Special report: He was the son of a teacher, man!
When it comes to reporting on public schools, NBC News gets a failing grade-a grade it has thoroughly earned.
Consider what happened on the Today show last Thursday morning. Guest host Savannah Guthrie introduced a taped interview segment with a controversial guest. Except Guthrie didn't really seem to know that Michelle Rhee is a controversial figure in the world of public schools. Neither did Jenna Bush Hager, who had taped the interview session.
The segment was a world-class groaner. The whole thing started like this:
GUTHRIE (3/17/11): This morning on “Education Nation Today,” saving America's schools.
Michelle Rhee captured headlines as the chancellor of schools in Washington, DC, making sweeping changes and some enemies along the way. Rhee lost her job, but not her passion for education reform. “Today” contributing correspondent Jenna Bush Hager, a teacher herself, caught up with Michelle Rhee recently.
Jenna, good morning!
HAGER: Good morning. That's right. Michelle Rhee is truly a maverick in education reform. She's controversial and a courageous change-maker. And these days, as budget cuts mean teacher layoffs, Rhee is leading the fight for a quality education for every child.
Michelle Rhee may have lost her job, but she gained a mission. She continues her life's passion to fix America's broken schools with a new lobbyist group, Students First.Neither Guthrie nor Hager seemed to know that Rhee is a controversial figure. According to the hapless pair, Rhee is “a courageous change-maker” who “is leading the fight for a quality education for every child.” Hager's introduction was pure propaganda, but Guthrie hadn't done much better; she introduced the segment with Rhee under the rubric of “saving America's schools.”
Hager's interview was hapless throughout. But the worst part may have occurred when she briefly noted a basic fact-many people disagree with Rhee's outlook and ideas:
HAGER: Rhee's reforms are part of a recent documentary, “Waiting for Superman.” But her firebrand approach also inspired relentless criticism and protests in Washington. (Speaking to Rhee) While you were chancellor, the union and others who protested you, calling you names such as "hatchet lady”- How could you keep a thick skin during all of that?Why did people criticize Rhee? Hager never tried to explain. Today show viewers were told only one thing-Rhee's critics have called her bad names! In her very first statement, Rhee noted that she was “working in states across the country with governors like Rick Scott in Florida, Chris Christie in New Jersey, Governor Kasich in Ohio.” Hager never noted that these were allRepublican governors. The possibility that there might be a political or ideological component to Rhee's valiant efforts never intruded on the fawning which ran all through this segment.
RHEE: For me, what was going through my mind was, You know what? You can call me whatever names you want, you can yell at me as loud as you want to, under my watch I am not going to continue to allow the absolute dysfunction.
Hager fawned over Rhee. But then, the same thing happened in February, the last time Today ran an “Education Nation” interview with a controversial figure. In that instance, Hager interviewed Wendy Kopp, a close associate of Rhee. On that occasion, Meredith Vieira jump-started the fawning:
VIEIRA (2/2/11): This morning on “Education Nation Today,” Teach for America, a powerful movement that recruits college grads to teach in some of the nation's poorest areas. It was created by Wendy Kopp, who is out with a new book, A Chance To Make History. “Today” contributing correspondent and a teacher herself, Jenna Bush Hager, met up with her recently.
Good morning, Jenna!
HAGER: Good morning, Meredith. That's right! Wendy Kopp is a pioneer in education, and she's dared to dream big. She wants to share that dream with every student in America.This is a comic-book version of broadcast journalism. There's another word for it, of course-propaganda.
A bit of background: NBC News invented its “Education Nation” rubric last fall, during a week of special programming geared to the controversial film, “Waiting for Superman.” In those programs, NBC News came down extremely hard on one side in the current education debate; the network has continued its clownish behavior from that day to this. On NBC, it isn't hard to understand who the heroes are in the public school fight. Last week, Hager even gushed and fawned over Rhee's significant other:
HAGER (3/17/11): Rhee is making education reform a family affair of her own. She's engaged to another education activist, former NBA player, now Sacramento mayor, Kevin Johnson. They've been called "the education celebrity couple."
RHEE: He's probably one of the most outspoken mayors in the country on education reform. We can come home and talk to one another about something that we both care about a lot. So it is kind of great.
HAGER: Rhee says they'll join forces for change and she's calling on every American to fight with them to save our nation's schools.
RHEE: We are at a moment in time right now that I've never seen in my entire career that there is more focus on education. I think a lot of people are saying, you know what, the education system in our country isn't working right now and we need to do something drastic to fix it.According to Rhee, the education system “isn't working” and “we need to do something drastic to fix it.” According to Hager, Rhee is asking every American to fight with her “to save our nation's schools.” But does Rhee have good ideas about what should be done? Watching NBC, you'd be hard pressed to understand what Rhee's ideas are-or to understand why many people disagree with her basic outlook. You would understand that Rhee's critics have called her bad names, of course.
(To watch Today's full segment on Rhee, go ahead: Just click here.)
By the way, speaking of names: If Nexis and Google can be believed, Rhee and Johnson have never been called “the education celebrity couple.” This added a nice touch to Hager's fawning, but it doesn't seem to be accurate. Nor can we find any sign that “the union” ever called Rhee “hatchet lady,” or that any ranking critic of Rhee ever used this term. Use of the term can barely be found through a Google search at all, although it seems that the term may have been used in some way in the Guggenheim film.
How might our public schools be improved? The public discussion tends to be clownish, in large part because the career liberal world abandoned this topic decades ago. In the 1960s, the interests of black children was a large part of the basic liberal agenda. In the present day, it's hard to see a major career liberal stoop to discuss such proles.
Career liberal cable stars care about gay people, as of course they should. But black kids and Hispanic kids can pretty much jump in the lake. In large part, this explains why it's left to comedians to discuss public schools.
Jon Stewart's the son of a teacher, man! When he saw teachers being trashed by the forces with whom Michelle Rhee is aligned, he staged an intelligent discussion on his comedy program (see THE DAILY HOWLER, 3/15/11). But why is this function left to Stewart? Why don't “liberal” cable stars rush to fill the void?
Jon Stewart's the son of a teacher, man! But then again, so was Ed Schultz-a fact he first mentioned on March 1. We were surprised when Schultz mentioned that fact-and we groaned when we saw where it led us.
Tomorrow-part 4: Back to school!