A bruising battle in the schoolyard

By Michael Getler

Special correspondent John Merrow is a familiar figure for viewers of the PBS NewsHour. He has reported on education for more than 40 years, 30 of those for the NewsHour. He is the recipient of numerous awards. On Oct. 15, he made his final appearance on the NewsHour before his retirement, with a long interview with co-anchor Judy Woodruff.

But Merrow did not exactly slip easily into retirement. A nine-minute segment that he reported on the Oct. 12th NewsHour—about the largest charter school network in New York City and its behavioral and suspension polices—has exploded into a high-profile confrontation between the NewsHour and the CEO of Success Academy Charter Schools, Eva Moskowitz.

The dispute over Merrow’s report—the very detailed and pointed critique and demands for corrections and apologies by Moskowitz, and the defense of the story by the NewsHour—is long and complex. But fortunately, for those interested, all of these exchanges have been put online, along with a lot of other articles that have resulted, so I’ve included links to everything in this column. It’s a lot of material, but well worth reading.

The confrontation started with a lengthy email from Moskowitz to Woodruff  laying out her criticisms of the Oct. 12 segment and including a good deal of background material, including email exchanges with Merrow before the actual broadcast, accounts of school conduct by an unnamed (by Moskowitz) student, and supporting reports from teachers about that student’s conduct.

Eight days later, during the Oct. 20 broadcast, Woodruff, who had nothing to do with the Oct. 12 Merrow report aside from introducing it on the air, said: “And an editor’s note about a story that aired on the NewsHour last week from long-time education reporter John Merrow. The story focused on school policies for suspending very young children. Eva Moskowitz, CEO of the New York City based charter school Success Academy, has since raised questions or concerns that during her interview she was asked questions only about suspension policy in general and not given an opportunity to respond to a family also interviewed in the report. While the NewsHour stands by the report, we regret that decision. You can read Ms. Moskowitz’s response to the report and more at pbs.org/newshour.”

The Paper Trail

Here is Moskowitz’s first email to the NewsHour. Here is a much longer “clarification” posted by the NewsHour on its website on Oct. 20 after receiving Moskowitz’s email. And here is Moskowitz’s rejection of the NewsHour clarification, in which she says “new inaccurate claims” were made.

And, if you are looking for more reporting and commentary on this specific controversy, herehereherehere and here are some of the blogs and articles that have surfaced since it became public.

In a very brief snapshot, as I watched the program and then read the transcript, this story—labeled “Is kindergarten too young to suspend a student?”—aims to get at the national issue and problem of more than three million students suspended from public schools each year by focusing mostly on the 34 publicly-funded, privately-run charter schools of the Success Academy in New York that “emphasize science and the arts and are wildly popular among parents,” as Merrow reported.

In the broadcast, Merrow zeros in on the code of conduct for students and infractions that, if repeated, could trigger out-of-school suspensions, especially for the youngest students. He then reports that suspension rates at the school “are almost three times higher than the city’s K-12 public schools.”

A Tough Question

Then he goes on to ask: “Could out-of-school suspensions be a factor in the network’s academic success? Eva Moskowitz’s critics think so. They accuse her of suspending very young children over and over to persuade parents to change schools before state testing begins in third grade. Could that be true? We do know that some Success Academy students are suspended over and over.”

To support the questions he raises, he first interviews one youngster on camera and, later, his mother, who are both identified by name, and he adds, “Other parents told us their young children were sent home multiple times for infractions like not paying attention or for getting out of their seats to look at the bulletin board.”

Moskowitz fires back on the program, saying, “Anecdotes don’t make for statistical trends.” And later, when Merrow starts to ask directly if “you ever use out-of-school suspensions as a way to persuade parents that…,” Moskowitz replies, “No. We don’t suspend in order to boost our academics. Like, that’s just crazy talk.”

But Merrow immediately counters, stating: “But our sources, including several public school principals, quite a few former Success Academy parents, and one person inside her organization, charge that is exactly what she does, repeatedly suspend certain kids to push them out. However, none of these critics were willing to publicly confront Moskowitz.”

In the longer “clarification” that the NewsHour offered to Moskowitz’s first emailed complaint, the program also claimed: “The reporting included conversations with nearly a dozen families about their young children’s suspensions from Success Academy, as well as other sources, including one with Success Academy. Most of these sources were unwilling to go on camera.”

They also noted in that clarification that the one family (the mother mentioned above) that did appear on camera “was not willing to allow Success Academy to release her son’s school records.”

My Thoughts

The reason this controversy is of special interest to me, and the reason for calling attention to the quotes above, is because it puts in play important journalistic fundamentals, conflicting journalistic instincts and even how sophisticated audiences absorb journalism.

I have no special insight into education procedures, can’t evaluate the battle that still rages over the accuracy of the statistical analysis used in this segment, and can’t really tell who is right and wrong on the substance of school policy and procedure.

On the one hand, Merrow is a highly-experienced, well-respected specialist in this field of reporting, so what he reports and says may be absolutely true and very important in disclosing questionable activities of a high-profile school system and the impact on young children. Merrow is a very credible figure, so segments like this have power and many viewers may be grateful for such challenging reporting and are instinctively inclined to believe his report.

And Moskowitz, as some have commented publicly, may also have gone too far at one point in her very pointed efforts to rebut Merrow’s reporting by disclosing the long and detailed list of infractions, and teacher reports, that this one young student was reportedly engaged in. Moskowitz did not name the student but there was only one interviewed on the program.

The Perception Problem

Part of the controversy over this story, as it was presented, is in perception concerning what this story was really about.

In its later clarification, the NewsHour says, “The fundamental point of Mr. Merrow’s report is about the policy of suspensions of young children. It accurately documents that Success Academy suspends students as young as five- and six-year olds at a greater rate than many other schools.”

Moskowitz counters that “very little of Mr. Merrow’s report is about this contention. I freely acknowledge that Success Academy suspends students more readily than most other public schools. We are less tolerant than other schools of dangerous and disruptive behavior by students. But Mr. Merrow’s report was not primarily about the acknowledged fact that our rates of suspensions are different but about the reasons our rates are different. Mr. Merrow argued that it is because we suspend for minor infractions. He also argued that this leads to attrition and that this accounts for our high test scores. All of those claims, which were the primary focus of his report, are untrue and unsubstantiated.”

And Other Issues

I, too, had problems with this segment but mostly of a different sort, and the question I ask myself, and also asked the NewsHour, among other points, is why this segment could not have been held-up to do more work on it, beyond the acknowledged failure to let Moskowitz respond directly to the claims of the mother and her son. Again, this is a very serious and important subject, aimed at a forceful, very high-profile figure in the charter school universe, and you would want it to be as credible and bullet-proof as possible. This segment did not achieve that, in my view.

I have no reason not to believe Merrow or the NewsHour when they say that virtually everyone they talked to said what the program suggested they said, but that they declined to say it on camera. An extensive New York Times story in April, which quoted many people on the record, also reported, “some other former Success teachers, did not want to be named criticizing the network. These former teachers said they feared hurting their future job prospects by disparaging a former employer or by being identified as critics of charter schools.”

But that results in a weakened and vulnerable broadcast presentation.

The NewsHour, as I’ve watched it over the years, rarely relies on anonymous sources. But in this case all the critics are anonymous except two, the mother and her son. And she won’t release her son’s records, which probably should have been another red flag signaling that perhaps this youngster did do some pretty bad things and was not easily suspended and was not a good choice to be the solo on-camera example.

There is, for me, just too much in this presentation that depends on anonymous “Eva Moskowitz’s critics,” and “other parents told us” and “but our sources…charge.” The NewsHour, day in and out, is better than that.

In response to my questions to the NewsHour of why this segment could not have been delayed to do more work on it, the executive producer of the NewsHour, Sara Just, said this:

Sara Just Responds

I want to clarify two things that, based on your questions, you seem to be drawing conclusions over incorrectly. First, the issue that NH clarified regarding Ms. Moskowitz responding to the family was due to miscommunication with Mr. Merrow and the NewsHour about privacy laws. Holding the story for more time would not have changed that. Second, the NH does not have a blanket no-anonymous-sources policy. Anonymous sources are to be used rarely and judiciously when needed in specific stories. As for the rest of your questions, the statement NH published stands.

My Further Thoughts

Not surpringly, I don’t agree that I’m drawing incorrect conclusions. I invite those interested in this issue to read Moskowitz’s lengthy exchanges with Merrow prior to and just after the broadcast. Before the segment aired, Moskowitz, without naming the mother, writes to say she “should not be allowed to simultaneously use her privacy rights to prevent us from speaking while telling her side of the story. We object to your allowing this to happen.”

At another point, Merrow responds, according to the record Moskowitz sent to the NewsHour: “Our story is about out of school suspensions of very young students, not about Jane and her son. We would not air unsubstantiated accusations, and so her decision not to allow the release of John’s records was not material.” Moskowitz counters, in part, “If Jane and her son are not part of the story, then why is she going on the air?”

After Moskowitz writes again, Merrow writes: “Because Jane was unwilling to release her son’s records, we were of course unwilling to allow her to openly criticize the school. Her role in the piece is limited and should not be a cause for concern on your part.”

That’s just part of the email record that took place before the program aired. As it turned out, I think it is fair to say that the comments on camera of Jamir Geidi, the son, and his mother, Fatima, were, in fact, an important part of the program. Indeed, they were the only ones to comment on the record about the school. The code of conduct rules that the youngster talked about were: “I would always have to keep my shirt tucked in. And let’s say I wasn’t wearing black shoes, and I was wearing red shoes. Then that would be an infraction.” The mother was slightly more forthcoming, and Merrow was correct in that the mother did not directly disparage the school but rather compared its policies to the public school he now attends. So there was no indication of the extensive record of misbehavior that the school, and teachers, provided after the segment aired.

So going back and interviewing Moskowitz, after having interviewed the youngster and his mother, would have been worthwhile and fair, in my view, even if it meant delaying the segment.

But that is not the reason I asked why the segment could not have been delayed for more reporting, although it might well have caused the NewsHour to have second thoughts about who to put on camera. And the NewsHour, to its credit, did say it regretted not having given her a chance to respond.

The segment, however, contains some hard and serious shots at Moskowitz by Merrow and they are all anonymous. Is there no one, anywhere, with a substantive case to make against Moskowitz and the Success Academy policies who will speak up? If, as the NewsHour claims, there was no one among “her critics…other parents…several school principals, quite a few former Success Academy parents and one person inside her organization” who will speak up on the record, maybe you ought to keep trying. Or maybe this tells you something about the story and not just about Moskowitz. Or maybe that student and his mother don’t illustrate the case you are trying to make. Maybe this segment isn’t ready for the public.

Finally, I never thought, or said, that the NewsHour had a blanket, no anonymous sources policy. As I said earlier in this column, which I had written most of before Just’s response, anonymous sources are “rarely” used. So Just’s response simply confirms what I had already written. But this is not a big national security issue or something like that when sources frequently decline to be identified. This is charter schools and policies that we are talking about, a big universe and surely not everyone out there with a supportable case to make is afraid of Eva Moskowitz. Or are they?

This column was originally published on PBS.org on 26 Oct. 2015.

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