Why in the world would Mark Zuckerberg choose Campbell Brown to lead its News Partnerships team and its effort to deal with today’s version of truthiness? Perhaps he is following the dictum of “it takes one to know one.” Brown is the co-founder of The 74, the education media company which supposedly combines journalism with advocacy because “not every story has two sides.” Since she is a proven practitioner of “post-truth” union-bashing, maybe Zuckerberg thinks Brown will be able to best identify fact-free social media feeds from Vladimir Putin.
Did Zuckerberg think through even the most basic questions that a journalist would ask when distinguishing between fact and post-fact? I wonder if he was aware of the background information that the New York Times was bound to report about his choice, such as, “Ms. Brown has emerged as a major player in the pitched political battles over charter schools, prominently clashing with teachers’ unions while coming out against teachers’ tenure.” The Times’ Jim Rutenberg and Mike Isaac add:
“Some commentators noted Ms. Brown’s ties to the Republican donor Betsy DeVos, Mr. Trump’s nominee to lead the Department of Education. Ms. DeVos’s family foundation funds The 74, an education-focused journalism site co-founded and led by Ms. Brown. In a post to the site on Friday, Ms. Brown said she was stepping away from her daily editorial role at The 74, but will remain on the company’s board of directors.”
Brown also serves on the board of DeVos’ the American Federation for Children.
Although Brown didn’t mention this inconvenient truth when she wrote in support of DeVos, her endorsement of the nominee demonstrated the mindset that she will bring to Facebook. Brown said that DeVos’ “attackers needlessly reopen late-NCLB fault lines and deepen the clamor that follows Trump everywhere.” Moreover, “just about everyone who has spent time alongside her during the past 30 years,” would dispute the idea that “Betsy’s work with children is ideologically or financially driven.”
It wouldn’t have taken much googling for Zuckerberg to find the work of the widely-respected Jennifer Berkshire, and read what she was told by a journalist who applied for a job at The 74. The applicant learned:
“The newsroom will have two parts: an investigative team that will dive deep into ed issues and a daily news team that will write the news of the day. The investigative team will not do large-scale investigations into faults in charter schools but the daily news people will write quick hit stories of this nature because it will be forced to. It could not ignore major breaking news on charters but can make sure it’s investigative work does not go into that territory.”
Neither would it have taken much of an effort to grasp what The 74 sees as investigative work. If Zuckerberg had merely followed some links on charter schools, for instance, he would have gained insights into the quality of its “journalism.” He would have seen virtually no links to the large preponderance of social science that argues against The 74’s agenda.
Or Zuckerberg might have also followed the link which was the basis of The 74’s statement that the evidence of charters counseling out students who make it harder to raise test scores is “anecdotal.” The supposedly anecdotal source was Michael Winerip’s New York Times 2011 investigation of Eva Moskowitz’s Success Academy! The student portrayed in this carefully investigated article was told by the Success school psychologist that “he would be better suited elsewhere: ‘He may need a smaller classroom than his current school has available.’” The No Excuses pedagogy was such an ordeal that the special education student “was throwing up most mornings and asking his mother if he was going to be fired from school.”
Winerip cited non-anecdotal evidence that the Success charter had 50% fewer special education students than the school it co-located with, and less than 1/6th as many English Language Learners (ELL). Success countered that the ELL numbers posted on the website were wrong, but the Times concluded, “Even if not a single number on the Education Department’s Web sites can be trusted, there is one indisputable fact: The traditional public schools handle the most severely disabled children, which Success charters do not serve.”
The Times’ in-depth analyses were later confirmed by the horrific video of a Success teacher’s abusive behavior towards a 1st grader, and the discovery of a “Got to go” list of students to be exited. And, those controversies raise the issue of how Campbell Brown handled that scandal and whether her record is consistent with that of an opponent - or of a practitioner - of post-truth spin.
The 74 responded with opinion pieces such as: “Maybe It’s Time for Eva Moskowitz’s Critics to Stop Hating and Start Creating.” Two weeks later, it published another opinion piece attacking the American Federation of Teachers president’s criticism of excessive force. It was entitled: “Weingarten’s Dishonest Charter Attack, and the Politics of Exploiting Violence Against Minority Kids.” Similarly, when the Times discovered a Success charter’s “Got to go” list, the response by The 74 “news” story began with: “TALKING POINTS” which included Twitterable soundbites such as: “Suspensions play an integral role in maintaining a positive learning environment, Success Academy leader says.” Success’ “Got to go” list was described as a part of an evolving approach to discipline, and linked to “the former American Federation of Teachers President Albert Shanker praising zero tolerance policies in a series of New York Times columns published in the mid-90s.”
Had Zuckerberg even surfed The 74, he would have seen that these are just a few examples of practices that are insults to reputable journalism and scholarship. It is an advocacy tool, pure and simple. It merely takes on the trappings of journalism. In other words, its fake news exemplifies the essence of the propaganda that is infecting social media.
On the other hand, maybe Zuckerberg knows nothing about Campbell Brown, DeVos, The 74, and the real education issues they ignore. Or, maybe he was grateful to the organization that repeatedly attacked The Prize, the meticulously researched book by the former Washington Post reporter Dale Russakoff, about Zuckerberg’s foray into Newark reforms. So, perhaps Zuckerberg merely googled his own name, The 74, and his ill-fated One Newark, and he liked the anecdote that came up first: “One Newark Mother Explains How School Choice Saved Her Kids.” After all, Zuckerberg promotes personalized learning and maybe he was impressed by the way that Brown zeroed in on his individualized learning sweet spot.