The Great Media-Disciplines Divide

Posting at The South Lawn, Robert Reese, a PhD student in sociology at Duke University, confronts the marginalized role of the disciplines in the popular media:

Like sports, nearly everyone has an opinion on race, but unlike sports, the training of race scholars is often meaningless in the public’s eye. Our knowledge is often attributed to mere opinion rather than theories and facts drawn from years of our own research and untold amounts of meticulous consumption of the work of our predecessors and contemporaries.  We’re taught to take a look at information from all sides and trained to critique data and arguments. But when it’s time to talk about race, our phones simply don’t ring enough and our voices don’t mean enough.

Recently, I have posted about my own experience with sharing my expertise and the research base on sentence diagramming, prompting one comment on Facebook characterizing my input as a “viewpoint.”

In 1947, English teacher and scholar Lou LaBrant acknowledged “the considerable gap between the research currently available and the utilization of that research in school programs and methods.”

Taken together, then, we have a powerful historical and current problem that can be traced to the great media-discipline divide—a “gap,” as LaBrant called it, between the knowledge base of the disciplines and the so-called real worlds of popular media, public opinion, and day-to-day practice in fields such as education.

As I have examined in my call for a critical free press and my open letter to journalists, my primary field of education is trapped in that divide, essentially crippled because of that divide. Thus, Reese’s apt point about race scholars being “meaningless in the public’s eye” captures the parallel pattern found in education—a pattern in which media scrutiny, public opinion, and political leadership are all driven by an adolescent perspective that essentially acts as if the field of education does not exist and then as a result creates conditions (social realities and education policy) within which universal public education cannot be successful.

What do I mean by “adolescent perspective”?

Let me start with my primary and longest (so far) career—teaching high school English for almost two decades in rural South Carolina.

I must confess that i genuinely and deeply adore young people: babies, children, teenagers, and young adults. I have a very special place in my heart as a teacher for high school sophomores, in fact.

But it is the exact same quality found in teens that makes them wonderful and then nearly insufferable. Teens respond to the world with their hearts and souls first, responses completely disconnected from their still-developing brains and their nearly absent ability to be rational.

From second to second, teens appear to be trapped in a sort of bi-polar hell: magically happy to the point of levitation or mortally wounded by something otherwise innocuous.

That bi-polar hell is often reinforced by a belief that she/he has discovered something, thought of something, or is witnessing something that has never yet existed in the universe (there was “O, my, god Prince!” as if Jimi Hendrix and Little Richard had never walked the planet) as well as a nearly paralyzing obsession with fairness.

While teaching adolescents (or children, or young adults) can be incredibly satisfying and invigorating because of their passion, because so much of the world is new to them, Howard Gardner, for example, has detailed well, I think, the foundational divide that occurs between young students and their understanding the disciplines—and how that continues into adulthood:

An expert is a person who comes to understand the world differently. But that is very, very difficult to do and I’m going to argue today that it’s not done very often. …

Later on, I am going to give you evidence that no matter where you look in the curriculum, you will find students who do not understand: physics, mathematics, biology, literature, art. It is ubiquitous.

I witness daily that “ubiquitous”: The powerful and crippling divide between the media, the public, politicians, and students, and the disciplines, or as Gardner states, “experts.”

That divide I have here identified as an adolescent perspective—not to be condescending or harsh (because again I love adolescents), but to highlight the moves that journalists fall prey to in their honorable quest to mediate knowledge for the public, their practice constrained by the journalistic norm of “presenting both sides” and remaining “neutral.”

So I want to end with some friendly tips for the media, especially for education journalists:

  • If you think some issue, practice, or debate in education (or any discipline) is new, take a deep breath and then assume that it is not (likely, it is not). Immediately seek out an expert in the discipline, one that has expertise in the history of the field, and start from there. (Just as a related note: Many rushed to glorify Howard Gardner when he became “hot” for multiple intelligences. In my doctoral program—deeply steeped in the history of education—we were quickly disabused of believing that ideas was “new” because similar ground had been covered many decades before Gardner.)
  • If you think a major issue or practice doesn’t already have a rich and complex research base—and thus it is you who shall examine it for the field—take a deep breath and then realize that (i) the discipline surely has a research base and (ii) idealizing the outsider viewpoint is the most offensive thing you can express to those in a discipline who have spent their lives considering that field carefully. (Note: I am primarily in the field of education, but I taught journalism for 13 years and have been a professional writer, including journalism, for most of my adult life. I confess that I do not have formal training in journalism, but I certainly have credible expertise in that field, enough so to make the claims I do here.)
  • And finally, if you insist on maintaining a commitment to “presenting both sides,” you are guaranteed to misrepresent the disciplines (see, for example, my discussion of sentence diagramming) and you have failed to learn from the disciplines since disciplinary stances are grounded in the body of research, honoring clear and convincing evidence. To present Side X equally with Side Y is to suggest the two sides are equal in credibility and weight (see the Oliver Rule); few issues have such simplistic balance. The disciplines honor positions with the most credibility and weight, driven by evidence (although there is nuance among the disciplines in issues such as what counts as evidence, etc.).

Here, I think, are three simple guidelines for helping close the divide between the media and the disciplines, and thus, between the public and the disciplines—an essential step to implementing policy driven by knowledge bases and not the irrational adolescent perspective that govern our popular and political worlds today.

Howard Zinn: “education cannot be neutral on the critical issues of our time”

24 August 1922—Howard Zinn was born. His life and career spanned the twentieth century and into the first decade of the twenty-first. It is his memoir, You Can’t Be Neutral on a Moving Train: A Personal History of Our Times, for me, that speaks to the enduring power of Zinn’s metaphor, particularly for teachers.

Historically and currently, teacher remain under the demand that their teaching—and even their lives—remain neutral, not political. University professors—such as Zinn—also face disciplinary and public expectations of objectivity, dispassion—their work as public intellectuals either shunned or unrecognized.

In that context, K-12 education and university education suffer the same ultimate failure found in journalism, a flawed pursuit of objectivity, the faux-neutral pose of representing both sides.

So on the day of Zinn’s birth, it continues to be important not only to read and listen to Zinn, but also to act on Zinn, for it is action, after all, that Zinn lived and called for.

“When I became a teacher,” Zinn explains in You Can’t Be Neutral on a Moving Train, “I could not possibly keep out of the classroom my own experiences”:

I have often wondered how so many teachers manage to spend a year with a group of students and never reveal who they are, what kind of live they have led, where their ides come from, what they believe in, or what they want for themselves, for their students, and for the world.

Does not the very fact of that concealment teach something terrible—that you can separate the study of literature, history, philosophy, politics, the arts, from your own life, your deepest convictions about right and wrong?

Concealment is a political act, and in the face of the tragedy surrounding the police shooting of Michael Brown, the educational response has been exactly that, concealment. But as poet Adrienne Rich has confronted:

The study of silence has long engrossed me. The matrix of a poet’s work consists not only of what is there to be absorbed and worked on, but also of what is missing, desaparecido, rendered unspeakable, thus unthinkable.

Instead of striking the masked political poses of neutrality, objectivity, and dispassion, Zinn called for transparency:

In my teaching I never concealed my political views: my detestation of war and militarism, my anger at racial inequality, my belief in democratic socialism, in a rational and just distribution of the world’s wealth. I made clear my abhorrence of any kind of bullying, whether by powerful nations over weaker ones, governments over their citizens, employers over employees, or by anyone, on the Right or the Left, who thinks they have a monopoly on the truth.

Having taught in rural Southern public schools for 18 years and then 13 more years in higher education, I can attest that Zinn’s argument is challenged only because of the positions he holds and not because he took positions. You see, in K-12 classrooms, especially in history classes, textbooks, curriculum, and teachers always represented positions by framing as neutral the mainstream perspectives found among them all: a blind allegiance to capitalism, representing the U.S. as a righteous military victor, whitewashing every struggle in the country’s history, celebrating the wealthy and powerful while turning a blind eye to their many sins.

It has never been that our classrooms are neutral, as Zinn confronts, but that our classrooms have been passive passengers on the moving train of social and cultural indoctrination, the sort of indoctrination that benefits the few who have wealth and power built on their privilege at the expense of the many—workers, racial minorities, women, children, and the impoverished.

As Zinn recognized:

This mixing of activism and teaching, this insistence that education cannot be neutral on the critical issues of our time, this movement back and forth from the classroom to the struggles outside by teachers who hope their students will do the same, has always frightened the guardians of traditional education. They prefer that education simply prepare the new generation to take its proper place in the old order, not to question that order.

And although written well before the current education reform movement built on accountability, standards, and high-stakes testing, Zinn’s memoir has identified the Orwellian reality of that movement: Those decrying the status quo are those in service of the status quo. Education reform is the pursuit of maintaining, not reforming.

This call for teaching as activism was join by Zinn’s disciplinary challenge as well:

History can come in handy. If you were born yesterday, with no knowledge of the past, you might easily accept whatever the government tells you. But knowing a bit of history—while it would not absolutely prove the government was lying in a given instance—might make you skeptical, lead you to ask questions, make it more likely that you would find out the truth.

Here, Zinn recognizes both the power of disciplinary knowledge and the concurrent danger of codified disciplinary knowledge (prescriptive standards, curriculum). Zinn’s confrontation, then, speaks to the foundational principles expressed by critical scholar Kincheloe:

Thus, proponents of critical pedagogy understand that every dimension of schooling and every form of educational practice are politically contested spaces. Shaped by history and challenged by a wide range of interest groups, educational practice is a fuzzy concept as it takes place in numerous settings, is shaped by a plethora of often-invisible forces, and can operate even in the name of democracy and justice to be totalitarian and oppressive.

These critical principles replace the dissembling of neutrality in the classroom, as Kincheloe explains:

Recognition of these educational politics suggests that teachers take a position and make it understandable to their students. They do not, however, have the right to impose these positions on their students [emphasis in original]….

In this context it is not the advocates of critical pedagogy who are most often guilty of impositional teaching but many of the mainstream critics themselves. When mainstream opponents of critical pedagogy promote the notion that all language and political behavior that oppose the dominant ideology are forms of indoctrination, they forget how experience is shaped by unequal forms of power. To refuse to name the forces that produce human suffering and exploitation is to take a position that supports oppression and powers that perpetuate it. The argument that any position opposing the actions of dominant power wielders is problematic. It is tantamount to saying that one who admits her oppositional political sentiments and makes them known to students is guilty of indoctrination, while one who hides her consent to dominant power and the status quo it has produced from her students is operating in an objective and neutral manner.

“Critical pedagogy wants to know who’s indoctrinating whom,” Kincheloe concludes. Teaching and history as activism, for Zinn, were moral imperatives, and thus:

From that moment on, I was no longer a liberal, a believer in the self-correcting character of American democracy. I was a radical, believing that something fundamental was wrong in this country—not just the existence of poverty amidst great wealth, not just the horrible treatment of black people, but something rotten at the root. The situation required not just a new president or new laws, but an uprooting of the old order, the introduction of a new kind of society—cooperative, peaceful, egalitarian.

Zinn, activist, radical, speaks to us now, the “us” of any classroom, the “us” charged with the learning and lives of any child:

From the start, my teaching was infused with my own history. I would try to be fair to other points of view, but I wanted more than “objectivity”; I wanted students to leave my classes not just better informed, but more prepared to relinquish the safety of silence, more prepared to speak up, to act against injustice wherever they saw it. This, of course, was a recipe for trouble.

Today on the date of Zinn’s birth, I argue, it is a recipe we must follow.

The Charter Sham Formula: Billionaires + Flawed “Reports” + Press Release Media = Misled Public

Late in 2013, I shared my own experience with the disaster capitalism tactics employed by the Walton-funded Department of Education Reform (University of Arkansas), asking: For the Record: Should We Trust Advocates of “No Excuses”?

I detailed reasons why the answer is clearly “No”: the funding determines the claims in the so-called reports (see Pulling a Greene: Why Advocacy and Market Forces Fail Education Reform [Redux]), the nasty and unmerited swipes misrepresenting my view of children and parents in poverty (swipes I directly refuted but were allowed to remain in print; see For the Record noted above), and the racist/classist underpinnings of the practices practiced among “no excuses” charters (see Criticizing KIPP Critics).

But billionaires buying the appearance of credible scholarly research on education reform would not go very far without the blind allegiance of press release journalism (see HERE, HERE, HERE and HERE).

And all of those factors combined reveal the Charter Sham Formula: Billionaires + Flawed “Reports” + Press Release Media = Misled Public.

That formula is business as usual, regretfully, and one of the most recent and egregious examples can be found at The Post and Courier (Charleston), a frequent contributor to misinforming the public due to a failure to examine the credibility of reports: A bigger bang for school bucks:

An increasing number of parents who shop around before choosing a school for their children are opting for charter schools because they like the academic environment. But they might not be aware that those same schools also are giving the public a bigger bang for their buck than traditional schools.

Research at the University of Arkansas shows that charter schools in 30 states are neck-and-neck with traditional schools on eighth grade standardized tests. But they achieve those scores for significantly less money.

Imagine what they might do if charter schools were funded equitably.

Or better yet, imagine what we could do in our public schools if the mainstream media didn’t continue to follow blindly the lead of billionaires determined to dismantle those schools.

About that “Research at the University of Arkansas,” which the P&C could have easily found by just googling, let’s consider a critique by Bruce Baker, Professor in the Graduate School of Education at Rutgers, who first notes the flaws in similar claims found in an earlier report about charter schools from the same source:

The University of Arkansas Department of Education Reform has just produced a follow up to their previous analysis in which they proclaimed boldly that charter schools are desperately uniformly everywhere and anywhere deprived of thousands of dollars per pupil when compared with their bloated overfunded public district counterparts (yes… that’s a bit of a mis-characterization of their claims… but closer than their bizarre characterization of my critique).

I wrote a critique of that report pointing out how they had made numerous bogus assumptions and ill-conceived, technically inept comparisons which in most cases dramatically overstated their predetermined, handsomely paid for, but shamelessly wrong claims.

That critique is here: http://nepc.colorado.edu/files/ttruarkcharterfunding.pdf

The previous report proclaiming dreadful underfunding of charter schools leads to the low hanging fruit opportunity to point out that even if charter schools have close to the same test scores as district schools – and do so for so00000 much less money – they are therefore far more efficient. And thus, the nifty new follow up report on charter school productivity – or on how it’s plainly obvious that policymakers get far more for the buck from charters than from those bloated, inefficient public bureaucracies – district schools.

After detailing the repeated flaws in the report cited as credible by the P&C, Baker concludes:

Yes – that’s right – either this is an egregious display of complete ignorance and methodological ineptitude, or this new report is a blatant and intentional misrepresentation of data. So which is it? I’m inclined to believe the latter, but I guess either is possible.

Oh… and separately, in this earlier report, Kevin Welner and I discuss appropriate methods for evaluating relative efficiency (the appropriate framework for such comparisons)…. And to no surprise the methods in this new UARK report regarding relative efficiency are also complete junk. Put simply, and perhaps I’ll get to more detail at a later point, a simple “dollars per NAEP score” comparison, or the silly ROI method used in their report are entirely insufficient (especially as some state aggregate endeavor???).

And it doesn’t take too much of a literature search to turn up the rather large body of literature on relative efficiency analysis in education – and the methodological difficulties in estimating relative efficiency. So, even setting aside the fact that the spending measures in this study are complete junk, the cost effectiveness and ROI approaches used are intellectually flaccid and methodologically ham-fisted.

But if the measures of inputs suck to begin with, then the methods applied to those measures really don’t matter so much.

To say this new UARK charter productivity study is built on a foundation of sand would be offensive… to sand.

And I like sand.

No, charter schools are not offering a bigger bang for school bucks. In fact, charter schools are often nearly identical to public schools in both strengths and weaknesses (including the return of resegregation in both).

What is getting a bigger bang for the bucks? The Walton family and a wide assortment of other billionaire/edu-reformers.

What is providing that bang? The mainstream media that have chosen press release journalism because googling* is simply too much to expect, I suppose.

* Or just follow Bruce Baker (@SchlFinance101), Shanker Institute (@shankerinst), and NEPC (@NEPCtweet) on Twitter.

NOTE: See how corrosive these reports are as they become part of how the public responds to critical examinations of education and education reform: comment at AlterNet.

The Real “Low Expectations” Problem

I have asked this about the U.S. Secretary of Education: Why Is Arne Duncan Still Pushing the Dangerous Myth of Low Expectations?

And a large part of the answer may be because the uncritical mainstream media not only buy that message, but actively perpetuate it. For example, David Leonhardt beats that drum in Principals in U.S. Are More Likely to Consider Their Students Poor:

The phrase “soft bigotry of low expectations” is inevitably associated with George W. Bush, who used it frequently. But whatever your politics, the idea has undeniable merit: If schools don’t expect much from their students, the students are not likely to accomplish much.

A new international study, set to be released Tuesday, argues that the United States has an expectation problem.

The U.S. does, in fact, have a low expectations problem, but it isn’t where Duncan and the media claim. Political leaders and journalists need to heed the old adage about pointing a finger (three are aiming back at you).

Just as another example, see Colleen Flaherty’s Dropping the Ball?—a call for higher education to jump on the Common Core bandwagon:

The Common Core State Standards Initiative is supposed to prepare K-12 students for higher education — but college and university faculty members and administrators remain largely removed from planning and rolling out these new assessments and standards. So argues a new paper from the New American Foundation, which urges colleges and universities to get involved in the Common Core to ensure the program ends up doing what it was supposed to do.

Both of these pieces suffer from the press release approach to journalism that insures presenting both sides as a mask for endorsing a solid status quo (and thus, not evidence-based) position: the “low expectations” myth and the standards-driven reform paradigm, both of which fail against significant bodies of research and scholarship.

So here are my responses sent to Leonhardt and Flaherty, as my commitment to speaking against the low expectations for U.S. media:

To Leonhardt (slightly edited):

This is evidence of the problem: Principals in U.S. Are More Likely to Consider Their Students Poor

But our only low expectations in the US are for political leadership (especially in education) and the media:

Why Is Arne Duncan Still Pushing the Dangerous Myth of Low Expectations?

U.S. and Education Reform Need a Critical Free Press

My Open Letter to Journalists: A Critical Free Press, pt. 2

I have been an educator for 31 years, 18 of which as a high school teacher in rural SC. I know poverty, lived among it all my life. The claims in this study and in your piece are more of the blame the victim attitude that is corrosive in the US. We must do better.

To Flaherty*:

Higher ed, in fact, needs to lead the evidence-based resistance to Common Core and the entire accountability movement built on standards and high-stakes testing.

As Mathis (2012) shows from an analysis of the standards movement, there is no correlation between the existence or quality of standards and student achievement; as well, standards in no way address equity, but have increased inequity.

See:

William Mathis (2012), NEPC

Standards May Achieve Equality, But Not Equity

The problem is more than CC as well: Paul Thomas: The Problem Isn’t Just Common Core, but the Entire Reform Agenda

The corrosive impact of accountability/standards/testing has already negatively impacted student learning, as Applebee and Langer have shown in relation to writing (see TCR: REVIEW: Writing Instruction That Works), but higher ed must recognize that this movement is also aimed at higher ed.

We should have been leading the resistance all along, but now we have even more vested interests in joining those who have unmasked the standards movement for what it is: not about teaching or learning, but testing in order to rank and sort (see Common Core Movement Never about Teaching and Learning, Always about Testing).

Yes, the U.S. as a society and through our public institutions—notably public education—must do a better job; we have too often failed.

But our low expectations problem rests solidly with what we are settling for in our political leaders and our mainstream media.

* I want to add that Colleen Flaherty responded to my email and plans to follow up. This is a rare positive response to my concerns, and I believe she should be commended for it.

O, Free Press, Where Art Thou?

As I have noted, a common thread running through my blogs is the carelessness among the media covering education.

Case in point, yet another tone-deaf and completely unsupportable piece has appeared in the The Post and Courier (Charleston, SC): Duncan deserves high marks.

With just a modicum of effort, almost every claim made in this piece is easily refuted by something the mainstream press seems determined to ignore, evidence.

I have called for the “Oliver Ruler” and  a critical free press as well as posting an open letter to journalists, but many journalists remain committed to “balance” and thus are unwilling to evaluate the quality of claims or the credibility of people or positions.

But there appears to be some hope across the pond (it seems Oliver’s land can see what we cannot):

Stop giving airtime to crackpots, Phil Plait

BBC staff told to stop inviting cranks on to science programmes

So once again, not all issues have “both sides” and thus do not require seeking out balance for the sake of balance. As well, not all people or claims are credible; therefore, that those people or claims exist does not justify their being acknowledged. It is essentially malpractice to treat unequal claims as equal.

While the BBC is directly addressing science, in the U.S. the education reform agenda is currently being crippled by inexpert and incompetent leadership that is being reinforced by a media blinded by their pursuit of balance at the expense of credibility and evidence.

Leaving me still pining, O, free press, where art thou?

“Gravity”: The Unbearable Lightness of Being a Woman

In the film Gravity, Ryan Stone (Sandra Bullock) fulfills what appears to be a prerequisite for women in films: She undresses alone:

Sandra Bullock, Gravity

As a science fiction film fan, I immediately thought of Sigourney Weaver in Alien:

Sigourney Weaver, Alien

At the end of the film, when Ryan Stone crawls out of the water, again in her underwear, I was by then struck as well by Stone’s cropped hair and the camera’s apparent fascination with Stone’s (Bullock’s) physique, both of which can be fairly described as man-like—not unlike her name:

Matt Kowalski: What kind of name is Ryan for a girl?
Ryan Stone: Dad wanted a boy.

While I found Gravity to be a powerful and well-crafted film—stunning cinematography, stellar acting, tight and compelling narrative—I am less enamored by the rugged individualism theme and the need to frame Stone as a (wo)man. The triumph of Stone is one grounded entirely in her conforming to male norms, much of which is portrayed in her androgynous body, boyish haircut, and man’s name (even the “stone” of her last name erases the emotional core of the character that could have been celebrated more fully than the weightless tear scene).

Instead of Gravity, the film possibly should have been titled Oxygen or Breathe, but Gravity ultimately does capture the weight of the male gaze and the weight of the male norm that anchor the motifs and theme of the film—regretfully, not elements celebrating Stone as a woman, but ones that reduce her to the same tired messages coming from Hollywood about the Great White Masculine Hope.

While the film appears to downplay Matt Kowalski (George Clooney)—the quintessential man’s man in film and life and Stone’s cavalier Obi-Wan Kenobi, always there (even in delusion) to make sure she bucks up—that secondary role proves to be a distraction because Stone must assume the qualities Kowalski would have played if the roles were reversed—lest we forget Clooney strips alone in films as well:

George Clooney, The American

The larger message found in Gravity is the inability of mainstream films to celebrate women as women. Consider the superhero makeover of Katniss in the Hunger Games films, as revealed in the second film’s poster:

Catching Fire promotional poster

And Lisbeth Salander in the U.S. film version of The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo, notably her Batman-esque scenes in leather and on her motorcycle (as well as her snarled, “There will be blood”):

Rooney Mara as Lisbeth Salander in U.S. film, The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo

The Unbearable Lightness of Being a Woman

A week ago today, I was in the delivery room while my only daughter gave birth to my first granddaughter. That experience was surrounded by the professional brilliance of a nursing staff (all women) who provided my daughter the medical and emotional support that made a difficult and painful experience far less difficult than it could have been.

As a father, I was helpless, watching, worrying.

Once my granddaughter was born, and the baby and mother were healthy and safe, I could not stop considering how this day had held up to everyone the unbearable lightness of being a woman.

Yes, childbirth is a solitary thing, and maybe even heroic, but it is nothing like the rugged individualism myth (childbirth is communal and life-affirming; rugged individualism is competitive and conquering) and it is everything like the essential qualities of women that we should be celebrating: the selflessness, the endurance, and that which we call “maternal.”

But the nurses as well—with their professionalism and care—demonstrated a woman’s world, their pay and status secondary to the doctor (a man).

Just the day before the birth of my granddaughter, Nikki Lee wrote Ride like a girl, a blog exploring how riding a bicycle captures something like being a woman daily: vulnerability, being blamed even when a victim. Lee ends with:

These are just a few of the thousand little environmental microaggressions that you don’t have to deal with when you’re sitting behind the wheel of a car. Any individual one isn’t a big deal, and plenty of cyclists don’t pay active attention to them at all. After a while you just kind of deal with it, because listing out these small annoyances mostly serves to make you feel bad.

At the end of the day, you can always hang up your helmet and declare bike commuting “a great idea and all, but just not worth it”.

What if you didn’t have a choice?

And that brings me back to Gravity, where filmmakers do have choices, and audiences have choices.

Objectifying and reducing women to the male gaze appears to be the choice we are bound to, a gravity of another kind.

ESPN, Mansplaining, and the U.S. Media

What do NPR, conservative talk radio/media, and ESPN radio have in common?

Upon first blush, likely nothing. And that proves both what they have in common as well as how that unrecognized is the problem.

Let’s start with NPR, as Tracie Powell reports:

Anya Kamenetz, NPR’s education team lead blogger, used one of the network’s official Twitter accounts to tweet that she reaches out to diverse sources, but “only white guys get back to” her. Naturally, the post is catching a lot of attention on Twitter, and rightfully so.

And while this admission is being framed as controversial, I have noted that NPR represents a pattern of whitewashing (see HERE, HERE, and HERE); in other words, what is presented as objective or balanced journalism is actually honoring a white male (and thus dominant) perspective as the unexamined given.

From George Will and Cal Thomas—the old-guard right-wing punditocracy—to Rush Limbaugh, Fox News, and others in the so-called new conservative media, whitewashing is the not-so-subtle racism, misogyny, and classism that pass for credible public discourse.

But as long as media objectivity remains a thin mask for (white) mansplaining, the so-called liberal media (NPR, for example) and the right-wing media are fundamentally indistinguishable. It is, then, important that we look closely at ESPN radio, the tour-de-force of (white) mansplaining.

ESPN, Mansplaining, and the U.S. Media

ESPN radio offers listeners a line up that is the antithesis of diversity: Mike & Mike, The Herd with Colin Cowherd, and SVP & Russillo.

This is hour upon hour of white guys holding forth as if their perspective has credibility (often it does not), as if their topics are monumentally important (often they are not), and as if their 20-something, fraternity view of the universe deserves our undivided attention (and that never does).

While the ESPN radio line up is solidly a bunch of white guys (and mostly snarky, arrogant white guys), it is also worth noting that African Americans and women serve roles as side-kicks (and on-air, the women look awfully similar to the eye-candy norm of Fox news).

Instead of careful, nuanced, or informed journalism, ESPN radio offers discourse driven by personality, arrogance, and the corrosive power of (white) mansplaining.

And while it may seem easy or justifiable to discount the danger of this dynamic because this is just sports, the obscene professional sport complex in the U.S. (like ESPN radio itself) is actually fertile ground for exploring lingering issues of race, class, and gender plaguing U.S. efforts at democracy and equity. If anything in the U.S. remains a man’s hostile world, it is professional sport (see HERE and HERE).

If only some in the media would step away from the alluring norm of (white) mansplaining that lulls us deeper into complacency.

The U.S. needs a critical free press whether that press is covering things great or small because major and so-called mainstream media continue to carry George Will and Cal Thomas as if their world views are credible, and not the toxic nastiness they perpetuate.

I invite you to suffer through 20 or 30 minutes of Limbaugh and then about the same time spent with Colin Cowherd. The nearly incoherent navel-gazing mansplaining between the two of them is indistinguishable—but it takes a bit of care to understand that among almost all of the mainstream media the space between right-wing talk radio, ESPN radio, and so-called credible outlets such as NPR, The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal, U.S. News & World Report, and many others is negligible.

If a white man isn’t telling us what and how to think (with a heaping dose of arrogance and juvenile glee), then the foundation of any and all being presented is (white) mansplaining—whether someone is contemplating whether LeBron James is holding the NBA hostage or NPR is fawning over schools teaching impoverished children of color “grit” through the whitewashed story of Steve Jobs.

For those of us fighting the fight and working daily in public education, that the teaching profession is dominated by women and that the students most in need of public education are living in poverty and children of color represent the pervasive and corrosive power of (white) mansplaining at all levels of society, but nowhere is that more distinct than in all aspects of the media, whether we are considering news or entertainment (as if there is a difference).

Too often, as well, when mainstream media allow surface diversity (gender [1] or race), those journalists are throttled by the fair-and-balanced norms—(white) mansplaining—that whitewashes any real diversity of thought.

In the 21st century, the U.S. is ample evidence that we have failed democracy, the free press, and universal public education. And those failures feed the current state of inequity that constitutes the country.

It cannot be stated often enough, then, that the U.S. needs a critical free press and that public narratives need a new mythology, one that not only replaces but refutes the current culture of (white) mansplaining that surrounds us daily.

[1] Consider the female lead of Gravity and how the narrative and motifs of the film play to and re-enforce a rugged individualism theme. The woman (played by Sandra Bullock) has a man’s name, Ryan Stone, and presents a physical presence that walks a thin line between objectifying a woman and highlighting her man-like “look,” athletic, hair cropped short. This is no celebration of a powerful female, but a message that this woman deserves our praise because she rises to the norms of men, created by men. Again, this is not substantially different than the motif on ESPN of praising African American athletes as “articulate.”