Veteran journalists understand that politically significant
reports and studies don’t merely pop up on the media landscape in a
presidential campaign’s waning days. That’s one reason why it was so
unusual to see the networks rush to highlight a RAND Corporation
study on Texas education that was being heavily promoted by the Gore
campaign. Knowing that the report greatly aided Gore’s cause, both
ABC and NBC pushed the story two days in a row on their morning news
shows, while all three broadcast networks featured the report at the
top of their evening broadcasts on October 24.
the media’s spin — right down to their choice of words — was
remarkably similar to that of the Democratic presidential campaign.
Here’s the Gore
campaign press release from the morning of October 24: "While
George W. Bush often touts Texas’ rising test scores and the closing
opportunity gap between whites and students of color as ‘proof’ that
he has reformed education in Texas, Reuters reported today that a
soon-to-be released study by the highly-respected RAND Corp.
devastates the ‘validity’ of Bush’s claims."
Then a few hours later, CBS’s Bill Whitaker similarly stated on
the Evening News: "A report out today dropped like dynamite
on [Bush’s] so-called ‘Texas miracle.’ Researchers at the respected,
non-partisan RAND think tank found while Texas students' scores were
up on state tests, their scores on national tests were unremarkable,
and the gap between whites and students of color was widening."
Neither the RAND
press release actually mentioned either George W. Bush or the
presidential campaign. The media’s anti-Bush take on the study seems
to have come straight from Gore’s HQ. ABC’s Ted Koppel mildly noted
on the October 24 Nightline that the RAND study was
"thoughtfully brought to the media’s attention by staffers on the
In the October 25 edition of her newspaper, USA Today’s
Judy Keen offered a more detailed explanation of what had happened
before dawn on the previous morning. At "about 4:30 a.m. CT," Keen
wrote, "the message lights on phones in the Milwaukee hotel rooms of
reporters traveling with Bush began to glow. The Gore campaign had
delivered packets to the hotel’s desk containing the 16-page RAND
paper and a Gore campaign news release claiming the study
‘devastates Bush education claims.’ Phones didn’t ring: Hotel staff
activated the message lights so the reporters would wake up to word
of the packets’ arrival."
Using glowing lights instead of a loud ring that would awaken
sleeping reporters — that is thoughtful.
Despite being spoonfed the story by the opposing campaign,
reporters betrayed little skepticism when they began broadcasting
news of the RAND study a couple of hours later, complete with the
anti-Bush spin that was absent from the study itself but included in
Gore’s press package.
"An explosive new report from the Rand Corporation, a
non-partisan group, is out today, raising questions about George W.
Bush’s education record in Texas," NBC’s Katie Couric promoted on
Today, ninety minutes after the packets landed in Milwaukee. "A
study by the non-profit Rand Corporation says education gains in
Texas are nothing to brag about," seconded Good Morning America’s
Antonio Mora on ABC, before noting that the Bush campaign disputed
the study as incomplete and politically ill-timed.
"I think the ‘Texas Miracle’ is a myth...with few exceptions,"
lead author Stephen Klein was quoted as saying on Good Morning
America on October 24. On the October 25 Today, Klein
appeared in person, explaining to interviewer Matt Lauer that his
group found that Texas students showed performance gains on the
state test (called TAAS) that failed to show up when those same
students took the national test (called NAEP).
Klein also defended the timing of his report, telling Reuters on
October 24, "We started this project in April and it has nothing to
do with the election." That’s slightly disingenuous — Bush had, of
course, already locked up the Republican nomination in March, a time
when Klein was telling reporters that he thought the Texas state
tests were "screwy."
"We have the empirical data to show that something is really out
of the ordinary in terms of these kids’ behavior on these tests,"
Klein told Jonathan Weisman, the Baltimore Sun’s White House
correspondent, who in late March wrote a story called "The Texas
Education Myth" for the April 10 edition of The New Republic.
"Something is definitely screwy," Klein added.
In his October 24 report, the RAND researchers decided that they
had confirmed Klein’s original prejudice against the Texas tests.
"Our findings from this research raise serious questions about the
validity of the gains in TAAS scores," concluded the RAND issue
But a different research group at RAND used the national test
results to praise Texas in a study released a few months ago. That
study compared the abilities of students from 44 states based on
their socio-economic status. (The later RAND study only looked at
the race of students.) "Some states are doing far better than others
in making achievement gains and in elevating their students’
performance," RAND reported in July. "Texas and Indiana are high
performers on both these counts."
A RAND press release of July 25, 2000, summarized the key
findings of the book-length report: "Although the two states are
close demographic cousins, Texas students, on average, scored 11
percentile points higher on NAEP math and reading tests than their
California counterparts. In fact, the Texans performed well with
respect to most states. On the 4th-grade NAEP math tests in 1996,
Texas non-Hispanic white students and black students ranked first
compared to their counterparts in other states, while Hispanic
students ranked fifth. On the same test, California non-Hispanic
white students ranked third from the bottom, black students last,
and Hispanic students fourth from the bottom among states."
The study that was released in July was directed by RAND
researcher David Grissmer, who was reported by the Los Angeles
Times to have been critical of Klein’s report. According to the
October 25 Times story, by education writer Duke Helfand, "[Grissmer]
said that comparing the state and national tests in Texas may be
problematic because the two are designed with different purposes in
mind. He also said that his colleagues should have reviewed test
data going back to 1990. Had they done so, he said, they would have
found smaller differences between the state and national test
"There may be nothing amiss about the Texas tests," Grissmer told
the Times. "They may just be different tests designed to test
But the networks apparently haven’t phoned Grissmer to get his
views on his colleagues’ report, much like they ignored his study
when it was released in July. (NBC and CBS never reported on
Grissmer’s study; ABC viewers might have learned about it because
former House Speaker Newt Gingrich brought it up himself in
interviews on July 30 and August 1.) Nor did NBC’s Lauer ask Klein
about Grissmer’s comments to the Los Angeles Times when the
former appeared to tout his latest study.
The networks’ heavy coverage of the October RAND study also
highlights broader problems with the way the media zero in on issues
during election years. Education reform is indeed a key issue this
year, and both the candidates and the experts have weighed in on
proposals such as teacher testing, universal pre-school, and
classroom modernization. Conservatives have long advocated providing
parents with vouchers, so that lower- and middle-income families
could have the resources to send their children to private or
parochial schools as an alternative to their area public schools.
Yet, neither vouchers nor other central elements of education
reform have received much attention from the networks in the
campaign’s final weeks. Instead, the networks chose to ignore the
wide array of education issues available for discussion and,
encouraged by the Gore campaign, chose to spend two of the last
fourteen days of the presidential campaign repeating the findings of
a single study, yet offering little critical analysis of that study
or comparing its results to other studies that offer a contrary
perspective. That’s why, when it comes to offering fair and balanced
coverage of this presidential election, the networks are on the
verge of flunking out.