On its June 28 broadcast, CBS Evening News debuted a new campaign feature called "What Does It Mean To You?," an attempt to contrast John Kerry and George W. Bush's positions on major issues. But the first installment's discussion of public school vouchers presented a slanted view on a very controversial topic.
The report began by profiling Catherine Hill, a grandmother raising her brother's seven-year-old twins. As correspondent Byron Pitts explained, "For three generations, she believed in public education, raising her children, grandchildren and a host of relatives' children in the same neighborhood school where she volunteered. But times have changed."
Pitts explained that Hill is now taking part in a voucher program in Washington, D.C. that "would give some 1,600 public school students the opportunity to go to a private school on a $7,500 voucher." He continued: "But the future of any federally funded voucher program will depend on who voters choose in November." As Pitts explained, Bush favors such vouchers programs, while Kerry does not. CBS then aired brief comments from a public school principal in support of increasing public funding for schools.
The report made little effort to be balanced, giving significantly more airtime to the voucher-supporting grandmother (nine sound bites) than to the anti-voucher principal (two sound bites).
But worse, the CBS report presented no real information about voucher programs. Instead, viewers were left with a choice: either vote for Bush and support a grandmother who wants better for the children in her care, or side with Kerry and the school administrator. As Pitts put it at the close of the report, "As for Mrs. Hill, she says the voucher program won't just give her children a choice... It will give them a chance."
In place of such emotional appeals, CBS might have included evidence on the academic benefits of vouchers-- benefits that research show have been mixed, as a 2001 General Accounting Office survey concluded (Associated Press, 10/1/01).
CBS might also have looked more seriously into D.C.'s voucher program. As the Washington Post reported earlier in the month (6/11/04), "The D.C. voucher program did not receive enough applicants from public schools to fill all the slots available, and some of the children who will receive the federally funded tuition grants already attend private school, officials said yesterday." Surely there are substantive questions to be raised about a program that is attracting few applicants among its intended population.
Pitt's suggestion that public school students could go to private school "on a $7,500 voucher" is misleading. According to the liberal group People for the American Way, half of D.C.'s private schools cost $10,800 or more per year. With a maximum voucher amount of $7,500, private school attendance would still be out of the reach of many low-income families. (For more, see: http://www.pfaw.org/pfaw/dfiles/file_230.pdf)
It is refreshing to see CBS devote attention to serious campaign issues that separate Kerry and Bush. But if they really intend to show viewers "what it means to you," they will need to be more informative and even-handed.
ACTION: Ask CBS to do another report on school vouchers as a campaign issue-- one that explains why some parents and experts oppose taxpayer-supported vouchers for private schools.
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