Wednesday, July 18, 2018

New York Times contributors get an unpleasant surprise when they try to write about higher education without bashing it (Michael Simkovic)

Ellen Shell, a journalism professor at Boston University, recently wrote an article for the New York Times arguing that while higher education confers vitally important advantages in the labor market,[1] education alone is not enough to overcome the disadvantages of childhood poverty and to promote greater equality.[2]  The purpose of Shell’s article was apparently to advocate for more comprehensive efforts to overcome poverty, above and beyond greater investment in higher education.[3] 

In the hands of editors at the New York Times, the title of Professor Shell’s Op Ed became "College May Not Be Worth It Anymore."

Several readers who contacted me about this article assumed that Professor Shell was an elitist who believed that the poor did not deserve to be as well educated as her own children.[4]  Apparently so did the author of the study she cited.  He says that to the extent that Professor Shell may have intended to downplay the benefits of education to poor children, she misunderstood his work.[5] 

I contacted Professor Shell to ask about the discrepancy between the contents of her article and its title, and whether New York Times editors had changed her title.

She wrote back that she was surprised by the title, that it did not match the contents of her article, that it must have come from the editor, and that it did not endear her to the administration at her university.

I knew to ask Professor Shell before jumping to conclusions because I have also been surprised to find that New York Times editors attached inapposite, critical titles to my work.[6]  And I have repeatedly heard similar complaints from other professors who have written Op Eds for the New York Times and from sources who have been misquoted by the New York Times and had their professional reputations damaged as a result.

Most readers of newspapers assume that the writer listed in the byline of a newspaper article or Op Ed is responsible not only for the text of an article, essay or Op Ed, but also for the lead or title that appears at the top. 

At the New York Times, that is not the case.[7] 

Editors choose the titles of Op Eds or articles.  Because many readers only read the lead or title, and not the full article, this gives senior management at media companies an enormous amount of power.  This power comes without public scrutiny, since usually only the name of the “author” (and not the editor) appears in the byline of the article.  

At many newspapers, editors use this power responsibly.  They try to succinctly and accurately describe the contents of the article while commanding readers’ attention.  But some editors change the titles of articles in ways that can mislead readers about the contents of articles and misstate the point of view of the authors of those articles.[8]  

This editorial overreach happens much too often at the New York Times, especially when writing about higher education.  Most writers and most sources are too afraid to speak out in public, out of fear of retaliation by the New York Times and other journalists.[9]  Retaliation could come in the form of negative coverage in the future, or being frozen out of future assignments or publishing opportunities.  This fear and self-preservation perpetuates these problems.

The New York Times has a well-documented bias against higher education, which has led to some sloppy, error-ridden journalism.[10]  Moreover, this agenda-driven journalism has hurt innocent and well-meaning people.  At least one law school targeted unfairly by the New York Times is likely to close, perhaps driving dozens of faculty and administrators from working in education and devaluing the degrees of thousands of alumni. 

The New York Times is a “strategic media partner” of the Gates Foundation.  New York Times leadership meets with Gates’ leadership behind closed doors and obtains advertising revenue from Gates and related entities.  The Gates foundation has spent tens of millions funding press coverage that is often hostile to education, while promoting online alternatives that depend on higher technology spending.[11]

New York Times callousness to collateral damage from inaccurate coverage extends past higher education.  An entire industry populated with small businesspeople—largely immigrants with little political or economic clout—was publicly condemned by the New York Times so harshly that business dried up and owners and employees protested en masse outside the New York Times Office.  Industry groups continue to resent the New York Times years later. 

The New York Times focused on nail salons’ noncompliance with labor laws.  It is unclear why—there’s not much evidence that nail salons are worse than any other industry that employs manual labor. 

The New York Times could have written about noncompliance with labor laws and abuses of immigrant workers by focusing on suppliers to massive corporate agribusinesses.  But that would entail picking a fight with a well-organized industry that could fight back.  Instead, the New York Times went after defenseless New York City nail salons.  When other journalists pointed out specific inaccuracies in the New York Times’ coverage (here and here), the New York Times sought to discredit its critics for their pro-business political views or how they earned their livelihoods.

When most law professors write about journalism, they draw upon a romantic vision that is decades out of date.  They imagine the New York Times covering civil rights protests in the Deep South in the 1960s, or bravely documenting human rights abuses during the Vietnam War over the objection of the Nixon administration.  They tend to see news organizations as so frail and so noble that the slightest possibility of legal liability for inaccurate coverage or privacy violations will impede information flow and devastate the proper functioning of our democracy. 

Law professors rarely consider that the threat of civil liability for media conglomerates might instead cause greater investment in fact checking and improvements in the quality and relevance of information.  Somehow, other countries with laws that demand more accuracy and decency from the press seem to maintain well-informed electorates and robust democracies. 

What law professors should see when they think of news organizations is our current reality: multi-billion dollar corporations with highly paid executives, demanding shareholders or wealthy benefactors, an army of inexpert, low paid, and highly insecure workers, and extremely effective government relations operations. 

Media companies’ business model depends not on supplying accurate information, but on attracting attention.  These massive corporations profit with impunity while carelessly damaging the livelihoods and reputations of those who are weaker than themselves.  What law professors should see is organizations that market themselves as providing factual truth but too often spend the bare minimum on fact checking—and only when it will mitigate the risk of legal liability. 

It is time to recognize media companies for the flawed institutions that they are, and to take seriously the role of the legal system in encouraging improvements.


[1] Professor Shell wrote that: “higher education [provides] protection against underemployment and the inequality it engenders. . . . On average it does [help in the job market] People who have dropped out of college . . . earn only a bit more than do people with only a high school education . . . [which is still typically] enough to cover their student loan debt. . . . No other nation punishes the “uneducated” as harshly as the United States. Nearly 30 percent of Americans without a high school diploma live in poverty, compared to 5 percent with a college degree, and we infer that this comes from a lack of education. . . . [H]igher education is . . . desirable . . . I’ve encouraged my own children to take that path.”

[2] Professor Shell explained how even though higher education helps boost earnings, education is not enough to overcome the disadvantages of poverty, in part because of unequal access to high quality education and in part because of unequal benefits: “African-American college dropouts on average earn less than do white Americans with only a high school degree. Meanwhile, low-income students of all races are far more likely to drop out of college than are wealthier students. Even with scholarships or free tuition, these students struggle with hefty fees and living costs . . . . College graduates born poor earned on average only slightly more than did high school graduates born middle class.”

[3] “[I]n 28 other wealthy developed countries [besides the U.S.], a lack of a high school diploma increases the probability of poverty by less than 5 percent. In these nations, a dearth of education does not predestine citizens for poverty.  It shouldn’t here, either . . . while we celebrate the most recent crop of college graduates, we should also acknowledge the many more Americans who will never don a cap and gown. They, too, deserve the chance to prove themselves worthy of good work, and a good life.”

[4] See also Journalism researcher: To correct misinformation, essential to monitor and respond immediately.

[5] He wrote: “[Our] estimates show high returns from college for [the] low-income group. . . . [W]e are certainly not saying that low-income folks shouldn't go to college because it has low returns for them.  That is certainly not true for many low-income groups, and should not be inferred from our work.”  Professor Shell responded by email (correctly) that even if the percentage increase in earnings is similar for those from poor families, the dollar increase is lower because of a lower base.  The benefits of education still exceed the costs by a large margin for those form poor families.  The benefits are even larger for those from rich families.

[6] I wrote an article about law firms shifting toward employing more highly paid, higher skilled, more highly educated workers (such as lawyers) and fewer lower-skill, lower-education workers (such as legal secretaries).  I emphasized that opportunities for lawyers were growing.  My article was originally titled “In law firms, lawyers and paralegals prosper while secretarial jobs disappear.”  An editor at The New York Times changed the title to “Overall stagnation in legal jobs hides underlying shifts.”

[7] It is unclear how widespread this practice is at other periodicals, but my understanding is that it is also common at the Wall Street Journal.

[8] This could be because the editor either: (1) believes the inaccurate lead will attract more views and reader “engagement”, which senior management values and reward because it will produce more advertising or subscription revenue; (2) has orders or incentives from on high to slant stories to advance the views of the owner of the newspaper, a powerful manager, or a major donor or advertiser; (3) has a personal axe to grind; or (4) genuinely cannot understand the central premise of an article he or she is supposed to be editing.

[9] Several people who have complained about their treatment at the hands of the New York Times have specifically asked me not to mention them, for these reasons.  Professor Shell has declined to identify the New York Times editors she worked with and indicated that she preferred that I not mention her at all.

[10] See:

[11] Gates sponsors the Education Writers Association, the Hechinger Report, NPR, EdWeek, PBS, and numerous other media organizations, think tanks, and advocacy groups.   (See also here, and here) Gates simultaneously competes with educational institutions through investments in online education.  Critics have pointed out that Gates-funded policy advocacy often promotes the interests of companies in which Gates or related parties invest while appearing to be charitable, disinterested, and independent.

Guest Blogger: Michael Simkovic, Legal Profession, Of Academic Interest, Science, Web/Tech, Weblogs | Permalink