Why Don't TV Networks Cover Education? An Interview with NBC's Steve Capus.

by Seyward Darby | October 2, 2010

Earlier this week, I criticized the kickoff of NBC’s Education Nation, a series of events and programs focusing on what ails U.S. public schools. On the surface, it seems like a fine idea—but what took so long for NBC to cover education? Will the attention last? And will it become more in-depth?

On Thursday, I sat down with Steve Capus, president of NBC News, and put those questions to him directly. He says Education Nation was actually just a start—going forward, the network will be covering education more consistently. Expect to see education stories, Capus says, on “Nightly News with Brian Williams,” “Andrea Mitchell Reports,” “Today,” and other shows. “This week, we took a big step forward,” Capus says. And of his network’s new education priority: “Honestly, I don’t care what the ratings are.”

Education typically doesn’t get a lot of coverage because viewers think it’s a snore, and Capus admits that journalists tend to chase whatever “bright shiny object” is in the news. So I’m skeptical that, especially in this economy and media climate, ratings won’t matter. But it’s still heartening to hear one of the major networks saying it’s committed to better education coverage. What’s more, education policy can be dramatic. As Capus notes, “[I]f you want to see real passion, go to a school board meeting, go to a PTA discussion, go to a teacher conference in your child’s school.”

My interview with Capus covered a lot of ground: Why is there such an aversion to education news on television? Was Education Nation’s reporting and discussion any good? Is NBC pushing an agenda, prompted by the much-hyped education documentary Waiting for Superman? Is the U.S. education system like NASA in the 1960s? Why is NBC covering education in Finland? And what is Capus’s beef with how The New York Times has been covering education?

Here are some excerpts from the Q&A.

Was it Waiting for Superman (which opens nationwide Friday) that spurred you to do Education Nation? What were the catalyzing factors?

The documentary kind of gave fuel to it, but it wasn’t the reason we decided to do this. We saw it months ago, and I think, when we saw it, all it did was solidify in our minds that we were on the right track and we needed to do this. It’s an incredibly powerful film. And I think we touched on a lot of issues that were surfaced by the film. But anything that we do or that Davis Guggenheim [director of Waiting for Superman] does is not going to be adequate. You can’t possibly touch on all of the issues in a newscast, in your decision-making on a daily basis, even in a documentary that’s two hours or so. I think you have to get behind it in a bigger way. We’ve made a decision now to prioritize editorial coverage around these subjects. This week, we took a big step forward. We’re going to continue to cover it and continue to make it a priority for all of our platforms. Honestly, I don’t care what the ratings are because it’s such an important subject matter that this isn’t a play for rating. We’re kind of going into it with our editorial guts saying, “We’ve got to do this.”…

So, if not the documentary, what made you want to do this? What was the moment where you said “aha”?

… About nine months ago, we realized there wasn’t really a news organization doing the kind of in-depth coverage that we thought was important. As we’ve kicked it around with ourselves, there’s an awful lot of passion these days in discussions around taxes and big government, around any number of [issues]. But, if you want to see real passion, go to a school board meeting, go to a PTA discussion, go to a teacher conference in your child’s school. … When you see that kind of passion as a news organization, how can you not say that something important is going on here? …

I will admit that I was skeptical when I saw that Education Nation was happening. Looking back, I can’t remember education being a big TV news topic. There are New York Times and New Yorker articles, sure. But not a lot of big stories on TV news.

But, when Mark Zuckerberg decided to give $100 million to Newark schools, The New York Times put the story on page A27. We figuratively have said that those kinds of stories should be on page one of our newscasts, in the lead position. You know, you are right: Shame on all of us for not making it a priority before now. … What’s more relevant than the future of the nation and how our children are being educated and how their futures are being shaped? …

I have been grumbling to people this week that you had some big ticket items, like “Meet the Press,” that covered Education Nation—but what am I going to see next week? Could you give me a sense, as an NBC viewer, what am I going to see that’s going to be different?

You’re going to see coverage from all around the country under the umbrella of Education Nation that focuses on any number of relevant topics: teacher accountability, teacher pay, where we stand, achievement gaps. … I said specifically to the producers of “Today,” “Nightly News,” and so forth,  “Give me your homework. Tell me what you think you can do and how you can do it.” I’ve been getting nothing but getting incredibly strong notes since then….

One thing that frustrated me about Education Nation was that it it felt like the anchors had read the Spark Notes about education reform—they’re not necessarily people who’ve been invested in covering it. Are you going to bring in other journalists who have their finger on the pulse of education?

I wouldn’t rule that out. We have an education correspondent, Rehema Ellis.* But by design, NBC News wasn’t going to play expert in Education Nation. Look at the people we brought in from around the country and, in some cases, the world. I wanted the NBC journalists to take a backseat to the experts….

(*Jenna Bush was hired by NBC in 2009 to cover education stories for “Today.” According to an NBC News spokeswoman, however, “While Jenna is an educator and does do pieces on education, it’s not formally her title or beat.”)

I read some critiques of Education Nation saying that it was pushing a specific agenda, namely the one promoted in Waiting for Superman, which is tough on teachers’ unions. And, when I watched “Meet the Press,” the person who got the toughest blows was Randi Weingarten of the American Federation of Teachers. How would you answer those critics?

I completely disagree with the notion that the film was what gave us the roadmap. Look at the way we began Education Nation: a two-hour broadcast live on NBC moderated by Brian Williams that was a teacher townhall. It wasn’t Michelle Rhee versus the world. It was 200 teachers who came to Rockefeller Plaza and participated in a meeting. … I remember reading some criticism that Education Nation wasn’t even going to have the voices of teachers. That to me is just [people] hitting the F5 button on their computer because that’s the complaint they’re used to lodging against news organizations that look at education….

You did a segment on Finland, which has the highest-ranked education system in the world. But I don’t believe the segment mentioned that Finnish teachers are unionized. It was a moment where I think people who had the agenda criticism in mind could say, “You didn’t mention that unions can coexist with education reform.”

I know it was discussed [at some point during the week]. ... We weren’t in this to try to take a position one way or the other on the highly emotionally charged issue of unions. That’s not the role of a news organization.

I blogged during the teacher townhall a comment Brian Williams made about how education is like the space program. I actually yelled at my television, because the space program was about pushing outside our boundaries, conquering the universe, while education is a democratic right.

Except I would say this is like a Sputnik moment now. When the Russians launched Sputnik, we all sat back and realized we were being lapped on the race track. And we’re behind [in education]. … Will there be a President Kennedy who says we’re going to put a man on the moon? I don’t know. Today, Mike Bloomberg gave credit to both Obama and Bush for pushing ambitious education agendas, yet you see where we still are. It’s very hard to push this from the federal level.

It will be interesting to see what happens after the midterms with education reform, because it seems like a bipartisan issue, but Republicans want to block Obama’s agenda. They’ve said they won’t give more money to Race to the Top, for instance. Not that this is a strictly federal issue.

We got into this [during Education Nation]. When you have a political environment that is being so heavily influenced by the Tea Party that calls for shrinking the size of government, you can’t ignore it. There are political realities. Mike Castle was on one of our panels. The guy just got bounced. Adrian Fenty was on a panel. Now I think it’s overly simplistic to say he got bounced because of Michelle Rhee, but it was a factor. The teachers’ union poured a million dollars into that race. It’s going to be fascinating to see how [education reform] plays out in this environment. … It just underscores that the answer isn’t going to be found purely in government. It’s interesting to hear from charter schools, to hear from private foundations. … It has all the ingredients of some complex, compelling stories.

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