President-elect Donald Trump’s selection of school choice advocate Betsy DeVos to be his secretary of education puts The 74, the website founded by former TV journalist and Campbell Brown, in an awkward position when it comes to the site’s identity. Is it an independent education news and opinion site, as Brown, herself a supporter of school choice and teacher tenure reform, has maintained, or is it an electronic pamphleteer for DeVos and her causes?
The disclaimer on one of the site’s first pieces after DeVos was named on Nov. 23 lays out the close connections between DeVos, Brown, and their organizations.
“The Dick & Betsy DeVos Family Foundation provides funding to The 74, and the site’s Editor-in-Chief, Campbell Brown, sits on the American Federation for Children’s board of directors, which was formerly chaired by Betsy DeVos. Brown played no part in the reporting or editing of this article. The American Federation for Children also sponsored The 74’s 2015 New Hampshire education summit,” says the statement at the bottom of the story by Kate Stringer with the headline: “Trump Picks His Education Secretary: The First 6 Things to Know About Betsy DeVos.”
The disclaimer also appears on stories and essays on The 74 that were published in the next few days: A news story by Mark Keirleiber about how DeVos essentially comes from Vice President-elect Mike Pence’s sphere; an analysis by Carolyn Phenicie suggesting that another candidate considered by Trump for the education secretary job, Michelle Rhee, would have faced confirmation problems with Senate Republicans; an analysis by Matt Barnum about how DeVos could scramble the ideology and politics of education reform; and others, including an essay by Brown herself that comes to the defense of DeVos.
The coverage does not appear as skeptical as some other news outlets have been about DeVos’ role in promoting charter schools in Michigan.
Kate Zernike of The New York Times wrote that if Michigan is one of the nation’s biggest laboratories for school choice, thanks to political and financial backing by DeVos and her husband, the state “is also among the worst places to argue that choice has made schools better. As the state embraced and then expanded charters over the past two decades, its rank has fallen on national reading and math tests. Most charter schools perform below the state average.”
The least glowing piece about DeVos in The 74 has been an essay by Michael J. Petrilli, identified as a research fellow at Stanford’s Hoover Institution, but who is also the president of the Thomas B. Fordham Institute in Washington.
“She’s smart, committed to kids and a mainstream conservative Republican,” Petrilli wrote of DeVos. “Still, there’s a lot that’s not clear, so it’s going to be important for the press, and for the Senate [education] committee, to ask a lot of questions to understand where she and the president who chose her plan to take federal education policy.”
He then offered 20 questions for DeVos, including this one: “It was reported that you opposed efforts to beef up quality-control measures for Michigan’s charter schools. Can you explain how you saw this and what your position was?”
And then there is Brown, the former CNN anchor who has been an activist for school choice and teacher tenure and union reform as well as the founder last year of The 74. She wrote in an essay when the site launched last year (and repeated at the time to Education Week) that advocacy and straight-news journalism were not incompatible.
While The 74’s disclaimer may have suggested to some that Brown would recuse herself from all coverage of her friend and donor, Brown took up a defense of DeVos.
“it’s a pity that Betsy DeVos has been so misleadingly caricatured since Donald Trump asked her to serve as secretary of education last week,” Brown wrote in an essay titled simply: “Campbell Brown: On Betsy DeVos.” “Not just because she’s a friend. Also because her attackers needlessly reopen late-NCLB fault lines and deepen the clamor that follows Trump everywhere.”
DeVos “is tenacious in defending the best interests of children rather than interest groups and their political patrons,” Brown wrote. “She is a born decision-maker, thick-skinned, never long discouraged by setbacks and impervious to hostile criticism. Like many friends, she and I agree a lot and disagree a lot; I never doubt her intelligence, good faith, and inclination to think on all sides of a problem.”
Dan Bank, a spokesman for The 74, said Brown was not available for an interview on Tuesday.
“Campbell has recused herself from editorial coverage related to Betsy and her nomination, but presumably she will write opinion pieces whenever she wants as she always has,” Bank said.
Writing in her eponymous blog shortly after the DeVos announcement, progressive advocate Diane Ravitch took note of the friendship and connections between DeVos and Brown:
“DeVos doesn’t like public schools. Neither does Campbell Brown. They both like charters and vouchers. What a small world!”
A version of this news article first appeared in the Education and the Media blog.