Media Bias: A Smoking Gun?

Veteran education journalist Richard Whitmire recently wrote that the media has become biassed against charter schools, noting in particular that the New York Times had recently planted a “big wet kiss” on a district school based on “one-year data from a relative handful of students” while subjecting “Success Academy charter schools, which have been producing stellar test results from low-income students at scale for years … to a scathing series worthy of a criminal enterprise.” Predictably, Whitmire’s article has led to a twitter debate about the accuracy of his assessment.

Since I am CEO of the Success Academy Charter Schools, it will come as no surprise to you that I concur with Whitmire’s view of the Times’ coverage and have made this point in an article in the Wall Street Journal, a blog post, and my memoir. I acknowledge that my objectivity will quite reasonably be questioned. Moreover, the truth is that it’s hard to come up with an objective measure of bias since what is considered news or fair coverage tends to be a matter of judgment. Is it even possible to imagine what completely objective “smoking gun” proof of bias might look like?

Let’s try. Consider this hypothetical. Suppose that you had two publications whose journalists wrote innumerable articles and tweeted copiously about a lawsuit involving a charter school. Every time that charter school lost, they covered it. But then, when that exact same case went up to a state’s highest court and that charter school’s position was vindicated, these publications and their journalists now adopted radio silence. No articles. No tweets. Nothing. The most important development in the case — the final resolution before the highest court that can hear it — is completely ignored.

I submit that this would meet the very high bar of an objective smoking gun because you’d have the same journalists and the same publications suddenly deciding that a story was no longer news because the final outcome didn’t align with their desired narrative.

But of course, that would never really happen, right? At least not with well-respected mainstream media outlets. But yes, incredibly, it did.

In 2015, New York City, under Mayor Bill de Blasio’s leadership, attempted to impose illegal restrictions on Success Academy’s pre-K program. This was of great concern because it is critical that charter schools be free from meddling by the district school bureaucracy. That’s pretty much the whole point. And once you forfeit the principle of independence, the bureaucracy can then gradually chip away at it until you end up with all of the red tape to which the district schools are subject.

As this was a critical issue, we sued. That lawsuit was the subject of ten articles in Politico (by Eliza Shapiro, who is now at the Times) and four articles in the Times (by Kate Taylor, who still works for the Times). They covered our initial defeats copiously and zealously:

Then Success won a victory at an intermediate appellate court, but both Politico and the Times downplayed its significance. Whereas the Times had previously written “Success Academy Loses,” as if it were final rather than appealable, they now said that we had merely won a “round.” See Success Academy Wins Round in Fight Over Preschool Oversight, New York Times, June 9, 2017. (And as if to punish us for this victory, Ms. Taylor then proceeded to use this article to take several completely unrelated pot shots at Success, writing, for example, that I had “allied [my]self with Republican[s]” because I had “met with Donald J. Trump” (to politely listen to his request that I become Secretary of Education, which I declined) and because I had (say it isn’t so!) allowed “House Speaker Paul Ryan” who is third in line of Presidential succession “to visit[] a Success Academy school.” I am a lifetime Democrat who served as such on the New York City Council for six years and voted for Hillary Clinton and I speak with and encourage politicians of all stripes to visit Success, but Ms. Taylor made it sound like I had taken sides with the Republicans because she knew if would make me look bad with many Times readers in this highly partisan age.)

Similarly, Ms. Shapiro wrote that “The political impact [of Success’s win] may be muted” because the “dispute has all but disappeared from the news.” See Success Academy notches pre-K victory, after nearly two years of fighting, Politico, June 9, 2017. This was in fact a hint of things to come. Most of the news coverage to date had been from Ms. Shapiro and Ms. Taylor and their respective publications; Ms. Shapiro was essentially announcing that since it now looked like the courts were saying Success was right, this dispute would no longer merit coverage.

But this is where things get even crazier. New York’s highest Court, the Court of Appeals, agreed to hear our case. This is a big deal because, like the U.S. Supreme Court, the Court of Appeals decides which cases it wants to hear and generally picks only those that it considers important. It has ruled on charter school issues only a couple of times in the whole twenty-year history of the charter school movement.

On November 20, 2018, the Court of Appeals ruled in our favor. It held that the City’s attempts to meddle with our program were illegal and ordered the City to pay us the money the City had withheld because we’d refused to accept their meddling. (And by the way, just last week the City finally paid us that money — four years late and without interest or an apology to the families who couldn’t send their children to our pre-K program because we were forced to suspend it since the City wasn’t paying us.)

So, of course the Times and Politico have gotta cover this, right? First, this case involved a critical charter school issue: charter school independence. Second, they had previously covered this case with relentless zeal. And third, there was now a final resolution of this dispute by New York’s highest court. Often, you don’t read about a case until it is decided by the highest court that can hear it, whether that’s the U.S. Supreme Court or a state’s highest court. That’s when it becomes news.

But the opposite happened. It became non-news. Despite the fact that Politico and the New York Times had previously published 14 articles about this dispute, despite the fact that Kate Taylor had tweeted nine times about it and Eliza Shapiro had done so far more frequently (although her Politico tweets have been deleted), not one Times or Politico reporter (including Taylor or Shapiro, who were now both working for the Times) wrote a single article nor even a single tweet about this victory. It other words, the lawsuit was news when it seemed to show that Success was trying to resist lawful regulations but once it became clear that Success was right to resist the City’s illegal meddling, it became non-news.

If that isn’t objective smoking gun proof of bias, I don’t know what is.