How the media flubbed the Elizabeth Warren story

Ignoring the controversy wasn’t a realistic option. Doing so only made things worse.

By Alexander Russo

What is the right thing for journalists to do when a salacious but thinly sourced story about a popular political candidate is spreading online?

Cover it? Ignore it? Wait and watch?

This was the predicament facing journalists last week, as questions about Senator Elizabeth Warren’s short-lived tenure as a Riverdale, N.J., elementary school teacher were swirling online and growing louder.

Was the recent college graduate nonrenewed after her first year because she was pregnant, which is the story she has been telling on the campaign trail, or was it because she hadn’t completed the necessary coursework and certifications, which is what she told an interviewer in 2007? Had she misled the public or changed her story in any significant way?

For what seemed like an eternity, though it only lasted about a week, most media outlets chose to sit the controversy out, rather than fanning the flames by covering a topic that seemed insubstantial and lacked compelling new information.

There was a good case for doing so. But it’s also true that, in ignoring the story while it gained momentum, reporters and media outlets allowed it to fester and grow larger than it would have otherwise.

That’s the argument I would make, based in part on how things turned out in this situation and in others with which I’m familiar, such as the 2017 the rumor that Betsy DeVos was resigning that went viral two years ago.

Some attacks can be ignored. They sputter and disappear on their own. But this was not one of them.

Elizabeth Warren with her newborn daughter in 1971, shortly after her separation from a New Jersey teaching job. Via the campaign website.

I didn’t think much of the story, one way or the other, though I was curious about the possibility that lack of credentials and certification contributed to Warren’s departure. For many years before alternative certification programs came along, bureaucratic rules made it difficult for non-education majors to have careers as K-12 classroom teachers.

My main concern was the media’s frustrating slowness at stepping in and knocking down misleading allegations and vague insinuations — precisely the job they’re supposed to fulfill.

I wasn’t the only one. “I thought the lack of reporting, whether to debunk the story or confirm it, was surprising, given that she’s a frontrunner or co-frontrunner,” tweeted FiveThirtyEight’s Nate Silver early Tuesday morning. “I’d seen it circulated fairly widely for several days.”

A little bit of rapid-response fact-checking or reporting by a news outlet would have helped enormously if it had been produced earlier. Instead, the story grew larger, and eventually news outlets were forced to do what many journalists claimed that they had wanted to avoid: report the story.

Law, Politics, and the Coming Collapse of the Middle Class: Conversation with Elizabeth Warren, Leo Gottlieb Professor of Law, Harvard University; March 8, 2007, by Harry Kreisler

Watch the whole video here. Read the transcript here.

Now a frontrunner in the campaign to be the Democratic nominee for president, Warren has been telling the story of her short-lived tenure as an elementary school teacher for quite a while now.

In her memoir and on the campaign trail, Warren describes how much she wanted to be a teacher and how she was pushed out after only a year when she became pregnant.

It’s a great anecdote, and generally, the story has been taken at face value, without much scrutiny.  That’s no surprise. Many women have lost their jobs because of pregnancy. Candidates like to tell lots of stories about their lives and events that shape them, most of which never get much attention.

But the level of scrutiny was bound to change once her campaign gained momentum.

Questions about the Warren story percolated online for nearly a week before it made mainstream news.

As noted in some but not all of the stories that have since been published, questions about Warren’s departure from teaching originated with journalists and outlets who are said to favor Kamala Harris and Bernie Sanders. Somewhat behind the scenes, Sanders and Warren supporters, some of whom work as journalists, have been engaged in a ferocious battle.

A first indication of what was to come came from Jacobin’s Eric Blanc, who wrote a scathing roundup in the leftist outlet of questions and concerns about Warren’s education record.

Blanc didn’t address Warren’s teaching record in the piece, but Jacobin staffer Meagan Day jumped in a few days after, on Twitter. Day’s main objection was that Warren was wrapping herself in the role of public school teacher, downplaying what may have been a voluntary departure from the job after just a year.

“Warren was a public school teacher for one year,” tweeted Day. “She immediately left the classroom, went to law school, and became a law professor. Come on.”

Shortly thereafter, far as I can reconstruct events, a 2007 video in which Warren talks about her departure from teaching was unearthed. In it, Warren focuses on the additional coursework that would have been required to become a permanent teacher. She did not mention being fired for becoming pregnant.

Mediaite was one of the first sites to pick up the story, which was being discussed online by the left and the right.

On October 5, Mediaite’s Tommy Christopher posted a story about how Warren had “lied” about why she was dismissed.

This caught the attention of Fox News, which ran a segment about the controversy on Sunday, October 6, headlined “Warren Facing New Credibility Questions.”

At this point, there was nothing from any other of the major media outlets covering the campaign: the Times, the Post, AP. Neither Snopes nor PolitiFact weighed in to verify or debunk the story. Education news sites and reporters were largely AWOL, as well.

Fox News picked up the story from Mediaite and others. 

Public officials’ narratives are frequently the subject of questions and concerns, whether it’s their war record, their earnings, or their academic performance as a student.

Former DCPS head Michelle Rhee’s story about improving her students’ test scores is an example from the previous decade.

More recently, Senator Warren’s claims of Native American ancestry were subject to enormous scrutiny, and eventually determined to have been largely untrue.

Nor is this the first time a half-baked rumor related to education issues has gone viral. Two years ago, based on little more than a wishful quote in a Politico magazine profile, AlterNet and Salon pushed the story that DeVos’s resignation was all but imminent.

The 2017 DeVos resignation rumor spread like wildfire, thanks in part to lack of response from reputable news outlets and journalists who knew that the story wasn’t substantive but, with one or two exceptions, didn’t bother communicating that to their readers.

The Free Beacon was the first to unearth the school board minutes detailing Warren’s departure.

Many journalists say that ignoring the Warren story was the right call. I get that.

It’s been established that debunking stories has the unintended effect of making them more memorable.

There was more than a whiff of misogyny in the conservative-fueled critique of Warren, a reminder of previous attacks on her character and those made against Hillary Clinton.

There’s a long history of discrimination against pregnant women in the workplace. And the reporters and outlets pushing the narrative were ideologically motivated.

The stories they were pushing could be described as attempted smears. The evidence that they provided was thin and inconclusive. And there wasn’t anything particularly damning in the 2007 video or the school board minutes that would eventually be unearthed.

So it’s entirely understandable that reputable news outlets would want to stay away. Journalists didn’t want to promote information they see as unworthy or possibly inaccurate.

“All of us — both journalists and voters — just have to remember that we don’t have to take the bait,” wrote the Washington Post’s Paul Waldman in an op-ed whose headline called the situation “a fake GOP scandal.”

Unfortunately, that strategy doesn’t seem to have worked. The story just kept growing.

The Warren story was also part of the CBS This Morning show on Wednesday.

On Monday, October 7th, the right-leaning Washington Free Beacon unearthed minutes from the school district where Warren had worked, showing that she had initially been offered a job for another year but had later resigned. According to the story penned by the Free Beacon’s Collin Anderson, the minutes “contradict Warren’s claim” that she was fired over her pregnancy.*

At this point, education reporters were in an increasingly difficult spot. They aren’t in charge of political coverage and in most cases aren’t the ones who are supposed to vet candidates’ claims. But they sometimes know more about the substance than campaign reporters. Some education reporters — HuffPost’s Rebecca Klein and the New York Times’ Dana Goldstein among them — urged restraint and provided context on social media. Goldstein tweeted that pregnancy-related firings were common in those days. Klein urged readers not to jump to conclusions based on the school board minutes.

Finally, on Tuesday morning, CBS News reported the controversy, featuring an exclusive interview with Warren about what had happened.

In a piece headlined Elizabeth Warren stands by account of being pushed out of her first teaching job because of pregnancy, Warren said that, in the years since 2007, when she focused on the coursework, she had become more comfortable talking about what had actually happened.

And at that point, the floodgates opened and everyone jumped in. The New York Times, Vox, and others followed suit quickly. By Wednesday, the story had spread to TMZ, Salon, and HuffPost, There were several pieces from the Washington Post. EdWeek posted a story on the 8th. PolitiFact unearthed inconclusive local news coverage of Warren’s departure.

My favorite headline so far has been from Splinter: This Is the Dumbest Controversy.

CBS News was the first mainstream news source to report the controversy over Warren’s depature from teaching.

Many journalists and others remain unconvinced that the story should have been covered in the first place.

The Post’s Waldman critiqued the CBS story, which “corroborates her story but nonetheless frames it as ‘Elizabeth Warren stands by account,- as though there is some actual doubt about what happened.”

He’s not the only one.

“The Free Beacon, a publication with zero editorial standards, makes some shit up and now it’s an Official Controversy,” tweeted Vox’s Matt Yglesias on Wednesday morning.

“The false allegations about Warren were a test for her campaign and the political media,” tweeted Pod Save America’s Dan Pfeiffer.  “She passed, they failed.”

“The Free Beacon didn’t have a scoop; it had an innuendo,” wrote the New Yorker’s Eric Lach. “And it chose to publish that innuendo because it knew how the rest of the media would respond: pick it up, make it a thing, and generate all those ‘Warren Defends’ headlines.”

I see the point but don’t agree. Or, to be totally honest, I don’t see the alternative.

Like the Washington Post’s Margaret Sullivan, I see the initial story as an attempted smear. But at the same time, I credit CBS News for providing crucial context, including interviews with fellow teachers from the same school district.

“I thought the @cbsnews story was well reported and provided the crucial missing context,” tweeted Sullivan. “If it took them a day to get the reporting done, including finding retired teachers, I have no problem with that.”

I would have liked the full story to have been delivered faster, but perhaps that’s unreasonable.

In this case, at least, mainstream coverage was the treatment, not the disease.

*Correction: The Free Beacon story was originally misattributed to Eliana Johnson, when the correct byline goes to Collin Anderson. 

Alexander Russo is founder and editor of The Grade, an award-winning effort to help improve media coverage of education issues. He's also a Spencer Education Journalism Fellowship winner and a book author. You can reach him at @alexanderrusso.

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