Aug 7 2009

Alfie Kohn on education ‘reform,’ Iyanna Jones on ‘Disappearing Voices’


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This week on CounterSpin: Charter schools raise a lot of concerns for educators interested in the future of truly public education; the corporate press have tended more toward boosterism of charters and their high profile promoter, Secretary of Education Arne Duncan. That’s the subject of a story in the current issue of Extra! and CounterSpin discussed the phenomenon on the occasion of Duncan’s nomination with education expert Alfie Kohn, author of The Schools Our Children Deserve, among other titles. We’ll hear that conversation with Alfie Kohn this week.

Also on the show: Press handling of the arrest of Harvard professor Henry Louis Gates at his home, in which a chance to talk about blacks’ and whites’ widely divergent experience of the criminal justice system was reduced to individual personalities and preferences in beer–that’s just the latest reminder of the media void when it comes to many black Americans’ daily concerns. The void has grown greater with the drying up of black radio, a decline described in the documentary film, Disappearing Voices. CounterSpin spoke last summer with the film’s executive producer, Iyanna Jones.


Beware School ‘Reformers’, by Alfie Kohn (Nation, 12/10/08)


All of that’s coming up, but first, as usual, we’ll take a look back at recent press.

-According to an Aug. 1 report in the New York Times, executives at the parent companies of Fox News Channel and MSNBC reached an agreement to ensure that the network’s two stars reign in their criticism of one another, mostly to protect the image of MSNBC owner General Electric.

The behind the scenes deal making is an alarming illustration of the corrosive effect of corporate ownership of the media. The alleged deal concerns MSNBC‘s Keith Olbermann and Fox News Channel‘s Bill O’Reilly. Olbermann routinely attacked O’Reilly, who in turn went after not only Olbermann, but the entire NBC franchise, including NBC‘s parent GE and CEO Jeffrey Immelt.

“If my child were killed in Iraq,” O’Reilly once declared, “I would blame the likes of Jeffrey Immelt.”

The Times indicates that Immelt and News Corp‘s Rupert Murdoch expressed interest this May in a truce of some sort, and that soon thereafter, the agreement was hashed out. By the Times‘ count, the back and forth between the two stars largely ceased.

The paper also reported that MSNBC president Phil Griffin, “told producers that he wanted the channel’s other programs to follow Mr. Olbermann’s lead and restrain from criticizing Fox directly, according to two employees.” But Olbermann told the Times, “I am party to no deal,” and launched an attack on O’Reilly two days after the Times‘ story.

While one might expect little in the way of journalistic ethics from Fox News Channel, what about MSNBC? Should a news channel be in the business of preventing its host from speaking freely? It might be encouraging that Olbermann has gone on the record to deny these allegations, but what should one make of the silence of his bosses?

-You may have heard talk of economic recovery of some sort, the green shoots are sprouting and whatnot, but whatever one makes of that, there’s one place that is doing better and that’s the stock market.

An August 2 ABC World News Report tried to make some sense of this, but the explanation fell apart. Reporter Bianna Golodryga was describing rising stock prices and noted an important caveat; that many of these companies are simply cutting costs and that “unfortunately cutting costs means cutting jobs, so in an ironic sense, the market has been rallying as we’ve seen more people lose their jobs on Main Street.”

Now by definition, irony refers to an outcome that somehow defies expectations, but it’s not unusual for stock prices to respond favorably to a rise in unemployment under certain circumstances. In fact, as we should have learned by now that rising stock prices can coincide with increasing inequality and poverty rates and can often be attributed to nothing at all, or at least nothing rational.

But in the corporate media world, Wall Street’s fortunes are the same as everyone else’s. That’s why they are cited in every newscast as a clear indication of general economic well-being.

Trying to maintain that kind of view does indeed make some things very hard to explain.

-Well, the way the media covered the debate over health care reform makes a big difference in how people feel about this whole thing, and with the media covering the issue more as a political football than a legitimate social concern, it’s not surprising that people are starting to feel pretty pessimistic.

The press is now engaged in interpreting the public’s sentiments they’ve helped to generate. As in the July 30 New York Times piece headlined, “ New Poll Finds Growing Unease on Health Plan”. The focus of the article was on President Obama, and how he is losing the ability to shape the debate on health care. But the numbers the Times reported, and some that it did not, show more confusion than anything else.

While the headline certainly gives one impression, further down in the piece readers are told that 66 percent of those polled think they’ll lose their own insurance if the government does not create a public plan. And 80 percent expressed concern that the number of uninsured will rise. And when if they supported the creation of a public plan at all, 66 percent said that they do.

Those are the results that the Times chose not to include in their story.

So if you are trying to figure out what the public wants, it doesn’t seem that complicated.

One thing polls do show is that people are somewhat confused by the details of the debate, thanks in part to a lot of misinformation being circulated in the right wing media and mostly unchallenged in the rest of the corporate press. Instead of spinning that confusion into unease, media might spend some time dispelling it.

–You remember the Pentagon Pundit Scandal? Some 75 retired military officers and frequent media commentators were getting talking points, coaching and paid overseas travel from the defense department in an effort to put a positive spin on U.S. military actions on Iraq and elsewhere.

PR Watch‘s Diane Farsetta now reports that in a worrisome move, the Government Accountability Office has determined that the program, brought to light in a Pulitzer-winning exposé in the New York Times, did not violate the law against taxpayer funded domestic propaganda. Because, they say, the officers weren’t paid for their flattering commentary and because the program wasn’t hidden from the public.

Farsetta points to some of the flaws in the GAO’s reasoning. Among the most glaring, the fact that many of these pundits were lobbyists or consultants for military contractors. To pretend that regular access to and information from high level Pentagon officials has no monetary value to such people is well, unpersuasive. As for the program not being secret, most agencies interested to talk about a program don’t require two years of lawsuits over document requests from the New York Times.

-And finally, “Mouthpiece Theater,” an aggressively unfunny Washington Post online video feature, starring Post political writers Dana Milbank and Chris Cillizza received little media attention until July 31, when Milbank and Cillizza performed a routine inspired by the so-called White House beer summit.

In the routine, the two discussed which beers would be appropriate to serve to which political celebrities. Here’s a sample: South Carolinian Governor Mark Sanford would be served XXX Porter, U.S. Representative Denis Kucinich would get Insanely Bad Elf beer, while Representative Henry Waxman would get Grumpy Troll Lager.

But it wasn’t that comedic gold that got the two in trouble, but Milbank’s remark that “we won’t tell you whose getting a bottle of Mad Bitch” as a photo of Secretary of State Hillary Clinton appeared on the screen. Get it?

The video, which had apparently passed muster with the’s vetting system was pulled after a highly-negative public response.

In a piece about the controversy, the Washington Post‘s Howard Kurtz described “the withering and often personal criticism” that Milbank and Cillizza had been subjected to on liberal web sites targeting the video’s sexism. And he quoted Milbank on that onslaught, “it’s a brutal world out there in the blogosphere. I’m often surprised by the ferocity out there, but I probably shouldn’t be”.

In case you missed his logic, unchallenged by Kurtz, Milbank calls Hillary Clinton a “bitch” and complains that those who call out his bigotry are brutal and ferocious.

-Thanks Peter. You are listening to CounterSpin, brought to you each week by the media watch group FAIR.


CounterSpin: The media verdict on the Obama transition has been positive on both style and substance. The political lesson seems pretty clear: the media are happiest when they see Obama staying close to the supposed middle or even when he can be considered drifting to the right. So it wasn’t a surprise, then, when a number of editorial pages and pundits started to worry about who Obama would name as his Education Secretary. The media’s preference: a tough manager who had taken on the teachers’ unions. Why does the press advocate for this position and are they happy with Obama’s choice of Arne Duncan?

Joining us now to talk about this is Alfie Kohn. He’s written many books, including The Case Against Standardized Testing, The Schools Our Children Deserve, and, most recently, The Homework Myth: Why Our Kids Get Too Much of a Bad Thing. He wrote the article “Beware School Reformers” in the December 29 issue of the Nation.

Alfie Kohn, welcome to CounterSpin!

Alfie Kohn: Thank you.

CS: Now explain to us briefly what the media seem to be saying with this rush of stories prior to the Duncan announcement. They all seem to want the same thing: that one person in particular not be the nominee.

AK: Yes, well, more broadly I think what they want is someone who’s acceptable to the broad swath of mainstream opinion about education, which embraces Republicans and Democrats alike. It’s called by the almost Orwellian term: “school reform.” But what that means, in effect, is a corporate-style approach to management of school systems, in which the goal is not to help children learn but to prepare them to be employees who will help corporations become competitive in a global economy. And it involves very specific and prescriptive standards for what kids at a given grade level and in a given subject must be taught. It involves a sort of back-to-basics approach to teaching, and most of all, it involves constant multiple choice testing, so that if the test scores go up, that’s a good thing, if they go down, that’s a bad thing, without any understanding that higher test scores often undermine the quality of teaching and learning. So all of the major newspapers editorialized right around the same time in early December and in almost identical language contrasting the bad old status quo, people who are in bed with the unions, on the one hand, and on the other hand bold reformers, and reform here again means intensification of things like the No Child Left Behind Act and the like.

CS: Yeah we’ve heard this before: social security reform, welfare reform, the language is important and putting these educators and activists into these categories isn’t really new, is it? This is something that we’ve been seeing for, what, 20 years?

AK: Yes, I think in the last couple of years there’s been, it’s almost as if everybody on the right got the same memo that said from now on we must call what we’re doing to kids the “get tough on unions, on teachers, on students to raise the bar. We must now call this reform,” so that anybody who opposes this agenda is by definition anti-reform, and stuck in the status quo. I mean, one of these people actually on a TV show accused me of being an apologist for the status quo, and I’m pretty darn radical, frankly. But it’s really remarkable, the only difference between this broad, mainstream consensus in the corporate media and in groups with names like Democrats for Education Reform, on the one hand, and real right wingers and Republicans on the other, the only difference has to do with privatization, where the latter group is pushing for vouchers and the like, and most Democrats have a sort of schizophrenic attitude about that. But in respect to all the other details of education, you can’t tell the difference, and that’s why its not a coincidence that the right-wing Heritage Foundation, that conservative New York Times columnist David Brooks, that Bush’s first Secretary of Education, Rod Paige, have all gone out of their way to praise Arne Duncan, President Elect Obama’s selection. I can imagine Bush having picked Duncan, frankly, and that is the extraordinary extent to which, in order to be a bold reformer, the right-wing views that have become mainstream have to be accepted.

CS: And Duncan, we should say, his job title is the CEO of Chicago Schools. He’s preferred, Linda Darling-Hammond was the progressive name that was floating around and had to be tamped down by the media and I wonder, more broadly, outside of this particular incident, it seems like discussion of education policy is pretty narrow. No Child Left Behind, for example, seems to enjoy very little criticism in the media because it’s part of this “reform agenda.” There doesn’t seem to be much room to say No Child Left Behind should be scrapped, even among a lot of Democrats.

AK: That’s right. That’s right. And this goes back some years now. Ironically there are some conservatives who resent the federal government being this involved in telling local school districts what they must do. And you ended up with people like Hillary Clinton and John Edwards and Ted Kennedy demanding one-size-fits-all testing on an annual basis. When No Child Left Behind was first announced in the very early part of this decade, Ted Kennedy followed George Bush around at his side to endorse it together. The only opposition you get is around funding. You know, I speak for a lot of educators when I say I don’t want this assault on good teaching and local autonomy fully funded. But, you know, this is what passes for opposition in this country, is when, you know, if George Bush had said we’re going to go around and hit every kid in the head, hard, with a hammer, but thank goodness we have Ted Kennedy to stand up and say “Yes, but who’s going to pay for the hammer?” You know, that’s the extent of the opposition.

CS: Yeah, the media verdict on Duncan seems to be pretty positive. He seems to get high marks for bridging the supposed divide between the warring camps within the Democratic Party. The Wall Street Journal editorial page, I saw, they seemed cautiously optimistic, they’re waiting to see if Duncan in anti-union enough. What do you make of Duncan?

AK: Well, first of all, I think it’s telling that so many on the right are pleased with him. People who are really on the left are not, nor are a whole lot of educators, students, and parents in Chicago and others who have followed what he and other so-called reformers have done; militarized the schools in Chicago, closed down schools arbitrarily that don’t have high enough test scores. He has been a strong proponent of private companies managing public schools, more charter schools, paying students cash for higher grades or test scores, flunking students who are having trouble and forcing them to repeat a grade, which research overwhelmingly demonstrates is not only ineffective in the short run but pushes kids to drop out. However, he seems like a nice, friendly guy, and he hasn’t gone out of his way to antagonize the unions, so that’s considered being acceptable to both camps. You know Linda Darling-Hammond, a professor at Stanford who has headed up Obama’s education transition team, was the choice of thousands and thousands and thousands of educators because she’s an educator. You know, she understands how it is that pushing poor blacks kids to pump up their test scores is profoundly counter-productive and actually exacerbates the inequities of our system, even if it works to raise the test scores.

CS: We’ve been speaking with author Alfie Kohn. He’s the author of many books, including The Case Against Standardized Testing, The Schools Our Children Deserve. His article, “Beware School Reformers” appeared in the December 29 issue of the Nation magazine. You can read his work online at

Alfie Kohn thanks so much for joining us this week on CounterSpin!

AK: My pleasure.


CounterSpin: Most folks know that the number of black-owned radio stations in this country is tiny, around 1.6 percent of the total, and that the prevalence of black and brown people in popular music doesn’t translate to power or even equitable representation of black perspectives in the medium. What many may not know is that the prospects for black influence and potential ownership in radio have not always looked like this. Disappearing Voices: The Decline of Black Radio is a new film that illuminates earlier periods in U.S. history, where black hosts gained significant local followings playing music and also talking and organizing. But it’s not about nostalgia.

Joining us now in studio to talk about what Disappearing Voices is about is the film’s executive producer, Iyanna Jones. She’s also an author, a media activist, a TV host, and a songwriter.

Welcome to CounterSpin, Iyanna Jones.

Iyanna Jones: Thank you so much for having me.

CS: Well, I don’t think Disappearing Voices is about looking back and saying wasn’t that swell, but it does reclaim a piece of history that’s lost to many and unknown to others. So I wonder if you’d talk a little bit about that earlier history, if there’s a decline in black radio, what was that higher point and why?

IJ: Well, I think the first thing that we need to do is to understand the impact that black jocks had on radio. They basically changed the face of radio as we know it today, and really turned it into an art form that is unique to America. Radio was not done the way it is done today until the black jocks started it. And what is significant about black jocks, in particular, is that they brought a brand of personality and a connection to the culture and to the community to the airwaves that made people feel like they were a part of a movement. And that’s what you don’t have today, and a number of factors have contributed to that, including that watering down of radio, the de-personalization of it, conglomeration, and, of course, the rendering of black radio unprofitable by a number of different factors which are talked about in the film, including Arbitron, Madison Avenue, and the thing that it all stems from: racism.

CS: Well, I think that is kind of a theme of the film is that there’s time devoted to this earlier period where it was not just the personality but then also the structure in the sense that they could advertise to a local community, and they’d be advertising local businesses, and there was kind of more of a community direct connection there. But I guess the theme is that black radio didn’t fall, it was pushed. You know, it wasn’t that the formats just fell out of popularity, there were things that actually happened. Now you’ve just touched on them. Maybe you want to spell that out a little more, the influence of, say Arbitron.

IJ: Well, Arbitron is a radio ratings system that basically advertising agencies, particularly Madison Avenue, will use to determine a radio station’s profitability, in terms of, if I advertise on this station I’ll get more impressions because this station has X amount of listeners. Arbitron goes in and says how many listeners a radio station has and therefore this one’s profitable, this one isn’t. Well, everybody knows that everybody listens to black music, it’s not a question. It’s called Urban now, which is another thing that’s addressed in the movie. But everybody listens to black music, so it’s obvious that these stations are going to have the largest listenership. So at what point is it decided that these radio stations can’t compete, that somehow that they are not profitable, they don’t have listenership? Well, Arbitron goes in and, you know, they present these numbers, and a number of people feel, and you know I would agree with them, that Arbitron does not count, you know, black-owned radio stations properly. Also there’s the issue of racism because if we could step back into history just a little bit, when the spectrum, which is commonly known as the airwaves, was being given out, black people weren’t in the running. They are dealing with Jim Crow, slavery, that kind of racism, so we didn’t even have a stake in radio at that point, as it was developing. So now if you fast forward into 2008 it obviously makes sense why there are less black-owned radio stations. It’s the same reason why we continue to need affirmative action in this country. It’s the same reason why we have to deal with racial profiling from police, and all the other issues that stem from racism. Black radio is affected by that also.

CS: Well, I’ve written about discounting and the influence of advertisers for FAIR’s magazine Extra!, and of course it extends to TV as well as radio, and I’m not sure that people really understand the core racism of it. There’s a sense that it’s all about money, but it’s not all about money. The FCC in their report, “When Being Number One Is Not Enough”, a terrific FCC report, found that companies would not pay full rates or would not advertise on stations reaching primarily black audiences even when it was demonstrated that those audiences were capable of and likely to buy the product. We just don’t want them in the store, was the sort of response the investigators got. So it’s not business as usual and you can’t really pretend to neutrally assess the success of programming that’s systematically undervalued in this way. So I guess another message bringing us up to the present day, another message of the film, is that given that black radio did not die a natural death, the current relative absence of vital political talk in particular outlets for black people, that doesn’t reflect a lack of appetite or a lack of audience.

IJ: That’s absolutely correct. The idea that people don’t want to hear news, that they don’t want to hear political content, that they don’t want to hear independent music is ridiculous. If we can go by the proposed argument that this is what people want to listen to, you can then say this is what they listen to because it’s all that is available. The majority of people, in fact, don’t even listen to commercial radio if you actually do a poll, so the idea of people who are listening that this is what they want, they’re just listening to what they get. My suggestion would be to level the playing field. Why don’t you start playing some independent music? Start having some community voices that are well known in the communities who are working in a political activism direction to uplift their communities, let them get on the radio, and then let’s see what people choose. Because really in essence what’s going on is it’s a form of censorship in terms of not allowing these other voices in, and that’s directly related to conglomeration, but conglomeration is absolutely on purpose, and has other goals and agendas other than just simply making money, you’re absolutely right. But one of the things that I just wanted to touch on really briefly in terms of the racism, it’s not always as overt as “well, we simply just don’t want these folks in the store.” One of the reasons why people don’t want to pay for advertising on black-programmed or black-owned stations is because, as you said, they feel that these people are going to buy these products anyway, so we don’t need to waste advertising dollars on trying to woo somebody who’s going to shop anyway. Because they consider it a privilege to shop with us, so they’re almost taken, well they are, not almost, taken for granted. And so, that is the racism that we’re challenging with this film.

CS: Well, finally, most documentary-makers don’t want their work to sit on a shelf somewhere. How are you using this film, how do you hope to use it, and how can folks find out more?

IJ: This film is directed, first of all, by U-Savior, who I really want to commend because it took his vision and scope to really bring this to film. You know, this is a film about radio, but as it’s known, people retain more of what they see and hear than what they just hear, so adding this aspect of media to film and joining the two and showing how multimedia works together, I think he did a great job at that. I also want to commend Bob Law for writing the wonderful narration and telling the story in such a poignant way. But what we’re trying to do is use this film as a teaching tool, and the community has responded. We had a number of screenings in the New York area, and people are starved for this story. They come up to us, they think it’s fantastic, the phone calls keep coming in in droves, we can’t answer people fast enough. Everybody wants to know when it’s coming out. Educators want to know how they can bring it to their students. People from Tulsa, Oklahoma, Germany, Canada, and of course all over the United States want to know when is the film coming to their communities. So it’s definitely time for Disappearing Voices: The Decline of Black Radio to get out there. For more information, you can go to, and that’s the reason why we’re doing this because we really want community radio to come back in a big way. And kudos to you on CounterSpin and also all the other folks on WBAI who are struggling and working to make sure that the community voices are heard.

CS: We’ve been speaking with Iyanna Jones, executive producer of the film Disappearing Voices: The Decline of Black Radio. Thank you very much for joining us this week on CounterSpin!

IJ: Thanks for having me. Take care, everybody.