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Race to the Top coverage leaves questions unanswered

Filed by KOSU News in Feature.
November 29, 2012

In an ideal world, the media serve a purpose when it comes to government: providing a check on statements from politicians, officials, and bringing the public closer to the truth. But for the last two weeks, much of our state’s media has failed in that purpose in two big ways. KOSU tried to bring its own reporting to the stories, but commercial media should be able to do what public media has chosen to do.

Case number one: For the fourth time, no Oklahoma school districts will be getting federal money as part of the Race to the Top education reform program. Not here to debate over the program, or whether you think the reforms are needed, or think the standards are unfair.

Why you should care: State Education Department spokeswoman Tricia Pemberton, in a statement to The Oklahoman, pointed the finger at the current administration, saying the state shouldn’t expect anything.

When officials make such a statement, looking outside Oklahoma can be instructive. That would show that the list of states in the finalist round include Texas (57% Romney in 2012) , Arizona (54%), Georgia (53%), Kentucky (61%), and South Carolina (55%). (as we reported on KOSU’s on air coverage)

So was it politics, or a more substantive issue with the formula, applications from Oklahoma schools districts, or some other issue? That question goes unanswered, because it’s never asked.

By simply presenting a statement from Education Secretary Arne Duncan that the decision came based on the level of innovation in the reforms, you’re stuck in your lane. If you trust Duncan and the federal government, you’ll believe him. If you trust the state Education Department and Superintendent Janet Barressi, you’ll believe her spokeswoman. We should instead strive to get closer to the facts, because, you know, officials lie. Like all the time, especially when they reasonably expect their statements won’t get checked.

At KOSU, I’m far from perfect. When I did a story on the trails at Stillwater’s Lake McMurtry that took some damage because of drilling operations, I failed to completely represent the other side. Even if they didn’t respond to my request for comment, I should have found someone able to speak to their point of view. And I could have provided better context, on whether such a problem was common, or an outlier.

Journalists are under time constraints. Deadlines are no fun. Often, we want to go deeper, taking a more significant look at the issue at hand, and simply can’t. But these are basic questions that you, the public, deserves an answer to. If an official implies the Obama administration will systematically discriminate against Oklahoma, let’s look at the facts.

This is not a question of politics. You should not be able to figure out what my, or any other journalist’s, political leanings are. It’s about getting you the closest to the truth as possible, and then letting you decide from there. Without a baseline of facts established, we can all just talk past each other. And that’s not a healthy democracy.


Tomorrow, I’ll present another case, and why democracy in Oklahoma is suffering because of one action.

2 Responses to “Race to the Top coverage leaves questions unanswered”

  1. Nance Cunningham says:

    It should be possible to find out if those who did not receive Race to the Top funds actually received any evaluations along the way or at the end. It should also be possible to find out what the requirements of the grant were and what Oklahoma groups' submissions looked like–did they match the requirements? Another possibility is that the financing may have required the State Department of Education to match some funding in future. If Gov. Fallin thinks federal money is dirty in some way, or if she actually did not accept the federal money to enlarge the Medicaid enrollment because she did not want the state to pay a share in the future, then the Race to the Top evaluators may have declined to award Oklahoma the money because they didn't trust Oklahoma to follow through.

  2. Hugh C. says:

    Nice job on this, Ben! You are certainly correct, great journalism requires clear efforts to allow equivalent voice to all key perspectives. This, of course, is not easy to accomplish. Good, even-handed journalism is the cornerstone of democracy. The presentation of information in an unbiased manner is key to our freedom. I am grateful to KOSU and NPR for presenting news and information with true journalistic integrity.

    Without such good work, all we are left with is journalism under commercial pressure, so eloquently described by Tom Stoppard:

    "The whole notion of journalism being an institution whose fundamental purpose is to educate and inform and even, one might say, elevate, has altered under commercial pressure, perhaps, into a different kind of purpose, which is to divert and distract and entertain."
    Tom Stoppard

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