Winston Brooks Scratches Nose, Journal Writes Story

March 2nd, 2010 · 1 Comment · Uncategorized

By Tracy Dingmann

Most people’s tantrums don’t make it to the front page of the newspaper.

But when your name is Winston Brooks and you are the superintendent of Albuquerque Public Schools, then you just might get an A1 story out of the whole thing.

That’s what apparently happened Feb. 23 with the story “APS Threatens to Shut Charters.” The piece explained that Brooks was threatening to revoke four schools’ charters if the schools didn’t turn over certain financial records by Friday, Feb. 26.

According to the story, no one from the charter schools were present at the public meeting at which Brooks made the threat to close them. In fact, representatives from the schools said they knew nothing about Brooks’ threat until they were contacted by a Journal reporter looking for comment on the story.

I know Brooks’ dramatic threat made for a great front-page newspaper story. It was what us ancient newspaper types in the business used to call a “water cooler” piece, because we envisioned people standing around at work chatting about the more controversial or salacious details.

But was this particular “water cooler” story fair?

I don’t know about that. The reporter Hailey Heinz (who doesn’t decide story placement or headlines) does a good job of trying to provide some context about the well-known and “long-simmering tension” between APS and charter schools. Her reporting includes the relevant facts that State Auditor Hector Balderas recently issued a report citing “troubling patterns” among some APS charter schools, and that State Education Secretary Veronica Garcia made a subsequent statement that APS and other districts are entitled to greater scrutiny of charter school’s financial records.

But I’ve talked to many people who thought the placement and the headline and even the fact that Brooks’ threat was published at all was just unfair to the specific charter schools in the story and to charter schools in general.

That’s in addition to the negative and shocked reaction from many parents and staff and other folks involved with the actual schools in question, who had to find out from the paper that Brooks wanted to close their particular school.

Reader unease with the story was reflected in the Journal letters page today, March 2, as several readers wrote in to protest the story.

One reader noted that the charter schools in question had exemplary records in past audits and said…“the grandstanding about these four schools is both a waste of time and vindictive.”

Another reader wrote:

“This latest tantrum with potentially high costs to taxpayers comes from the same guy who inexplicably told the school board as his last evaluation that he was “having a blast” as superintendent – during budget cuts at the actual schools.”

The readers’ cynicism regarding Brooks brings me to another theme behind this Page 1  story – one that is common to newspapers as an institution and of which readers should always be aware.

It’s not exactly a secret, but newspapers tend to favor the establishment (shocking, I know).

Think about it – it’s not often that a newspaper ignores anything said by CEOs and superintendents and corporate public relations people and any other form of official institutional spokesperson.

So when Brooks, as superintendent, goes to the newspaper saying what many believe to be a quite outrageous thing, the newspaper not only listens, but obligingly publishes a front page story (and several follow up stories, including the inevitable “Charter Schools Provide Documents,” on Feb. 25 and a few more after that). The Journal also published an editorial, “Audit Showdown Points to Charter Challenge,” in which it backed up Brook’s threat to close the schools.

Not many of the rest of us average Joes can get that kind of attention and coverage.

The Journal is still operating under the old-school metric in which newspapers used to dominate the news cycle – and got away with deciding FOR us what should be considered news.

But of course, much of that has changed in the last 10 years, with the rise of the Internet and the independent voices now providing information as well as critical analysis of the news flooding in all around us.

Just yesterday, the respected Pew Research Center for the People & and the Press announced survey results showing that more Americans now get their news from their Internet than from newspapers or radio.

Is the decline of top-down media models like newspapers a universally good thing? Not necessarily. I got into the business many years ago because I respected newspaper journalism’s considerable power (and some would say, traditional role) to “comfort the afflicted and afflict the comfortable. “

I am reminded of the very good things a single newspaper story can bring about every time I scan the list of Pulitzer Prize winners and see stories by reporters who’ve taken on corporate waste, government corruption and human rights violations.

You might think I digress, but to me it’s all part of the discussion of journalism today…and a demonstration of how much power the front page of the newspaper – and the people who decide what goes there – can still have among those of us who still bother to read it.

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One Comment so far ↓

  • Thomas Baca

    The reason the internet is so popular is that you can find both sides of an issue, (at least for national issues), unlike what we are fed by the Albuquerque Journal.

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