Oct 1 2010

Rick Ayers on Waiting for Superman, Vivian Stockman on Appalachia Rising


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This week on CounterSpin: The media accolades heaped on the new documentary Waiting for Superman would be the envy of any filmmaker. The movie’s stirring endorsement of corporate-backed education reform makes it an easy sell in the corporate media. But education professor and author Rick Ayers calls Waiting for Superman a “slick marketing piece full of half-truths and distortions.” He’ll join us to explain.

Also on the show today: You wouldn’t know it from the corporate press, but thousands of people were in Washington, D.C., September 25-27 to call for an end to mountaintop removal mining. The series of actions, called Appalachia Rising, hoped to raise awareness of the devastating environmental and community impacts of the process that the industry contends is necessary to preserve jobs and keep the country from depending on “foreign oil.” Vivian Stockman is project coordinator with the Ohio Valley Environmental Coalition. She’ll join us to talk about the message of Appalachia Rising.

All that’s coming up, but first we’ll take a look back at the week’s press.

—National assembly elections in Venezuela were a good occasion for U.S. media to dust off their anti-Hugo Chávez talking points. USA Today ran an AP story on September 27 that announced in the lead that Chavez opponents sought to “break the authoritarian ruler’s monopoly on power.” The rest of the article featured a number of accusations coming from anti-Chávez forces—claims about voting irregularities in a previous election, pro-Chávez legislators “keep rewriting laws unopposed,” and so on. Newsweek‘s Latin America correspondent Mac Margolis speculated that Chávez would lash out after being defeated at the ballot box. Margolis found one source who predicted that Chávez “could even try to install a Cuban-style national assembly with its own council and president as a shadow power”; it’s a point Margolis echoed in his concluding comment about “the dangers of the patriarch in autumn.” Hearing such talk, it’s worth remembering that Chávez has repeatedly prevailed in elections, while anti-Chávez forces can claim as their only real triumph their 2002 coup that briefly removed him from power.

One of the most clear-eyed assessments came from longtime Chávez critic Jackson Diehl of the Washington Post; he who wrote on Spetember 27 that the debate about Hugo Chávez in the United States is limited to “whether the Venezuelan strongman is a genuine threat to the United States or a buffoonish nuisance who is best ignored.” Well, he is certainly right about that. But Diehl’s point is that the latter position is dangerously naïve. Anyone who might argue in support of Chávez, or the right of Venezuelans to support his policies, is not invited to that elite debate.

USA Today ran a version of an AP story September 29 about the outrageous and depressing fact that not a penny of the 1.5 billion dollars the U.S. pledged to Haiti for rebuilding after the devastating earthquake nearly 9 months ago has actually been delivered. It’s the sort of news that might make readers sad, but it should make them angry too. The trouble is, you have to get to paragraph 10 of a 12-paragraph piece before you learn why the money hasn’t moved: Republican Senator Tom Coburn of Oklahoma is holding up the authorization bill on purpose because he believes it includes one unnecessary staff position. One, as his spokesperson unashamedly declared.

Part of the strategy behind these Senate holds is that you can sort of get away with it without anyone noticing that you’re being a creep. Of course, this works even better if press plays along.

—Some headlines really make you wonder. The New York Times ran a story on September 28 about a military court that’s investigating claims that members of a U.S. Army unit randomly killed Afghan civilians. Some of the soldiers say they were pressured to do so by a commanding officer. There are also reports that soldiers took pictures of the dead Afghans, along with body parts. The headline of the New York Times piece in some editions was odd: “Drug Use Cited in Unit Tied to Civilian Deaths.” That would seem to be a reference to the brief mention near the bottom of the piece from one lawyer who suggested there was widespread drug use in this particular unit. Now, that would hardly seem like the most important revelation in the article. Then again, sometimes an entire news report can seem a bit off. Take the September 27 USA Today report headlined, “IEDs show troop surge working, U.S. officers say.” So the fact that U.S. forces are being attacked more frequently in Afghanistan is a sign that the surge plan is “working.” The piece is full of quotes from U.S. officials who insist that these attacks are a sign that the Taliban just can’t fight a conventional war—or as the piece’s subheadline put it, “Planting mines seen as Taliban’s ‘cowardly’ effort to stave off defeat as forces advance.”

The article did quote an analyst from the Heritage Foundation, who argued that insurgents are trying to erode support for the war here at home. “They’re after headlines,” is the way he put it. Well, USA Today actually makes headlines, and the stories that go along with them. And here they went out of their way to portray attacks on U.S. troops as a sign that the war is working. Maybe the Taliban aren’t the only ones “after” headlines.

Newsweek economics columnist Robert Samuelson has had it with the way we discuss economics. He complained on September 8: “With every election, we descend into soundbite economics. Rhetorical claims grow more partisan and self-serving…. These debates confirm the dreary state of economic discourse.”

The right and the left are both at fault, says Samuelson, and then proceeds to endorse the conservative critique of Obama policies, using…partisan soundbites: Like, “Confidence is crucial to stimulating consumer spending and business investment, and Obama constantly subverts confidence.” And the deepwater drilling the moratorium “kills jobs.”

Samuelson had no time to address a White House report indicating that job losses due to the moratorium were actually much fewer, and will be more temporary, than expected. But that him left room for more partisan soundbites, like describing Obama’s plan to let the Bush tax cuts expire on the wealthiest taxpayers as “his delusional approach.” Samuelson even adds that the move would “hurt small businesses” which is a by now very well known Republican talking point that’s been substantively challenged. Samuelson’s conclusion is that our “campaign discourse is strangely disconnected from underlying economic realities.” He’s right about that one.

—And finally, CNN president Jon Klein was dumped from the network last week. One comment he made back in 2005 still sticks out. On the Charlie Rose show, he explained that there couldn’t be a left-liberal answer to Fox News because those people “don’t get too worked up about anything. And they’re pretty morally relativistic.”

Now you can argue that say, MSNBC doesn’t really do the same thing as Fox—and who could, really? But it’s pretty clear that someone in management over there decided—once it was safe to do so—that you could play to a left liberal audience. And you know what happened? Most of the time, they wind up getting more prime-time viewers than CNN.

It’s worth noting also that Klein will be replaced by Ken Jautz, who was the boss at CNN Headline News. Back in 2006 he was very proud of his network’s newest hire, a guy he touted as “self-deprecating” and “cordial,” someone who likes to “disagree with guests and part as friends. It’s conversational, not confrontational.”

The host he’s talking about? That’s a guy by the name of Glenn Beck. So the person who brought Glenn Beck to television just got a promotion.


CounterSpin: The new documentary Waiting for Superman is being credited for reviving the debate over education “reform;” how much of an actual “debate” we’re hearing, of course, is another matter. The takeaway from the movie is that the push for educational excellence is largely going to come through an expansion of charter schools, and that teachers unions need to stop getting in the way of reform. Director Davis Guggenheim, who won accolades for the Al Gore film An Inconvenient Truth, says in interviews that this isn’t really the position the film intended to take, but viewers sure seem to be drawing those lessons anyway. Timed to coincide with the release of the film, NBC News has convened the Education Nation Summit, which has largely amplified, rather than scrutinized, the film’s message.

So does the movie get its facts right? We’re joined now by one critic who doesn’t think so. Rick Ayers is a former high school teacher and adjunct professor in teacher education at the University of San Francisco. He’s written several books, and is the co-author of the forthcoming Teaching the Taboo: Courage and Imagination in the Classroom.

Rick Ayers, welcome to CounterSpin.

Rick Ayers: Thank you.

CS: Now, you’ve written a couple of critical pieces about what the film misses, or misstates. The errors are important. As some critics have pointed out, the errors get restated as fact in positive reviews of the film. This is a film you’ve called a “slick marketing piece full of half-truths and distortions.” It’s hard to know where to begin; you’ve written some point-by-point responses—but let’s start with this idea that money isn’t the problem in education. We hear that a lot in this movie and elsewhere. You’re suggesting the success stories touted in the film basically undermine the point the movie’s trying to make.

RA: The weird thing that Guggenheim does in this film is he puts forward the Harlem Children’s Zone and Promise Academy and basically says that they show what can be done when teachers are held accountable and, you know, forced to teach right instead of teaching badly. And then right after that, he says but money isn’t the answer; good teachers are the answer. But the truth is the Harlem Children’s Zone has this tremendous amount of private donations, and God bless them, I think it’s great they’ve done it. They have child support, healthcare, family counseling from birth for those who get into it. And Promise Academy gets only a third of its money from public funds. So it has three times as much money as a normal school. And hello, they have great results. So, I mean it’s a great thing to see that it can be done, and we always knew it could be done, but to show that school and then turn around and say money isn’t the issue seems kind of ridiculous.

CS: And it’s a wholistic model that seems, you know, very difficult to replicate elsewhere. One of the lessons that everyone seems to be drawing from the film is that it’s a good opportunity to bash teachers unions. New York Times columnist Gail Collins, referencing his previous work, wrote that the unions “seem to be playing the role of carbon emissions.”

RA: [laughter]

CS: Some other critics have noted that some of the union-bashing is out of date. We’re told the Washington, D.C., teachers union won’t even vote on a contract to alter tenure rules. But they did voted of favor of this in June. There’s sort of a two-pronged message about teachers—the unions block good ideas, and the way we educate teachers is completely wrong. How do you respond to those ideas?

RA: Well, I think that again, they’ve taken a pretty complicated issue and oversimplified. There’s not a kind of untouchable tenure that teachers have. There is a requirement that teachers get due process if an administrator wants to get rid of them, so you can’t get rid of a teacher for their race or for their gender or orientation, things like that, which used to happen. So, you know, we have protection. But you can get rid of teachers who aren’t good. And by the way, teachers who aren’t good really aren’t the big problem, although you can always find egregious cases in the profession. But the interesting thing is, too, in cases when teachers unions are given responsibility to review teacher performance and even move people towards separation and firing—when the unions do a peer review, they get rid of more teachers than when administrators do it. Why? Because teachers don’t want the bad teachers down the hall in there. So teachers are not trying to protect bad teachers. And that’s the message of the film.

CS: The New York Times recently did a big story on a turnaround school in Massachusetts, I think, and it was one of these stories where the teachers all stayed, the administrators stayed, but they figured out how to turn around the school. It didn’t require a superman coming in and firing half the staff and so on.

RA: Well, and that points to Michelle Rhee who Oprah called her a “woman warrior” you know and invoked all this kind of new-agey good feelings about her. But Michelle Rhee has actually accomplished nothing. No test score change, even though you hear people say, “apparently test scores went up?” when they do interviews about her. She’s done nothing. She’s just kind of attractive because she’s abrasive and her solution is firing teachers, firing principals—and that just sounds so activist. But you know, she’s out, so that’s another example of sort of fake reform.

CS: You did write, in both of the pieces that I saw, about a cartoon that’s in the film that tries to explain how kids learn, which is apparently a bizarre cracking their heads open and pouring in information.

RA: I will say that you’re allowed to do kind of funny little things in cartoons, but it actually reinforces a theory of learning that Freire called the banking model, which is I’m up here large and in charge, teacher in front, and I’m downloading information to the children—download, download, download—and then when the test comes, they have to spit some back. And so they have a picture of a little kid, they carve his forehead around and lift the brain open and pour in all these facts. And, you know, the reason that’s disturbing is because there’s actually kind of a fetish in this country around this testing. And the testing does follow that model. You’ve got to give them a lot of facts, and they need to spit them back like a Jeopardy game. And one of the problems we’re having is this whole so-called reform movement is driven by standardized tests. And standardized tests do not reflect student learning, they certainly don’t respect student knowledge. They only test for your ability to retain certain culturally-ratified information.

CS: Now finally, the politics of the film, I think, are interesting. Some critics have pointed out that there is a danger here, and that the film is essentially a liberal-guise endorsement of these pro-corporate, anti-union education policies. The connection to climate activism is being made; people will see the film without knowing much about the background here, and come away with a very slanted view on how to fix schools. Is that the danger that you see here?

RA: Well, yes, I think so. I think that we find in the last couple of decades that a lot people with MBAs have decided to take on fixing schools as their project. And it’s a dangerous game because they use the market model, they use the idea of production of widgets to go into schooling. But schooling is a much more complicated and more wonderful process, which includes students wondering, questioning, developing their own ideas about the world. And learning is something that should be a welcoming, positive experience. But the way it’s become framed, learning is something that is always surveilled, always punished with gotchas or wrong answers, and it’s really undermining of the learning process. Some people feel, conspiracy theorists feel, that there are people behind this effort who really want to privatize education—that it shouldn’t be a public right, that those who can get in should get in, but those who need to be trained for a more disciplined workforce need to get out. So many people question if this is a, you know, if the discussion that’s happening now is really designed to lead to a broad democratic advance in education or is it a privatizing effort.

CS: We’ve been speaking with Rick Ayers. He is an adjunct professor in teacher education at the University of San Francisco; he’s co-author of the forthcoming book Teaching the Taboo: Courage and Imagination in the Classroom. His writings about Waiting for Superman can be read at the Huffington Post and at the Washington Post‘s AnswerSheet education blog.

Rick Ayers, thanks for joining us today on CounterSpin.

RA: Thank you.


CounterSpin: Washington, D.C., has seen many protests, but September 25-27 was the largest national effort so far to call legislators’ and the public’s attention to mountaintop mining. Appalachia Rising was led by residents of West Virginia, Kentucky, Virginia, and Tennessee—states most immediately impacted by the practice of blowing up mountains and dumping the debris into nearby valleys and waterways to get to seams of coal. About 100 supporters were arrested for their civil disobedience, including renowned climate scientist James Hansen. But apart from those arrests, the mainstream press corps didn’t seem to find too much interesting in thousands of people taking to the street to confront the powerful coal industry over what many call a crime against nature and communities.

Here to talk about the message of Appalachia Rising and what they’re up against is Vivian Stockman. Vivian Stockman is project coordinator for the Ohio Valley Environmental Coalition and one of the many, many people behind Appalachia Rising. She joins us now by phone.

Welcome to CounterSpin, Vivian Stockman!

Vivian Stockman: Well, thanks for having me.

CS: Well, there has of course been activism around mountaintop removal for as long as there’s been mountaintop removal. What was the push behind Appalachia Rising, why was there a need for this now?

VS: Well, it’s obvious that we really need to pressure the Obama Administration to once and for all abolish mountaintop removal coal mining, so people have been having the conversation for quite some time, that we need to come forward to D.C. to show that this is a national movement. And there were many organizers behind this, and really I had a rather minor role in bringing this all to fruition, but one of the first voices saying that we needed this type of thing was Judy Bond from Coal River Mountain Watch, who was unable to be at the protest because she is quite ill. But we’re all fairly confident that she will be thrilled with what the turnout was and that this has illustrated this is a national movement, and really there’s a bit of national outrage going on and the pressure is obviously on the administration to end this extreme form of coal mining

CS: Well, what is the state of legislation or policy? I mean, this mountaintop removal is not against the law right now, is it?

VS: In our opinion, yes it is. There are many ways the assorted agencies are not following their rules and regulations. The Army Corps of Engineers especially has been subject to lawsuits from us because they have been issuing valley fill permits without regard to the law. So in many aspects mountaintop removal is illegal, and we’ve just found over and over again that you really can’t regulate this industry. It’s just, there’s too many crooked politicians, and they control the regulators, and they’re in cahoots with the coal industry, and it just gets away with doing whatever it wants. That was the whole message behind Appalachia Rising is abolish mountaintop removal; it cannot be regulated.

CS: Well, you are no stranger to media, certainly. You’ve been working with press around these issues for some time. You know it seems like if three Tea Partiers meet at an IHOP, the media is there to cover it. I wonder what you imagine can account for the relative lack of attention to this really important effort?

VS: Well, what’s quite obvious to us in West Virginia is the coal industry’s stranglehold on the traditional media, on so much of the traditional media. The West Virginia MetroNews networks—the radio networks—the owner of that has coal interests, and interestingly enough, he’s a Republican candidate for the U.S. Senate seat for West Virginia, deceased Senator Byrd’s seat. That’s coming up in this election. There’s another set of TV stations that are owned by a consortium with coal industry interests, and, you know, the local smaller newspapers really seem to run scared against saying anything that’s truthful yet critical about the coal industry. So we see the corporate control of the media is really a big hurdle to overcome in West Virginia, and obviously nationwide too. NBC News was at the event, the Appalachia Rising, and there were thousands of people in the street and over a hundred people were arrested. I talked specifically with the NBC reporter, but I have not been able to find anywhere where this story ran. There was an Internet-written version, but I don’t see anywhere where it was aired locally. Now it may have, and I just haven’t found it, but certainly it did not get much exposure. And again, NBC, General Electric—it’s the corporate stranglehold. The media is the gatekeeper, and they don’t want this story out.

CS: Well, it seems that when media do address coal mining safety issues, generally after an explosion or a cave-in, the frame is often one of “jobs vs. the environment” or even “jobs vs. health.” What’s the matter with that way of presenting things, and how do you push back against that frame?

VS: Well, you know, that’s the classic argument of sort of dividing community members, of saying that it’s jobs vs. environment, and that’s also the classic way of sort of having people disregard their own interests and sort of divide the communities. One way we push back is just by trying to get people out in front of the media to tell their stories, because that’s really the way we can expose what’s going on—is to have people tell what’s happening to them and that their lives and livelihoods are in jeopardy.

CS: Well, the New York Times had a story back in August about mountaintop removal that at one point declared, “While the odds remain slim that wind power will replace coal mining here”—they were talking about West Virginia—still some people think there might be some changes in regulation. I mean, you get really a sense of inevitability, that coal mining as it is with the industry setting the rules, is just how it’s gonna be. Is that part of the problem?

VS: We certainly encounter the brick wall of the coal industry’s political power, and certainly it seems nowadays like this whole sort of oppressive system of the politicians and the coal industry aligning. It’s almost operating on inertia—that’s the way it’s always been, and you’ve just really got to push back hard to break that stranglehold.

CS: I liked the statement from one of the speakers, Maria Gunnoe, who said, “We don’t only want to stop something. We want to begin something.”

VS: That certainly is another main message of the event—a sustainable future for clean-energy jobs. Maria is my co-worker, and her speech and so many speeches were so powerful. It’s not just the event, it’s the movement that we are for our families and our future and a clean-energy future. I think it was so exciting to see so many people from all over the United States come together with us.

CS: Well, let me just ask you finally. Is there something you’d like to see reporters in particular start doing or stop doing, with regard to this set of issues around mountaintop removal?

VS: What I’d really like to see is the TV news finally stepping up and covering this issue. You know, the print media certainly has covered it, but it just seems like the nightly news has not been there. There’s been Nightline, sort of the evening programs, but just scattershot. This is an ongoing, unfolding disaster of perpetual poisoning of people. Our communities are being driven to extinction, and our culture is being threatened by this type of mining, and you know, the heavy hitters of the TV nightly news, it’s not there.

CS: We’ve been speaking with Vivian Stockman, of the Ohio Valley Environmental Coalition. You can find them on the web at OHVEC.org.

Thank you very much for joining us this week on CounterSpin!

VS: Thank you.


—”What ‘Superman’ got wrong, point by point,” by Rick Ayers (Washington Post‘s The Answer Sheet, 9/27/10)

Appalachia Rising