Is it news, or is it advocacy? In the case of the Seventy Four, a new news site focused on education, the answer appears to be yes.
The site, co-founded and edited by former CNN and NBC anchor Campbell Brown, bills itself as “a nonprofit, nonpartisan online newsroom aimed at driving a much-needed conversation about reforming America’s education system.” The name refers to the 74 million children in the United States under age 18.
Brown, who oversees the Seventy Four’s 14-person newsroom in New York, says that the site will focus on K-12 education, federal education policy and the 2016 presidential election. She promised that it will feature accountability and investigative reporting, particularly about how public education funds are spent.
“Obviously, we’re going to challenge the education status quo and education establishment,” she said in an interview, “but we’re also going to highlight what’s working. This is not going to be a one-size-fits-all site.”
It will, she insists, take a “nonpartisan” approach to contentious issues roiling education, including teacher tenure, the expansion of charter schools and the use of taxpayer funds to support vouchers for private education.
Of course, it depends on what your definition of “nonpartisan” is.
The Seventy Four’s first articles Monday suggest that it favors an agenda that is advocated primarily by business interests and conservative politicians, and that is strongly opposed by public school teachers and their unions. President Obama has supported some of the business and conservatives’ ideas, too, putting him at odds with teachers.
Its lead article Monday focused on the “notable wave of backlash” against the Washington-based American Federation of Teachers (AFT) endorsement on Saturday of Hillary Rodham Clinton’s presidential candidacy.
Another article offered an assessment of Republican candidate Scott Walker, who clashed with public sector unions, including teachers, during his first term as Wisconsin governor. The story noted: “Equally noteworthy for education insiders, though, has been Walker’s moves to expand the use of vouchers across Wisconsin, cut K-12 education funding and overhaul tenure regulations for professors in the state’s higher education system.”
Brown — who has advocated on behalf of charter schools and is opposed to tenure for teachers — says she doesn’t consider education restructuring “to be a partisan issue. I don’t like the word ‘partisan,’ because people think it means Democrat versus Republican, and that’s not us. I agree we have a point of view; it’s a nonpartisan point of view. It’s a clear point of view, and that is that the public education system, in its current form, is broken, and there’s an urgency to fix it.”
Or as she wrote on her site Monday, casting aside the down-the-middle-approach of her earlier career in journalism: “I have learned that not every story has two sides. And I will not allow for false equivalency when a child’s future is being compromised, regardless of the vitriol it provokes.”
As it happens, Brown raised the funds for the Seventy Four from some of the biggest and wealthiest advocates of the restructuring that the Seventy Four appears to be espousing. The funders include the Dick and Betsy DeVos Family Foundation, the Walton Family Foundation and Bloomberg Philanthropies, all of which have opposed teachers unions and supported various school-privatization initiatives. (Her co-founder, Romy Drucker, was an education adviser to billionaire and former New York City mayor Michael Bloomberg.)
The Seventy Four already has organized two candidate forums on education policy, one for Republicans in New Hampshire next month and a second for Democrats in Iowa in October. The forums are co-sponsored by the American Federation for Children, a group that favors charter schools, vouchers and private school tax credits.
AFC’s political action committee has contributed millions of dollars to school-choice candidates at the state level. The group is headed by Betsy DeVos, the wife of Amway co-founder Richard M. DeVos.
All of this has raised eyebrows among teachers unions and those who track education policy.
“It is always wise to know who is funding something,” said John F. Jennings, founder of George Washington University’s Center on Education Policy, an independent public education organization.
“If the ‘new reformers’ are funding [Brown’s] site, and there is no balance of funding from others, I believe the site will be suspect,” he said. “Sorry, but as they used to say, ‘Money makes the world go ’round,’ and in this instance it may wobble in the direction that the new reformers like. I presume [the site has] integrity, but questions will always be asked about how the topics were picked [and] presented.”
Randi Weingarten, president of the AFT, the second-largest teachers union after the National Education Association, offered a more succinct assessment in a statement: “I hope that Campbell Brown is honest that this site is about opinion, not news.”