Media Coverage of Education Is a Partisan Affair
Education has frequently defied partisan tropes. In 2002, as he signed the No Child Left Behind Act, President Bush noted that massive majorities in Congress had "set partisan politics aside." In 2015, President Obama quipped as he inked the Every Student Succeeds Act, "A bipartisan bill signing right here — we should do this more often." Even in today’s hyperpolarized environment, major debates about testing or online learning don’t necessarily reflect partisan lines — except, apparently, in the pages of the mainstream media.
As gluttonous consumers of education coverage, we’ve been struck by the partisanship that marks how the nation’s leading news outlets approach education policy debates. It sure seemed like the New York Times and Washington Post spent four years lashing out at every educational gesticulation of President Trump or Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos, only to pivot on a dime to providing anodyne, even cheery, coverage of President Biden and Secretary of Education Miguel Cardona.
Conscious that we might be reading things unfairly, we thought it worth comparing how the Times, Post, and Wall Street Journal covered education during the first 100 days of President Biden’s term to how they covered it during the same period of President Trump’s tenure. Specifically, we examined news and commentary published by the three outlets in which the headline mentioned “DeVos” or “Cardona” or mentioned the president’s name along with some variation of "school" or "education."
The goal of this little back-of-the-napkin exercise was to answer a simple question: Did education coverage actually change?
For starters, there was a massive shift in the simple amount of coverage. During the first 100 days of each administration, there were twice as many Trump-DeVos education headlines in the three outlets as there were Biden-Cardona headlines (by a margin of 140 to 70). The disparity is striking given that Biden has spent nearly $200 billion on education in his first 100 days — and is pushing to spend hundreds of billions more — while Trump-DeVos didn’t do much more on education in their first 100 days than talk about school choice and reverse a handful of Obama administration directives.
During Trump’s first 100 days, the Times published 20 negative headlines and the Post 33 (one every three days). The headlines were littered with invective, such as "Wanted: One Republican With Integrity, to Defeat Betsy DeVos" (Times), "The Trump War on Public Schools" (Times), "Ms. DeVos’s Fake History About School Choice" (Times), and "Do your homework, Ms. DeVos" (Post). Neither paper featured more than a headline or two about Trump-DeVos that could be construed as even vaguely positive.
During Biden’s first 100 days, the Times and Post published just 16 education headlines that could be construed as negative, and most of those described challenging situations—they didn’t actually criticize Biden or Cardona (e.g. Times: "Biden Is Vowing to Reopen Schools Quickly. It Won’t Be Easy."). Indeed, the Times offered only a single headline, on an op-ed, that was directly critical ("Biden Says He’s Pro-Science. Why Is His Schools Plan Based on Fear?"). Generally, the Times and Post lost their skepticism when it came to Biden-Cardona, adopting a matter-of-fact approach leavened by a fistful of flattering headlines like "Biden’s American Rescue Plan is actually a huge new school reform" (Post) or "Looking to rapidly boost the U.S. economy, Biden highlights 'massive effort to reopen our schools safely'" (Times).
On the other side of the ledger, The Wall Street Journal proved a refuge of balance for Trump-DeVos, running nine positive education headlines and 11 negative ones during the first 100 days. During Biden’s first 100 days, though, the Journal took up the critical pose that the Post and Times had abandoned — running eight negative headlines and no positive ones.
It’s tough to credit claims that journalists are providing a fair and full account when their employers approach even the thickets of education policy with an agenda. When we can’t trust the outlets tasked with providing facts and explaining disputes, it becomes ever more difficult to bridge our deep divides. Given the role these leading media organizations play in shaping narratives and public debates, it’d be helpful if they worked harder to report on what federal policy means for the schoolhouse with less regard for who occupies the White House.
Frederick M. Hess is director of education policy at the American Enterprise Institute. Matthew Rice is a research associate at AEI.