers and news websites. For TV news, however, not so much.

The news broke Friday morning with reports from the Associated Press and Chalkbeat New York about Duncan’s email to his staff members announcing that he would step down in December after serving as secretary since the start of President Barack Obama’s administration. I have no access to AP’s news feed to its clients, but the wire service tweeted a breaking news report at 11:17 a.m. Eastern time? (Pinning down times and time zones with such tweets can be tricky.)

And Chalkbeat tweeted the news, evidently at 11:38 a.m.

Soon, the White House was planning an event that would include Obama, Duncan, and John B. King Jr., who is currently fulfilling the duties of deputy education secretary and is expected to run out the clock of the president’s term without being nominated in full for the secretary’s post.

The event scheduled for 3:30 p.m. didn’t start until a little later, close to the classic 4 p.m.-on-a-Friday moment for unveiling bad news in the nation’s capital. But it seemed that the president only viewed Duncan’s departure as bad news in the sense that he was losing his fellow Chicagoan, basketball partner, and confidante from the cabinet.

After praise by Obama, and making their own remarks, Duncan and King took seats in the front row of the assembled chairs in the White House Dining Room, joining their families. This was wise, as the president took to the lectern to say he would take press questions. But first he wanted to address “a few additional pieces of business.” He commented on the September jobs report and federal budget politics.

“So with that, let me take some questions,” the president said. “And I’ll start with Julie Pace of AP. Hang in there, kids,” he said to the patient Duncan and King children, also in the front row.

White House reporters aren’t known for being especially interested in federal education policy, and it would have been surprising if they had any questions about the Duncan departure and King elevation even if the president hadn’t given them plenty of cover to ask about other topics.

The AP’s Pace asked about Syria, which prompted a nine-minute answer by Obama. Jonathan Karl of ABC News asked about a comment Jeb Bush had made related to the killings the day before at an Oregon community college. That resulted in another nine-minute answer from the president. Other questions came about the budget and guns, before Obama called on Major Garrett of Fox News for the “last question.”

“For the children there, I promise I won’t take too long,” Garrett said. Obama replied, “I’ve been boring them to death, I guarantee it.” Garrett then asked a three-headed monster of a question about Pope Francis, Vice President Joe Biden’s presidential plans, and Hillary Clinton’s views on Syria.

The event ended without any questions about the Education Department news. It would have been funny (unbelievable? historic?) if one of the White House correspondents had said, “Mr. President, I know you want to address Syria and the budget. But I want to press you on your administration’s plan for the Elementary and Secondary Education Act ...”

The producers of the major network news shows were no more interested in the Duncan announcement than White House correspondents were. While “The NewsHour” on PBS included the development in its news summary, the evening news shows of ABC, CBS, and NBC did not mention it at all.

All three of those shows had stories following up the Oregon shootings and about Hurricane Joaquin. ABC News also had time for “Secrets of the Sell,” which was about deceptive advertising and packaging and was really a promo for that night’s edition of “20/20.” NBC News explored the latest on the Pope’s meeting with Kentucky county clerk Kim Davis. And CBS News had an “On the Road” report from Steve Hartman about a Fort Worth, Texas, man who likes to load up stray dogs in little barrels and pull them around an industrial park behind a riding mower. (You kind of have to watch it to understand the story at all.)

NPR, on the other hand, offered an audio report by Cory Turner and several followup stories on its npr Ed website. Education news sites and general sites that cover ed. policy all had comprehensive reports, including Education Week, Politico, and The Seventy-Four.

The Duncan announcement got mixed treatment in top newspapers on Saturday. The Washington Post, Chicago Sun-Times, and Chicago Tribune all put the story on Page One. So did the Los Angeles Times, which recently launched an effort to put more emphasis on education news.

The New York Times offered not a Page One story, but a mention in its news box of inside stories. And that mention focused on King, the former New York State education commissioner. The Wall Street Journal ran a story on Page 2.

The bottom line is if the Obama administration wanted a change at the helm at an agency that touches almost every American household to get almost no attention on television whatsoever, it picked just the right day and time.

If, on the other had, the White House had hoped for more such coverage, well, next time it will have to figure out how to incorporate a riding lawn mower into the event.

A version of this news article first appeared in the Education and the Media blog.