Ok, so today I read this. I’ve been intentionally avoiding the Chronicle for years because of articles just like this (well, Louis Black’s columns haven’t really helped). Normally, I would respond to an article about any educational institution–be it a specific school or about education in general–with a post about education. This Chronicle article does bring up quite a few valid issues that one might take with Ann Richards School for Young Women Leaders. These issues are, to pick a few: in our push for “high expectations” in schools, are we burning both teachers and students out? Do charter schools sometimes inflate their performance by cherry-picking students and “exiting” the ones that don’t cut it? And so on.
But I’m not going to address those issues right now, because what I want to talk about is the Chronicle.
I’ve been living in Austin for 11 years now, and in that time the Chronicle has been pretty much the only source of local news that I or anyone else I know ever read. I’m not sure how their circulation numbers compare to those of the Statesman, but I’d be surprised if they weren’t doing better by proportion than any other alternative weekly in the country. Elsewhere in the news industry, where everyone seems to be reeling from the sucker punch the internet provided and unable to make a buck, people must be looking at the Chronicle with envy.
Which is why it’s so frustrating to me that the feature articles they publish are so often so lazy, poorly researched, and obviously slanted. Let’s take this article about Ann Richards as a case in point.
Let’s begin by addressing the issue of slant. This article begins by telling the story of a single individual–what I suppose we might call a “hook” in a piece of nonfiction that means to be addressing larger issues–who seems to be unhappy about the way she was dismissed from her previous job. Fair enough.
Here’s the thing, though: this article devotes 1,128 of its 4,464 words (which is almost exactly 25%) to telling Mason-Muprhy’s side of the story. Nevermind the dubious frequency of unattributed opinions offered–that’s a huge chunk, especially when compared with the word count from Ann Richards administrators: 351 (or 7.8%).
You can add to this the fact that each and every quote from an Ann Richards administrator is directly contradicted by Mason-Murphy herself.
As I read the first half of this article (which is almost entirely devoted to Mason-Murphy’s story), I began to detect a slant. And then you get this:
Mason-Murphy is not alone, but she is alone in feeling she can speak publicly about her experiences. Other members of the Ann Richards community echoed what she said, but were afraid to speak publicly. Parents worry about what will happen to their kids. Teachers worry about what will happen to their careers. Former teachers just want to put the whole experience behind them. Moreover, they feel that the grievance system is so heavily biased that complaining is pointless. Mason-Murphy has experienced that firsthand: The first two levels of her grievance were heard by Goka – the very person she was complaining about.
This paragraph is all kinds of awful. But let’s be particular. First, who are these other teachers who back up Mason-Murphy’s statements? Is she the only one willing to speak up because she’s uniquely courageous, or is she a crackpot who feels personally injured and is looking for revenge against her former employers? If the former, then where are the quotes from other teachers? Surely someone was willing to speak up on condition of anonymity? Or, failing that, what about all the teachers who have left Ann Richards? Without evidence to the contrary, my suspicion that the latter is true grows. And then I start to wonder: why is a resentful crackpot being given a platform to air her grievances?
Second, let’s look at the sentence “Parents fear for their kids.” It’s interesting that Whittaker says that, because there isn’t a single parent quoted in the entire article. Do they fear for their kids? Do a few of them fear for their kids? Did you even talk to any parents?
And now let’s look at this:
There’s a startling symmetry in Mason-Murphy’s allegations: The culture of excellence through attrition doesn’t just hit the staff. If kids don’t hit the targets defined by the campus administration, they’re gone. And that’s the exact opposite of what Ann Richards is supposed to do.
If you were looking for evidence that you’re reading a slanted article, look no further! First of all, at no point has this article established the factual basis of this conclusion. A few students and an angry teacher–oh, and I almost forgot, a slew of unattributed others–level this accusation at the school, and the administration disagrees and presents an alternative explanation for attrition. I’d love to see this followed by a sober analysis of the facts, as both explanations are equally plausible. Of course, this is the Austin Chronicle we’re talking about.
Oh, and what the fuck is up with that last sentence?
A few years ago, I decided to stop reading the Chronicle altogether–in the same way that I decided to stop reading David Brooks and Thomas Friedman, and to stop watching Bill O’Reilly. I usually don’t enjoy this level of aggravation.
But it’s frustrating to me, because I honestly think that Austin deserves better. The Chronicle is an unusually well-set-up paper: it’s got a devoted readership, it’s at the center of SXSW, and it serves an intellectually-inclined, left-leaning city. All of these should be perfect ingredients for a thriving alternative weekly. Except they keep churning out crap like this. Honestly, if the Chronicle ends up going the way of the Rocky Mountain News, it won’t be because of structural economic problems. It will be because they keep writing crappy articles.