With Viral “Rip & Redo” Video, Both The NYT & Success Academy Could Have Done Better

On Friday morning, this shocking video was published in the Metro Section of the New York Times.  On a surreptitious cell phone video, Success Academy Charter Schools (SA) Charlotte Dial berates a student.

If you haven’t already stopped to watch it, you should do so now. It’s only about a minute long. (No time? Not to worry. There’s a GIF version of the key moment further down.)

In an accompanying story, education reporter Kate Taylor wrote that “Interviews with 20 current and former Success teachers suggest that while Ms. Dial’s behavior might be extreme, much of it is not uncommon within the network.”

On Friday afternoon, SA held a press conference to rebut the Times’ coverage and to suggest that the problem was much more isolated than it appeared from the video: “We can’t seem to get a fair shake from the so-called paper of record,” said SA head Eva Moskowitz.

But the Times rejected the high-profile attempt to discredit its reporting, and subsequently posted a roundup of reader comments and classroom expert views. Then came a slew of Tweets, “hot takes” and a couple of explainers from mainstream outlets including Vox and the Washington Post.

Now having read most of the relevant materials, spoken to the Times deputy editor who was in charge of the piece, and gotten some additional explanations from SA itself, there are several key questions that remain unanswered, including:

1) Did the videotape and the accompanying stories of high-pressure teaching at SA schools really make the case that these kinds of practices are characteristic/common problems within the SA charter network — and if so are they any more common than they might be at other comparable NYC public schools?

2) How well or poorly did the Times and SA respond to what was a high-pressure situation for both organizations? What else might they have done to make their cases more compelling and useful to the public and the kids attending these schools?

As you’ll see below, my take is that both organizations could – should – have done better, and, the focus of this site being education journalism rather than PR strategy, that the Times in particular might have taken a few relatively easy steps to be even more careful and thoughtful than it was apparently trying to be.

PRESENTING THE VIDEO EVIDENCE

GIF of the “rip and redo” moment posted by Judith Dianis.

The unnamed aide sent the video to Taylor unsolicited, according to deputy metro editor Amy Virshup, based on Taylor’s previous reporting on Success Academy. She believes that there are other videos, but has not seen them. As to how the video was presented to the public, Virshup explains “We blurred the kids but we decided that you couldn’t get the impact of the video without seeing the teacher’s face.” And once the teacher’s face was shown, she’d be identified on social media within ten minutes, Virshup noted. So keeping the teacher’s name private “didn’t seem worth doing to us.”

The video is shortened slightly but not in any substantive way, according to Virshup. “We didn’t take anything out of any substance. The class just keeps going.” The kids’ lack of obvious reaction to the treatment from the teacher suggests that “this is not unusual behavior in that classroom,” according to Virshup. “They’ve been there before.”

Virshup justifies using the tape without the aide’s name because it corroborated her account of the incident “I don’t know if we would have done the story without some way of her corroborating it.”

The Times could also publish the video without fear of legal troubles because New York is a “one-party” state when it comes to audio or videotaping private conversations, according to Virshup. Other states require both parties to be informed. So the teacher didn’t have to consent to being videotaped for it to be done legally, and reporter Taylor didn’t know or approve of being audiotaped asking SA parents questions.

VERIFYING THE STORY

The Times would have preferred to have the teacher, aide and others named and on the record. But three other teachers — all of them no longer with SA — are identified by name in the piece describing incidents that happened to them. 

The Times did not talk to the parent of the child who bears the brunt of the teacher’s displeasure, but it did email with her enough to find out she did not want to comment.

However, “we really tried to be very scrupulous and and to give SA every opportunity to see it and comment, and understand what our story was going to say ahead of time,” said Virshup. “We kept going through the story over and over again to be sure that we’re fair.”

Seeming to agree with that assessment, the Washington Post describes the story as “a painstaking effort to explore whether such teacher behavior is common.”

DISPROPORTIONATE ATTENTION?

However, another possible explanation for the amount of time and effort the paper put into the story is that Moskowitz and her school network are so controversial and such a thorn in the side of traditional public schools. 

Vox’s Libby Nelson explains that SA is ground zero for the conflict between traditional educators and charter school and choice advocates.

Or, to put it more simply: “Single video, single teacher, single day. Major coverage, 1,800 comments. Why? Success Academies and Eva Moskowitz,” noted the NY Daily News’ Josh Greenman on Twitter. 

If this were a video of a district teacher, the New York Times would almost certainly ignore it,” Moskowitz is quoted as having written in a staff email Friday morning, according to Politico New York.

However, the Times claims that the tape received no additional attention because it came from an SA school:

“We would have done this story if that video were filmed in a traditional public school, a catholic school or an independent school,” claimed the statement from the NYT, “and we would have explored the question of whether or not it represents larger problems within those institutions.”

And Virshup made much the same point during a phone interview:

“We cover NYC public schools all the time. We write about the failures of the NYC public system. There’s a lot of failure out there in the NYC public schools. A lot of schools serve the same kinds of students as Success Academy are not good and there’s a lot of failure to go around and we do write about it.”

If a 15 month-old video surfaced from a traditional public school, would the paper have spent all the time it would take finding other educators to document whether the video represented a pattern? Would it have tried to use the video to prove that the school district endorsed this form of bad teaching, or gone ahead without having secured corroboration or complaint from the parents or other teachers at the school?

It’s hard to say. But clearly — out of an excessive zeal or enormous caution, the Times devoted substantial resources to the piece.

FRIDAY PRESSER

On Friday afternoon, SA held a press conference to dispute the story.

In some ways, SA’s response was a repeat of what it has done in the past. This past Fall, Success Academy’s fierce rebuttal of a PBS NewsHour segment on its disciplinary practices earned it a rare on-camera apology from the news outlet for not having given it a chance to respond to allegations made by an unnamed parent.

Thus far, at least, the Times has indicated no qualms with its coverage. The paper issued a defense of the story via email. The Metro editor defended it again in the Washington Post. And it posted a roundup of expert commentary on the teacher’s behavior and a summary of the hundreds of comments that were pouring in decrying the situation.

“We reject Eva Moskowitz’s criticism of our coverage,” said a Times spokesperson via email. “In addition to the video, our story is based on interviews with 20 current and former Success Academy teachers many of whom suggested that the behavior demonstrated by the teacher, while extreme, is not uncommon. It is also hard to believe that behavior such as this was captured on video the first time the teacher displayed it.”

The sole concession that’s been made has been an audio link to Taylor’s interview with a group of SA parents that was provided by the charter network as evidence of parents’ strong support of the school and the reporters’ alleged indifference to differing views:

Unlike in the previous situation, when SA identified the child in question as part of responding to the PBS NewsHour, SA has not named the student or shared parts of her school record.

The press conference did not seem to have been widely admired by social media observers: “When even most rabid pro-charter friends I have are publicly saying Success Academy blew the apology today…need to rethink PR strategy,” tweeted Benjamin Riley.

“As bad as Dial’s behavior was, Success’ response was even worse,” wrote RiShawn Biddle at Dropout Nation.

Paul Bruno called it “a sorry defense.”

UNSOLICITED ADVICE 

image from i0.wp.com

Press conference photo via ChalkbeatNY.

So what else could SA or the Times have done?

FOR SA:

First and foremost, SA probably needs to reconsider its media strategy and execute its decisions more effectively. 

Moskowitz made the so-called attack on Charlotte Dial a big part of her defense against the Times: “I can’t stand by as the New York Times uses selective video, anonymous sources and gotcha tactics to tear down any teacher, let alone one with the track record of Charlotte Dial,” said Moskowitz.

She even had Dial attend the press event.

But her team decided against putting  Dial in front of the microphone to talk about what she’d done and how she felt about being shamed so publicly, her remorse for the event that was shown on tape, etc. 

“Ms. Dial did not take questions or speak because she is not a public figure and has already been through an incredibly difficult experience,” explained a PR person for SA. 

That seems unrealistic given the circumstances. Someone’s going to interview Dial at some point, so why not let her explain herself to the best of her ability right now while the attention is there? But that wasn’t the only issue. The podium sign at the press conference made it look like the event was taking place at the New York Times rather than at Success Academy. The suggested hashtag (#stopbashingteachers) was mocked and hijacked by SA critics.

It took several days for SA to provide evidence backing up the claim that the Times coverage is skewed against SA and ignores problems in other schools. Here are examples of the New York Times “treating Success unfairly,” according to SA:

http://www.nytimes.com/2015/04/07/nyregion/at-success-academy-charter-schools-polarizing-methods-and-superior-results.html

http://www.nytimes.com/2015/10/30/nyregion/at-a-success-academy-charter-school-singling-out-pupils-who-have-got-to-go.html

http://www.nytimes.com/2015/12/16/nyregion/success-academy-network-to-shorten-its-school-day-next-year.html

http://www.nytimes.com/2015/12/17/nyregion/success-academy-schools-in-shortening-their-day-shed-a-distinction.html

http://www.nytimes.com/2016/01/05/nyregion/success-academy-principal-who-created-got-to-go-list-takes-leave.html

http://www.nytimes.com/2016/01/21/nyregion/filing-says-success-academy-network-discriminated-against-students-with-disabilities.html

http://www.nytimes.com/2014/03/09/nyregion/de-blasio-and-cuomos-tangled-narratives.html

http://www.nytimes.com/interactive/2015/12/25/nyregion/big-city-2015-highlights.html

http://www.nytimes.com/2015/07/31/nyregion/success-academy-receives-gift-for-new-schools.html?login=email&_r=0&mtrref=undefined

And, other than criticizing the Times, SA didn’t announce any kind of re-evaluation of its practices, as suggested by former Arne Duncan media guru Peter Cunningham (whose organization helps fund this site).

Moskowitz critics had a field day with the whole thing. “Moskowitz should not think of it as being bashed or torn down– just think of it as a rip and return,” quipped Paul Greene. 

As quoted in the Washington Post, NYT Metro Editor Jamieson claimed “They make it a bigger story every time they [push back against a story].”

FOR THE TIMES

What the Times could have done to have bolstered the heft and credibility of its story would have been to have done more reporting at the school itself, sharing with us the voices and experiences of teachers and parents there instead of telling us what former and unnamed teachers had to say about experiences with SA schools in general.

What does “not uncommon” mean, anyway? Occasional? More than rare but less than regular? It seems like a vague and slippery way to describe something.

The paper also might have considered getting permission to name other schools or quote specific teacher voices even without names, rather than asking skeptical readers to go along with the reporter’s vague summation of 20 teacher interviews at other schools.

There’s no evidence from the Times that parents at the school were upset about the teacher or concerned about her behavior in class. None of the 20 teachers contacted for the story — 17 of them unnamed — appear to have any direct knowledge of this teacher’s behavior. (It’s not clear how many of them are current teachers or how much time they spent in SA schools.)

There are no parents who have witnessed this behavior or heard about it from their children, no evidence of an exodus of kids being pulled out of the class or school. Not even the parent whose child was berated would corroborate the story for the Times. (At least the PBS NewsHour had an upset parent to work with!) 

On a broader level, the paper might also have tried to put the SA incident in context both among SA schools but also among NYC schools in general. What is the rate or number of parent or teacher complaints about SA schools over all, to the extent that such a thing is known — and what’s the rate or number citywide? Other than the 20-teacher sample of experiences, the Times story doesn’t give readers very much contextual information with which to evaluate the depth of the problem or evaluate it compared to other schools.

Another much larger practice  that the Times and other outlets covering local school systems should consider is taking a regular look back at the stories that it’s been producing, to make sure that there’s no unintended skew in the coverage that’s built up over time, resulting in disproportional coverage of one topic, kind of school, or part of the city. Outlets have to make tough decisions about what to cover every day, and can’t be expected to cover everything equally, but it might be worth it for them to take a look back at their work and make sure that the mix is how they’d like it be.  

Last but not least, the Times and other news outlets need to treat video like this extremely carefully, especially when its subjects aren’t public figures. 

On the education beat since roughly 5 months ago, deputy Metro editor Virshup said that the video was shocking and upsetting to see. “I’m a parent who has a child who goes to school and the idea that this was happening was appalling to me. I reacted to that as a parent as well as an editor and journalist.”

Until recently a Metropolitan Section editor who’d worked on occasional education stories, Virshup wasn’t the only journalist to react personally as well as professionally to what they were seeing on tape and hearing from SA head Eva Moskowitz.  

“As the father of an elementary school girl, the Erik Wemple Blog endorses the no-abusive-eruptions-ever school of pedagogy” wrote the Washington Post media reporter.

These reactions are certainly understandable and appear to have been widespread among those who have seen the video. 

However, it’s possible that reporters and NYT readers are seeing the incident through a race- and class-based lens. “Thousands of [SA] parents disagree with the what they see as attacks on their schools. They appreciate the order, culture, and results Success provides their children. Are they wrong? Are they ignorant and in need of saving?” asks Chris Stewart, who blogs at Citizen Education.

“Be careful how you answer those questions. The insinuation that they are willingly signing their children up for child abuse has implications, especially when made by outsiders who don’t have their lived experience or local context.”

And it should be noted that there’s no shortage of outrageous behavior going on in schools and that cell phone videotape capturing such behavior isn’t entirely unusual in the current era.

Some examples that come to mind include a white school safety officer who dragged an African-American girl out of her chair, a white male teacher who attempted to give a narrow definition of racism to his students of color, and a white male school information officer telling a female reporter to get out of the school. 

“Video rules accountability journalism in a way that all the interviews in the world with “current and former staffers” will never manage to,” notes the Washington Post’s Erik Wemple. 

This is no doubt true. But Internet shaming is not a new phenomenon at this point, either, and I am not sure I can recall an instance in which the Times has gone to this length to participate in the vilification of an individual teacher for an individual incident.

If the point of the story was that these practices were “not uncommon” in SA schools, then why not blur the teacher’s face and keep the focus on the systemic concern? 

Alexander Russo

Alexander Russo is a freelance education writer who has created several long-running blogs such as the national news site This Week In Education, District 299 (about Chicago schools), and LA School Report. He can be reached on Twitter at @alexanderrusso, on Facebook, or directly at alexanderrusso@gmail.com.