n February 7, for the first time in U.S. history, a vice president cast the tie-breaking vote to approve a Cabinet nominee. All 48 Democrats opposed the nomination, as did two Republicans. The defection of another Republican would have scuttled the appointment altogether. Surely, you say, such a polarized outcome must have been related to a Cabinet agency of the highest importance—Treasury, for example, or State, or Justice, or Defense. And surely the nominee’s performance before the Senate must have been excruciatingly bad; worse even than the disastrous 2013 hearing of former secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel, who was nevertheless confirmed by a vote of 58 to 41.
Sorry to disappoint. The agency in question was the Department of Education, which Republicans have sought to abolish since it was founded in 1979. And the nominee was Betsy DeVos, the Michigan billionaire, philanthropist, and advocate of school choice. DeVos might not have had the strongest confirmation hearing, but it was by no means Chernobyl. There’s got to be another explanation for the ferocious and unhinged opposition to her. “You’d expect everybody would be focused on the proposed budget director who wants to cut Social Security and failed to pay taxes on his babysitter’s salary,” wrote New York Times columnist Gail Collins, in one of her rare moments of semi-lucidity.
Well, you would expect that, Gail. But then you’d remember that the two largest teachers unions, the National Education Association (NEA) and the American Federation of Teachers (AFT), spent about $32 million in the last election, practically all of it in donations to Democratic candidates and liberal outside groups. The object of this spending is not a mystery: to maintain the union stranglehold over the public-school system, to resist accountability and changes to teacher tenure, to boost federal spending on education, and to prevent taxpayer dollars that otherwise would benefit unions from going to voucher programs or charter schools. DeVos is opposed to this agenda, and the president who nominated her wants to spend $20 billion to expand school choice in all 50 states. So the stakes are obvious. For most of us, the DeVos nomination was an opportunity to debate education policy. For the teachers unions, it was an existential crisis.
Yet unions played but a minuscule part in the coverage of DeVos. They were mentioned, of course; it would be hard to ignore them completely. Overall, though, the press was far more interested in DeVos herself than in the forces opposing her. She became the latest in a long line of conservative women to be caricatured as an unqualified, Bible-thumping ditz. Her perfectly mainstream, even conventional views on education were portrayed as fringe. She was among the Cabinet picks that “portend a shift far to right,” according to a New York Times headline writer, which must have been news to Democrat Eva Moskowitz, founder of Success Academy charter schools and a DeVos supporter.
Through no fault of her own DeVos became the emblem of a Nietzschean, out-of-control donor class that reshapes public policy with little democratic accountability. “How Trump’s Education Nominee Bent Detroit to Her Will on Charter Schools,” read another Times headline. Still another read: “Betsy DeVos, Trump’s Education Pick, Plays Hardball With Her Wealth.” Unlike those nice teachers unions and their billions of dollars in mandatory dues. They play softball.
Reading the New York Times and the Washington Post, I came across nary a mention of why the unions might be opposing DeVos, what they stood to lose if she ran the department over which they have long exercised control. The Post did have one piece—“Teachers unions mount campaign against Betsy DeVos, Trump’s education pick”—that went into some detail, but only some. While reporter Emma Brown noted that the unions face “a prospective education secretary with whom they could not have less in common,” she more or less took dictation from National Education Association President Randi Weingarten and quoted liberally from the text of a speech Weingarten delivered opposing DeVos. By contrast, the piece had no fresh comment from DeVos, her team, or from school-choice and charter supporters. So even when the Post delved into the unions, it was for purposes of propaganda.
The degree to which journalists relied on the unions for material was illustrated by the oft-repeated claim that Detroit’s charter schools perform no better than its public ones. New York Times education correspondent Kate Zernike, known for her hostile coverage of the Tea Party, made the assertion frequently. But it was false; Zernike had made the mistake of comparing median numbers with average numbers. “Essentially,” wrote Max Eden of the Manhattan Institute in one of the best sentences I read this month, “Zernike took a basket of apples, pulled out the rotten ones, kept the genetically modified ones, made statistically weighted applesauce, and plopped that applesauce in the middle of a row of organic oranges. Then she drew a false conclusion that’s become central to the case against Betsy DeVos’s nomination for secretary of education.” But look, who’s counting? It’s Betsy DeVos we’re talking about—she thinks rural schools might need guns to protect against grizzly bears. The rube.
The atrocious coverage of DeVos troubled education blogger Alexander Russo, who wrote an item for the Phi Delta Kappan lamenting the fact that established publications “have cherry-picked storylines that put DeVos in a negative light and written about DeVos’s ideas and efforts using fraught, charged language.” This development surprised Russo, because “right after the presidential election, mainstream journalism went through an intense period of self-reflection and decided—among many things—that reporters and editors should try to check their liberal biases at the door and do a better job of covering people who weren’t like them.” Clearly Russo was hallucinating when he wrote those words, because the only period of intense self-reflection journalists went through after the election is when they decided to be even more antagonistic and hysterical in their treatment of Donald Trump.
Even I, your humble Mediacracy columnist, am occasionally surprised at the one-sidedness of media coverage. On the day DeVos was confirmed, I clicked on a story in the Washington Post with the headline, “The DeVos vote is a bad case study for the power of campaign contributions.” The headline struck me as completely backward—if anything, the vote is a classic case study of the power of campaign contributions, since all of the senators opposing DeVos, including the two Republicans, are on the take from the unions. But, incredibly, Philip Bump’s article did not contain a single mention of the word “union,” and instead focused solely on DeVos’s contributions to Republican senators. I thought the omission absurd, an example of horrible journalism, and said so on Twitter.
“Dude,” replied a colleague. “It’s the Post.”