Friday, September 25, 2009

In front page story, Capital demonstrates how little it knows about the school board

How many black school boards members are there on the AACPS board of education?  According to a front page Capital story by Eric Hartley, the answer is one.  The article seeks to defend the Capital's coverage of the Annapolis mayoral candidate, Zina Pierre, who was forced to withdraw from the election after winning the Democratic primary.  Here is the relevant section:
Tillett said he hopes Pierre’s victory teaches local Democrats they can’t take black voters for granted.

“It’s lighted a fuse,” said Eugene Peterson, a Pierre supporter and the only black county school board member. “I don’t think Annapolis is ever going to be the same.”
The correct number is three.  Since July 1, 2009, the AACPS Board of Education has had three black members, including the student member of the Board.
How many eyes reviewed this article before it was published?  At least two: Hartley and a senior editor.
What does this slip up reveal?   First, it undercuts a central point in Hartley’s article: that the Zina Pierre coverage is an aberration from the Capital’s pattern of rigorous investigative journalism.  One way Hartley goes about this is by rebutting Tillet’s argument that race had something to do with the Zina Pierre coverage.  Hartley argues that the Capital routinely does investigative journalism concerning political candidates:
Tillett felt compelled to argue that no other Annapolis candidate had faced such scrutiny from the press.

“Something’s different here. What could it be?” he asked sarcastically.

I’ve looked through many other candidates’ court histories. It’s part of the job. Just ask Sam Shropshire, who is white and had reporters cover his recent, still-pending criminal charges and even call his wife in Slovakia to ask about allegations of abuse in an old divorce case that Scott Daugherty of The Capital dug up.

There’s no evidence race had a thing to do with coverage of Pierre. But Tillett said, “You will not be able to convince a large segment of the community anything other than (that).”
The fact that Hartley didn’t know that the School Board has three rather than one black member indicates, at the least, that he and at least one senior editor (nothing gets published on the front page of the Capital without being reviewed by an editor) doesn’t pay much attention to school board candidates and politics.  It could be argued that school board politics is not very important.  But the facts speak otherwise.  AACPS spends more than half the total County budget, and its budget is more than ten times the total budget of the City of Annapolis.  Polls also indicate that the public cares hugely about the quality of K12 public education and what is going on in the schools.

It is also striking that this article, which is largely about local racial politics, would get wrong such an obvious racial fact.  If either Hartley or his senior editor had watched a public school board meeting in the last four months or attended a school board candidates event (there have been at least a half dozen since last May, four of them televised), he could not possibly have made this journalistic error because the error would literally be staring him in the face.

I would suggest that this article is not an aberration but deeply reflective of the Capital’s coverage of the school system.  It’s a pity that this revealing slip up had to come from Hartley, who has genuine journalistic instincts.