Accuracy in Media

Some might have thought that the 2004 election scandal would have ruined the career of Dan Rather. Instead, he was given his own show at HDNet.

Now, four years later, Rather’s show, Dan Rather Reports, offers viewers a glimpse into what the former CBS news anchor considers good reporting: not citing sources, overlooking conflicts of interest, and sensationalizing material to promote marxist class-warfare perspectives. All this is touted as news, even when Rather relies solely on anecdotes and ignores publicly-available statistics.

“And college admissions also strike at some of the most controversial issues facing the country—questions of race, wealth, privilege, and economic class,” said Rather in a recent episode of his show, Stress Test. “Fact, fiction, or hard to tell that the current system clearly favors wealthier students?,” he asks his star guest, Lloyd Thacker. Thacker answered yes.

Lloyd Thacker is the President of the Education Conservancy, a non-profit which opposes the growing commercialization of higher education. Aware of Thacker’s activist agenda, Rather describes him as an activist who “leads a movement to change the status quo,” starting with the ranking system. 

Like Thacker, Rather is intent on demonstrating that the system of higher education is broken and governed by elitist, wealthy interests. Rather claims that these views are widely shared among the educational community. “The process of applying to college has become so tortured and demanding that many people—students, teachers, and experts—say the system is broken,” he asserts.

But Rather’s “analysis” amounts to little more than the repackaging of quotes and the careful casting of Thacker’s supporters as independent sources. The mother he interviews is reacting to one of Thacker’s speeches. Rather doesn’t deign to show the question she’s actually answering, however.

Other sources promoted by Rather have given large sums of money to Thacker’s organization. Three of the four college presidents invited to Rather’s roundtable discussion preside over schools which donated between $2,500 and $5,000 dollars to the Education Conservancy. Two of these four colleges, Earlham College and Kenyon College, have staff on the Education Conservancy’s advisory board

Did Rather know this beforehand? “Thacker is supported by contributions from over a dozen universities and foundations and one recent success was this May 2007 letter labeling the current ranking system misleading…,” he said during the show. Clearly, Rather had some prior knowledge of Thacker’s financial backing.

Ironically, the Educational Conservancy—which strongly opposes the rankings system—has received high-profile donations connected to 5 of the top 11 schools (U.S. News and World Report ranking) including:

  • Yale University ($5,000+)
  • Harvard University
  • Dartmouth College
  • Massachusetts Institute of Technology
  • University of Chicago

Besides promoting Thacker’s rhetoric, Rather seems intent on proving that our educational system perpetuates pervasive class and racial inequities. To do this, he takes the viewers first to upscale Great Neck South High School (Long Island) and then to the impoverished Central High (Providence, Rhode Island). According to Rather, Great Neck sends 99% of its seniors on to college. “Wealthy students are not what you’ll find in Central High School…Here only about 20% of seniors will attend a four-year college, well below the national average,” says Rather.

This is an unfair comparison. Rather fails to mention that Great Neck is listed by U.S. News and World Report as one of the 50 best high schools in the nation. Central High, on the other hand, is failing in virtually every measure.

According to the Rhode Island Department of Education (RIDE), Central High has

  • 9% Math Proficiency
  • 21% English Proficiency
  • SAT scores 127 to 138 points lower than the state average.

According to a National Center on Public Education and Prevention survey, 86% of Central High students receive free, federally-funded school lunches. Nearly half (48%) of student respondents reported speaking Spanish, not English, as their primary language at home.

But poverty is not Central High’s problem. According to RIDE, students at Central High living above the poverty level do worse in school. “Non-poverty” students have 4% Math and 18% English proficiency, a 4%-7% gap, RIDE reports.

While Great Neck still has a significant achievement gap, its “disadvantaged students” achieve 82% proficiency, reports the U.S. News and World Report. Great Neck South High is, quite simply, a better school.

Facts like these do not seem to persuade Dan Rather, who focuses more on anecdotes and rhetorical arguments than actual data. In some cases, Rather’s comments are just plain wrong. He said, for example,

“But this [financial aid] money isn’t just earmarked for students from low-income families. They have to compete for it with students from middle and upper-income families. That’s because an education at a private, four-year college can cost up to $50,000 a year…It’s numbers like these that make students at Central High think college is an impossibility.”

College is out of reach for many Central High students because only 9% of them achieve math proficiency and they have terrible SAT scores, not because college costs too much.

Rather has apparently never heard of the “expected family contribution” or Federal Pell Grants—or the Federal Application for Student Aid, for that matter. Each heavily favors low-income families. Pell Grants are exclusively for low-income families.

Rather says that Central High students don’t know they can receive financial aid and that “they just think college is not for them.” To exemplify the problems facing first-generation college applicants, Hannah Lewis, a College Advising Corp member, tells Rather she had helped students who didn’t know that the SATs were necessary “to get started with the application process.”

RIDE reports that just below half (46%) of Central High seniors take the SAT, another statistic Rather does not mention.

Getting into a high-ranked school can often cost low-income students very little, especially at high ranking ones. Take Princeton and Harvard—the nation’s two highest-ranked schools—for example. Harvard prides itself on its need-blind applications. “Harvard is one of the few remaining colleges in the country to maintain a true need-blind admissions policy. Need-blind admissions means that freshmen are accepted on the basis of their scholastic achievements and other talents, not their ability to pay tuition,” states its website.

The College Board estimates the expected family contribution (EFC) for a family of four earning $20,000 as, well, nothing. Many colleges calculate their financial aid based on the EFC.

The Princeton financial aid estimator places the expected family contribution, including student earnings, at about $2,000 a year for a family earning $20,000. This remains the same even at a more comfortable salary, such as $40,000. Because Princeton gives all its financial aid as grants, not loans, the low-income student could likely graduate debt free. Can many middle class students say the same?

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