Dig, WaPo, Dig! You’re Halfway to China!

by James A. Bacon

It’s fascinating to watch The Washington Post try to dig itself out of the pit it created for itself with its coverage of a Virginia Association of School Superintendents (VASS) letter that was critical of the Youngkin administration. The WaPo news team appears to have forgotten the First Law of Holes: “When you find yourself in a hole, stop digging.”

VASS Executive Director Howard Kiser said in the text of the March 10 letter that he was communicating “on behalf of” the state’s 133 public school superintendents in urging Governor Glenn Youngkin to stop his campaign against the teaching of divisive concepts in schools. The lede in the WaPo story interpreted that to mean that “all 133 Virginia public school division superintendents” supported the letter.

Follow-up reporting by other media revealed a very different story. Kiser clarified that the letter was “crafted and adopted” by VASS’ 12-member board and “doesn’t necessarily reflect a consensus among all its members.” WJLA television found two superintendents willing to say off the record that they had not seen the letter before it was sent out. Meanwhile, in Campbell County, a school superintendent submitted a resolution supporting Youngkin’s campaign against inherently divisive concepts relating to race (without mentioning the letter). In response to a reporter’s question, Youngkin opined that the letter was a “gross misrepresentation of what superintendents believe, I believe.”

So, yesterday the WaPo published the following headline: “Youngkin says superintendents back him but offers little evidence.” States the summary paragraph: “Little evidence has emerged to support the administration’s claim that there is widespread dissatisfaction among superintendents with the letter.”

Nice trick. Rather than concede that it had misconstrued the letter, the WaPo is trying to make Youngkin’s statement the issue and is shifting the burden of proof to the Governor to back his claim.

The centerpiece of the Post’s article today is an assertion that it had “asked all of Virginia’s 133 superintendents for their views on the letter Tuesday.” And, “as of Wednesday afternoon, none said they disagreed with the overall message of the document.”

The article does not elaborate upon how it issued that request. Did the two reporters —  Hannah Natanson and Gregory S. Schneider — personally place phone calls to all 133 superintendents? Did they send out blanket emails? How much time did they give the superintendents to respond? Most crucially, how did they word the request for a response?

If the requests were issued Tuesday and the article published Wednesday, it appears that the Post gave the superintendents 24 hours, give or take, to respond. Little surprise that all but 20 declined to comment. Rather than interpreting the non-response as a lack of evidence for its formulation of the story — that all 133 superintendents backed the letter — the reporters took it as a lack of evidence for Youngkin’s formulation.

It never occurs to the Post that the newspaper has zero credibility with a large swath of Virginia’s population, that many people, including some school superintendents, have seen the hatchet job the Post has done on the Virginia Military Institute, alleging widespread racism there. People understand that the newspaper is “all in” on one side of the Culture Wars and never veers from its narrative of systemic racism. Likewise, they can see that the newspaper is driven by an ideological bias to oppose Youngkin’s effort to root out “inherently divisive” concepts — such as viewing the country as divided between White oppressors and Black victims — from public schools.

Let’s start our critical analysis by examining how the Post frames the issue in the body of the article as the Youngkin administration claiming that “there is widespread dissatisfaction among superintendents with the letter,” and in the headline as claiming outright that “superintendents back him.” The text is misleading; the headline is a total fabrication.

Here’s what Youngkin actually said in his public comment: The association “mischaracterized the support they had for that letter.”

While the Post reported that superintendents’ opposition to Youngkin was unanimous, Youngkin and GOP spokesperson Garren Shipley noted that numerous superintendents had communicated that they did not agree with it.

It is indisputable that some of the 133 superintendents, in fact, did have issues with the letter. Shipley presented a list of dissident superintendents from Campbell, Hanover, Scott, Shenandoah and Washington Counties. None responded to the WaPo’s emails or calls for comment. The Post plugs Shipley’s claim into the story, and then, because the reporters failed to verify it in a one-day news cycle, wrote it off.

Similarly, Youngkin spokesperson Macaulay Porter set up interviews with two superintendents who she said disagreed with the letter. Both spoke anonymously due to the “sensitivity” of the topic. Both criticized VASS for publishing the letter without consulting them. They agreed with parts of the letter and disagreed with other parts. The Post quotes one of them as saying, “I certainly can’t speak to the entire commonwealth, but I can speak to what happens in our school division, and we certainly do not have divisive concepts here.”

The quote is a non-sequitur. The Youngkin administration has never contended that divisive concepts are found in every school system.

Of the 133 superintendents, 20 responded to the Post’s query. Sixteen said they fully supported the letter; four declined to comment. Obviously, some superintendents did support the letter, or it never would have been written. Many of Virginia’s school districts — urban and suburban mostly — are aggressively applying “social justice” principles and rhetoric. These include most districts in Northern Virginia, including Fairfax County, where the effort was led by Superintendent Scott Braband … who happens to be a past president of VASS, and will become its executive director in July. 

That some school districts oppose Youngkin has never been in question. The question is whether Youngkin’s policies and actions are so out of touch that every single one of Virginia’s school superintendents opposes them.

Of the 20 superintendents who responded, the Post cites several from far Southwest Virginia where, it pointedly notes, Youngkin won the 2020 election with a large majority of the vote.

Carroll County Public Schools Superintendent Mark Burnette said he agrees with the letter’s assertion that “superintendents across the state need to be involved in any kind of report that is generated on behalf of public education that affects our students or school policies.”

Greg Mullins, superintendent of Wise County Public Schools said, “I agree with the tone and tenor of the letter…. Any time there is a change in leadership in Richmond there is a period of adjustment, no question — but what we had been accustomed to was being able to have conversations, interact, ask questions and be part of the process. … And the general sense is that that has not happened, has not taken place.”

Nothing about “divisive concepts.”

If some superintendents say the Youngkin administration should have consulted with them before acting aggressively to counter policies and guidelines inspired by social-justice theory, that’s a legitimate story about a disagreement over procedure. But that’s not the story The Washington Post originally wrote! The Post (and innumerable outlets that followed its lead) framed the original story as 133 superintendents unanimously opposing Youngkin’s tip line and campaign against divisive concepts.

The Post has dug itself a deeper hole with this article, advertising its tendentious reporting in big, blinking Times Square lights. While its reporters appear to be reasonably scrupulous about quoting people accurately and getting  facts correct, it is fundamentally dishonest in the way it frames its stories, and in how it ignores critical context and facts that don’t fit the narrative.

Update: Superintendent for Martinsville City Public Schools Dr. Zebedee Talley, president of VASS, appeared on The John Reid Show this morning. Addressing the controversy, he said the letter represented the sentiments of “a majority” of the board. “It’s not all 133 superintendents who feel this way.” Moreover, he downplayed the disagreement with the Youngkin administration over divisive concepts. “The purpose of the letter is just to sit and talk,” Talley said.

Jillian Balow, state superintendent of public instruction, had not reached out to VASS or other school superintendents before issuing her 30-day report about divisive concepts in public schools, said Talley. “All we want is a seat at the table and be able to talk. That’s it!”