Monday, July 13, 2015

Campbell Brown's PR Site Launches

Well, the 74 is here, and it's not exactly loaded with surprises.

Campbell Brown has launched her new site devoted to bringing the Power of Journalism to bear on pushing her particular view of What Is Needed in Education. Here's what we can find there this morning.

Brown herself has an opinion piece entitled "Advocacy, Journalism, and Why Not Every Story Has Two Sides."

Through our reporting we will advocate for a public school system that truly serves the 74 million children in this country and prioritizes their needs. Without question, The Seventy Four has an agenda – children first. We will fiercely challenge those forces within the education establishment who impede innovation in our schools and who protect and defend inequality and institutional failure.

Yes, this site is For The Children. Also, they will fight for Equity and Quality, and against the Establishment. Brown continues to position herself rhetorically as a fighter for children against teachers and other educators. She is here to speak up for the voiceless.

Na├»ve as it sounds, I was taken with the idea that a journalist could be a voice for those who don’t have one

Interesting notion. Because one would think that a person running a website with a four million dollar budget could provide a platform to allow those people's voices to be heard. But no-- once again (and to be fair, reformsters don't have a monopoly on this) the plan is to speak for people-- not to let them speak for themselves.

The website has a Top Four feature that headlines the top four features of the day, and today the number one feature is a story about Scott Walker. It's actually a reading list, with links to nine articles about his childhood, the moral imperative of vouchers, his complicated relationship with Common Core, his war on tenure, Politifacts debunking of WI growth scores, his courting of home schoolers, his protection of vouchers against budget cuts, how he dropped out of college, and his op-ed last month.

I expect we'll see more of these sorts of pieces. Brown wants to position her website as a player in the Presidential election, and has already set up education "summits" in NH and Iowa (one for each party). Prize-winning commentator Cynthia Tucker Haynes argues that the next President will have to fix education, arguing that NCLB was a good step and Race to the Top was swell because of the teacher accountability idea, allowing us to hunt down bad teachers to get rid of them, proving I guess that you can win a Pullitzer and still not understand every topic you write about.

It does suggest that Brown's project wants to advocate for a level of federalism that is out of step with much of reformsterism. It'll be interesting to see how free-market right guys like AEI and Fordham take to her.

What else have we got?

There's a breathless expose of the secret conspiracy behind the Montclair, NJ opt out movement (hint: the dastardly teacher's union was wrapped up in it). There's an inspirational story of how Miami-Dade's superintendent saved the district by using charters and choice. There's another inspirational story about how a "heroic pilot" became a great educator thanks to Teach for America. And in state-level news, there's a story about how Nevada's only hope is to make the bold move of shifting to an all-choice system.

If that's not enough charter love, there is also a flashcard feature (in this and in many design features, the site seems to owe a bit to vox.xom) which offers us thirteen things to know about charter schools.

Point 2 is "are charter schools more successful than public schools," so kudos for acknowledging that they aren't the same thing! No kudos for answering, "Yeah, a little." Most of the thirteen points are straightforward (where do charters get their money?) but a few stretchers appear. For instance, in response to "do charters have to accept all students," we learn charters have huge waiting lists, but they settle these with lotteries and there's no proof that they counsel out problem students-- none of which actually answers the question.

So, bottom line, how does the site look?

First, Brown's site benefits from the hiring of real journalists and real professionals from the world of online news. It looks slick, and the writing is generally well-done and competent. Honestly, I'm not sure I really noticed how amateur hour Peter Cunningham's $12 million Education Post site looks and reads until I checked out The 74.

Second, it uses the modern news-ish outlet technique of letting opinion and news live right side by side so that only people paying attention will notice the difference. For the rest, the professional tone of the news reporting will give a feeling of substance to the opinion pieces that they don't really deserve (and I say this as a person whose opinion pieces run at Huffington Post). The news items up at the moment are not hugely obviously fox-news-style slanted, but give a pretty good semblance of objectivity, if not the actual thing. Which leads us straight to

Third, this is an advocacy site, and "advocacy" is our nice name for PR. It has a point of view that it wants to push, and whether that's because Brown is a clueless rich dilettante who doesn't know what she's talking about or an evil mastermind who's fronting for her husband and his disaster capitalist friends, either way, this is a site that has a point of view to push. This is no more nor less than we expected. That's evident just in the choice of topics. One good way to be subtle in slanting news is to provide fairly level coverage-- but only of the things you want to talk about.

You could, for instance, provide fairly level coverage of problems in education, but never ever send a reporter to cover the problems that turn up in charter schools. Your individual stories might be close to objective, but your overall coverage would still be slanted.

We'll see how things play out. If Brown can convince candidates to cue up for her educational summits, she may start looking like a real player in the ed debates, or at least a good mouthpiece for candidates who want to say educationy things without being challenged on their baloney.

But if you had the slightest thought that there would be any surprises at The 74, banish such foolish notions. It's a slicker package and better buns, but it's the same old pro-charter, anti-union, pro-privatization, anti-public ed meal inside. I can't wait till they start covering Brown's heroic fight to destroy tenure in New York, but I definitely won't hold my breath waiting for a hard-hitting expose of a charter school scandal.

There is no such thing as advocacy journalism. You cannot, as Brown promises we will, have both. Either you have a journalist's interest in pursuing the truth, wherever the path leads you, or you have an advocate's interest in finding support for the position that you have already committed yourself to. It's one or the other, and for all the journalistic trappings, Brown has chosen the path of the advocate.

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