Why the Biggest Investigative News Journalism Story In Years Won’t Get Covered — Sinking News Ships Look to Profiteering From Education To Lift Them Into New Markets

The biggest investigative news journalism story in years — the wholesale attempt by the Gates, Broad, DeVos, and Walton Foundations and others to privatize K-12 public schools — won’t be reported as widely as it should. Why?

Consider this: what has the Washington Post’s coverage of Kaplan U.’s for-profit college Pell Grant scam been like? Anemic? In 2010, the Post’s own ombudsman wrote,

Whether in stories or editorials about Kaplan, The Post has properly noted its self-interest.

Disclosure is one thing, but depth of news coverage is another.

In recent weeks, lengthy stories by competitors have reported damning allegations about Kaplan. A Nov. 10 investigative story on the front page of the New York Times included accusations of deceptive practices by Kaplan from federal whistleblower lawsuits and current and former company employees. It also noted that Kaplan is among more than a half-dozen for-profit colleges under investigation by the Florida attorney general.


Separately, Bloomberg News recently carried an unflattering story about Kaplan’s practices in trying to enroll military veterans. The Post has a news partnership with Bloomberg, but the story was not featured on The Post’s Web site or in the newspaper.


Kaplan officials vigorously dispute most of the allegations and forcefully assert that the proposed federal regulations would unfairly impact for-profit schools serving low-income students, many of them single parents.

Since the ombudsman’s brief treatment of the conflicts of interest in 2010, the Post’s coverage of its own lobbying for de-regulation of for-profit colleges and offensively large executive pay at the same time as reporters on daily beats were being cut has been a loud, emphatic silence.

The NYT has more robustly covered Senate hearings about for-profit (online) colleges bilking millions of dollars from poorly informed students who hope to begin or finish college educations through distance learning, and who ultimately receive useless degrees, untransferrable credits, and no career guidance or placement services. They were tricked into being burdened with low-quality courses that in some cases they never signed up for. These predatory for-profit colleges are basically Diploma Mills 2.0, with boiler room-style high-pressure tactics to acquire new customers. The NYT did an admirable job of covering this in the time frame of 2010 to the present (2012), with over thirty stories or editorials explaining regulatory rules weakened by lobbying and other aspects of the story. Could the Washington Post’s coverage be weak because one of the Washington Post Company’s main profit centers is Kaplan U., which accounts for 58% of the news outlet’s profits? From the Seeking Alpha post linked just prior:

Essentially, the Washington Post Company is being financed by federal student loans from desperate student borrowers who may have a very difficult, perhaps impossible time repaying their loans after they leave Kaplan.

I recently returned from a journalism conference where the news about newsgathering was grim. Job losses, especially among minority reporting staff, continue to increase. Print outlets struggle for viable profit models — Craiglist ate the newspaper classified’s lunch, geo-targeted online ads cut into ad buys in major newspapers, Groupon ate the pennysavers’ lunch, and an increasingly professionalized blogger class uses voice and point of view to engage readers beyond the pseudo-objective “voice from nowhere” perspective that dominated traditional reporting in an earlier age. In fact, many in the “unwashed” blogger masses are journos themselves who’ve been downsized.

About the only area of journalism that’s looking less bleak is television news, because from 2010 onwards, SuperPAC money from third party entities — much of it explicitly right-wing — has flooded local, network, and cable news broadcasters with cash for political ads (factual accuracy be damned). Compare tales of bottom line woe in television news profit forecasts from before the early 2010 Citizens United Supreme Court ruling with recent upbeat forecasts recording upward trends for local ad sales against news.

Corporate media, having once played a key role as a watchdog on local corruption, is now interested in self-preservation above serving communities. Here’s the main reason why news outlets won’t be reporting on the biggest under-reported story around, the privatization of public education: corporate media outlets themselves are now seeking, Washington Post-style, to feed at the trough of public education. A signal moment: Rupert Murdoch’s hire of Joel Klein, former chancellor of NYC public schools, as head of Amplify, News Corp’s “ed tech” division.

It’s a case of journalists’ ranks decimated by Narrative Science-style automation (alogorithms that string together sports clichés, barely distinguishable from human prose!) de-populating their field through technology, only now “data journalists” are complicit in visiting it upon the teaching profession. Drowning media companies and journalists desperate for life rafts come upon barely afloat teachers and a $500 billion taxpayer-funded public education system — and proceed to claw, scratch, and climb aboard an already swamped public school system weakened by state budget cuts. Never mind if public schools go under too, and become unrecognizably un-public. This is the drowning victim that murders his rescuer in the drowner’s desperation to survive. A recent article in the NYT describes this pivot from media/entertainment to education:

Conventional textbooks for kindergarten through 12th grade are a $3 billion business in the United States, according to the Association of American Publishers, with an additional $4 billion spent on teacher guides, testing resources and reference materials. And almost all that printed material, educators say, will eventually be replaced by digital versions.

Mr. Zaslav is not the only media executive talking grandly about education these days. Movies, television, newspapers and magazines are in decline or facing headwinds, putting pressure on media companies to find new areas of expansion. [emphasis mine]

And for textbook/curriculum/remediation/accreditation multinational conglomerates like Pearson, this is time to rub your hands together in anticipation:

“Over the last 10 years alone, we’ve invested $9.3 billion in digital innovations that are transforming education,” said Will Ethridge, chief executive of Pearson North America, part of Pearson P.L.C., the world’s largest education and learning company. “One way to describe it would be an act of ‘creative destruction.’ [emphasis mine] By this I mean we’re intentionally tearing down an outdated, industrial model of learning and replacing it with more personalized and connected experiences for each student.”


Education is emerging as an answer, largely because executives see a way to capitalize on the changes that technology is bringing to classrooms — turnabout as fair play, given the way that the Web has upended major media’s own business models.

‘Creative destruction’? Where have we heard this pseudo-profound corporatespeak before — from Bain Private Equity, outsourcer, downsizer, and job offshorer extraordinaire Mitt Romney?

No, this is cannibalism. Your child and mine are bottom line fodder, not much else.

Parents, if it feels like we’re on our own, if it feels like corporate media is anxious to “sell” charters, vouchers, emergency management, mayoral control or other techniques of removing the public mission, governance mechanisms, and accountability to taxpayers for their dollars that truly make a school PUBLIC, well, to a large extent, we are.

We have several options: seek out those journalists and outlets that have an investigative focus and still believe the point of journalism is to “afflict the comfortable and comfort the afflicted.”

Techraking, you claim to use sophisticated analysis of data and visualizations to help the lay reader digest large amounts of information as tools of investigative journalism. Where are you in combining analysis and political commentary with infographics in a recognition that data is not and never agnostic? Where’s the public interest “raking” part of Techraking? The Los Angeles Times premature publication of “value-added” teacher rankings — marred by flawed data, statistical voodoo, indefensible conclusions from an incomplete data set — would be a fine place to start.

ProPublica: your map of access to key public school programs was a start, but when are you going to really drill down into budget cuts and chronic underfunding? Why have a growing number of states (including MI, CA, and MO) been sued for not providing an equitable and universal education as guaranteed by the respective state constitutions?

Center for Investigative Reporting, when are you going to sink some teeth into the premise of charter schools (that they are the “only” form of school innovation around) and actually dig to see what kinds of in-district innovations are happening apart from the charter marketing hype?

We can self-fund stories. We can appeal to those non-profit news organizations that have sprung up with social missions to take up the cause. We can inform one another through the samizdat of blogs and networks of activists who support public education. We can promote and amplify the authentic grassroots voices and movements who are catching on to the game and in at least two high profile cases, have broken important investigative pieces in collaboration with mainstream media outlets. We who care enough about voteless, lobbyless kids to fight for them must widen the audience for these stories to reach the 88% of K-12 kids and their families who rely on public schools to educate their children, and to audiences beyond. Nothing less than the excellence and fate of a truly public, accessible, universal education is at stake.

I'm Cynthia Liu, Owner/Founder of K12 News Network. I'm the proud product of public schools through post-grad, the mom of a child in public schools, and the daughter of two teachers. Connect with me professionally on LinkedIn.

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  1. wendy Beck - August 21, 2012, 3:40 pm

    I would suggest that one of the organizations mentioned at the end of this article try doing a comparative analysis of where public school spending has gone in the past (pick a year most consider the schools “good”) and today. So much of the buzz about education is about spending. But if we are spending more (adjusted for inflation) where is this money mostly going and why? Is it going to district hierarchies? If so, do we have more districts than we used to have? If yes, why? Can we consolidate to spend more dollars in the classroom? Do we spend more on facilities? If so, why? Is it salaries? fuel? construction? legal compliance with ADA regulations? Are we spending more on “special education”? Is most of the increase in spending a result of legal decisions the school must comply with? Testing? Compliance with NCLB or Race to the Top? How will we know if we don’t do a very granular comparative analysis? Much of the inroads to privatization are bolstered by the perception that it could be done better and cheaper in the private realm. But if held to the same standards, legally and otherwise, would that be so? I’d like to see this analysis done state by state. Only then will we have some idea of why we may be where we are today.

    • admin - August 21, 2012, 4:20 pm

      Wendy, these are excellent suggestions and I’d indeed urge TechRaking, Center for Investigative Reporting, and ProPublica to devote resources to telling these stories.

      I’d also urge a similar X-ray done to charter school spending, again, to test the premise that “private sector does it better/leaner.” Is that really true? When charter schools are allowed to bury financial reporting of their taxpayer supported budgets, they can make any claim they want and there’s no way to fact-check.

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