Wednesday, May 19, 2010

Authoritarian journalism

  Above: A Wordle of a recent op-ed, editorial, and news story on school teachers by the Star Tribune.

 Journalism, according to the old saw, is the first "rough draft" of history.  The aphorism implies the intent of journalism to get it right, not to advance the political fortunes of media owners. Thus it might surprise some people that the real goal of most of what we call journalism today - as critical theorists know - is to make money. The secondary goal is to represent the interests of the owners and their class. The third goal is to actually "do" journalism - i.e. report the news in an honest, even-handed and tough fashion.

Control of journalistic institutions is not conducted by direct intervention of superiors down the organizational totem pole. Instead control is had by the appointing of like-minded individuals down the organizational chart. Inferior members do not need to be told what to do - they in effect are trying to guess every day what their superiors would want done. If they guess wrong they will find out soon enough, sometimes with personally catastrophic consequences.

Without a clear understanding of how modern media companies prioritize their values it is impossible to understand why they sometimes, contrary to their stated goals, engage in blatant propaganda. Such is the case with the Minneapolis Star Tribune's virtual crusade against public school teachers and their unions. In a previous post I pointed out how the paper perpetuates a dishonest narrative that many problems in society can be traced back to public school teachers and their unions, and if only they could be done away with our problems would be solved. To be sure, they don't state it in this exact way, but, over time, you get the idea (see "bad" "teachers" in the Wordle above). Three recent contradictory, hyperbolic, historically ignorant and badly reasoned tracts - an editorial, op-ed, and news story -  in the paper amply demonstrate the point.

It doesn't take a genius to figure out that the headline of the editorial, "A failing grade in evaluating teachers" directly contradicts the implication of the news story, headlined, "State's bad teachers rarely get fired."  How can you know that bad teachers rarely get fired if you admit that it is impossible to evaluate said teachers? You cannot know that there is problem firing bad teachers if you don't  know how many bad teachers there are. What is the actual evidence to recite such an incendiary claim?

As proof the editorial quixotically says that only 10 teacher terminations were contested in the state since 1992. But what does that prove? The low number could conversely prove that it wasn't hard to fire bad teachers, since only 10 firings were contested.  Indeed, if you read far enough into it, the news story contradicts its own premise and headline, admitting that (emphasis added): one knows how many [bad teachers] there are. Neither the state nor many school districts evaluate teachers on a regular basis. One Minnesota teacher had gone 15 years without an evaluation before the district recommended firing him, Krisnik said.
What numbers are available are suspect. For example, although U.S. Department of Education data reported that Minnesota had a higher rate of dismissing teachers for poor performance in 2007-08 than the national average, few Minnesota school officials could readily provide that information. Short of going through personnel records, they said, they often rely on the memories of human resources directors.
Yet the Star Tribune editorial asserts - without any attribution -  that 10 percent of state school teachers are "struggling" - whatever that means.  In short, the Strib goes to great anecdotal lengths to make its case against school teachers, but it really doesn't know what it is talking about. In the op-ed by Don Samuels the author asserts that school teachers are responsible for an "endless cycle of poverty and failure." Nothing like a romantic view of the power of teachers, eh?

One doesn't need to pick apart every aspect of the Star Tribune's attacks on school teachers and their unions - the output speaks for itself. The paper is obsessed with the subject, and not in a good way. Each article or editorial finds a new way to distort history and facts, picking and choosing anecdotes and studies - usually first created by right wing think tanks - to create the impression of rogue teachers' unions being the bane of our society.

But - were bad school teachers the cause of our current banking and financial crisis - the one that cost us trillions in lost real estate value and that caused real unemployment to hover near 18 percent? Or was the financial meltdown caused by irresponsible deregulation and criminal behavior of the bankers and real estate industry?  Are bad school teachers responsible for the prevalence of authoritarian sadists and pedophiles in our churches? Do bad school teachers cause mining and oil drilling disasters? Did bad schools cause the Neocons to lie the country into the world's worst strategic military disaster in 2,000 years? The things that really ail our society have almost nothing to do with education.

Which got me thinking - what if the newspaper was interested in actual journalism instead of politically motivated hit jobs on unions? Beyond anecdotes and assertions the Strib stories are virtually fact-free. Where would you go for the missing facts? It turns out there are places - specifically - the US Department of Education, which rounds up statistics that compare states' education outcomes.

Given the hysteria about schools and teachers drummed up by the Strib I was prepared for the worst. But - lo and behold - Minnesota schools are doing an excellent job compared to other states. In math our fourth graders are third in the country, and the state's eighth graders are second. In reading our fourth graders are 22nd, but by the time they are in eighth grade they earn a respectable eighth in the country. Apparently all those supposed bad teachers aren't having much of an effect.

Aha, you say. But Minnesota schools perform so poorly compared to schools in other nations. But - it turns out that isn't true, either. A press release from the state's Department of Education was headlined "Minnesota students perform well on international math and science assessment." The release begins (emphasis added):
A preliminary analysis of the Trends in International Mathematics and Science Study (TIMSS) shows that Minnesota students are performing very well in math and science compared to students from other nations. The Minnesota Department of Education and SciMath Minnesota (SciMathMN) released TIMSS data today that also indicates Minnesota students made significant improvements in 4th-grade math since 1995.
That's the kind of context that honest journalism includes. A story is made stronger by admitting that its theory might have some holes in it, and that critics might have a point. A series of stories on how crappy our teachers are might see fit to include a few lines about how our schools are in the top five percent nationwide in math  and the top 15 percent in reading, and that they perform "very well" compared to students in other nations.

An honest newspaper would admit there exists a movement that has been agitating against public school teachers for more than 20 years now, led by business-funded philanthropies and their funded think tanks and institutes. Anyone who cares to know can quickly find out that places like the Bradley Foundation and people like Chester Finn have been leading a national campaign to stamp out teachers' unions  - for political reasons. That is the reality of the situation. Without the right wing infrastructure harping on teachers' unions our education debate would be very different. You can argue whether they are correct or not (obviously I think not), but there's no denying the movement and its motivations.

Except at the Strib, where instead of legitimate context we are presented with the exact propaganda generated by the conservatives, without any real attribution. Worse, this false, mis-attributed information is presented in news stories.

Both the Strib editorial and news story hang their hats on an organization called the National Council on Teacher Quality (NCTQ). Both use statistics from the NCTQ to bolster their anti-teacher attitudes, but neither tells the reader just what it is, which turns out to be a big deal, because the NCTQ is a part of the very propaganda movement discussed above. To paraphrase George W. Bush, the newspaper is catapulting the propaganda. Only - the Strib is supposedly a journalistic organization.

Liars, Hannah Arendt famously wrote, have an advantage over truth-tellers: They know what an audience wants to hear and can transform their presentations in order to fit the minds of the perceivers. Thus it is with journalism surrounding teachers at the Strib: They understand that for decades conservatives and the traditional media have been softening up teachers' unions as scapegoats for society's ills. The newspaper's attacks make for a nice diversion from the myriad failures of the Republicans but they form a poor basis for sound public policy.

Bereft of actual journalistic argument, who, then is the newspaper's intended audience for its Republican propaganda? What kind of people respond to illogical arguments that target out-groups with mis-representations and false conclusions? What kind of people will believe a traditional media source, ignoring contrary facts and reason?

In his book The Authoritarians author Bob Altemeyer, who has studied authoritarians for 30 years and whose work forms the basis for John Dean's Conservatives Without Conscience, explains the cognitive disabilities of his study targets:
...a high RWA (Right Wing Authoritarian) can have all sorts of illogical, self-contradictory, and widely refuted ideas rattling around in various boxes in his brain, and never notice it.
and that
...research reveals that authoritarian followers drive through life under the influence of impaired thinking a lot more than most people do, exhibiting sloppy reasoning, highly compartmentalized beliefs, double standards, hypocrisy, self-blindness, a profound ethnocentrism, and -- to top it all off -- a ferocious dogmatism that makes it unlikely anyone could ever change their minds with evidence or logic.
Funny - that sounds just like the Strib reporting on teachers' unions. Altemeyer notes that high RWAs "particularly had trouble figuring out that an inference or deduction was wrong," and that "authoritarians also have trouble deciding whether empirical evidence proves, or does not prove, something," and that their "shortfall in critical thinking" shows "how easily authoritarian followers get alarmed by things."

It's eerie reading those passages about RWAs in the context of Strib reporting on teachers' unions, and how apt they are in describing the news and opinion printed on the subject by the newspaper, and the effect it might have on readers. I would say depressing, but this kind of garbage has been going on at the Strib for so long that it can't be an accident. All we can hope for, I guess, is that the approach taken by the paper regarding teachers' unions doesn't spread to other kinds of news reporting. On the opinion pages we've seen this kind of thing literally for decades, specifically in the writing of Katherine Kersten, who briefly escaped onto the news pages, but has since retreated to an opinion column.

Finally, if this is the newspaper's response to its declining fortunes - blatant appeals to authoritarians using provably false propaganda - then it might not be long for this world, nor does it deserve to be.

No comments: