By Alexander Russo
Access, responsiveness, and calendar notifications are all at issue
As of early April, journalists’ access to Education Secretary Betsy DeVos – and to timely responses from the agency she now runs – have become something of a hot-button issue.
DeVos takes press questions at events only occasionally, has yet to grant a formal interview with a major national education reporter, and heads a department that only intermittently provides answers in a timely manner – through a spokesperson whose name reporters are forbidden to use. The agency has even struggled to put out her weekly schedule in advance of public events.
Education reporters tasked with covering DeVos and her agency have complained mightily about the situation – though none wanted to be named here for fear of retribution. “This is a big issue,” said one education reporter, describing lack of responsiveness from the department, a near-blackout on interviews before or after events (known in journalism as an “availability”), and a ban on approaching DeVos during those times. “Access has been nil.”
But some observers believe that lack of access can actually push journalists to develop a more independent and useful approach to informing the public. And the USDE says it is providing abundant opportunities for the press to engage with the secretary — including this week’s visit to a school in North Carolina and today’s trip to visit a variety of schools in Miami.
“This is a big issue… Access has been nil.”
DeVos has “not been shy about avoiding the media,” noted a recent AP article, citing lack of public announcement of her first school visit and her refusal to allow those who showed up anyway to join her on the school tour: “DeVos does not take reporters’ questions after speeches and her few interviews were with conservative news outlets.”
Perhaps that first school visit added to her reluctance. Her entrance to the Washington DC school was initially blocked by protesters. Her post-visit comments about the school and its teachers being “in receive mode” generated an angry response.
These days, reporters who try to get access or responses from DeVos are told that the request is being passed along – but they’re not receiving timely or substantive responses.
“It’s like talking to a black hole,” said one reporter who did not want to be named.
Indeed, education reporters note that DeVos has rarely been quoted outside of speeches she’s given. Read through DeVos coverage from the New York Times, Washington Post, and other major outlets and you won’t find much else.
Getting access to the secretary during events has been another problem.
“Her weekly schedule is sometimes published Monday, but sometimes not until the end of the week, after events have passed,” said a reporter. It was usually published on Fridays before the next week’s events during the Obama era.
Journalists who became used to easy access to previous education secretaries under Obama describe events where the audience is told to stay seated while DeVos leaves after giving a speech, or even being physically blocked by security detail members from approaching the secretary on her way into events or from following her out to her car after them.
The lack of press access was perhaps most pronounced last week in Washington DC, when DeVos appeared at the Air & Space Museum with President Trump’s daughter Ivanka but took no questions, and then again at the Brookings Institution where her interlocutor was a friendly former Bush administration official.
As a result, a lot of stories are being produced without the department’s perspective, and perhaps without complete information.
“We’re all writing federal stories with little to no response from the administration,” said a reporter.
Stories written without agency access are often less comprehensive and perhaps less balanced than they would be otherwise.
Another, potentially more problematic consequence has been a lot of coverage of issues that may be less important to the lives of students and teachers.
“Reporters have a news hole they need to fill. It’s pretty endless, and there’s a particular appetite for news about the Trump administration and DeVos,” said the a former education reporter.
“Someone’s going to write about something. And so we get stories about misspelled tweets.”
DeVos & Ivanka Trump at the Air & Space Museum event
In the Obama era, these early few weeks were a bit of a honeymoon. News outlets made nice with “beat sweeteners” – laudatory coverage of a major source to help guard against a shutdown of access in later weeks and months. There were so many of these puff pieces being produced that Slate rounded them up.
Of course, Obama appointee Arne Duncan was familiar with how government agencies work, having run the Chicago school system. He was also a tall, earnest white guy who played pickup basketball with a popular president.
“Arne had one big advantage in that he was already part of a very large education organization, so he transported over a solid team of people who had been working for him in that capacity,” said Massie Ritsch, who worked for Duncan during the Obama administration.
Oh, and there was the money. “We had 100 billion to give away,” said former Duncan staffer Peter Cunningham. “Everyone wanted to talk to us.”
In contrast, DeVos has no agency experience and no big team to bring in from Michigan. The Trump Administration has proposed a 13 percent cut in federal education funding.
“Someone’s going to write about something. And so we get stories about misspelled tweets.”
Protecting DeVos from questions and topics she’s not ready to deal with might be the smart thing to do, said Cunningham. “It may be a function of the fact she’s not ready yet.”
And a reluctance to expose one’s self to scrutiny and criticism is understandable, given the trial by fire that DeVos experienced during the confirmation process, says Ritsch. “The opposition campaign around her nomination set things in an antagonistic place from the start.”
Pretty much anything she says is being mined for controversy. And she has struggled to articulate her ideas without generating offense.
But the strategy of limiting access to DeVos appeared to backfire during the confirmation process. In the absence of regular access to the nominee, members of the media focused on an unrelentingly negative narrative provided by DeVos’s opponents.
And the longer DeVos and her handlers keep her away from national education reporters, the angrier reporters (and the harsher their coverage) may become.
“I don’t believe this strategy of inoculating themselves [against controversy] is helpful,” said one of the frustrated reporters trying to cover her.
— Orlando Sentinel (@orlandosentinel) March 25, 2017
DeVos at Orlando event last month
Those are the downsides to DeVos’ huddled style. But some journalism experts and observers also see benefits as well; perhaps the lack of access will encourage reporters to dig deeper than press releases and canned events.
“Access reporting tells readers what powerful actors say,” according to a 2014 Columbia Journalism Review analysis. “Accountability reporting tells readers what they do.”
A 2016 survey of education journalists reported that press releases and other communications from press offices constituted the second most common source of story ideas – far more than ideas from parents or school visits.
Looking back, Duncan and Obama’s Race to the Top initiative won admiring early coverage that may not have been entirely deserved.
“You do have to work harder for the story [when you can’t easily reach the official or agency you’re covering], and you probably end up getting better information than if you had access,” said the former reporter.
“There has been some tremendous journalism produced in the last three months because of the lack of access to what’s going on… It’s an opportunity. I think reporters are really stepping up. I think we’ll see more of that,” the former reporter said. “At least I hope.”
But doing good journalism without reliable access to the agencies being covered is also much harder, takes much longer, and can be unnecessarily antagonistic and inflammatory.
It would likely be miserable for all involved if DeVos and her department were as inaccessible for the next four years as they seem to be now.
“You do have to work harder for the story [when you can’t easily reach the official or agency you’re covering], and you probably end up getting better information than if you had access.”
According to DeVos’ defenders, who also didn’t want to be named, the new Education Secretary has been much more open to press questions than it might seem. They say she talked to press after her first school visit as secretary (in Washington DC) and sat down with a reporter after a Valencia College visit and took press questions. She also took questions at Fort Bragg earlier this week.
As for last week’s events, the Air & Space event was organized by the Smithsonian, not the Department of Education. According to Alison Mitchell at the National Air and Space Museum, the decision to invite press to the event was at the behest of the Education Department, and media availability was not offered “because the focus was the STEM program for the middle school students in attendance.”
DeVos took questions from the Brookings Institute’s Russ Whitehurst for nearly a half hour at that event.
There are ways of finding a happy medium between what journalists and cabinet agencies want, says Cunningham.
For example, DeVos staffers could try to make deals with reporters. “I think that if I was managing her I would say to reporters, ‘talk to Betsy, but let’s put some limits on it. She’s more comfortable on certain subjects.’… I think reporters would be open to some kind of an agreement about subject areas.”
Whether reporters and editors would agree to those kinds of ground rules remains to be seen. Journalists routinely accept conditions on their access to information and individuals, especially when offered an advantage over a competitor. But some might refuse.
Alternately, DeVos might seek to go around the traditional media with a big social media campaign, which hasn’t happened so far. DeVos’ official Twitter feed, @BetsyDeVosED, has 38,000 followers, but it’s only been used to send out just 140 updates and follows only 25 other accounts.
It might also help to respond to press inquiries in a timely manner, and to avoid inviting press to events where they are not going to be able to ask questions. If reporters come out to see an event, said Ritsch, they’re “going to hope to do more than stand at the back of the room.”
What it might take to change things would be for someone to videotape education reporters trying – and, presumably, failing – to get their questions asked.
“The problem is that we’re all too polite,” said one reporter. “Nobody is swinging any elbows.”
But any such aggressive or public tactic would be a risky tactic, given concerns about DeVos’ safety and the possibility that anyone who published such a video might be banished in some way for the next four years.
Meanwhile, Education Writers Association head Caroline Hendrie says the association is actively engaged in addressing its members’ concerns, as it has done in past conflicts between its members and public agencies.
On Thursday and Friday, DeVos is scheduled to do a series of events in Florida including visits to district and charter schools, as well as postsecondary institutions.
Whether reporters will be able to press DeVos for answers at during these school visits — or at future events — is an open question.