Not since Matt Taibbi’s 2009 Rolling Stone-Goldman Sachs “vampire squid” reference has a journalistic cephalopod analogy touched such a nerve.
I am speaking of this past weekend’s front-page news article in the New York Times — ostensibly, at least, more of a straight-down-the-middle outlet than Rolling Stone — about the Walton Family Foundation and what the Times called “its many tentacles.”
If any Times readers who had been favorably disposed toward adorable octopi or cuttlefish missed the point, the article goes on to explain that the foundation, backed by members of the family that founded Walmart, “has helped fuel some of the fastest growing, and most divisive, trends in public education — including teacher evaluations based on student test scores and publicly funded vouchers for students to attend private schools.”
Calling an idea “divisive” can be a way for a reporter and an editor to signal that they don’t like it. So is the practice, seen in the Times article, of announcing that the subject of an article has “no apologies.”
The article reports, for example, that “Walton’s Mr. Sternberg, who started his career in Teach for America and founded the Bronx Lab School, a public school in New York City, does not apologize for Walton’s commitment to charter schools and vouchers.”
What an odd formulation. Why would he apologize? Why should he be expected to apologize? He’s helping to make schools better. He has nothing to apologize for. If anyone should apologize here, it is the Times, for suggesting that an apology is in order.
Another example of left-wing bias by the New York Times might be a dog-bites-man story, but in this case it taps in to a broader and highly significant political trend, which is the tendency by the left to blame spending by right-of-center or free-market-oriented billionaires for just about every twist and turn in the public policy debate.
Thus Charles and David Koch are imagined as puppeteers behind the tea party or the Keystone pipeline, or Sheldon Adelson is the reason for pro-Israel sentiment in the Republican Party.
Never mind that there are left-wing billionaires like George Soros or Thomas Steyer, not to mention labor unions, spending large sums, often on the other side of issues.
And never mind that these policies are not bought so easily, or in a vacuum. If parents were perfectly satisfied with regular public schools, the charter and voucher movements would face a tougher battle than they already do. Even years of support from right-wing billionaires haven’t made school vouchers widely available other than in a few unusual and narrow cases of a failing school, a poor family or special-needs student, and a rare state or local government that has managed to pass a voucher law over teachers’ union opposition.
For a sense of what a non-Walton public school is like, one need look no further than P.S. 111, the Adolph S. Ochs School in Manhattan. It is a taxpayer-funded New York City public school named after the patriarch of the family that controls The New York Times. Over the years the New York Times Company and its foundation have been involved with the school to varying degrees, suggesting a certain hypocrisy of the Times in objecting to the Walton family’s efforts.
The Times’ tentacles on the Adolph Ochs school may not have been “divisive,” but neither have they been particularly successful; the school earned a grade of “D” for its school environment in its most recent evaluation from the city, and the city’s quality review observes “the principal acknowledges that teachers have not received written feedback this year.”
Only 19 percent of the school’s sixth-graders pass the state English test and only 24 percent of the school’s fifth-graders pass the state math test. If the Walton Foundation can provide a voucher or charter school option to escape this status quo, perhaps the Times should thank the Waltons rather than imply that an apology is in order.
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