It will be lonelier for reporters at the National Education Association’s convention this year: After 19 years, the union has denied press credentials to longtime teachers’ union watchdog Mike Antonucci.
The marathoning, granola-eating, and unabashedly snarky Antonucci began to cover the convention all the way back in 1998, the year of a proposed NEA-American Federation of Teachers merger. He’s the writer of a blog, Intercepts, and a weekly email newsletter focused on the ins and outs of the two national unions.
He identifies, as he once told Education Week, with small-L libertarianism and writes with a generally critical view of how the unions go about their business. Plenty of people criticize the unions, but what separates Antonucci from the pack is that few of them do it with the level of sourcing that Antonucci has built up over the past two decades. And that has led him to some major scoops over the years.
He was, famously, among the only observers to predict that NEA delegates would vote down the merger with the AFT. In 2006, he uncovered an unflattering internal communications audit of the AFT. And in 2016, he disclosed parts of a transcript of what then-presidential candidate Hillary Clinton told the NEA board of directors during her visit to the union’s headquarters. He maintains a list of the NEA’s state-by-state membership numbers, which are no longer released to the general public.
He’s also served an important function for the two unions’ sprawling network of affiliates, dishing out dirt on internal matters and even, on occasion, serving as a conduit for union insiders. When affiliates’ own staff unions have been at loggerheads with their managers, for example, they’ve gotten the word out via his publications.
Transparency and the New Media
Let’s be clear about one thing here: The NEA is well within its rights to accept or deny press access to anyone it wants to.
The philosophical question, it seems, is whether the denial of credentials to Antonucci could lead to potential blowback on the NEA for what looks like a lack of transparency. There’s also a second question of precedent: If you’ve decided that someone qualifies as a journalist one year but not the next, what changed?
NEA officials said they couldn’t comment on a specific individual’s application for press credentials, but they did note that the union updated its media guidelines this year.
“The National Education Association recently updated its procedure on credentialing members of the media who wish to cover the NEA Representative Assembly. Not all individuals who have enjoyed media credentials in the past qualify under the revised guidelines,” spokeswoman Staci Maiers said.
Antonucci has only held press credentials at the NEA and AFT conventions. His other jobs included working as a consultant, historian, and freelance writer.
Here’s a possibility for the switch in status: Since last year’s convention, Antonucci’s weekly column and blog have been co-hosted on the website of The 74, a site hosting news and opinion on K-12 topics. The 74 was co-founded and, until early 2017, edited by Campbell Brown, who in 2014 launched a group that sued the state of New York over teacher tenure and seniority rules, to the dismay of the unions. It has since faced questions about whether its primary purpose is journalism or advocacy.
In an interview, Antonucci said that he applied for press credentials using the name of his own business, the Education Intelligence Agency, not The 74.
He acknowledges wondering whether his new affiliation with The 74 would discourage sources from reaching out to him, given Brown’s views on unions. But that didn’t happen, and there weren’t any repercussions—until now, apparently, he said.
The 74 didn’t directly respond to an inquiry about the NEA’s decision to deny Antonucci’s press application. Spokesman Dan Bank sent this statement: “The 74 is proud to be a trusted source of education news for millions of readers across the country, giving a voice to the issues that matter most to students.”
Antonucci says he’s not convinced that a changing media landscape explains his denial of credentials. For years, he’s written and hosted his work on his own, so if anything, he said, the NEA should have denied him credentials back in 1998, when the line between media and nonmedia was less fuzzy.
“I’ve lived in these gaps my whole career—am I reporter or not? I do what I do, and if I don’t fit into a category, so what?” he said. “If they want to take a hard line on who’s press and who isn’t, they should be clear about it.”
In other words, is it the content of what Antonucci writes that matters, or who publishes it? Queried about that, Antonucci quipped: “If Diane Ravitch called and said, ‘I need a press credential to write my blog,’ are they going to tell her, ‘No, you’re not a reporter’?” he said.
(Following a major shift in her education beliefs, historian-cum-blogger Ravitch has been an ally of the unions and has won accolades from both the NEA and the AFT.)
Boston Convention Looms
Will Antonucci’s absence from the July 2-5 NEA Representative Assembly, in Boston, affect overall coverage of the teachers’ unions’ inner workings? Probably not as much as it might seem.
Antonucci plans to continue writing about this year’s NEA convention, from the comfort of his California home. Much, but not all, of the RA is broadcast now, and the details are easier to follow. These days, for example, the union handily keeps a tally on its website on the status of new business items—directives by delegates to the union to do something.
Still, don’t count Antonucci out for the long haul: Some longtime NEA delegates aren’t happy about this turn of events, either.
“I’m getting emails from delegates saying they’re going to submit a new business item to get me reinvited,” Antonucci said.
Education Week’s coverage of the 2017 NEA Representative Assembly begins July 1.
Photo: Union watchdog Mike Antonucci poses for a photo with former NEA President Reg Weaver. Photo courtesy of Antonucci.
Read more on Antonucci:
A version of this news article first appeared in the Teacher Beat blog.