Thursday, February 10, 2011

The Media Bullpen launches.

Today marks the launch of the Media Bullpen, the Center for Education Reform’s mammoth effort to critique the education media. Jeanne Allen, CER’s president, called me yesterday to talk about what the Bullpen is and isn’t. What it isn’t, she insists: a means by which to press her agenda. Allen is one of America’s most vocal activists for school choice. She loves vouchers, she loves charter schools, and I am reminded of this regularly, and emphatically, in my e-mail inbox. Here is CER’s mission, according to its website:

“Center for Education Reform drives the creation of better educational opportunities for all children by leading parents, policymakers and the media in boldly advocating for school choice, advancing the charter school movement, and challenging the education establishment.”

Allen said she told her funders that the Bullpen will represent the bulk of CER’s efforts going forward, though she told me it will be an “independent subsidiary” of the organization. The plan is to have the staff—starting at three people, but growing to at least a dozen—critique hundreds of pieces of education journalism each day. “The issue is not that education is underreported,” she said. “It’s either misreported or doesn’t really focus on the issues at hand.” If there’s a bias, she said, “it’s that education is critical, achievement is down and needs to be better.”

And yet. A piece about vouchers “strikes out” (the site relies on baseball metaphors) because there is “no mention that kids pay highest price for lousy education.” A piece on charters gets only a double: “Need more than love, like info on what’s working at charter & why certain kids should go there.” Keep in mind this is a 400-word piece.

I do agree with Allen that giving readers context is really important, and sometimes lacking. Some of the Bullpen’s commentary regarding that is useful; I too am always trying to help reporters place their story within the national debate, like this critique suggests. But when Allen told me that a piece about school board pay doesn’t do its job if it fails to explain the role of the school board, and a piece about bullying is criticized for not mentioning the impact on academic achievement, I thought back to when an editor told me that I should not mention pompoms without telling readers what they are. I picture a reporter trying to squeeze a many-sided debate into ten inches on deadline, hearing this sort of thing from an editor, and curling up under her desk and crying.


  1. Amen! With staff and news space shrinking, the days of 40-inch stories with 15 inches of context/background are over, for better or worse. That's not to say we don't bear nudging if we oversimplify too much.

  2. Jeez, and here in the reality-based community, we public education supporters are currently complaining that the press didn't question Michelle Rhee's newly outed (though always obvious) resume "misstatements." Journalists really are taking a battering now. That should give them a pretty good view of how teachers feel these days. (Speaking as a former San Jose Mercury News editor married to a former San Francisco Chronicle reporter who is now an urban public schoolteacher.)

  3. No, Dick, I didn't say stories with context are dead. "I do agree with Allen that giving readers context is really important, and sometimes lacking" is what I said. The question is, what context and how much? In the vast majority of stories about bullying, the relation to academic achievement would be pretty off-topic. In a story about school board pay, it's not necessary to explain the role of the school board, but it is important to say how many hours members devote to the board and what other boards pay.

  4. I'm surprised that the description of the Media BullPen website didn't mention (1) the poor writing (grammar and punctuation errors, incomplete sentences, and so on); (2) the poor organization of the site (confusing and overlapping sections, difficulty of navigating the site; and (3) who is funding the site.