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Federal Opinion

Education Outlets Owe Readers More Than the Narratives They Want to Hear

By Rick Hess — June 02, 2021 4 min read
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Update: This post has been updated with a clarification.

Most of us are all too aware of just how polarized things can be today and how easy it can be to fall into the trap of believing the worst of those with whom we disagree. Anyone who needs a reminder can check out this piece by Ben Smith, in which The New York Times reporter describes how a small online cluster of former Jeopardy! contestants descended into a collective freak-out. After a contestant won his third game and held up three fingers in celebration, the show alumni quickly embraced the theory that the gesture was actually some kind of white-power symbol.

Suffice to say, it wasn’t. But the group doggedly clung to the theory, despite all evidence to the contrary. Smith observed, “The element of this story that interests me most is how the beating heart of nerdy, liberal fact-mastery can pump blood into wild social-media conspiracy and send all these smart people down the sort of rabbit hole that leads other groups of Americans to believe that children are being transported inside refrigerators.” In a line that perfectly captures our moment, he noted, “It reflects a depth of alienation among Americans, in which our warring tribes squint through the fog at one another for mysterious and abstruse signs of malice.”

I liked Smith’s clear-eyed recognition that these unhealthy habits exist all along the ideological spectrum and that neither fact-mastery nor nerdiness are any assurance we can resist the temptations. Indeed, one of my persistent concerns is that the respectable, respected media outlets we look to for evidence and perspective are as susceptible to these polarized narratives as any Jeopardy! alum. I fear these outlets have too often allowed themselves to become part of the problem, cheering and booing as lustily in our public passion plays as anyone in the cheap seats.

In recent years, this has seemed to be especially true in national education coverage. And it sure appeared to me like The New York Times and The Washington Post spent four years portraying U.S. Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos as Cruella de Vil, only to hurriedly shift to a steady diet of approving, even cheery, coverage of President Joe Biden and Secretary of Education Miguel Cardona. Meanwhile, it seemed like The Wall Street Journal undertook something of the reverse journey.

Wondering if I was being unduly cynical, my associate Matt Rice and I recently took to Real Clear Policy to compare the education coverage of the Trump-DeVos and Biden-Cardona tenures in the Times, the Post, and the Journal. We looked at all the news stories, op-eds, and editorials published by the three outlets during the first 100 days of the two administrations, counting every headline that mentioned “DeVos” or “Cardona” or that mentioned the president’s name and some variation of “school” or “education.” We then scored each headline as positive, negative, or neutral (perhaps not surprisingly, in a clickbait world, this proved to be a pretty straightforward exercise).

So, did education coverage actually change? Yep.

For starters, during the first 100 days of each administration, there were twice as many Trump-DeVos education headlines as Biden-Cardona ones. This is noteworthy given that Biden spent nearly $200 billion on education in his first 100 days, while Trump-DeVos didn’t do much more out of the gate on education than talk about school choice and reverse a handful of Obama administration directives.

More to the point: During Trump’s first 100 days, the Times published 20 negative headlines and the Post 33. The headlines generally didn’t feign a simulacrum of balance in the totality of their coverage. Take, for instance, these two Times editorials, “Wanted: One Republican With Integrity, to Defeat Betsy DeVos” and “Ms. DeVos’s Fake History About School Choice,” and this Post op-ed, “Do your homework, Ms. DeVos.” Neither paper featured more than one or two headlines that could be construed as even vaguely positive. Even as many of these headlines were for op-eds or editorials where having a slant is to be expected, it’s still notable that they overwhelmingly slanted one way.

During Biden’s first 100 days, on the other hand, the Times and Post published barely a handful of headlines that actually criticized either Biden or Cardona. When headlines could be read as critical, it was usually because they were describing a challenging situation (e.g., Times: “Biden Is Vowing to Reopen Schools Quickly. It Won’t Be Easy.”) Indeed, the Times had only a single headline, on an op-ed, that was directly critical (“Biden Says He’s Pro-Science. Why Is His Schools Plan Based on Fear?”). Generally, with Biden and Cardona, the Times and Post rediscovered their ability to adopt a matter-of-fact tone (sprinkled with the occasional flattering headline like “Biden’s American Rescue Plan is actually a huge new school reform” or “Looking to rapidly boost the U.S. economy, Biden highlights ‘massive effort to reopen our schools safely’”).

But this politicized coverage wasn’t just evident in the premiere left-leaning papers. On the right, The Wall Street Journal treated Trump-DeVos in a decidedly balanced fashion, running nine positive education headlines and 11 negative ones during their first 100 days. During Biden’s first 100 days, though, the Journal adopted the critical pose that the Post and Times had embraced under Trump—running eight negative headlines and no positive ones.

At a time when social media, cable news, and deep-seated distrust have led us to see malice everywhere, there’s a vital role for serious news organizations willing to challenge runaway narratives and help readers avoid going down ideological rabbit holes. That’s doubly so for the major outlets, which set the agendas each day for cable news, talk radio, and the nation’s huddled mass of energetic bloggers. We need them to do better.

The opinions expressed in Rick Hess Straight Up are strictly those of the author(s) and do not reflect the opinions or endorsement of Editorial Projects in Education, or any of its publications.

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