A case study in responding to one-sided journalism

Harris Miller Contributor
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Once upon a time, being a journalist was, first and foremost, about objective reporting. Those quaint days often appear to be behind us. However, even in these days of “narrowcasting” and targeting readers/viewers, news organizations most often make the effort at least to include in their coverage voices from both sides of the story. We see this all the time, whether among pundits on the talk shows or on the opinion pages of leading newspapers.

And yet, there are those journalists who possess such a fiercely defined agenda that they themselves become an unfortunate object lesson in unprofessional bias, a textbook case of slanted media. Steve Blow of The Dallas Morning News provides just such an example.

Two weeks ago, Mr. Blow authored a column critical of private sector colleges and universities (PSCUs) filled with misleading information. His condescending view of career colleges is based on the accounts of Byron Harris, a journalist with a history of biased reporting against private sector colleges, not based on any independent research or analysis. For instance, neither Mr. Blow nor Mr. Harris acknowledged that the vast majority of private sector schools must meet graduation and placement standards to remain accredited and receive students with federal financial aid. Neither bothered to talk to a graduate. When I met with Mr. Harris a few years ago and offered him and his editor the opportunity to visit PSCUs in the Dallas-Ft. Worth area to talk to students, faculty, administrators, graduates, and employers who hire graduates, they declined. The offer is still open, but I am not sitting by the telephone waiting for it to ring.

Of course, as the association representing over 1,600 PSCUs and their 1.5 million students, we were troubled by Mr. Blow’s fundamentally flawed and faulty column. So we reached out to students and graduates of PSCUs across Texas, sending a brief email to let them know about Mr. Blow’s column and suggest they let him know how they felt about his perspective. We didn’t tell them what to say. And we did so realizing that many of our “non-traditional” students — older, with jobs, families — unlike traditional college students, are balancing extraordinary demands on their time, as they pursue their education while earning a living and raising children. So they do not have free time every day to peruse the newspapers, even articles that attack them and the schools they attend.

As motivated PSCU students and graduates, they had plenty to say about this unfair critique of their education choices. Mr. Blow received emails from more than 100 individuals; 64 letters are pro-private sector college, and another 32 are supportive of higher education without being specific about the sector. And 12 were critical of private sector colleges. But Mr. Blow is now up in arms at our organization for “spamming” him with — wait for it — real people with real opinions and experiences and perspectives on the very topic of his column.

He expressed his displeasure in a second column, complaining about what he seems to perceive as an attack on him by real students and graduates who want to set the record straight. In this second diatribe, Mr. Blow looks to support his attack and that of Mr. Harris by referencing a report by the Government Accountability Office that was critical of our sector. But he fails to mention the report was so flawed that GAO made 16 corrections after the report was published all in favor of the sector, and the head of the section who wrote the report was “reassigned.” Did Mr. Blow miss that news story?

Mr. Blow goes on to quote someone recommending students attend a community college instead of a PSCU, which may make sense for many people. But Mr. Blow fails to note that the highest graduation rate for the community colleges in the Dallas-Ft. Worth area is only 10%, with the rest in single digits. Yes, 10% unfortunately is the highest graduation rate. If a nationally accredited PSCU had those results, it would lose its accreditation. Then while talking about the supposedly lower costs of community colleges, he also fails to mention that the reason community colleges seem less expensive to the student is that the taxpayers are subsidizing those students by $10,000 or more per head. The real cost of PSCUs is actually lower than community colleges when you take into account the large taxpayer subsidies.

Will there continue to be robust debate over the regulation of private sector colleges, and of the higher education sector as a whole? We hope so. We know that’s the best path towards maintaining fair and reasonable policies and practices for all of higher education, and improving both access and outcomes across the board, regardless of a student’s socioeconomic status or position in life. But Mr. Blow should know better than to try to tell just one side of a story without the facts.

Harris Miller is the president of the Association of Private Sector Colleges and Universities (APSCU).