American coverage of the Lebanese Civil War was muted for much of its duration, owing to the low US military involvement. (lifted from the “collectivehistory” tumblr page)

War, Death, and indifference.

If a tree falls in a forest and no one hears it, does it make a sound?

Who cares? That tree fell in an African forest, not an American one.

This past Wednesday, I covered for the Columbia Journalism Review a talk about war photojournalism at the Brooklyn Brewery. If you haven’t already, read the piece I wrote up on the event (don’t worry, I’ll wait).

One of the most interesting tidbits from the conversation between Steve Hindy and photojournalist Michael Kamber that I ended up leaving out of the piece–because it was a bit tangential to the main idea–came close to the end of the event. The answer was in response to a slightly lighthearted question asked of Steve–himself a former war correspondent–about whether reporters once had a bar to go at the end of the day and discuss the day’s events. (the question was asked by a reporter who had covered Iraq for the Times) Steve responded that the real difference between Iraq and the conflicts he had covered was the presence of Americans on the ground. The conflicts he had covered in the Middle East during the 70s and 80s ranked comparatively low on the American news agenda. As he put it, “who cares if the PLO and the Phalange get into a horrible battle in Beirut and 40 people die? There was no American there except us…in a way I was envious of the wars you guys covered because at least for a time, Americans were watching.”

This idea, that people only really care about wars when their own countrymen [and women] are fighting in them itself isn’t too surprising, and I’m not going to act like one of those slightly annoying types (see twitter) who feign outrage whenever this type of thing happens. If we take a more recent example, some pointed out after the Boston bombings that while only 3 people died in the attack that day, far more people died that day in Syria and other conflict zones around the world. As these critics pointed out, those other people died on the wrong day in terms of getting the world, and certainly the American media, to care about their deaths–the “hierarchy of death,” as a columnist for the Guardian put it.

If we look at the coverage of the recent Asiana Airlines crash in San Francisco, we’re seeing the same thing. Despite knowing the identities of two of the three deaths (a third death was announced earlier Friday evening, as of this writing), the media generally limited their coverage of the two who died, simply saying that they were both Chinese students who were coming to the US on vacation. Humanizing enough, but nothing like some of the heartfelt, textured portraits of the victims from the Boston bombings.

I mentioned earlier that I’m not necessarily outraged by this cold reality. Why? Simple. The media, with some exceptions, is a reasonably clear reflection of the audience they serve. People, for better or for worse, cope with the sheer amount of “bad things” in the world by limiting their reaction to those events to those they feel some sort of connection with, be it being from similar circumstances, places, or, in this case, nationality. It’s why, when a ship somewhere crashes, NPR talks about the Americans on the ship, and CBC talks about the Canadians on the ship. These outlets are reflecting the fact that their audience cares about those they feel the closest connection to.

Accidents like the Costa Concordia are excellent demonstrations of how international media first look to cover the fates of occupants from the outlet’s nation.

Now what can be said for this? In the abstract, it’s certainly fair to talk about the arbitrariness of national borders, the accident of birth, all that stuff. In an ideal world, people would care about the deaths (and lives) of people equally, regardless of nationality, socioeconomic status, or profession. But they don’t, and probably never will. (David Wong over at Cracked gives even more analysis on this idea of rationed empathy in his “Monkeysphere” piece) To the extent that people are hard-wired to think this way, and also to the extent that it is physically impossible to give the same prominence to every news story, it’s logical that the news media–even public, not-for-profit outlets–would reflect their audience’s interests. The unavoidable problem, in the end, is that worthy stories–like that battle in Beriut some thirty years ago–often get shunted to the inside pages because of this instinct.

About a year and a half ago an editor at Maclean’s reached out to ask if I would be willing to write a “student insider” type thing about my experience at McGill. In light of my graduation this week (as well as that of most of my friends), and the fact that this piece does not seem to appear online anywhere, here it is. The following was published in March of 2014, but as I understand it was rerun in the 2015 guide as well:


McGill University’s international reputation and enviable location make it one of the world’s most sought-after schools, which is true for Americans like myself too. One of the things that struck me about McGill on my first visit was how it maintains a large, distinct campus in the heart of one of Canada’s largest cities.

In the past three years of study, the thing that stands out the most about McGill is that there is no real unifying culture or ethos to the place. Students—especially after first year, when those who lived in residence generally find apartments in the city—tend to find their own cliques very quickly, and there are few activities that bring them together. Student politics can get fractious, as they do at many universities.
McGill is infamous for its labyrinthine, unforgiving bureaucracy and many students have at least one anecdote about an administrative runaround in response to a simple inquiry or request for service. Even though floor fellows in residences help first-years, and there are student counseling and mental health services, if you are looking for a tight-knit community, or some strong direction and guidance, look elsewhere. That said, McGill does have much to offer in academics and extracurriculars—you just have to seek it out.

Many groups are overseen by the student union, from the McGill Debating Union to Model UN, the culinary society, and clubs representing each of the major federal parties. The campus boasts an archeological museum and research centre, the Redpath Museum. Gert’s (short for Gertrude’s), the campus pub, is a popular student hangout in the basement of the University Centre.

Though  Montreal is North America’s largest francophone city, it’s hard to learn French without a concerted effort due to the relative ease of finding services in English downtown and in clubs and pubs in the Plateau and St. Laurent neighbourhoods, for example. The city’s core is vibrant, but rather compact Old Montreal, with its rustic charm, is a downhill walk from campus. On the subject of hills, be prepared for lots of climbing; the main campus is at the foot of Mont Royal, the mountain for which the city is named. The park itself, designed by Fredrick Law Olmstead (of Central Park fame) is also worth a visit, and is a popular jogging location.

Abraham Moussako, U2 (third year), 20, Political Science

“McGill- University Insider.” In Maclean’s 2014 Canadian Universities Guidebook, edited by Kim Honey, by Abraham Moussako, 175. Toronto, ON: Rogers Publishing Limited, 2014.

For those interested, here’s a link to how it appeared in the guide (2nd page)

An as of yet unnamed “Digest”

As I’m sure close readers of my social media may have noticed, I tend to post a fairly high number of news articles there every day. Due in part to both a suggestion from a friend and a desire to ease myself back into the flow of actually writing on a regular basis, I’m considering starting a daily “interesting articles” (not to be confused with the latest news, necessarily) digest, with some commentary on each article, thus making room on your feeds for what’s really important; photos and Buzzfeed virality. I’m piloting this here to see if there is any interest for this format, and possible tweaks to the tone or topic selection. The normal place for these will be here, “Another Note in the Cacophony” ( which a few of you may remember as my highly intermittent blog. The links to these will be posted on my feed.

April 2

We have an Iran “framework” and there was another terrorist attack. Busy day. Here’s what’s interesting:

  • The Robert Menendez indictments were made official yesterday afternoon. Here are a couple of particularly notable facts we have seen in the response; New Jersey Democrats have closed ranks around him, and tightly. After the announcement of the indictment, statement after statement of support came from state politicians, and from the state’s other senator, Cory Booker, formerly of Newark mayor/Twitter municipal superhero fame. His statement of support is noteworthy because Menendez in some ways is a product of the rough and tumble Democratic ethnic-urban machine politics that Booker has spent much of his career positioning himself to the polar opposite of (see the excellent Street Fight, re his first race for Newark mayor). Then again, there is a surprising amount of support across Washington for him, so far. When news of the indictments was first leaked to CNN last month, many Republicans openly mused about whether Menendez was being targeted by the Obama administration due to his lukewarm stance on Obama’s negotiations with Iran. Menendez, in his impassioned statement on the charges last night, alluded to political motivations for the prosecutions as well.
  • National Journal reports that Jeb Bush has taken to having staff record comments he makes in closed door sessions with donors—the kind of environment in which Romney’s infamous 47% remarks were secretly taped—in an attempt to have a hard record of his remarks, and to have evidence with which to push back against the inevitable leaks from these sorts of sessions. Interestingly, the piece also refers to the campaign’s intent to remind Jeb that all of his remarks in front of audiences are effectively on the record in some form.
  • Politico’s excellent media critic Jack Shafer points out that the “Fox Primary,” such as it is, has far less influence on the eventual Republican nominee than most media observers give it credit for. While it has employed a staggering number of presidential hopefuls, most of the ones that largely owed their viability to the megaphone of the channel lost, and lost badly. This is just further indication of a fairly hard to argue fact; Fox News, while a reliable source of things for left of center bloggers to get outraged about, is not making serious inroads in the views of those that don’t already share the channel’s worldview. Again, for good measure, the ratings of its biggest programs are dwarfed by those of any one of the three evening newscasts, which these same new media journalists and commentators eagerly declare is approaching an end.
  • The Columbia Journalism Review notes that most of the coverage of the “religious freedom” bills is taking opponents and proponents at face value, and not bothering to investigate the actual thicket of legal issues both the Indiana and Arkansas bills raise. As is usual, it is much easier to cover the political conflict than it is to make conclusions about the underlying issue, as the former is just giving both sides, and the latter requires essentially adjudicating who is “right” about the laws.
  • And in something I haven’t completely finished reading: Capital New York on why it costs so much to build infrastructure in the New York area. This is an issue that has bedeviled the city for years, and is vital in terms of solving the transit challenges ahead.

And finally, for an offbeat feature. George Pataki, former Republican governor of New York State, has been making very loud noises about running for president as a Republican in the 2016 cycle. Close followers of the news may remember that he was also sort-of in the mix for the 2008 cycle, but eventually decided not to run. These noises have not been taken seriously by most (one political scientist and commentator quoted in a Daily News article about Pataki dismissed his inclinations by implying they were likely the product of psychoactive substances) but they exist, and they will be tracked here, in the form of something I’m creatively calling #Patakiwatch.

  • There is just one entry in today’s #Patakiwatch: Bloomberg and other sources are reporting that Pataki has set up shop in New Hampshire for his super-PAC, opening offices and naming a “steering committee” in the state. The New Hampshire Union Leader reports that the committee is composed of, “two state senators, some prominent business people, and local activists.” The name of the super-PAC? “We the People, Not Washington.”

That’s all.

A 1980s drama inserts a suave British spy into the means streets of Gotham. 

The Equalizer, which ran on CBS from 1985 to 1989, is a show that could probably only exist in the context of the widespread popular fear of street crime in the 1980s. Set and almost entirely filmed in New York City, the program follows the exploits of Robert McCall, excellently played by British actor Edward Woodward. Disillusioned by the world of espionage, McCall quits the organization (never named but likely patterned off the CIA) and becomes a “trouble-shooter,” of sorts, offering his services as a protector of the powerless through a classified newspaper ad.

What can’t be stressed enough when evaluating this show is that McCall is explicitly a vigilante, practicing most of his heroism outside the bounds of the law. While he maintains a prickly-at-best relationship with an NYPD Lieutenant—one which seems to extend from the Equalizer’s spying days—law enforcement in the show is often shown to be ineffectual and overly bureaucratic. For example, in the first episode, the police decline to provide help to a woman who is being stalked, claiming that their hands are essentially tied until he actually commits violence against her. The Equalizer, operating under a far less rigid administrative structure, deals with the situation more effectively. In an episode centered on a girl kidnapped into a prostitution ring, the police refuse to file a missing persons report, and assure the parents—tourists from the Midwest—that she probably was a runaway, entranced by the lights of the big city.

In the context of the 80s, such a portrayal of law enforcement would resonate with most of the viewing public. The show derives much of its believability from New York’s national reputation at the time as a particularly unsafe city, a den of iniquity where danger stalks the law-abiding citizen on a regular basis. The year before the premiere of the show, Bernie Goetz infamously shot four teenagers on a New York subway car, claiming he felt threatened by the youths. The man was hailed as a folk hero by the public and in some of the press, a sharp contrast to the more polarized reaction to George Zimmerman’s claim of self-defense in the Trayvon Martin case.[1]

That messy context aside, The Equalizer does accomplish the misdirection of making the viewer forget, or at least background, the protagonist’s vigilantism. Perhaps this is because McCall has all the markers of a “classy” person:  a nice Jaguar, a seemingly oft-played grand piano in his apartment, and of course, has a British accent, a typical means of telegraphing a character’s worldliness, at least in American television.  Judging from press accounts the writers seemed to be at least somewhat aware of the social implications of the program, and adjusted the character and storylines accordingly.

Another feature that makes The Equalizer fun to watch is simply the variety of cases he takes on, from the stalked woman to a kidnapped child, and even a bullied school kid. That last case (the B storyline to an episode primarily focused around a Soviet embassy double agent) was a nice touch as made the show more believable, showing how the protagonist would handle the kind of problem an average person would call in with. The program does show a bit of a penchant for “women-in-peril” stories, a tendency that can even be noticed in the show’s intro sequence (see above, and example in below clip).

What The Equalizer does manage to accomplish is to take a concept that could have been cartoonish or cheesy—a trench-coated avenger, seeking justice for the common man—and make it intelligent. The characters are well written, and while the show has a clear sense of right and wrong (something that has gone out of fashion in “good” TV today) the villains are not caricatures.

My Take: 3.5 out of 5 stars; sharp writing, nicely paced exposition and action, and relatively non-formulaic plot. Come for the window into the 1980s, stay for the story.

Some final notes on the show: I came across this program through a reference in The Wolf of Wall Street –one of the characters in the film is shown watching the program. A remake of the series into a feature film is planned for later this year, which makes one wonder if the extended reference was an intentional product placement to pique interest in the remake. One of The Equalizer’s executive producers, Joel Surnow, would later go on to co-create 24.

[1] While there are some notable differences between the two incidents—one of the kids Goetz shot later admitted that they were going to rob the man, while Martin was unarmed and simply walking in the neighborhood—the differing reaction is at least in part a function of today’s lower rates of street crime. As with Zimmerman, Goetz was acquitted of the most serious charges stemming from the incident, only going to jail on charges related to possession of the firearm used.


Here are some disclaimers, for your reading pleasure:

The following is a work of fiction, mostly in the sense that it isn’t a work of fact, journalistic or otherwise.  Any resemblance to real events or persons is entirely coincidental (seriously). This is the third of a multi-part narrative that I could, but probably won’t, finish. (Parts One and Two)


The phone buzzed again, this time to inform the group that the parents were gone. Well isn’t that nice. The five got up off the benches and walked down to the place, which was on 71st street not too far from Columbus Avenue. After a short walk, they climbed up the small stoop into the vestibule of the brownstone apartment (this is the Upper West Side, after all), and buzzed the apartment. It should here be noted that the area already had the overpowering stench of one particularly popular, generally inhaled, controlled substance.

“Who the fuck is it?”

[door rudely buzzes unlocked]

The five went up the winding set of stairs—the apartment took up the whole fifth floor of the building. At the top of the stairs, an old friend greeted them with a cross between a welcoming smile and a sarcastic smirk.

Meet Ben Gutnick. The son of two mysteriously well-paid city bureaucrats (don’t ask), Ben was another alumnus of the same middle school of James, Steve and Alex. He wore a smile of easy cynicism, and had a sense of humor from the same place. His grades were crap, and he was into drugs—stuff even bored, semi-affluent white teenagers would be skittish about experimenting with. He also had one mysterious, monthlong disappearance from the city back in January—some sort of boot-camp drug rehab retreat in the deserts of Nevada, went the whispers. For his part, Ben consistently refuses to comment on the situation, only saying that he had to “sort out some business” that month.

“So yeah, I guess we’re going to have this thing start at 8? It’s not like people have better things to do around now,” Ben argued,  “and no one’s going to pregame something like this.”

“I’m down with that”

“yeah, word”

“So whose buying?” asked James.

Steve interrupted: “Well, obviously me, but the fuck if I’m paying for all that shit. Six way split.”

Richard groaned inwardly. He was a generally cheap person and didn’t have much money to throw around, but with five others chipping in, even a large supply shouldn’t cost too much.

“What are we going to do,” Alex asked, “about other…stuff?”

“People can bring whatever they want, but if shit goes down, I knew nothing,” Ben responded. Famous last words, one might say.

“Maybe we should get dinner or something?”

“Nice try, but you’re helping me clean this place first,” Ben said.

And so they did, shifting around assorted detritus and under-read copies of The Economist and The New Yorker. After all, this is a brownstone on the Upper West Side. Gotta look—and at least pretend to read—the part.


The house cleaned to some reasonable standard, the group made their way to 70th and Amsterdam, the southwest corner. The name of the place does not matter for our purposes, except that it sells, well, you know.

“So what, exactly, do we actually want?” Asked Steve

“well, beer is a bit of a necessity—do they even sell that here?”



“oh, would you listen to the classy motherfucker, amirite?” said one, to mild laughter.

“alright, got it.” Said Steve.

The other kids moved out of the view of the windows, and waited.


“Alright, they had most of the stuff. I’ll go to the drugstore to finish off the selection, but let’s put this stuff inside for now. Also, of course you all owe me,” Steve said, exiting the store with several bags.

“How about we get something to eat? That pizza wasn’t the most filling, in hindsight,” James pointed out.

There was agreement.


The big problem with writing a story about even interesting people—let alone this band of fairly uninteresting misfits—is that there are boring parts, lots of boring parts. This is one of them, so we’ll be brief here. They went to a nearby fast-food chain location. They ate. They left. There you are.


Wait a second; some of them are getting soda refills. Don’t you love those places that give you free refills?


Standing outside the location, James posed the obvious question;

“How do we get people to come to this thing?”

“I believe it’s a thing called texting,” Alex said sarcastically. “Maybe you could learn about it. Again, like Ben said,” he continued, “nobody has anything to do this time of the year. They’ll be people.”

James started going through his contacts, with a special emphasis on the women, and the group walked back to Ben’s house.

On the way there, they passed a newsstand. On the cover of that day’s Post was one of their often-lurid headlines:


The line was next to a grainy picture that looked like a screengrab from a surveillance camera. Had the kids stopped to read the story, they would have learned that an officer in the Bronx was caught on camera punching a kid who had just been caught trying to swipe a bag of chips from a bodega down the street, in the Tremont section.

That’s not the only thing they would have learned from the newsstand; there was an article in that week’s Time magazine on college admissions (not that they needed the information), and a certain magazine for women was running its usual selection of sex tips (not that they would have been subjected to such recommendations), and a personal finance magazine had some bad investment advice from an already rich businessman (not that they had the money to lose on the markets). It’s funny what’s in a newsstand, or that there still are newsstands…

The following was originally published at the Urban Times on March 22, 2013. it is posted here for archival purposes.

A look at the racial composition of a Tea Party rally like this one goes a long way to explaining why the black conservative is still a noteworthy phenomenon in American politics. (Fibonacci Blue/ Flickr)

A look at the racial composition of a Tea Party rally like this one goes a long way to demonstrating why the black conservative is still a noteworthy phenomenon in American politics. (Source: Fibonacci Blue via Flickr)

A look at one of the most maligned, mocked, and misunderstood tropes in American politics.

The most unusual thing about the “black conservative”, or the “black Republican” is that it is a uniquely American phenomenon. While conservative parties in other nations, such as in the United Kingdom or in Canada, have had issues with appealing to minority voters, the inability of the American Republican party to do so is on an entirely different level.

Chief among the minority groups the Republican party has been unable to connect with are African-Americans, who have shunned the party by margins of over 80 percent in presidential elections since the political realignment of the sixties—and this is without looking at the two most recent cycles that actually featured an African-American candidate on the Democratic ticket.

This overwhelming black support of the Democratic Party makes the black Republican such an unusual cultural phenomenon. Every Republican National Convention, for example, is marked by references—comedic and otherwise—to the lack of black delegates. Even the HBO program Girls, that oft-referenced cultural lodestone of the chattering classes, used a black conservative love interest as a way to acknowledge criticism of the cast’s whiteness while also keeping the audience off balance.

However, despite its cultural place, the black conservative is for many simply a political prop, deployed for an obvious ideological purpose when needed but otherwise ignored. To see a broader view, one needs to look at the history of the black conservative thought, which can be traced to Booker T. Washington, a major black leader in the late 1800s and early 1900s.

Educator Booker T. Washington was one of the first prominent black conservatives. (Source: cliff1066 via Flickr)

Booker T.Washington’s characterization as a black conservative is in contrast with one of his contemporaries, W.E.B Du Bois. Washington and Du Bois were once allies as black leaders, but a rift between the two opened after Washington’s 1895 “Atlanta Compromise” speech. The speech was notable because it advocated an acceptance—for the time being—of the status quo of political racial inequality. Instead of immediately agitating for political civil rights, an aim Washington said was of “the extremest [sic] folly”, he proposed that African-Americans focus on self-improvement within their own communities, accumulating economic success and allying with white southerners to secure protections from the harder edges of segregation. His view was that those with something to offer to society would eventually be given rights.

W.E.B.Du Bois was dubious of this outlook, critiquing Booker T. Washington in a 1903 essay, “Of Mr. Booker T. Washington and Others.” This essay describes Washington’s “compromise” as an “attitude of adjustment and submission”, countering that in the years after Washington laid out his vision, conditions for African Americans in the south had not markedly improved. The divide exemplified by this century-old argument, between those in the black community who would focus on internal community improvement versus those who would focus on pushing back against discrimination in society, lives on today.

There are several perspectives on the “new” black conservatism that has emerged in the past few decades. One view laid out by University of Iowa law professor Angela Onwuachi-Willig, in a lengthy analysis of the roots of Clarence Thomas’ political and judicial worldview, argues that black conservatism not only comes from a place of deep concern for the black community, but also is ideologically distinct from white conservatism in many ways. Two pillars of the new black conservatism she identifies are a desire for the wider black community to escape the self destructive frame of themselves as “victims”, and a desire for blacks to reduce, if not eliminate, their dependence on government programs. Similarly, according to Willig, black conservatives do not deny the continued existence of racism, but simply view economic advancement through self-help as a more productive pursuit.

The other, far more hostile view, comes from Harvard University professor Martin Kilson, in his  “Anatomy of Black Conservatism” (Jstor/subscription required). Unlike Willig, he characterizes modern black conservatism as being little different from white conservatism, incapable of providing substantive solutions advancing the black community. He also challenges the black conservative view that the community is held back in economic advancement by an ideology of victimization, pointing to the success of the Jewish community despite a similar “victim” experience throughout history. Most critically, he characterizes contemporary black conservatives as “ritualistic dissenters,” who are “manipulating the dissident tradition and its modalities (rhetoric, allusions, demeanor) to support established patterns of power.”

That latter view is generally representative of the low regard that black conservatives are held in the broader African-American community. The most infamous example of this is the hatred of conservative Supreme Court justice Clarence Thomas. He has been described by some as “self loathing”,  while others have argued that he owes an“apology” to the black community. Efforts by groups (aside from those on the right) to have Justice Thomas speak or receive some sort of honor are usually met with pushback from other African-Americans. Justice Thomas is often characterized as a weak legal mind, and is usually (erroneously) characterized as an ideological vassal of fellow justice Antonin Scalia.

Herman Cain, like many black conservative politicians before him, quickly went from contender to comic relief in media accounts. (markn3tel/ Flickr)

Herman Cain, like many black conservative politicians before him, quickly went from contender to comic relief in media accounts. (Source: markn3tel via Flickr)

The black conservative in the realm of wider politics does not receive better treatment. Some of the most prominent right-wing African American candidates and politicians as of late—former Tea Party congressman Allen West, pizza magnate and former presidential candidate Herman Cain, and former presidential candidate Alan Keyes, have all been successfully characterized less as serious politicians and more as outlandish, cartoonish showmen either lacking ideas, or full of dubious ones. A quick look at all three figures suggests a sort of chicken and egg question; are black conservatives in politics seen as lacking seriousness and sincerity because of unfair attacks from a “liberal media”, as those on the right are wont to claim, or do black politicians seeking greater publicity take conservative positions knowing that they’ll be more prominent as a “dissenting” voice in their community? It is hard to say.

So what is next? The black conservative will still generate confusion and consternation from observers for as long as the Republican Party can be credibly criticized as a party of old, angry white men. A GOP molded to the contours of a more multicultural America, one that can tap into a positive vision of self-reliance, instead of a harsh “tough-luck” libertarianism, is one that might finally gain a real foothold among a broader base of African-Americans. Here the political class has looked to the recently appointed Republican senator out of South Carolina, Tim Scott, as a man with seriousness and a vision.

One might ask why a person of color, but especially a black person in the United States, would identify with a right wing ideology. To ask such a question is to, on some level, question the judgment and pigeonhole the black conservative, to rob them of their agency. Why would, or should, someone see the world through a different lens from the one they’re expected to take, is the usual undertone of such an inquiry. To see the black conservative as anything other than one of many perfectly valid ways to be black in America, is to be profoundly unfair to a serious political outlook. This is not to say that conservatism has the right solutions for the black community, but it is to say that they have the right to a seat at the table.

Moussako, Abraham. “On the Black Conservative .” The Urban Times, , sec. Critical Conversations, March 22, 2013. 

The following was originally published at the Urban Times on January 25th, 2013. It is republished here for archival purposes.

How an uncritical media have helped distort the American education debate.

The current American debate over education reform has centered, for the most part, on several major themes; that American schools are, in some broad sense, “failing”, that American students are vastly outperformed on international tests of assessment by ‘lesser’ nations, and that teachers and their obstinate unions are the main reason for this failure.

This June 2011 piece in the prominent American magazine The Atlantic by former New York City schools chancellor Joel Klein is an excellent example of every one of those above elements distilled into one article, down to its title, “The Failure of American Schools”. While the piece was written by a former public official intimately involved with the “education reform” movement, it is only slightly more ‘biased’ on the subject than treatments of the issue by  most journalists.

Before continuing, it should be said that one of the main underpinnings of this standard “failure” narrative—lukewarm American scores on the Programme for International Student Assessment (PISA), administered by the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development—is in many ways flawed. For one, the jurisdictions tested don’t lead to apples to apples comparisons. Scores for the entire Chinese school system, for example, are not available; rather the cities of Shanghai and Hong Kong, both highly unrepresentative of the “average” Chinese student, participate in the test. Even for the places where true country to country comparisons are being made, a closer look at the test scores shows that the source of America’s middling international ranking is more  ineffective education of chronically disadvantaged ethnic groups, rather than a fundamental problem with all of American pedagogy.

That American schools are “failing”, in the sense that they are not adequately preparing their students to compete in the global economy, has become an article of faith of not just education reformers, but of the media itself. A study looking at media coverage of the subject from October 2010 to October 2011 found that 10 percent of all education news coverage was framed through a crisis frame, portraying the system as irreparably broken and incapable of fully educating its students. 20 percent of these pieces did not even engage in a discussion of solutions.

Melinda Gates (of the Gates Foundation) visiting a Chicago school in 2007. The Gates Foundation has been a big proponent of the current education 'reform' movement.  (image: Gates Foundation / Flickr)

Melinda Gates visiting a Chicago school in 2007. The Gates Foundation has been a big proponent of the current education ‘reform’ movement, and has received largely positive media attention as a result. (image: Gates Foundation / Flickr)

In terms of solutions, another major flaw of American education coverage is that it has by and large bought the claim of education reformers that most blame for the supposed ‘failure’ of American schools falls with teachers, as opposed to external social problems in impoverished school districts. This teacher-centric understanding has prompted media outlets in both Los Angeles and New York to publish—with teacher names attached—reports prepared by the respective school districts on teacher effectiveness based on a “value added” score, or a measurement that purports to measure the year-over-year improvement on standardized test scores a teacher provides to a student, accounting for socioeconomic differences. However, these statistics are highly flawed,often failing to adequately control for socioeconomic status and fluctuating wildly from year to year. Still, these evaluations were made public, with the predictable backlash towards teachers who scored poorly on this dubious metric.

However, the biggest problem with the media’s coverage of education is an aggravating tendency to cast any and all signs of improvement in near-messianic terms. Perhaps the most obvious example of this is the generally positive, if not effusive, coverage charter schools have received from the media, even including a blockbuster 2010 documentary,Waiting for “Superman”, which focused on the lengths families went through to get their children into charters. The film, which portrayed charter schools as the be-all and end-all of education reform, reflected many of the problems with regular media coverage of charters and reforms in general; an inability to recognize the variation in quality among charters—there are some that are as bad as the worst public schools in their states—an overreliance on anecdotal storytelling, and a lack of context on education trends in the US independent of what the ‘reformers’ are saying, likely a product of many media outlets no longer staffing education beat reporters.

It would be unfair to characterize the entire media as having failed in reporting on education reform; even the media outlets that released the “value added” data in New York and Los Angeles followed up with reports exploring the flawed nature of the data, for example. However, what is clear is that public misconceptions like the widespread publicbelief in the effectiveness of charter schools, can be largely blamed on inadequate media coverage.

Moussako, Abraham. “The Media and Education Reform: The Triumph of Neat Narratives.” The Urban Times, , sec. Critical Conversations, January 25, 2013.

The following was originally published at the Urban Times on December 26th, 2012. It is posted here for archival purposes.
Deciphering the intentions and biases of professional journalists is a popular pastime of political activists. (Image: U.S. Army Corps of Engineers Savannah District/ Flickr)

Previous in Critical Conversations: Made in Prison: The Rise of America’s New Labour Class

How political partisans mistake the natural tendencies of media for ideological animosity.

“Media bias” means radically different things to different people, especially in the United States, it has become yet another front in the culture wars. To a right winger, “media bias” is a lack of ideological diversity in newsrooms, with a majority of journalists being drawn from the halls of “elitist”, left-leaning institutions (e.g. the Ivy League). To a left winger, “media bias” iscorporate influence, media consolidation, and the pressure to keep powerful sources happy. Each side has some favored examples—for the past decade the right has pointed to a supposed leftward slant in coverage of social issues, while the left has pointed to the seemingly deferential coverage of the War on Terror, from the failure to fact check Iraq War intelligence to coverage of drones that omits considerations of civilian casualties and international law.

However, what both of these ideological critiques—to varying degrees—ignore or downplay are the wholly non-ideological tendencies of the media. There are many of these, but this piece will center on the media’s tendency to cover the sensational, unusual, and remarkable. The first incident is one that you might have missed, as it happened in the middle of August: the attempted shooting at the headquarters of the Family Research Council that left one man, a security guard, injured. The FRC is a socially conservative advocacy group that has provoked major controversy with their generally hostile stance towards LGBT issues, with the respected Southern Poverty Law Center going so far as to controversially label the organization an anti-gay hate group, on a list that includes various Neo-Nazi groups, among others.

Related: Martyn Lewis: Solutions-Driven Journalism and the Future of News

While a motive was not known at the outset, as soon as it became clear that the shooting was politically motivated, those on the right sniffed suspiciously at the media’s treatment of the incident. Brent Bozell, founder of the Media Research Center—an influential right-wing media watchdog—argued on the organization’s blog that the media had ignored the shooting because they wanted to suppress incidents of political violence that didn’t fit their preconceived narrative, which to Bozell, is of portraying right-wingers as hateful ideologues prone to violence. Bozell appeals to the counterfactual in the piece, claiming that if the exact same scenario had occurred with a politically motivated attack on a left-leaning group—even with the same lack of a body count—the media would have been all over the story.

What such an argument misses is the fact that the media places a very high premium on the body count when it comes to violence. The national media, as opposed to local news, has a documented tendency to only focus on crimes when there is a unique or sensational angle to them. To that point, while Bozell and others on the right consider the time that the national newscasts and cable news spent on the story to be scandalously small, the political angle is the very reason why a shooting with no deaths in Washington DC, a city with 108 murder deaths in 2011, got any time on all three of the national newscasts in the first place.

The controversy over the Stanford University study focused on the claims the researchers made about the nutritional value of organic foods, such as those pictured.

[broken/expired photo link removed]

(Image: Tropic~7/ Flickr)

A similar firestorm erupted on the left earlier this year when researchers at Stanford University published a study which found that organic foods were no more nutritious than non-organic foods. Critics on the left pounced, alleging corporate influence on both the study itself and on the media for playing up the study’s negative, if narrow, main conclusion on organic foods. The controversy at times was torn between being angry about the study and the media’s reaction. The fact that the slew of stories used the study to make a broad claim against the value of organics is simply a combination of the media tendency to focus on the remarkable result, and the fact that scientists themselves spin the “flashiest” results in their press releases and abstracts, leaving the mitigating factors and more mundane findings for the few journalists who manage to pick through the paper.

These two examples are not intended to debunk the broader idea that media outlets are capable of exhibiting an ideological bias, as a look at American cable news or British tabloids will make clear. Rather, what these two cases aim to illustrate is that bias is truly in the eye of the beholder. What may seem to be a partisan slant in a story might simply be the result of the observer falling victim to the hostile media effect—a tendency to see the media as biased against their own ideology.

Moussako, Abraham. “The Problem of Misattributed Media Bias.” Urban Times, , sec. Critical Conversations, December 26, 2012. 


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