The prolific Larry Ferlazzo, arguably the most thoughtful and consistently fair-minded teacher-blogger currently drawing breath, makes an interesting observation about education journalism. “I really am surprised to see so many ordinarily thoughtful national columnists, show such poor judgment when they write about schools, Larry writes.” He points to recent entries by David Brooks, Ruben Navarrete and Matthew Yglesias.
“What is it that blinds these columnists? In fact, what is it that does the same to so many school reformers and legislators? Do they think that since they went to school when they were children, that makes them experts in figuring out how they should be run? They all have gone to see a doctor at some point, too, but they don’t seem to be as critical or prescriptive about how they think a medical professionals should treat their patients.
I’ve observed this phenomenon quite a bit, having spent far more time in my career working in the national media than in education, but my response is exactly the opposite of Larry’s. When I see poor judgment writing about schools, I don’t think “how can someone so smart be so ill-informed?” Rather, I wonder, “if you’re this ill-informed on a subject I know a lot about, how ill-informed are you on subjects I don’t know about?” When a columnist writes about a subject about which you have a lot of background knowledge, they’re opening a window on their work at large.
Keep in mind that very, very few columnists are engaged in actual reporting. And what reporting they do tends to be talking to sources and experts with a point of view; they rarely if ever do the shoe-leather work of sitting in classrooms before writing a column on ed reform. That’s not their job and it’s one of the reasons beat reporters tend not to like “bigfoot” columnists who parachute into “their” stories. Next, there is the phenomenon that John Taylor described memorably nearly 20 years ago as Take Journalism. “Once upon a time, journalists like to brag about their ‘sources,’ he wrote. ”Now they are more inclined to brag about their ‘take.’” Columnists, more than anyone else in print journalism, measure their value and influence on the impact of their “take.” Then too, there’s the issue of access. A curious courtship exists between columnists and the powerful people they write about. Agree too much with the President, for example, and you’re “in the tank.” Disagree too much and your access dries up. Take the President to task on foreign policy but write favorably on education issues and you’re “tough but fair-minded” — the sweet spot that wins you respect and readers among all but the most doctrinaire. Thus the dirty little secret about pundits: They generally traffic in borrowed and repackaged expertise. Their judgement is often driven not by what they know, but by who has their ear.
None of this is a criticism; it’s the job description. It’s also, one reason why there is extraordinary value in the democratizing influence of the web, where there is no shortage of deeply informed opinion available to those who are diligent enough to seek it out and synthesize it.
The bottom line: There are lots of good reasons to read big-name columnists. Getting an authoritative analysis on complex education issues is not one of them.