I don’t know if any of you remember Lou Dobbs from the 1990s. He was a pretty bland business reporter who hosted CNN’s Moneyline show. It would have been virtually impossible to guess Dobbs’ political leanings during those years. The show was relatively uncontroversial and Dobbs was its uncontroversial host.
But then Dobbs left CNN for a dot com venture that pretty soon went belly-up. And CNN was losing viewers in droves to O’Reilly’s show on Fox News. So CNN brought Dobbs back but he was completely transformed. No longer the bland, uncontroversial business reporter, Dobbs became CNN’s version of a blue-collar blow-hard to compete with O’Reilly’s version on Fox. His demeanor and language completely changed as he became very outspoken in his views. He railed against illegal immigrants, international trade, and became the champion of trade-union views on protecting manufacturing jobs.
The creepy thing about Lou Dobbs’ transformation was that it was never clear who the real Lou Dobbs was. Was he really the straight-laced business reporter circa 1998 or the raving nativist circa 2008? Both could not have been genuine. Either he was pretending to be the bland host of a business show in his earlier incarnation or he was pretending to be the blow-hard blue-collar champion in his later incarnation. Maybe neither were real and Lou Dobbs was just a guy who played various roles for money as the situation required.
This all comes to mind when thinking about the transformation of the Washington Post’s Valerie Strauss from bland education reporter into the outspoken channeler of Diane Ravitch and Alfie Kohn. Just a few years ago, Strauss was writing conventional education stories from which it would have been hard to detect her preferences. To the extent that her views were present, they seemed to reflect common ideas about the importance of having effective teachers. Take for example, this reporting from a 2007 article on how we need to improve teacher quality:
Educators say that teaching teachers how to teach well has never been more critical, a sentiment that persuaded Michelle Pierre-Farid to bring the center into Tyler Elementary School in Southeast Washington three years ago. That’s when she became principal at the school, which was then considered the lowest-performing in the city, with a badly demoralized staff.
“Most studies show that teachers are the ones that make change in schools,” she said. “Not parents, not administrators. It’s the teachers. They are on the front lines, and you have to put a lot of time and money into teachers.”
But the attention garnered by Eduwonkette and Daine Ravitch may have convinced Strauss and the Washington Post that they needed their own champion of the unionized teacher. Just as CNN needed a reinvented Dobbs to capture some of the audience attracted to O’Reilly at Fox, maybe WaPo needed a reinvented Strauss to capture some of the readers attracted to Ravitch and Eduwonkette.
The new Strauss approaches the issue of improving teacher quality very differently than she used to. Here is a taste of the new Valerie Strauss:
Authentic reform must include addressing the very real health and emotional and social issues that kids bring with them to school every day, often getting in the way of their ability to focus on geometry, read and analyze a novel or take a standardized test….
This is not an argument that teachers aren’t important. Of course they are. And of course bad teachers shouldn’t be in the classroom. Nobody knows this better than good teachers. But our obsession with teacher quality doesn’t leave room for other discussions…
I have no idea which one is the real Valerie Strauss, the conventional education reporter or the blow-hard blogger, but I do know that both cannot be genuine. I also suspect that the Washington Post will tire of the blow-hard incarnation just as CNN tired of the new Lou Dobbs. In the end, the Washington Post is a very respectable newspaper whose credibility will be hurt by Valerie Strauss playing the role (or truly being) the high-priestess in the Diane Ravitch Cult.
WaPo is not like the New York Times, that makes its living by telling stories to reaffirm the world-views of its readers. WaPo readers, unlike those at NYT, don’t pay to be lied to. WaPo readers need the straight news because they have to run campaigns, write legislation, and have real business concerns that depend on an accurate description of reality even if it does not conform to their preferences. Columns with titles like “What is Joel Klein talking about?” may sooth the pitch-fork crowd at the UFT but don’t serve the practical political crowd that is the heart of WaPo’s readership.
If Strauss can’t fit with that role of her newspaper, perhaps she will find herself banished to the world of talk-radio, like Lou Dobbs, to confirm the fever-dreams of her followers. Or perhaps she’ll join Diane Ravitch on the very lucrative school system/teacher union lecture circuit where she can tell teachers that she is being persecuted by reformers, just like they are. But I can’t imagine WaPo tarnishing itself like this for too much longer.