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What The Media Tell Americans About Free Enterprise

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Thursday, October 26, 2000

Volume 8, Number 21

Gore Spin Echoed by Network Correspondents In Coverage of Texas Education Study

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.

And 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 study nor 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 Gore campaign."

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 paper.

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 results."

"There may be nothing amiss about the Texas tests," Grissmer told the Times. "They may just be different tests designed to test different things."

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.

Rich Noyes


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