Earlier this year, Bill and Emma Keller found themselves in a bit of hot water online. The trouble began when Emma Keller published a blog in The Guardian on January 8th that was, charitably, poor received by many readers. In it, she discussed a woman named Lisa Bonchek Adams who blogs and tweets about her experiences living with metastatic breast cancer. What was striking about Keller’s blog were inaccuracies about how Adams discusses her disease, intimations that she is at death’s door rather than living as many women do with stage 4 cancer, and language that struck a wide range of readers as inherently disrespectful, even going so far as to ponder if Adams’ frequent tweets amounted to “deathbed selfies”. Not unexpectedly, Keller’s blog generated a massive wave of criticism, and not merely from Adams’ many readers. Shortly thereafter, it became obvious that Keller had quoted from private correspondences with Adams and did not disclose that to either her subject or her readers, and The Guardian took down the post for being out of compliance with their standards.
Oddly enough, the Kellers were not done writing about Lisa Bonchek Adams because on January 12th, Bill Keller, husband of Emma Keller and former executive editor of the New York Times, took to the opinion pages of that paper with a column pondering the propriety of so-called “heroic measures” when faced with an illness that will, ultimately, take one’s life. His column compounded the errors in his wife’s blog by characterizing Adams’ blogging and tweeting in military terms when she had repeatedly written how much she dislikes those metaphors. Keller apparently even contacted Sloan-Kettering to discuss the cost of a therapy dog program that Adams’ wrote about, a discussion that Sloan-Kettering quite correctly refused to have with him. While Keller, in a response from the Times’ public editor, insisted he respects Adams’ choices for her own treatment and public persona, it was hard for many readers, myself included, to not read condescension when he compared his father in law’s death as “humane and honorable” even as he consistently portrayed Adams’ stance as military in nature, a metaphor he said contributed to make death an “expensive misery” in America.
Suffice to say that I believe the Kellers cooperatively stepped in it. But what was more instructive to me was their response to the enormous wave of criticism they received. Bill Keller defensively declared that many readers would only accept him having said “Right on, Lisa!” and Emma Keller insisted that she had been “misread”, which is not an uncommon refrain from those who are displeased that they have been criticized precisely because people understand full well what they meant.
I find this instructive because it rather neatly demonstrates how poorly many elite media personae, who should know better, understand the world of information in which we live today. When I was a child, people like the Kellers were likely the only way any of their readers would have ever learned of Lisa Bonchek Adams and her perspectives on living with stage 4 cancer. The odds of any given reader encountering her would have been miniscule, and while a paper might have granted her a right to publish a few lines defending herself, that would sit in unequal weight to the writings of well respected journalists. Further, influential people both in governance and industry would seek out leading opinion makers and court their voices. It must have been a position both humbling and ego gratifying.
That world has changed dramatically, but the Kellers blundered into it unaware. Lisa Bonchek Adams has 10s of thousands of readers who know full well how distorted a view of her writing was placed in venerable institutions like The Guardian and the New York Times. Further, media itself has exploded with many more bloggers finding venues for commentary, both prominent and humble. Simply put: the opinion page of the New York Times is not the only game in town but the paper’s recent executive editor seems unaware of how unprivileged his position has become. Worse, both Kellers seemed unwilling to process just how sloppily they had misrepresented Adams’ writings and perspectives even when they had her entire body work literally at their fingertips.
Watching that unfold helped me realize what was going on in a series of Op-Ed page pieces regarding education in the United States. In October, Bill Keller repeated accusations from the National Council on Teacher Quality that teacher education is an “industry of mediocrity”. Keller was followed in November by Joe Nocera repeating more NCTQ accusations on the failures of teacher education. I found this puzzling not because there is no room in teacher education for both improvement and for innovation, but because NCTQ’s landmark “study” was not exactly without its critics. It was conducted without a single site visit to a university based teacher preparation program and drew its conclusions about the content of programs mainly by sifting through publically available documents. Linda Darling Hammond of Stanford University made this crystal clear in an article months before Keller and Nocera’s pieces were published. If the gentlemen from the Times still found NCTQ’s conclusions compelling, they are certainly entitled, but what stood out was how completely unaware they appeared to be of the organization’s agenda and, by then, notorious errors.
The same lack of fundamental investigation has guided editorials relating to the Common Core State Standards. In November, the Editorial Board published a piece on the progress of standards implementation that presented none of the concerns about tying teacher performance to the standardized examinations that are central to the enterprise. A few days later, Frank Bruni used his personal Op-Ed column to tie concerns and opposition to the unfolding Common Core to parents who wish to “coddle” their children from all disappointment. Bruni conflated two easily relatable phenomena, parents who do not raise their children to become sufficiently independent and able to adapt to failure and opposition to standards largely by failing to ask any questions that might make that relationship problematic. Both Bruni and the Editorial Board treated the Core as entirely uncontroversial, and this, too, is odd given that legitimate and well founded concerns about the Core’s development, implementation and connection to high stakes testing are easily available. I suppose it is very tempting to assume there is nothing wrong with the Common Core when patrons both influential (Bill Gates) and powerful (the Obama administration) are enthusiastic and court the press, but readers could have left both columns with no knowledge that anyone has concerns about the current reforms more meritorious than fringe conspiracy theories and “coddling” children from disappointment — or that rising test scores could ever be a sign of poor teaching.
I like to think that the journalists of my youth were more rigorous than this, and perhaps that is itself terribly naïve. I certainly have no idea how many unresearched opinion pieces graced the pages of the Times in the 1970s. What I do know is that I have identified a pattern of intellectual laziness that, for reasons I do not know, eschews due diligence when writing about topics that have multiple, legitimate, points of view. Further, I see a pattern of columnists in historically influential and exclusive positions failing to effectively fact check in an age when such information is easier than ever for them to access — moreover, that information is easier than ever for their READERS to access. It is a pattern that bodes poorly for our ability to believe that institutions like the New York Times can be trusted to set a legitimate debate on matters like public education and that means they will be subject to more and more crowd sourced skepticism.