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Lack of familiarity with HBCUs and a focus on spectacle over substance contributed to superficial coverage. 

by Joseph Williams

When graduates at Bethune-Cookman University disrupted Education Secretary Betsy DeVos’s commencement speech earlier this month, a media narrative quickly formed: DeVos, the Trump administration’s walking lightning rod, weathered a Florida storm largely of her own making. Bethune-Cookman graduates became an angry black mob, and DeVos was a hapless white cabinet official on a ham-fisted outreach mission.

But most of the journalists covering the spectacle of Betsy in the Lion’s Den missed a bigger, arguably more important story behind the scenes. That story hinged on a question almost no one asked:

Why was DeVos invited, why did she accept, and what, exactly, was the purpose of her appearance?

The answer, it turns out, was money — specifically, funding for historically black colleges and universities (HBCUs) in the Trump White House, and DeVos’s role in doling it out.

While local news outlets and a few national outlets like the Washington Post got at the deeper issues, NPR and other major outlets largely kept to the surface events.*

A focus on the noisy conflict and a lack of background understanding might have been the main factors.

Video of DeVos encountering protesters earlier this month

Outrage erupted in early May when the school announced that DeVos — a billionaire heiress with no formal background in public education — would address the college Mary McLeod Bethune founded with five girls and $1.50 in the Jim Crow South.

For weeks, disgruntled students, alumni and activists pressured the school to drop DeVos, remembering when she called historically black colleges and universities “real pioneers when it comes to school choice.” That was after her office misspelled W.E.B. DuBois’s name in a Black History Month tweet.

Then, days ahead of commencement, President Donald Trump proposed cutting off federal funding for African American-majority institutions — an existential threat to schools already struggling to make ends meet. The blowback forced Trump to nix the idea, but the damage had been done.

So when DeVos took the stage, Bethune-Cookman’s commencement got ugly in a hurry. Amid a torrent of jeers and boos, with many of the graduates’ backs turned (The Washington Post reported about half of the 300 grads joined the protest, while the school said only 17 students did), DeVos plowed through her speech. Not even B-CU President Edison O. Jackson’s threat to cancel the ceremony and send graduates their diplomas in the mail could end the disruption.

But it’s relatively common knowledge that historically black institutions are hurting, due in part to education trends and intense competition with traditionally-white schools for high-achieving African-American students. A huge factor is shrinking resources for all the nation’s public colleges and universities, particularly less money for Pell Grants, the lifeblood of black colleges like Bethune-Cookman.

That means the government funding of HBCUs — who, in the best of times, get a separate-and-unequal share when taxpayer dollars are handed out — could soon evaporate.

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While there have been sporadic reports of HBCUs in financial crisis (including suggestions President Barack Obama might not have done all he could to help them), there hasn’t been much coverage about how those schools might fare, or not, after the first black president left office.

Federal funding for HBCUs has understandably been a top priority for the heads of those institutions since November.

An early sign: the awkward photo op between Trump and a dozen or so HBCU presidents Oval Office in January. “Some saw the move as purely symbolic, others said it presaged the Trump administration’s support for HBCUs, and still others saw it as a cynical political maneuver,” reported The Atlantic at the time.

But when the budget numbers came out a few weeks later, the HBCU presidents weren’t feeling the love: According to The Atlantic, Trump’s first budget “slices federal education spending by 13.5 percent but claims to ‘maintain’ minority institutions and HBCUs at around $492 million, the same amount the [Obama] administration initially budgeted.”

That’s level-funding, more or less, for historically black institutions of higher education at a time when college costs are spiraling, private schools are getting wealthier, and African American students have far more options.

After the event, Walter Kimbrough, the president of Dillard University, didn’t mince words. “The case that we’ve been trying to make,” he told Inside Higher Ed, “is that we already don’t have enough resources to do the work that needs to be done.”

[Editor’s Note: According to a recent article in The Intercept, Bethune-Cookman is also newly aligned with a for-profit law school whose accreditation is also under DeVos’s control.]

Students boo Betsy DeVos as commencement speaker at historically black university The Washington Post

Washington Post coverage of the event

In the current warp-speed news cycle, it can be understandably much harder to put breaking news in context, helping readers fully understand the story. But this wasn’t a breaking news story. News outlets knew for weeks that DeVos would walk into a hostile environment, and there was ample time to prepare.

The failure to give depth to the coverage, however, underscores – again – the lack of enough African American education editors or reporters in big-time newsrooms, journalists who might have flagged the story for an in-depth look.

Liz Dwyer, a teacher-turned-education editor for GOOD.com, an online news and issues website, says news organizations don’t always see HBCUs as part of the broader college landscape.

“Instead of HBCUs being seen as the canary in the higher-ed coal mine, assigning editors might see the financial problems at the schools as lacking any mainstream—i.e. white—appeal” for readers, says Dwyer, recalling having to explain the acronym “HBCU” to white colleagues and editors. “How many editors in today’s un-diverse newsrooms attended an HBCU?”

Meanwhile, “Black people struggling financially is nothing new,” she says. “For every ‘Fresh Prince of Bel Air,’” a 1990s sitcom about a wealthy African American family, “there’s jokes [by black comedians] about reselling food stamps and having bad credit. So, the unsaid assumption in a newsroom is that HBCUS [always] struggle.”

To its credit, the Washington Post dug deeper than most, including a few paragraphs on Jackson’s somewhat transactional rationale for inviting DeVos:

“[Jackson] spoke of the importance of working with people with influence, even if they seem to have an opposing viewpoint, and persuading them of the needs [at HBCUs] …  And he said he wanted to be at the table. He cited an expression: “‘If you’re not at the table, you’re on the menu.”

CNN published on its website an essay by Tiffany Jones, director of higher education policy at The Education Trust, a nonprofit that works to close gaps in educational opportunity and achievement. She got to the heart of the matter:

Direct federal investments and student aid make up 25% of HBCU revenue. So, engaging federal policymakers is not something HBCU leaders and their advocates can avoid or ignore — nor should the federal policymakers be taking their responsibility to HBCUs lightly.

If only CNN had published the op-ed when the news cycle was peaking, rather than five days after the commencement, well after the story had come and gone.

WATCH Education Secretary Betsy DeVos Speaks Over Torrent Of Boos During Bethune Cookman Speech The Two Way NPR

NPR coverage of the event

Over all, however, few mainstream news outlets addressed these underlying factors, or took the general lack of background about Trump’s less-than-solid support for HBCUs into full account when covering the fiasco.

In particular, news organizations like NPR whiffed on laying out what was at stake for HBCUs in DeVos’s appearance; both outlets focused on the disruption and framed the conflict as part of the debate over conservative speakers on liberal college campuses.*

Despite repeated attempts, neither the New York Times nor NPR were available to respond to requests for comment.

One national education reporter who covered the story said she wasn’t surprised more outlets didn’t take a broader, more comprehensive look at DeVos at Bethune-Cookman and the plight of HBCUs. Covering the fireworks of a protest is easy, she said; writing about why they happened – on a tight deadline – is a lot harder.

“It’s hard for me to criticize other journalists because we’re all under different pressures,” said the reporter, who asked for anonymity because she was speaking without her news organization’s official permission. “What I would like to have seen is more about Bethune-Cookman — the school’s history, what it has done.”

Local news outlets took a different tack. Tony Jarmusz, an education reporter for the Daytona Beach News-Journal, says his paper had a home-team advantage: A deeper understanding of Bethune-Cookman’s economic plight and more boots on the ground to cover the story.

“My editors understood the protests were the most gripping part of the story, but they also had the insight look beyond the 30-second sound bite,” says Jarmusz. While the national coverage was generally fair, Jarmusz says, most outlets “honed in on the controversy but not as much the stories behind it.”

He did note at least one reporter whose work stood out: “I thought Lauretta Charlton with The New Yorker did a solid piece that showed issues beyond the immediate controversy. Her article demonstrates the need for HBCUs and why HBCUs need funding.”

The clash between B-CU’s Class of ’17 and DeVos may be over, but there’s still plenty of follow-up work to be done, including revisiting the notion DeVos may help Jackson fill the school’s coffers. The national media may have missed the bigger story this time around, but Jarmusz says education reporters will have lots more chances to delve into the underlying issues.

“I think the motivation behind B-CU’s decision to invite DeVos deserves a closer look by the media, myself included,” he says. “I’m curious to see how things will turn out.”

*Due to a reporting error, The New York Times’ coverage of the DeVos speech was incorrectly characterized as not having addressed problems in funding for historically-black colleges and universities.

Joseph Williams is a longtime journalist who writes for US News & World Report covering the Supreme Court and for various other publications. He can be reached on Twitter at @jdub321.

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Covering DeVos (about coverage of the nominee)
The Cliffhanger That Wasn’t (about coverage of the nomination process)