I will protect your pensions. Nothing about your pension is going to change when I am governor. - Chris Christie, "An Open Letter to the Teachers of NJ" October, 2009

Sunday, March 13, 2011

The Media Fails Our Schools - AGAIN

This Sunday's Star-Ledger editorial about the NJEA is a great example of how our media is failing us and our schools:
Maybe we should expect this from a union that believes the best way to solve a problem is to throw money at it.

The New Jersey Education Association spent a state lobbying-record $6.9 million of its own money last year — $6.6 million on ineffective counterpunches against Gov. Chris Christie, who has spent the past 14 months beating the union’s brains in.
Christie has whipped them in the battle of political wits, pummeled them with bruising sound bites, stomped on them on YouTube — and has won nearly every verdict in the court of public opinion. Heck, he even squeezed a hat-in-hand apology from union president Barbara Keshishian when an underling joked about Christie’s death in a memo.
Now, why is that? Is it because Christie has superior plans for education? Not according to the reporting of the S-L's own Bob Braun, who has shown Christie's plans for teacher evaluation and charter schools to be full of hot air.

Maybe it's because Christie has, according to the S-L's own Kevin Manahan, unprecedented access to the media - a media that spends most of their time kissing his kiester:
For more than a year, most of the national media have tripped over themselves to tell the governor how great he is, or have allowed him to tell the nation himself. It’s fitting that radio and TV host Glenn Beck lovingly calls Christie “the conservative porn star,” because dozens of media outlets — magazines (national and niche), newspapers (New Jersey and beyond), radio (AM and FM), TV (network and cable) — want to climb into bed with Christie and kiss him all over.
In addition, interviewers often don’t have a good grip on what’s happening in New Jersey, outside of what they see in YouTube clips posted by the Christie P.R. machine. Many simply don’t do their homework (“What’s the tool kit?” Scarborough once asked a Star-Ledger reporter). They rarely have a challenging follow-up question and they leave fact-checking to someone else (one inflated Christie’s approval rating to 70 percent). Their shallow questions are tailor-made for Christie riffs on what a great job he’s doing.
Did it not occur to the Editorial Board of the S-L that maybe their columnists were on to something? They continue:
If this were a heavyweight fight, it would have been stopped on cuts long ago.
Keshishian is no match for Christie, and teachers are losing the public relations war because of it.
The bottom line on those lobbying millions: They were wasted.
It’s more good money after bad.
Why were they wasted? Because the NJEA can't get a word in edgewise during the Christie love-fest? Whose fault is that - the NJEA's? I'd suggest that your butt-kissing brethren in the press, S-L, are far more culpable than the union.
Overpaid NJEA management...
Whoa, whoa, WHOA! By what standard is the leadership of the NJEA overpaid? Compared to what? Other NJ unions? Other teachers unions in other states? If the S-L is going to make that claim, they'd better back it up; otherwise, they're just parroting Christie's spin, and making my point that NJEA can't get an even break in the media.
Overpaid NJEA management blew seven mil to tell a story to people who, for the most part, aren’t interested in what the union has to say. Why not? Because when the economy tanked and taxpayers struggled with layoffs and furloughs, foreclosures and bankruptcies, union leadership told teachers to refuse salary freezes. Most followed the advice.
This is probably one of the most biased statemenets I've read in the S-L since this whole thing started; not because of what they said, but because of what they left out:

- Considering Christie forced teachers to pay more for their health care through legislation, the "pay freeze" was never a freeze - it was a cut.

- Teacher pay has not kept pace with the average salary in NJ over the last 25 years: the average salary rose 162%, while teacher salaries rose 150%.

- Even taking benefits and work hours into account, teachers are underpaid compared to workers with similar education and experience.

The NJEA never said teachers shouldn't take pay freezes cuts; they said it should be decided at the local level, because each district had a different situation:
NJEA President Barbara Keshishian issued the following statement in response:
"Gov. Christie has called on school employees to voluntarily subsidize school district budgets in order to make up for the cuts he has imposed already this year, and those he intends to impose in next year's budget.
"In New Jersey, school employees' contracts are negotiated locally, and each local association may decide whether or not to reopen its settled contract. However, NJEA members will not be bullied by this governor into paying for his misguided priorities. Despite his preposterous claim that state funding for education has actually increased, the truth is that the governor has slashed more than $1.3 billion from direct aid to local districts through his executive order last month and the budget he proposed earlier this month. Those are his priorities, and he is responsible for their consequences. [emphasis mine]

- There was never a way that a local union could guarantee that, if they took a pay freeze cut, the local school board wouldn't lay off teachers anyway.

- Teacher contracts since last spring have settled at average increases of 1.6%, proving the teacher labor market is as responsive as any labor market.

- At the same time Christie imposed a pay freeze cut on all teachers, he oversaw a huge tax cut on the order of $600 million for the wealthiest people of this state.

- And, once again: the OLS stated in their report that a pay freeze would not have offset even one-quarter of Christie's cuts in aid to schools.

If the readers of the S-L don't know these facts (especially the last one, the most underreported FACT in this whole debate), that is not the fault of the NJEA; it's the fault of the S-L. And, even though I have my problems with the union leadership over some things, I can hardly blame the NJEA for spending money to try to correct the miserable job the media has done informing their readers, listeners, and viewers about these issues.

The S-L continues:
“The governor was putting out a lot of what we feel was misinformation on education and our members demanded we set the record straight,” NJEA spokesman Steve Wollmer said.
No, on the point that matters most, the governor is right: The union bungled its chance to win the respect of taxpayers who pay teachers’ salaries and fund their benefits. [emphasis mine]
That is an amazing statement for a newspaper to make: it doesn't matter if the governor is putting out misinformation, because the NJEA didn't roll over and do what he told them to do.

Leave aside all of the qualifications I listed above: even if the NJEA was clearly in the wrong, that doesn't give Christie the right to misinform the public. More importantly: it doesn't give the S-L and the rest of the media the right to simply sit back and let him spew his spin without even modest challenges. And it certainly doesn't give the S-L the right to take pot-shots at the NJEA for spending money to try to correct for the media's abdication of their responsibilities.

This is so fundamental to basic journalistic ethics that I can't believe I have to point it out. The S-L has a duty to challenge Christie on his spin (yes, they have a duty to challenge the NJEA as well). That duty does not disappear just because the NJEA did something the S-L didn't agree with.
How adroit has Christie been? He blew $400 million in federal education funding, fired an education commissioner, unjustly called him a liar and is still seen as the good guy in this tussle.
He is still seen as the good guy because the media portrays him that way! That is NOT the fault of the NJEA!
If NJEA members believe this is an effective use of their money, they don’t know the value of a buck. It’s amazing there hasn’t been a coup. Already teachers are paying Keshishian, executive director Vincent Giordano and Wollmer way too much. That’s a million a year in salaries deciding how to blow another seven million in lobbying — all because they gave teachers bad advice in the first place.
What are teachers — once admired, now vilified — getting for all that money? Not much.
And what is the public getting for the $2 they shelled out for this fish-wrapping excuse for a newspaper?

At least now teachers know where they stand: take a pay cut, and maybe - just maybe - the Star-Ledger will treat you fairly and hold the governor the American media loves most to account.



Anonymous said...

The Unions should start a grassroots movement in the NY TEacher Education programs and make sure the students are registered voters. Then have them call Christie and let him know where they stand. have their parents call too because these young people will not have a profession and the children of NJ will be failed because of Christie--the schoolyard bully. I am just a lowly NY teacher but I have started calling my under grad and grad Ed programs to see what they are doing to save the "Children First" and our profession.

GenBerr @ twitter.com

Duke said...

Thanks for that, Gen. Teachers cannot afford to be apolitical anymore.

But calling Christie won't do anything; he's painted himself into a corner and will not back down. He needs to go.

And, on your side of the river, so does Bloomberg. And I'm not very happy with Cuomo either.