Criticizing Washington Post coverage recently, Eleanor D. Zappone, president of the board of education of Montgomery County, put it this way: "When it focuses almost exclusively on controversy, citizens tend to conclude that our public schools are degenerating rather than improving, as our student achievement results demonstrate.
"The board's politically dangerous but fiscally responsible efforts to close underutilized schools, the reorganizations which produce greater efficiency at lower cost, the successful strides to raise academic standards, the efforts to address drug abuse and all the other stands this board has taken have rarely, if ever, been acknowledged or reported in a positive manner . . . . It is incumbent upon The Post to restore some balance to news about Montgomery County Public Schools and Board of Education."
Some of Mrs. Zappone's comments have been voiced by others in recent months while the board and county residents debated recommendations for closing some 30 schools.
At the same time, there have been expressions of praise for Post reporting. Ruth Harris of Silver Spring wrote to publisher Donald Graham: "Several months ago I wrote you to complain about the unbalanced treatment The Post was giving Montgomery Board of Education on racial balance in the schools. Now I would like to commend The Post for improved reporting . . . by Alison Muscatine. . . . She "appears to have captured the essence of what is happening in Montgomery County. She has dug beneath the surface. . . ." (Alison Muscatine, now covering the legislature in Annapolis, did the major share of reporting in Montgomery County over the past six months.)
Obviously no two letters tell the story. To evaluate the comments of Mrs. Zappone and other critics, some 40 stories were examined. Conversations were held with present and former members of the board, the superintendent and information director of the schools, and with parents. Inside The Post, the subject was raised with reporters and others up the line to the publisher.
None of the critics faults the coverage for inaccuracy or misstatement. Some, like Mrs. Zappone, see imbalance by volume; that is, stories on the closures debate outweighing ongoing school activities. Others point the charge at what they perceive as onesidedness in stories on board actions as racial considerations became involved. One critic remarked that the articles "do not show that to agree with the board is nnot to assume bigotry," betraying a misunderstanding between the function of news and editorial columns.
The first significant story, "The School Closings Battle Begins," appeared Oct. 1, 1981. It reported that the board promised a decision by Dec. 1. It contained facts and figures of the superintendent of schools' "master" plan, noting a significant decrease in student population as the prime reason for closing. It made clear also that opponents saw racial considerations involved.
Two other stories that week reported some parents resisting splitting up schools that had been "paired" under an earlier board's decision. A separate story Oct. 6 noted that a committee would "check schools' racial policies."
Two days later, the paper ran a piece totally off the debate that, among other things, said that "more than 80 percent of parents surveyed said the schools are very satisfactory . . . ." It noted the schools had earned a collective "A" or "B" academically, comparing them favorably with a nationwide Gallup survey. Stories of this nature continued to run, principally in the Maryland Weekly pages. In late October, one dealt with the enthusiastic use of a computer by elementary school pupils. Another, on Oct. 22, was a nice takeout on the annual "showcase" of cultural arts at Albert Einstein High School.
Stories about the continuing debate within the board and between the board and its public critics ran through November. In the piece "School Decisions Start Today . . . Affect Next 15 Years," the reporter noted: "The closing plan came in response to declining enrollment, but it was clear from the beginning there was little prospect of producing a proposal that would satisfy all sides." That seems a perfectly self-evident statement in a balanced story.
A separate story the same day described County Executive Charles W. Gilchrist asking for reconsideration of the decision to close Rosemary Hills, an elementary school predominantly of minority children. It had been "paired" with Chevy Chase Elementary in 1976 with the objective of improving racial balance and expanding "quality" education. Rosemary Hills, the story noted, dramatized the growing bitterness between "black" and "liberals," and this was the first time the county executive had intervened. One Post critic observed that Mr. Gilchrist's "motives were not explored; a reader wouldn't know where he was coming from." That is a flaw in the story. It would have been informative to know.
A story the next day, reporting a vote to close two high schools, is noteworthy for the balance of comment from advocates and opponents.
Mr. Gilchrist intervened again, a story on Dec. 10 shows. The reason, as reported, was in connection with his annual recommendation to the county council on the board's budget. Former board president Marian Greenblatt is quoted criticizing Mr. Gilchrist as "politically motivated . . . he should be helping, not working against us."
Mrs. Greenblatt, whose views on busing were published as an op-ed piece last August, holds that The Post lent more space to critics than to the board. She points particularly to an eight-page statement of hers refuting charges against the board majority, saying it "got one paragraph." That's inaccurate. Apparently overlooked was a story Dec. 1 that devoted at least five paragraphs, including direct quotation, to her statement. In a story the next day, it was referred to again in a one-paragraph summary.
Mrs. Greenblatt also feels the newspaper failed to represent an "overview" of the issues. Miss Muscatine wrote a specific analysis, "Tactics Behind Rosemary Hills Vote," Nov. 22, and a more comprehensive one Nov. 29, complete with county map and a list of all schools marked for closure.
Among others who have commented on Post coverage, Roscoe Nix, former board member and now director of the NAACP in Montgomery County, "admittedly a partisan," characterized earlier coverage as "haphazard," adding that Miss Muscatine "has done a superior job. And, as a result, The Post has received an education." Schools Superintendent Edward Andrews and Information Director Kenneth Muir would agree with Mr. Nix that earlier school coverage was spotty. Editors of The Post don't disagree. While welcoming the more sustained reporting and expressing high regard for Miss Muscatine, both Mr. Andrews and Mr. Muir feel the newspaper highlighted "the controversial."
For a newspaper, it is an ever-thin line between being a spectator and a participant. And this "damned if you don't, damned if you do" fix is a familiar one. The evidence here is that The Post didn't pay great attention to Montgomery County schools in the past. For that, it was criticized.
When, however, the closure of some 30 schools became a reality and public questioning was inevitably aroused, the issue couldn't be ignored. The controversy over racial balance was there. The paper had an obligation to report what happened and what was said. The evidence is that it did that accurately and, in the circumstances, fairly.