A journalism review dupes its journalists

Paul Farhi’s smackdown of education reform and education reporting in the American Journalism Review may be inspirational to those who would march with the status quo, but it is dangerous coming from a publication that sets the standard for how newsrooms ought to conduct their affairs.

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A cursory read of national news media should shatter any belief that journalists are making life easy for reformers or education entrepreneurs.
 Photo by NS Newsflash.

Farhi, a Washington Post reporter, argues that reformers and billionaire philanthropists have fooled us into believing that American education is in crisis. And worse, passive journalists have allowed this ruse to go unchallenged. Reformers may be used to these sophomoric critiques, but Farhi would have reporters believe that our system of public education has never been better and that their job is to contest any claim to the contrary.

AJR would do better to remind its readers that, yes, some of our education system is fine, but a lot more is mediocre, ragged, losing ground to international peers, leaving many of our poorest and poorest-performing children with worsening odds that they’ll ascend to success and to the higher education of their choice. And it would do better to remind its readers that some of our best education reporters and analysts like Sam Dillon, Thomas Toch, and Jay Mathews, just to name a few, have captured the best and worst of the efforts to turn this around.

Instead, Farhi and AJR give us a database search identifying 544 newspaper and wire stories in one month containing the phrase “failing schools” as confirmation that journalists have immortalized a myth. They give us Valerie Strauss, who unsurprisingly gives the media an “F” for coverage of education reform. They give us more bogeymen like the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, one of Strauss’ favorite targets in her feverish chronicles of the “corporatization” of public education. Worse, they give us “evidence” that Tom Brokaw and NBC have lavished excessive attention on the foundation to promote education reform and even money to carry out the foundation’s mission.

Much of this mirrors the opinion Farhi published last year in the Washington Post that erected the familiar straw men arguments: the absurdity that billionaires know best and that charter schools are the answer. No serious champion of educational attainment and reform has made either of those claims, and no newsroom would allow any such narrative to go unchallenged. A cursory read of national outlets like the New York Times or regional papers like the Miami Herald should shatter any belief that journalists are making life easy for reformers or education entrepreneurs.

But many more reporters, especially younger journalists who look to AJR for guidance and credible reviews of their craft, will only read an ill-informed polemic on the media’s “enthusiasm” for education reform. We have better guideposts for education journalism, and it’s a shame that AJR has missed them. Farhi has done a disservice to newsrooms that need more nuanced critiques of their enterprise.

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