Are The Sources Now Greasing Sources, Too? I Think So! It’s Meta!

I’m generally a fan of Rick Hess’ blogs and willingness to challenge the CW but his post offering up a list of sources for reporters to call about the Republican candidates is off-key.  Hess’ basic thesis here is that reporters talk to too many Dems and not enough Rs in getting views on the current crop of presidential candidates and ed policy more generally.  Perhaps, I haven’t seen any kind of content analysis.  It is though an ironic gripe coming from Hess, who is at the top of the heap of most-cited pundits in the ed media and works at the American Enterprise Institute.  In fact, there he was in the NYT just last week on this very issue.  And it’s also hard to argue that many people on his list aren’t getting a lot of media exposure – Rick Hanushek was featured in the film “Waiting for Superman” for God’s sake.  And to be clear, I don’t have quibbles with anyone on his list as a source.  Many (including Hess) have appeared in attributed quotes and cites in my column for TIME and previously at USN and in other writing and others have been sources.

But, as a source and someone who uses sources, it seems there are a few problems with his argument and this conversation shouldn’t be about list-building.

First, Hess must know that a number of people on his list are actively advising Republican presidential candidates.  There’s a chance that might make their takes less candid or less objective than they might otherwise be, no?  Some people on that list have reached out to lobby me when they feel coverage of a candidate or politician they have a relationship with hasn’t been fair or with a cheer when they were happy I criticized a prominent Dem for something. Others have ties to commercial vendors.  None of this is disqualifying if appropriately disclosed, but the point is that all these folks are not just toiling in Horace’s groves waiting to illuminate the big issues of the day for any journalists or writers who happen past.

Second, in Hess’ original post on this he cites Charlie Barone – former George Miller aide and current Dems for Ed Reform policy director – as an example of the problem.  Really? He’s actually the counterargument. Barone, who I’ve known for years, has a viewpoint, obviously, but it’s more about specific policies than partisan politics. Barone’s a great source precisely because he criticizes both sides when they run afoul of his preferred course of action on policy. See next graf.  And he shoots straight.

Third, even in this election with Republican candidates backpedaling furiously on the federal role, education still doesn’t graft cleanly onto traditional left-right delineations.  Consequently when you’re writing about policy ideas partisan affiliation is often less useful a cue than a person’s priors on the issue.  In the case of Barone, for example, it’s less important that he’s a Dem than that he favors a strong, specific, and coercive federal role in school accountability.  Knowing that is key to understanding and appropriately positioning his take on things.  But Barone is probably closer to George W. Bush on federal education policy than Rick Perry is – so how useful is partisan affiliation?

Finally, looking at who ends up in a published story is often not an accurate proxy for what the writer did.  Quotes in a story capture an idea or perspective and make the story flow but that’s generally not the universe of people you talk with or read to learn about something.  Ability to turn a clever phrase is not the coin of the realm for quotable sources but the ability to put something concisely so that it can fit in a story is.  That’s also why some people only talk on background, they don’t like that constraint.  It’s also why some people on Hess’ list don’t appear in the media so much.

In my view the real structural problem here is the convention of reporting whatever the news or hook for a story is and then getting a few perspectives on it and moving on rather than nesting today’s issues in any kind of historical or analytic framework or providing some authoritative unpacking of various claims. But that obviously won’t be solved by calling different people and putting them in the same framework.

In the past Hess has been vocal about the superficial cues that too often – and counter productively – serve as proxies and guideposts in the education debate.  Yet now he’s offering up a pretty superficial one of his own.  He gives away the game by specifically excluding former education secretaries from his list.  Except by the most superficial criteria why would you exclude, for example, Margaret Spellings? Margaret – who is in the media a lot by the way – has a lot of state experience in addition to federal experience and understands policy at a deeper level than many of those opining on it.

If you want to curry favor and for the press to call your friends more Rick, that’s fine. But just come out and say it. Would make a fun blog post. For now though, the ed press has its issues, sure, but but not calling the right people isn’t a big one.

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