By Matthew Nielsen
There’s a difference between bias and an agenda. U.S. Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos gathered the staff at the Department of Education to address them upon formal notification of her departure as President Trump’s longest-serving cabinet member. She delivered her remarks, which included a specific request of department staff:
“Be the resistance against forces that will derail you from doing what’s right for students. In everything you do, please put students first—always.”
Unfortunately for the subscribers of nearly every major news outlet, journalist after journalist took three words out of that sentence and created a very different narrative in a depressingly common distortion of reality. For example, MSNBC’s headline was “DeVos pleads for ‘resistance’ at Dept of Education after her exit” and their subheading was “DeVos urged officials to ‘be the resistance’ following Biden’s inauguration, which sounds quite a bit like an ironic call for some kind of ‘deep state.’”
Nearly every other mainstream media outlet that ran a story on the subject used a nearly identical headline. Instead of focusing on the secretary’s main point – to put students first – each outlet ran with their preferred narrative that put DeVos in a negative light.
These large, mainstream news outlets obtained a recording of her remarks, waved the wand of decontextualization, and voila: Secretary DeVos said something she didn’t actually say.
Secretary DeVos was asking the 4,400 employees of the department to put kids first. She was asking for the department to remember what its true purpose really should be, something that (incidentally) not even the National Education Association – the largest teachers union in the U.S. – could agree to at its annual meeting last year.
Finding a trusted source of news has become a nearly impossible scavenger hunt. More readers are turning to multiple sources in order to cobble together some sense of the truth, with podcasts like The Joe Rogan Experience garnering audiences many times larger than cable news hosts. It’s a battle that is uncomfortably familiar for anyone who has dealt with the media.
Trust in media has been on the decline for decades, with more people than ever saying they have “no trust at all” in the media. Knowing this, and mainstream outlets surely must know this, why would so many of them run headlines that contradict reality? ]
Maybe it’s the allure of short-term gains via clicks; maybe it’s ideological bias; maybe it’s some portion of both. Regardless of the motivation, its long-term effects don’t bode well for the health of the organizations that disregard the need for trust in order to maintain readership and revenues. “News” outlets will ultimately suffer at their own hands.
Matthew Nielsen is the founder and board chair at Educational Freedom Institute.