When Bad Ideas Happen to Good Columnists

by Robert Pondiscio
April 18th, 2011

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.


  1. [...] under school reform When Bad Ideas Happen to Good Columnists is an excellent post by Robert Pondiscio responding to my question “Why Do So Many Ordinarily [...]

    Pingback by “When Bad Ideas Happen to Good Columnists” | Larry Ferlazzo's Websites of the Day... — April 18, 2011 @ 11:58 am

  2. Agreed, Robert, in most instances.

    What was your take on recently gone New York Times columnist, Bob Hebert?

    Comment by Paul Hoss — April 18, 2011 @ 12:19 pm

  3. I was not a regular reader of his, I’m afraid. But tell me yours, Brother Hoss.

    Comment by Robert Pondiscio — April 18, 2011 @ 12:22 pm

  4. Herbert was deeply impressed by a charter he did not bother to check out in any detail whatsoever.


    I too am upset when I see what I know to be superficial nonsense in publications, and I’m afraid it’s not remotely limited to opinion pieces. I’ve seen quite a bit of crap in the NY Times, in what purports to be reporting, and it’s frightening to thing of the international influence papers can have. Reporters in the US really don’t bother to inform us the way we need to be informed to maintain a democracy.

    Comment by NYC Educator — April 18, 2011 @ 12:44 pm

  5. Robert,

    I liked Hebert, a lot. While I didn’t agree with everything he wrote he was a true champion of the underdog, the poor, and the disenfranchised.

    Guess, I’ve always been a sucker for defenders of the little guy. Their mission, while often insurmountable, for me, is the noblest of the noble.

    Comment by Paul Hoss — April 18, 2011 @ 3:03 pm

  6. This touches on an issue that goes beyond journalism: the prevalence of P.R. in education discussion. Putting the right “spin” on a particular policy is often treated as more important than getting to the truth of it. Sometimes it is very hard to get past that spin, especially when it seems “tough-minded but fair.”

    Take, for instance, the issue of publishing teachers’ value-added scores. The argument I keep hearing in favor is “this information should be available to parents and members of the community.” The argument is highly strategic; it appeals to those who favor the open sharing of information and the ability of parents to find out what’s going on in the schools.

    But it distorts the issue, because (a) it is highly questionable that these scores constitute “information”: and (b) when they are published, it is not just “parents and members of the community” who may access them. And when one points out these matters, one simply gets the reply, “the community has the right to this information.”

    And this happens across the ideological spectrum. There is very little debate that actually results in a refinement of the positions. It does happen, but it is rare.

    Sometimes I wonder whether the web has a democratizing influence or the opposite. Yes, the diligent researcher can often get past the “takes.” But it’s awfully hard to challenge them. Often the debate just isn’t there. Sure, the comments sections often get lively, but they are in some way subordinate to the main writings. Some comments make quite a splash, but more often than not, they don’t get read. (It bugs me how many sites hide the comments now–or show only the ones that have been rated highest.)

    When you get people together in a room, in a public forum, it is harder for anyone to evade a challenge. It still happens–and some are quite skillful at it–but the challenge still makes a mark.

    Comment by Diana Senechal — April 19, 2011 @ 2:22 pm

  7. [...] Filed under best of the year, school reform I’ve said it before, and I suspect I’ll have to say it again, but something seems to happen to the ordinarily thoughtful and even-handed New York Times columnist David Brooks when he writes about education issues. Robert Pondiscio wrote about this awhile back in his post, When Bad Ideas Happen to Good Columnists. [...]

    Pingback by The Best Posts Responding To David Brooks Criticism Of Diane Ravitch (& Many Of The Rest Of Us) | Larry Ferlazzo's Websites of the Day... — July 1, 2011 @ 4:47 pm

  8. [...] this topic is the one that Robert Pondiscio wrote in reaction to that post that I wrote. Check out When Bad Ideas Happen to Good Columnists. Hello there! If you are new here, you might want to subscribe to the RSS feed for updates on this [...]

    Pingback by “When Bad Ideas Happen to Good Columnists” | Larry Ferlazzo’s Websites of the Day… — September 12, 2012 @ 11:22 pm

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