By Anthony Cody.
The Education Writers Association has decided that, although I was awarded a first prize for my writing just last year, I am no longer permitted to submit my work for consideration for future awards. Leaders of the organization have decided that I do not meet their definition of a journalist. Investigative blogger and author Mercedes Schneider recently applied for membership, and was likewise denied on the same grounds.
I think this decision constricts the vital public discourse, and excludes those of us not on the payroll of mainstream corporate media.
The EWA has two forms of membership; Journalist and Community. I joined the EWA when I was still working full time as a teacher coach for the Oakland schools. Since writing about education was not my primary occupation, I signed up as a “community member.” This status did not prevent me from submitting my work for their award competition, or from participating in their events, though as a non-journalist I was not allowed to pose questions at their events.
In 2010, my work was awarded a “special citation” by EWA. Two years ago, my dialogue with the Gates Foundation won second prize. Last year, I was awarded first prize in the opinion category for my posts about the Common Core. The judges commented that:
Very good. This is by far the best and most rational coverage I’ve seen on Common Core in a long time. You can tell he knows his stuff and I appreciate his conversational tone. I’m sure part of that is because these are blogs but still, it’s a skill and one that few can do well.
Cody is clearly well-versed on these issues, writes in a comfortable cadence and provides some much-needed cool-headed rational balance to a very incendiary topic. I particularly liked the exchange with an articulate, reasoned reader — interactive journalism and blogging is best when it isn’t a one-way communication. … [R]eaders can dip in when they wish, dip out when they’ve had their fill or chase links down bunny holes if they wish. A valuable on-going contribution to discussion on this matter.
So I was surprised when my submission for this year’s award was rejected. I was told that going forward, only journalist members would be allowed to compete. I asked EWA to change my designation to that of journalist, since that is now my primary pursuit. At first I was told that I was in a “gray area,” and EWA leadership needed to consider the request. After several days, I received word that my request was denied. The EWA staffer wrote:
We found your work to be very important in promoting the conversation on education practices and policies, but it didn’t align with EWA’s stricter standards for independent news media. Among many factors, we look for is the media outlet’s independence from what is covered, institutional verifications, and editorial processes.
At this point in time, we hope to have you continue as an active EWA Community Member.
Investigative writer Mercedes Schneider likewise was informed:
Your blog is important in the conversation about education practice, policy, and reporting; however, it does not meet our stricter guidelines for independent journalism (http://www.ewa.org/bylaws).
These bylaws state:
Journalist membership is open to individuals whose primary professional activities involve reporting, writing, producing, editing, or otherwise preparing the news and editorial content of independent news media products. The definition of journalist also includes freelancers whose primary body of work is for independent news media, staffers at press associations or journalism education associations, journalism instructors, and journalism students.
Both Schneider and myself are completely independent. Unlike many of those accepted as journalists by EWA, neither of us are funded by major corporate philanthropies that actively seek to shape news coverage. Nor are we paid by unions or any other organization, for profit or non-profit.
It should be noted that the line being drawn is a fuzzy one. While I apparently am insufficiently “independent from what is covered,” it is interesting to see who continues to qualify as an independent journalist. At past EWA events, those designated as journalists included Alexander Russo, employed by Scholastic to write his blog, This Week in Education. The reporters on the Gates Foundation payroll at the Seattle Times, who are tasked with sharing stories about “what works” through the Education Lab, are also considered journalists.
Even prior to this rejection, my status as a “community member” rather than “journalist” affected my participation in EWA events. In 2013, when EWA gathered at Stanford University, I attended, having received second prize for my series of posts in dialogue with the Gates Foundation. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan spoke, and took questions from the audience. After Alexander Russo (as mentioned, a blogger on salary from Scholastic) had asked Secretary Duncan a question, I rose to ask a question. But the mic was taken away. I was told that because I was not a “journalist,” I was ineligible to ask questions – though I posted several of the questions I would have asked on my blog.
One of the roles my blog has played is to challenge the Obama administration publicly, in a way few mainstream media outlets choose to do. When President Obama criticized his own policies back in 2011, it was my blog that obliged the Department of Education to respond, as covered a few days later in the New York Times. In fact, the headline of that piece was “Bloggers Challenge President on Standardized Testing.” And again, on December 19, my blog challenged President Obama’s assertion, at his press conference, that test scores for African American and Latino students are on the rise in states that have initiated reform. This is the sort of general statement that is left un-interrogated by most mainstream reporters, and thus becomes part of the received wisdom, even though it is contradicted by a mountain of evidence.
My blog, and those of many other education bloggers, are truly independent of the subtle and not so subtle controls exerted by employers and publishers. Where else but from independent bloggers like Bob Braun in Newark, New Jersey, would we get hard hitting investigations of corruption there? How else, but as a result of the relentless digging of Mercedes Schneider, would we get the real truth about the origins of the Common Core? You will not find members of any Gates-funded education “journalism” projects doing such investigations.
It could be that the EWA is embarrassed by the active presence of bloggers such as myself in their events and in their awards. I recently published a book that systematically challenges the Gates Foundation, and, not surprisingly, the Gates Foundation is a leading sponsor of the EWA.
But the functioning of a democracy requires a free and independent press. While the EWA asserts that it “retains sole editorial control over its programming and content,” the fact that the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation is #1 on its list of current sustaining partners is hard to overlook.
Ironically, when the staff at EWA offered their justification for declining me as a journalist member, they said they considered: “a media outlet’s independence from what is covered, institutional verifications, and editorial processes.”
So Education Nation, sponsored by the Gates Foundation, which Brian Williams acknowledges as the source for “ the facts that we’re going to be referring to often to help along our conversation,” rates an award from the EWA, but the bloggers who challenge this well-financed journalistic charade are considered insufficiently objective?
Cartoonist Robert Crumb, who now lives in France, was recently asked to comment on the killing of cartoonists there. As an aside, he said,
You don’t have journalists [in America] anymore, what they have is public relations people. Two-hundred and fifty thousand people in public relations. And a dwindling number of actual reporters and journalists.
NBC “journalist” Chuck Todd accidentally revealed this sorry state of affairs in a conversation with Lewis Black, W. Kamau Bell, and Laura Krafft. Black expressed amazement that Todd could sit and listen to politicians blather and not start barking at them. Todd responded, “We all sit there, cause we all know the first time we bark is the last time we do the show.”
The Education Writers Association is patrolling the boundaries of acceptable discourse, and excluding those of us willing to cross those boundaries. In a time when education reform is driven by groupthink, the “mindguard” sets the limits on what can be said and what must be declared out of bounds. Clearly, Schneider and I fall outside of those limits.
Fortunately there is a new alternative to the Education Writers Association. The Education Bloggers Network has emerged as a nexus of more than 200 writers and journalists willing to challenge the dominant narrative regarding education. It is led by Jonathan Pelto, former Connecticut state legislator, and author of the Wait What? blog. The Edublogger Code of Ethics is posted here, and states:
Each member of the Education Bloggers Network agrees to follow our Code of Ethics as citizen journalists dedicated to truth-telling and democracy. We seek to abide by the following:
Publish as fact only that which there is reason to believe to be true. If a statement is speculation, identify it as so.
If material exists online, link to it when referencing it. Linking to referenced material allows readers to judge for themselves the accuracy and insight of statements.
Publicly correct any misinformation.
If a post has been changed since its original publication, note and explain the reason why.
Disclose any conflict of interest.
Note questionable and biased sources.
Promote interactivity by allowing open discussion
It is unfortunate that the Education Writers Association is walling itself off from truly independent bloggers. One of the most crucial functions of a democracy is the operation of a free and critical press, and robust debate and discussion among journalists themselves is essential. I hope the EWA Board revisits this policy in the future. Meanwhile, I hope truly independent education writers will join the Education Bloggers Network.
Update, Jan. 18, 2015: If you would like to share some feedback with EWA regarding this policy, you can do so here.
What do you think? Is Living in Dialogue insufficiently independent to be considered legitimate journalism? Or are we seeing evidence of a discourse restricted by the influence of moneyed interests?