Tuesday, January 15, 2013

A local reporter interviews Michelle Rhee and fails to clear a bar set for her by a colleague

Last October local SouthComm blogger Betsy Phillips introduced new SouthComm reporter Andrea Zelinski in an interesting way. Yes, full disclosure counsels that Phillips' wrote some "homer" PR fluff on behalf of the news corp she blogs for. So, take the cheers with a grain of salt and then verify for yourselves. And yes, it is remarkable that Phillips dropped a double-edged sword of praise for Zelinski qua woman (saying males "don't really know a lot about the reality of women's lives" even as she also argued that women's issues are not different than issues, like jobs, that concern males). Yes, it can be argued that Phillips takes away with one hand what she gave with the other.

Those questions are not nearly as interesting in the wake of Zelinski's recent interview with lightning-rod education reformer Michelle Rhee. Move to Phillips' conclusion, where she sets a soaring bar for Zelinski's work to be judged by: she insists that Zelinski may help "fix" the problem of reporters who "play into the way politicians frame their arguments".

Given the track record of collusion of reporters and the communications machinery of politics (evinced by the lateral professional pipeline between news and PR), such an achievement would be a dizzying prospect for Zelinski or any other journo.

Having granted that, I'm not sure she came close to the bar in her Rhee interview. Rhee, a politician in her own right, was permitted, nearly invited, to frame the arguments on her own terms.

Start with national public education advocate Diane Ravitch, who read Zelinski's interview and blogged on it. Ravitch's analysis suggests to me that Rhee effectively framed her argument without follow-up or challenge from Zelinski:

The story describes her thus: “A Tennessee transplant, she is turning her attention to schools in her new state.” It also refers to the “roots” she is “setting” in Nashville. Apparently, she never told the reporter that she lives in Sacramento, not Nashville. She describes herself as a “public school parent” because one of her daughters attends public school in Nashville. But she did not acknowledge that her older daughter goes to an excellent private school, Harpeth Hall School (“Nashville, TN’s only independent, college-preparatory school for girls, grades 5-12”).

One can hardly blame her for choosing Harpeth Hall. It has an 8:1 student/teacher ratio, with a median class size of 13. Class sizes in public schools in Nashville and other cities are much, much larger.

I bet that Harpeth Hall does not give standardized tests and does not evaluate teachers based on their students’ test scores.

Wouldn’t it be wonderful if Michelle Rhee became an advocate for small class size, and for the same goals and purposes for all children that she wants for her own child?

So, Zelinski did not do much to challenge Rhee's framing her brand as a Tennessee public school parent. In fact, Zelinski's primary follow-up on the question of Rhee's children was framed as "public or charter", not "public, charter or Harpeth Hall". If we apply Betsy Phillips' own standard about challenging dominant framing of issues and values, Zelinski lobbed no critical questions that would have basically challenged Rhee's frame job.

Where Rhee actually lives and her status as a private and a public school parent are both critical points that deserve follow-up questions by any reporter, man or woman. Either the reporter did not know that information or she chose (or was editorially prompted) not to disclose that information and follow-up accordingly.

In the end, to what "different perspective" (Phillips' term) does Zelinski's interview allude?

Zelinski describes Rhee in nearly favorable terms that the latter would probably not disagree with: "an icon of the education reform movement .... [who] pushed to hold teachers more accountable for students’ performance, busted open the doors of school choice and shaken up the education establishment." The framing here is ridiculously uncritical and by no means distinctive.

Loaded, but unpacked reform vernacular like "teacher accountability", "student performance", "school choice", and "education establishment" is hardly neutral. In fact--without acknowledging exaltation of standardized testing, without analyzing the actual choices framed by privatization and without observing that the education establishment is bankrolled by corporate philanthropy and massive government funding influenced by campaign finance--this interview is biased toward education reformers like Rhee.

Zelinski's interview comes on the heels of a PBS Frontline documentary that shows Rhee, having invited cameras into an exit interview with a principal, unprofessionally firing that principal as the video rolls. Zelinski could have raised questions about the impropriety, if not the viciousness of that, but instead, the reporter herself frames Rhee's mean behavior more favorably in a general sense: "she's thrown a few elbows". Educators losing their jobs in humiliatingly publicized fashion is hardly analogous to getting whacked on the basketball court. I still struggle to see the "different perspective" Betsy Phillips tells us Zelinski will be bringing to SouthComm reporting.

In fairness to Zelinski, Rhee is a tough cookie, a veteran of news interviews who knows how to dodge land mines. When Frontline sent Rhee some follow-up questions based on a principal who claimed to have witnessed school employees erasing and changing test answers after students turned them in, Rhee simply did not reply to PBS reporters. So, if Zelinski had asked more critical questions that actually challenged Rhee's dominant framing of her reputation, Rhee might have refused the interview.

But that still leaves the problem of the lofty bar set for Zelinski in the first place. If Rhee would not allow Zelinski to ask probing questions that might actually challenge her framing of education reform, then Zelinski cannot help but ask the questions she did, and those questions (to use Betsy Phillips own word) "played" uncritically to Rhee's advantage.

The bar had simply been set too high.

UPDATE: At her personal blog, Betsy Phillips responds to this post. I have two three replies:

  • Phillips never lifts a finger to answer the primary question of my post: what "different perspective" did reporter Andrea Zelinski bring to the Michelle Rhee interview that helped her refuse to "play" into Rhee's framing of the education reform issue? For Phillips to maintain that she was merely supporting another woman is disingenuous. She made a specific claim: that Zelinski would conduct herself differently as a woman when faced with the framing behavior of powerful people. The question still stands: where is the difference in the Rhee interview?
  • Phillips speculates that I see conspiracies in women "writing positively" about other women. First, I do not. What I am responding to on a material level is branding of the SouthComm product; what I am responding to on a less tangible level is the predisposed tone of SouthComm writing. I previously posted on that predisposed tone regarding the writing of one of Phillips' other colleagues (who is male) on the subject of education reform. Likewise, when Phillips blogs under the Pith in the Wind masthead, particularly when she showcases the work of other SouthComm writers (as has been the established practice at Pith for years) the writing has a marketing life of its own. Why else does Pith exist, but to promote the brand? Second, why is it acceptable that, when a critic observes continuity between the writing and the brand, s/he is opened to charges of conspiracy? (And outsiders are not total dolts. We know that writers, editors and reporters inside news companies interact with one another agree on their own frames of interpretation). By the way, at least one local journo (who is male) has responded to similar criticism with the same hyperbole that they are not told what to write. As I explained two years ago, the brand is not a bunch of disjointed pieces wrenching themselves away from each other. There is organizational and interpretive cohesion. Hence, it is legitimate to judge the SouthComm news brand as a whole. That does not mean I see black helicopters.
  • Phillips seems to resort to passive-aggressive criticism over my use of the term "tough cookie" in describing an all grown up Michelle Rhee who influences policy at a national level. It was a nice try on Phillips' part, but she failed to add that the context in which I used the term "tough cookie" is an all grown up one: Rhee is a veteran who dodges land mines. There is nothing symbolically childlike or diminutive about that metaphor. On the contrary, in that context, "tough cookie" means hard-nosed, strategic, battle-wise. Phillips, who concedes she has her own agenda, seems to be reading a gender agenda that I do not have into my observations of Rhee.

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