MEDIA WATCH: National media heavyweights lied and preached against Chicago Teachers Strike of 2012

One of the things that some of us in Chicago missed during the Chicago Teachers Strike of 2012 was how completely the heavyweights of the national media, including major TV personalities, weighed in against the union and the parents and students who supported CTU during the strike. It was nearly unanimous, as FAIR points out following a recent survey of the coverage.

Thanks to Susan Ohanian for sending along the materials that follow:

It comes from Fairness and Accuracy in Reporting (FAIR), who publish the monthly Extra! From Extra!, November 2012

Journalists take sides in Chicago strike... Not for Teachers, by Peter Hart

Among corporate media pundits, hostility towards teachers’ unions spans the ideological spectrum (Extra!, 9/10). And in supposedly straight news reporting, the policy goals of corporate “reformers” — support for charter schools and teacher ratings based on standardized test statistical models — are treated as common sense instead of contested and controversial.

So when the Chicago Teachers Union went out on strike this September, it was never in doubt which side the corporate media would take. The story of Chicago, as they framed it, was that well-paid teachers in an underperforming, cash-strapped school system wanted more money, and opposed any attempt to hold them accountable for their performance. From the start, coverage stressed it was, as the New York Times put it (9/10/12), “a dispute over wages, job security and teacher evaluations.”

That isn’t false per se, but that framing suggests teachers were primarily concerned with matters of obvious self-interest—how much they make, how they can keep their jobs, how to avoid accountability. The union had made clear for months that it was concerned with a host of issues, from reducing class sizes to expanding social services for students in poverty. But coverage

too often glossed over these substantive issues in favor of a storyline that suggested teachers were simply protecting their turf.

Take the issue of so-called “teacher evaluations”—which teachers, media led us to believe, were against. As ABC World News anchor Diane Sawyer (9/10/12) presented it, “Here is the heart of and who should decide?” Correspondent Alex Perez’s answer began by asking a student, “Are you upset that you’re not able to be learning in the classroom today?”

Viewers eventually learned that the “sticking point” is that the “new plan” would stress standardized test scores, and that “the unions argue that would put teachers at a disadvantage and possibly cost them their jobs.”

But the actual problem is more fundamental: whether the scores, and the value-added statistical modeling that is used to transform those scores into teacher effectiveness ratings, can accurately or reliably measure teacher quality—a proposition that is rejected by many education experts (Extra!, 4/11). ABC’s failure to explain that surely led some Journalists take sides in Chicago strike viewers to conclude that unionized teachers don’t want their job performance to be evaluated—especially when Perez concludes by reminding viewers that students are failing:

Complicating the situation, statistics like this one from the U.S. Department of Education which found that about 80 percent of Chicago eighth graders are not grade-level proficient in reading or math.

The following night (9/12/12), ABC World News was back in Chicago. “How do you grade a teacher?” Sawyer asked again. But the real issue in the segment was something else: how to replace public schools that have unionized teachers.

Reporter Perez noted that despite the strike, “it’s been business as usual for 52,000 other Chicago public school students.” Those are students attending charter schools, which Perez schools.”

Nationally speaking, charter schools do no such thing (Center for Research on Education Outcomes, 6/09). But ABC’s report stuck entirely to charter-friendly sources—one school’s “CEO,” along with a charter teacher who declared that his job wasn’t safe if he didn’t get results. Perez closed the segment: “So which model works? That’s the question at the heart of the largest teachers strike in two decades.” If that was the question, ABC’s “evidence” left viewers with a pre-determined answer.

While the discussions of charters and teacher evaluations could be a bit vague, one part of coverage was crystal clear: How much Chicago teachers make— a lot—and how they’re striking in spite of a generous raise.

“A possible 16 percent increase over four years for teachers who make an average of $75,000 a year, in a district already struggling financially,” explained NBC Nightly News (9/14/12), using figures that made the rounds across the media. While the pay increase was broadly mentioned in press coverage, less attention was paid to Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel’s decision to cancel a previously scheduled pay increase, which no doubt affected how much the union trusts his administration.

Washington Post columnist Charles Lane (9/10/12) measured teachers’ salaries against the incomes of Chicago families. Roughly 80 percent of students “live at or near the poverty line,” Lane noted, comparing that to the cushy lives of their teachers:

"The average public-school teacher in Chicago earned almost triple that amount—$76,000 per year, according to the school district. In contract negotiations this year, Chicago Public Schools offered an average total pay increase of 16 percent over four years.... I cannot describe the moral

repugnance of this strike by aggrieved middle-class “professionals” against the aspiring poor.

Lane presumably puts “professionals” in scare quotes because anybody can be a teacher—unlike, say, journalists.

Newspaper editorial boards weren’t much more sympathetic to the striking teachers, as Washington Post columnist Harold Meyerson noted (9/20/12): “Editorial boards from the rightwing Wall Street Journal to the liberal New York Times were nearly unanimous in condemning the seven-day strike.”

Both big hometown papers were

editorially opposed to the union. The

Chicago Sun-Times took a slightly less

hostile stance, acknowledging that the union

hostile stance, acknowledging that the union

was “right to fight” on issues like funding

disparities and social services (9/10/12)—

they just shouldn’t strike. And the paper

featured op-eds from union supporters like

Jesse Jackson (9/17/12). The Chicago

Tribune seemed less interested in a debate;

it was very clear which side they were on

(“Don’t Cave, Mr. Mayor”—9/11/12), and

the paper twice pointed out (8/31/12,

9/11/12) that the strike’s silver lining was

that it would produce a “groundswell”

among parents for charter schools.

The New York Times thought little of

the union’s side (“Chicago Teacher’s Folly,”

9/12/12), fingering “union discontent with

sensible policy changes” and chiding CTU

president Karen Lewis as someone who

“seems to be basking in the power of having

shut down the school system.”

Times columnists jumped in, too. Joe

Nocera (9/11/12) admitted that the “reformers”

don’t have all the answers, but

claimed that teachers want nothing to

change: “The status quo, which is what the

Chicago teachers want, is clearly unacceptable.

In Chicago, about 60 percent of public

school students graduate from high school.”

Nicholas Kristof (9/13/12) argued that he

wasn’t buying the idea that the union was

standing up for their students, since “the

Chicago union seems to be using its political

capital primarily to protect weak


And Times conservative David Brooks

(9/13/12), echoing the Post’s Lane, pointed

out that “the average Chicago teacher makes

$76,000 a year in a city where the average

worker makes $47,000 a year.” As with

Lane, it’s hard not to conclude that Brooks’

point is that teachers should face something

like a 40 percent pay cut.

“Chicago’s Striking Teachers Flunk the

Sympathy Test” read the headline on USA

Today’s September 12 editorial page, where

the paper explained that teachers unions

don’t live in the “real world.”

Of course, the real real world includes

oversized classes, impoverished students who

lack social services, science and art becoming

luxuries reserved for wealthy schools—all the

things the striking teachers were fighting—

along with corporate reformers who buy into

untested, profit-making schemes, who don’t

send their kids to the schools they promote

and who move on to the next project when

things don’t pan out.

That real world was hard to discern in

Chicago coverage.

Research assistance: Rick Carp


Which Side Are You On?

One recurring theme (e.g., New York

Times, 9/18/12) was that Barack

Obama “has not publicly taken a side in

the strike, which awkwardly pits his former

chief of staff against labor, both key allies.”

That’s an odd conclusion, since the union

was clearly taking aim at “reform” policies of

the current White House. That would put Obama

on a side, whether or not he publicly said

anything at all.

And it might help explain why the strike

received relatively light attention on liberal leaning

MSNBC, which probably would have

had a very different view if the union had been

striking against Republican policies. —P.H.

Pull-Out quote

“It says here that the unions will

never learn.”

—Billy Bragg, “It Says Here”

ABC’s Diane Sawyer wonders whether teachers are “good




November 6, 2012


I'm glad that I subscribe to you and hope more Chicago teachers will support your in the months and years ahead. Your corrective to the biases against the recent CTU strike is appreciated.

Thanks for this. We published your critique of the national coverage of the Chicago Teachers Strike of 2012 at

We ( had the most extensive coverage of the strike, from local picket lines to the daily mass marches and rallies (six of them, from September 10 through September 15) plus all three of the major meetings of the House of Delegates. We had also published the planning and buildup to the strike, going back to May 2012 when the union carefully planned to get the necessary strike authorization votes, even though state law required a 75 percent vote of ALL MEMBERS (except retirees) thanks to the tricks of "Stand for Children" (the astroturf group financed by Chicago's billionaires that drafted the law).

I am a retiree delegate to the CTU House of Delegates and a reporter for Substance.

My wife Sharon is an associate delegate from one of the largest high schools in the city (Steinmetz, on the northwest side) and helped organize the massive picket line there. By the strike's second day (September 11), the students who had gone inside the "Children First Center" at that school had some outside and joined the picket line, where they remained every day thereafter. Union teachers called those 150 locations "Scab Centers" because they were where the scabs could report and get paid for doing little or nothing.

It required enormous effort for a reporter (like Perez) to locate any students who were speaking out against the strike, because hundreds (perhaps thousands) were with us on the picket lines every day. It was not until the last day of the first week that a small group of Yuppy parents (with one child) staged a melodramatic publicity stunt for the corporate media outside the union's Merchandise Mart headquarters, but in the context of the massive support for the strike from parents and students, it was ludicrous.

Because of social media and our ability to turn around coverage on a daily basis, the Chicago Teachers Strike of 2012 was the best documented in history. (I had participated in the creation of a 28 minute video on the strikes of the 20th Century which was posted at at our August 2012 Home Page, but I had to admit that by the second day of the Chicago Teachers Strike of 2012 an entire new way of striking had been invented for the 21st Century.

Those of us who helped organize and execute the seven-day strike were not surprised at how biased and inaccurate the coverage from the corporate media was. As a consultant to the Chicago Teachers Union, I had been tracking the mindless corporate media versions of Mayor Rahm Emanuel's first year month by month, as Rahm's reality was put into print from The Atlantic through the Economist, even though, as anyone could have reported (but only we did) Rahm was in his rookie year and had no record upon which hacks like Jonathan Alter could pontificate about the wonders of Rahm's mayoralty. It was pure Hollywood, scripted beforehand and then ladled out so that it was available through Google for any reporter lazy enough to avoid the actual stories and simply print the Hollywood version.

The leadership of the Chicago Teachers Union was aware of those massive biases going in, and Karen Lewis had regularly warned the union delegates and members not to believe Chicago TV, radio, or print.

"If you didn't hear it from the CTU..." she chanted with the house...

"It's not true!" 800 teachers said back.

The motion to the House of Delegates that suspended the strike on September 18, pending the massive referendum on the Tentative Contract in all the schools, was made by my wife, Sharon Schmidt, the delegate from Steinmetz High School. It was approved overwhelmingly, and then the meeting was adjourned. More than 800 teachers (there are roughly 800 elected delegates, plus many rank and file members were attending the meeting as "visitors" -- only delegates can vote) then poured out on to Grove Street, where more than 100 reporters (there were more than 25 trucks; I joked it was like Soldier Filed during a Bears game) tried to get quotes from the delegates streaming to their cars.

Only by ignoring 99 percent of the people could the corporate media do the stories they did. It was impossible on any of the seven days we were on strike to miss a picket line, even if you were trying. By the second day of the strike, the 600 picket lines from Day One had been consolidated into 150 picket lines at each of the 150 "Scab Centers." And the way to locate a Scab Center was auditory. Our pickets lined streets across Chicago, all union members (and parent and student supporters) wearing red shirts or jackets. The majority of vehicles passing by our picket lines -- including police cars, fire trucks, and CTA buses -- did a "Honk if you support the teachers" from seven every morning until 10:30 when the picket lines came down in the communities and regrouped downtown (or on one day, in the communities for rallies). I called it the "Chicago Symphony" because during those three hours for seven days you could hear the support for the strike across the nation's third largest city, from Howard Street on the Evanston border on the north to 135th St. on the Indiana border on the south.

Every report you quote and cite should be fired for dishonesty. Thanks to your coverage, at least they have been called out in public. But these people were able to ignore the massive parent, student and community support at their historical peril. But then, their silly self-important selves had spent the year serving as courtesans for Rahm Emanuel's rookie year as Chicago Mayor, so anything's possible. Here, we often joke that these reporters are so deep in Rahm's back pocket that when he farts they tell him they're smelling Chanel No. 5.

If you want one dramatic way to understand our strike, Google "Chicago Teachers" by Rebel Diaz. Listen to it, view the video, note the number of hits, and ask yourself how these self important non-entities could have gotten so huge a story so completely wrong, not only during our strike, but during the years they canonized Rahm leading up to it.

George Schmidt

Substance, Chicago


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