So-called fake news reports and outlets have caused a buzz in the current political and media environment, with some observers seeking to define the term and identify specific examples of it. Melissa Zimdars, an assistant professor of communication at Merrimack College in Massachusetts, came out with a controversial list she described as “sources you should be skeptical of” when encountered on social media.
Her list does not include the popular left-of-center news site Huffington Post, which during the 2016 presidential primary season refused to run its articles about Donald Trump under its news heading, instead putting them in the entertainment section. In her list, Zimdars wrote that the publication can “vacillate between providing important, legitimate, problematic, and/or hyperbolic news coverage, requiring readers and viewers to verify and contextualize information with other sources.”
”Hyperbolic” is one way to describe a recent polemic published by the Huffington Post on U.S. Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos, which is titled, “How Betsy DeVos Became The Most Hated Cabinet Secretary.” The piece was written by Amanda Terkel, who is listed as the publication’s Washington bureau chief. Terkel did not respond to an email seeking comment.
Michigan Capitol Confidential looked at the story to see if readers should, in the words of Zimdars, “verify and contextualize [its] information with other sources.”
Sometimes it’s not what a news site says that exposes its bias but what it leaves out. For example, a site may quote a source but not tell readers facts about the individual that likely influence the person’s views.
In her story on DeVos, for example, Terkel quoted two teachers — one identified as a Republican and another as a Trump voter — each of whom insinuated that charter schools are not public schools. One of them, David Kinsella, was described simply as a “high school teacher.”
In fact, however, Kinsella is a high-level teachers union official from Virginia. He served 12 years on the board of a union local in that state and has also been a member of Virginia Education Association’s board of directors. He has been on the NEA elections committee and has served as an NEA convention delegate for numerous years.
The other teacher quoted was Ginny Evans, which Huffington Post described only as “a high school teacher in a Dallas suburb and a member of the NEA.” More than a member, however, Evans has served as the president of her school district’s union local. She also was the NEA director for Texas as a delegate to the state convention.
The roles of these two individuals as high-level union officials are significant and relevant to the story. That’s because hardly any charter schools are unionized, and teachers unions are generally very hostile to school choice and charters.
So it’s no surprise union activists from the field of teaching would be against school choice.
Speaking of school choice, Evans said, “It’s not charter schools. I’m going to keep our dollars in public education.”
Charter schools are public schools.
The piece contained a number of other claims that may cause readers to question whether its purpose was to inform or do something different. Here are several examples.
Huffington Post wrote: “Spend any time talking to people about DeVos, and what you’ll hear over and over is that she has no experience in public education. She never went to public school, never sent her kids to public school and never worked in a public school. (She did volunteer in one, however.)”
Federal records and school officials in the education secretary’s hometown of Grand Rapids tell a different story. According to the U.S. Department of Education, DeVos served as an in-school mentor for at-risk children in Grand Rapids Public Schools for 15 years. DeVos said her interactions there with students, families and teachers “changed my life and my perspective about education forever.”
Grand Rapids Public Schools Superintendent Teresa Weatherall Neal said she has worked closely with DeVos in her five years on the job, according to the MLive.com news site.
“I'm really excited for the children across the nation,” Neal told MLive. “She has been a wonderful supporter of GRPS and our transition plan. She knows education. She knows what it is going to take in order for our kids to be helped.”
Huffington Post wrote: “Under President Donald Trump, however, something different is happening: Everyone hates the education secretary, the person who is 16th in line to the presidency and controls only 3 percent of the federal budget.”
“Everyone” is very likely untrue, even after months of one-sided news stories condemning Trump and anyone who has anything to do with him. Polling data confirms this conclusion.
A Sept. 27 poll by The National Consult/Politico showed that 28 percent of respondents had a very or somewhat favorable view of DeVos while 40 percent had a somewhat unfavorable or very unfavorable view of her.
Huffington Post wrote: “DeVos’ driving cause has been ‘school choice.’ In Michigan, she led the push to use public dollars to pay for private school tuition through vouchers and other means. That experiment has been a success for banks and hedge funds, and a resounding failure for many students.”
Terkel didn’t respond to an email asking for an explanation of how banks and hedge funds benefit from private schools receiving vouchers or tuition through what her article dubbed “other means.”
“I’m racking my brain trying to come up with some reasonable way that someone could find a link between school vouchers and banks and hedge funds,” said Michael Van Beek, the director of research at the Mackinac Center for Public Policy. “But I honestly just don’t have any idea.”
A line from the story, “That experiment has been a success for banks and hedge funds and a resounding failure for many students,” implies that vouchers were used at one time in Michigan. National readers may not realize that school vouchers are prohibited in this state under a 1970 constitutional amendment banning taxpayer-funded “parochiaid” to nonpublic schools. In 2000, 69.1 percent of Michigan voters opposed a ballot initiative, supported by DeVos, to lift the ban.
So it’s hard to imagine how banks and hedge funds benefitted and students suffered from an "experiment" that never took place.
Huffington Post wrote: “A 2016 report by the Education Trust-Midwest, a nonprofit, concluded that under the model shaped by DeVos, ‘Michigan’s K-12 system is among the weakest in the country and getting worse. In little more than a decade, Michigan has gone from being a fairly average state in elementary reading and math achievement to the bottom 10 states. It’s a devastating fall.’”
Huffington Post devoted a large section of its story pointing out how little contact DeVos has had with public schools.
Then it laid the blame for their poor performance at her feet.
The Education Trust-Midwest report is often cited by opponents of charter schools, even as it and they ignore the results of what many regard as the nation’s premier source of research on the subject, Stanford University’s Center for Research on Education Outcomes (CREDO). Stanford’s CREDO has published numerous studies documenting that document charter school students doing better than their peers in conventional public schools. In 2015, CREDO said Detroit’s model of charter schools should serve as a model for the rest of the country.
Huffington Post wrote: “DeVos rescinded Obama administration rules on how colleges should handle sexual assault, leaving advocates worried that the move could help shield those who have been accused.”
That is the only detail the story gives on the Obama Title IX “guidance” and the enforcement actions at universities that have produced horror stories for both victims and those accused. The rules — to be enforced under threat of cuts in federal funds to a non-compliant university — have been seen as divisive on the left as well as the right. California Gov. Jerry Brown, a leading progressive politician, recently vetoed a bill that would have codified the rules in state law, for example.
In a speech explaining her withdrawal of the Obama-era guidance on the issue, DeVos cited the example of a student at the University of Tennessee-Knoxville who took a quiz. His response to the question, “What is your lab instructor’s name?” made him the subject of a sexual harassment investigation under Title IX.
The student, Keaton Wahlbon, said he didn’t know the name of his lab instructor, so he wrote, “Sarah Jackson.” That happens to be the name of a Canadian actress and lingerie model.
Wahlbon claimed he didn’t know who Jackson was and just made up a generic name.
According to the website TotalFratmove.com, Professor William Deane gave Wahlbon a 0 for the quiz and reported him for sexual harassment.
“I have no way of determining your intention. I can only consider the result,” Deane wrote. “The result is that you gave the name of Sarah Jackson, who is a lingerie and nude model. That result meets the Title IX definition of sexual harassment.”
Tom Gantert writes for Michigan Capitol Confidential.