Saturday, April 07, 2012

Shaping and Controlling the Narrative

 I've been pondering what it means to try to bring forth information and encourage debate.

In terms of doing that in our country, it doesn't take long to look around and realize how polarized discussion and debate have become.  It gets personal, it gets snarky and it becomes more of a "so top that" situation than how are we working towards solutions.  I readily will admit to some of this myself (except the personal which I try to stay away from).

A number of articles have popped up along the way and I see a theme.  But first, a story about journalism and truth and shaping a story.

Do you know who Mike Daisey is?  He's a performer who does monologues and is most famous for his work, The Agony and Ecstasy of Steve Jobs.  Part of that show talks about the harsh working conditions in China where most of Apple products are made.  Mr. Daisey had gone to China and based this show on that trip.   He took part of the show, shortened it and went on the NPR show, This American Life.

Now because Mr. Daisey is a performer, the producers of TAF talked to him about issues of fact and he assured them that he had done all that he says he did in the piece.  TAF aired it and found out that Mr. Daisey had been less than truthful.  Thus started a debate about what we believe is the "truth."

Scott Rosenberg of the online Grist website wrote what I think is a fairly brilliant assessment of writing a non-fiction story (some might call it "truthiness"). 

First, let’s dispatch this ridiculous “theater not journalism” argument (which is about as useful a discussion as “is blogging journalism?”). Theater and journalism aren’t separate or opposite endeavors. The New York Times front page is a kind of theater, and plenty of theatrical events are a kind of journalism. Journalism is an activity that theater artists — like filmmakers, authors, business people, anyone — can choose to undertake.


I can agree that newspapers can be about creating an experience or trying to capture interest but I'm not sure I agree that everyone can be a journalist (hence the title "citizen-journalist"). 

So there’s no such thing as a neutral story. But there is such a thing as an honest story.

An honest story is one that makes a good-faith effort to be forthright about the circumstances of its own creation.

This sort of honesty isn’t a binary, on-or-off kind of thing. It’s a spectrum. Every story that professes to tell some truth has its own unique point on that spectrum.


That spectrum place is what scares me.  Because I'm finding that not only are journalists staking out a side, they are moving further away from the spectrum point in the middle - where you lay out ALL the facts and allow readers to take their own positions - to laying out just some of the facts and shaping the story to one position.

The temptation to round corners, to retouch images, to make a story flow better or a quote read better, faces every creator of nonfiction at every single moment of labor. And we all do it, all the time. We do it by varying degrees. 

This is true.  The Times, Crosscut, LEV, this blog - we are all trying to get you to pay attention to us.  I can say from the viewpoint of writing for a blog especially one with multiple on-going issues and time-sensitive news and updates, that writing quickly can be a problem.  (One of my latest problems?  Writing Marty "McClaren" rather than McLaren - my apologies to Marty.)  The article goes on (bold mine):

Journalism and activism can coexist. Activists tell great stories and journalists are often proud to see their work have an impact on the world. But the moment you decide that “making people care” is more important than telling people the truth, you’re announcing that you’re more of an activist than a journalist. The creators of the Kony 2012 video that went so spectacularly viral, for example, are plainly activists, not journalists.

So what is interesting to me is not that I have become a citizen-journalist but that more of the mainstream media have become activists.  

Which leads me to Crosscut's article of yesterday which would seem to be about the superintendent search but dissolved into, well,  you read it and tell me what the real point is. (It actually deserves its own thread as there were some troubling things said and there is the continuing saga of President DeBell staking out his claim to saving the Board.)

I spent part of yesterday being happy for living in a beautiful place on a beautiful day.  But I also spent part of it puzzling, fuming and ultimately, feeling bad about being called what Jordan Royer termed "a monster." 

My fellow Crosscut scribbler Jordan Royer has the best take on the latest wrinkle in the Seattle School Board’s efforts to hire a new superintendent: “It’s like not wanting the babysitter to meet your child ahead of time because the kid’s such a monster.”  The “monster” in his analogy is the Seattle public — or rather, the small subset of activists, watchdogs, and gadflies who denounce district policies and persons at board meetings and other public forums, and who laid it on when the last two crops of prospective superintendents came before the public in 2003 and 2007.

 It's a little like Christine O'Donnell (remember her? a conservative candidate with no credentials) who famously said, "I am not a witch."  Well, I am not a monster and neither is Charlie or any other person who takes the time to educate themselves about Seattle schools and then stands up to ask questions or challenge policy at a Board meeting.  That is usually called democracy but in today's new world, you're a monster.

Again, I hear this in the words of Rep. Reuven Carlyle at his own blog.  He is trying to make a unifying point about the special session and the war of words.   He says:

Anonymous blog post commenters joyously attack the values, integrity and ethics of those in public office—the dreaded ‘politician’—but most citizens hopefully acknowledge on some private level that we are real people living real lives who so appreciate the opportunity to serve our communities

Now, I know he is talking about other blogs but he does bring up a point in our new media world - the ability for anyone and everyone to voice their opinion, reach thousands (if not hundreds of thousands) of people and do it anonymously.  No wonder elected officials feel it from all sides.

But I would at least give credit to those who sign their own names and get up in public and voice their  opinion.

But Rep. Carlyle goes on:

To hold a budget vote hostage for a policy bill that otherwise would not have a majority of 147 elected legislators may be standard operating procedure in the world of politics, but such moves ferment cynicism among the people we represent. 

He's right.  That breeding of cynicism makes their work harder.   But people do mirror those they elect and what are our elected officials doing at the Legislature?

So where is the sweet spot?  What does good advocacy or activism look like? 

Surely it cannot be missed that there are those using power and money to influence the course of public education.  It's daunting to consider your own options as one person. 

Do you become a member of "Moderate Voice of Parents" which was referred to by some speakers during public testimony a few Board meetings back?  (They show no signs of being a real group so I have no idea if they even exist as a group.) 

Charlie and I have tried that, years ago.   It didn't work.  Because real change is about real work and not just talk.  It's about recognizing flaws and not looking past them.  It's about recognizing bureaucratic culture patterns and not looking past them. 

But we live in a city where the powers-that-be-people want to move on and not hold anyone accountable.  Seattle Schools has not been well-managed for easily a decade and has made terrible mistakes that NO one in business would put up with in their own company.  It is an enduring mystery why so many would ignore or turn away from so many mistakes.  But they do and we don't and therein we find a divide about what you can and can't discuss without being marginalized. 

I know that rationally if our blog wasn't sparking discussion, no one would be writing about "those bloggers."  I know that we are annoying people who want to control the narrative, those who want to be the invisible hand that shapes the district and those who don't like dirty laundry exposed. 

That is the beauty of the Internet - it's an open-air market of theatrics and discussion and debate.  That there are slings and arrows to be borne, I accept that because backing off and allowing others to control the discussion is not an option anymore. 

30 comments:

Sahila said...

the only question you ever have to ask, is who benefits from pushing a particular agenda, point of view, policy, action?

the only thing you ever have to observe is someone's actions - do they match their words...

and the final test is to see who people hang out/associate with...

in other words - connect the dots, follow the money....

when you figure that out, all the rest falls into place...

and there are always those who are not transparent about their real intentions/motivations/agendas and they get really pissy when they're caught out...

Anonymous said...

I actually think it can be simpler than that even, although that can of course be true. But you can see the same dynamic on a smaller scale in your individual school-- perhaps your PTA or faculty or maybe your office. People don't like change. It is threatening. If you raise your hand and say hey, why do we do it this way? Can we change it? Many times it freaks people out for a lot of different reasons. There has been all of this really interesting research on habits and how the brain ingrains them and how group cultural habits form. It can be hard to change them, and feels threatening. So sometimes you just get called out as crazy, or the trouble maker. Because it IS trouble making to ask everyone to change up their individual and group habits and ways of acting and interacting and thinking. What you may be suggesting might be reasonable, but changing a way of behaving or a habit can actually feel pretty monsterous... (although watch your language dude! if you can't take the heat and all that)
beth

SPS Parent said...

I said this yesterday on the open thread - these type of articles represent the current strategy to beat back the grassroots efforts that are successfully changing the landscape of the school board and SPS.

Look at the comments - not one person agreed with the author on one point.

These articles provide opportunities to educate people by allowing the monsters to set the record straight in the comments.

What I particularly loved about the Crosscut article is DeBell's photo - it really helps to associate him with all the nasty things the author said in the article.

Look closely at how DeBell was quoted, see this line:

— that Seattle is a den of angry, lawsuit-rattling activists.

It is embedded in the quote. I don't the DeBell actually said that - but the way it is presented makes it seem like DeBell called us angry "voters." He should be pissed off about that!

Personally, I hope they keep doing this.

Remember: more name calling we see the more nervous they are!

Anonymous said...

Melissa,
You're doing a great job, providing a great forum for discussion, and should get positive acknowledgement from the media. In short, you are consistently writing the investigative journalism that this "over-grown" town so desperately needs relative to education issues.

One minor point, you say, "Seattle Schools has not been well-managed for easily a decade and has made terrible mistakes that NO one in business would put up with in their own company." I come from the business world, it's my point of reference for looking at Seattle Schools. Most American businesses are badly managed, have been badly managed for decades, at least since the 1960's. Why do you think Japan, Inc was eating Corporate America's lunch through the 1980's? Why did Microsoft get sued for it's management practises regarding its treatment of employees that it illegally treated as "temps"? How did Bill Gates miss the potential of the Internet then get sued for monopolistic practises when they tried to bully their way in and destroy Netscape?

Local business "leaders" have much to do with creating the "poor management practises" that has plagued Seattle Schools and have little to offer to help fix it.

ken berry SpEd IA VA@AAA

Anonymous said...

(From a previous thread)

Looks like Crosscut has taken the latest Scigliano column down. I had to Google several key words to find it. At least it is buried.

Blogs have become vehicles for propaganda. I followed the Publicola thread eagerly because it confronted the truthiness of the A+WA propaganda. Sometimes "nice" is ineffective. That kind of thing has to be called out. Evidence demanded and claims questioned. That what I see missing.

I do not think name calling works. Enough frustration can elicit name calling. But confrontation - the calling out of truthiness with direct demands of evidence - will be the only way generalizations, propaganda, and uninformed opinions can be outed.

My favorite legislator is Lisa Brown because she is so skilled at calling out double speak and generalities.

Somebody on that blog called out "mudraking" when demands for specifics and evidence were made over and over. If this is just a game where at the end we all shake hands and agree to disagree, that's fine. If this is a survival for democracy, then we should all be demanding evidence, facts, specifics and honest debate.

I blog. I do not use my name. My job denies me the ability to alienate people. So I use an alias. If and when I no longer am limited by that criteria, I'll use my name. Proudly.

The internet is the only vehicle we have to confront truthiness and propaganda. Let's not be so nice all the time.

n...

Anonymous said...

I, too, am a midlife-career-change teacher who worked half my life in the private sector where the Peter Principal is alive and well.

We put commerce ahead of democracy these days. Corporate profits ahead of the common good. Enron in charge of energy. Insurance companies ahead of healthcare. And the trend continues in education.

n...

Anonymous said...

I agree with you that it is hard to find the "sweet spot." I read this blog sporadically. I find it interesting and informative for a while, but it seems I always get to a point where the vitriol (mostly in comments, but occasionally from authors) makes me sort of ill. I know many of the people who have been personally attacked on this blog, and before you attack me, let me clarify that I am talking about school-level staff, not Central Admin. For the most part they have been well-intentioned people trying to do right by children in jobs that are difficult and sometimes thankless. So when their integrity is questioned by random strangers on the internet who do not not know them and do not know the situation, well... That's pretty far from the "sweet spot," IMHO.

Signed,
parent in a school that has been the subject of too much blogosphere attention in the not-too-distant past

Po3 said...

And the gadflies are not complying. They must be stopped!

Sahila said...

Hired Guns on Astro-turf: How to buy and sell ed reform

Melissa Westbrook said...

Another thing I have been pondering in all this is the appearance of new people in discussions about SPS. Some of these people I have never seen before at a Board meeting or work session or committee meetings.

I'm not talking about parents per se but random up-the-food-chain people who suddenly have these very important opinions of the direction of K-12 education in Seattle.

Everyone is absolutely entitled to an opinion - we all pay taxes towards public education but it just strikes me as odd that so many are now chiming in and creating new advocacy groups (that all have the same members).

I can only say there is money to be made in bringing in ed reform and I wonder if some people have that motive in the back of their mind.

dan dempsey said...

Controlling the narrative....

Try the following in the Superintendent selection process ... for controlling the narrative.

From the Times on April 3.

Seattle superintendent search process raises concern

In about a month, the Seattle School Board will choose the next leader of the city's public schools.

You will not meet this person before he or she is chosen.

That's because, unlike in previous superintendent searches, the board has decided not to let members of the public directly question the finalists at a public meeting.

Instead, each of the three finalists will interview with the board and a 25-person focus group, visit a school and hold a 45-minute news conference.

The reason, in part, is that board members are worried that the candidates would be scared off by overly negative questioning at public meetings. Members also said they think they'll get more useful feedback from the focus group.


Well so much for an Open and Transparent process

===========
The Board certainly avoids discussion of facts in public .... preferring propaganda.

This is how the Board will restore public confidence in the SPS.

Anonymous said...

i luv this disinformation campaign. let's have debate and let's be civil and let's focus on The Truth' and let's focus on the issues -

and I'll define what is civil and I'll define what is 'The Truth' and i'll define what is allowable to be called 'debate' AND ALL the definitions will be founded upon what my clique of connected and well compensated insiders will allow ---

and anyone who challenges us will be attacked as uncivil and attacked as NOT truthie and attacked as attackers instead of debaters ...

and let NO ONE point out that we're a bunch of back scratching butt kissers to the most powerful!!

oh well - bake to me the nobody

Aside - WHAT is a personal attack? seriously? WHY is it verboten to point out the FACT that a group of well to do, connected, well paid toadies to the powerful are committed to lying about everyone who disagrees with their toadyism ???

IF we cower and crawl away because we're being lied about and attacked as attackers by the lying aggressors, we deserve to lose to the liars.

TheTRUTHHurts

Anonymous said...

Since we are dealing more and more with science fiction/non-fiction by this group of “lying aggressors” (who are angry because they can't completely control the message), here are some fitting quotes from William Gibson:

“Before you diagnose yourself with depression or low self-esteem, first make sure that you are not, in fact, just surrounded by assholes.”

“A nation,” he heard himself say, “consists of its laws. A nation does not consist of its situation at a given time. If an individual’s morals are situational, that individual is without morals. If a nation’s laws are situational, that nation has no laws, and soon isn’t a nation.”

“When you want to know how things really work, study them when they're coming apart.”

“The deadliest bullshit is odorless, and transparent.”

--enough already

Anonymous said...

Cautionary Tale for DeBell, LMNOP (for short), WTPSA & the rest of the money club:

Fact--the more you try to hide, the more transparent you become

--enough already (not impressed by the money club's attempts to be street smart)

dan dempsey said...

Shaping narrative and how the "Facts are Reported".

OSPI funded "School Improvement Gaps" for under preforming schools => Cohort I selected for year one in 2009-2010 and continuing for three years.

This was a competitive grant situation. The competition was among "Persistently Lowest Achieving Schools".

You can find Cohort I HERE. There were 18 schools from 9 Districts that were awarded grants. 12 Districts did not receive grants.

Note the 35 pages from the Feds that describes what needs to be done. See last link on the above linked page: The preceding information is posted to this Web site as required by the U.S. Department of Education: Guidance on School Improvement Grants Under Section 1003(g) of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act of 1965 (Word) (pg. 35 (I-5))

In examining the above document SEA = State Education Agency and LEA = Local Education Agency.

Note that one of the following models that MUST be used:
1. Turn Around :: pg 11
2. Restart :: pg 14
3. School Closure :: pg 14
4. Transformation Model :: pg15

When examining extensive school research, there is not much to indicate that any of these are wise choices for long term school improvement.

----section K-5. page 40
How frequently must an SEA report on the SIG metrics?
An SEA must report on the metrics annually, with the first report providing baseline data and each subsequent report providing data based on the prior year of implementation of one of the four interventions. The SEA must provide such annual reports for each year for which the SEA allocates SIG funds under section 1003(g) of the ESEA.

section K-6. page 41
Will the Department provide other guidance about the process for submitting and the substance to be included in the required reports?
Yes. The Department will issue separate guidance to provide States with information regarding the specific process for submitting the required reports and the information to be contained in the reports.
-----------------------------

In typical OSPI fashion there is very little reported thus far. The original proposals from the 18 winning schools included goals for each of the three years of the grant. Most of these were using MSP test scores from OSPI. YET OSPI has yet to issue the annually required report for school year 20010-2011 which was the first funced year of the project.

Originally OSPI stated this report would be out by end of 2011, now its become May 2012.

================
In the meantime you can read complete nonsense from LEV like this on Totem Middle School.
Note LEV all comments that described the actual results based on the SIG application criteria are gone. --- LEV got hacked .. HOW convenient for obscuring the truth.

It appears that OSPI as well as LEV has been an agent in controlling the narrative.

dan dempsey said...

Amen to this from Enough Already:

"If an individual’s morals are situational, that individual is without morals. If a nation’s laws are situational, that nation has no laws, and soon isn’t a nation.”

I would say that in the above example ... maybe still a nation but definitely NOT a REPUBLIC.

Sahila said...

"I never give them hell. I just tell the truth and they think it's hell." -Harry Truman

Sahila said...
This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.
Sahila said...
This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.
Sahila said...
This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.
mirmac1 said...

William Gibson said:

“Before you diagnose yourself with depression or low self-esteem, first make sure that you are not, in fact, just surrounded by assholes.”

Well, I AM an asshole. I really don't want to be, but I am SICK of this subset of individuals feeling that they can conduct their "transparent" character assassination in private.

Sahila said...

Melissa.... why the heck are you removing my comments?

Am I breaking some kind of post limit you have set but forgotten to tell us all about?

All the posts were relevant...

ArchStanton said...

I can't help but hear Jordan Royer referring to Mel or Charlie as "you monster" in the voice of GLaDOS from Portal 2.

/but maybe that's just me...

seattle citizen said...

"If a nation’s laws are situational, that nation has no laws, and soon isn’t a nation.”

Right. The TFA law-bending-'til-it-snaps was just such a blatant disregard for law. No matter how they spun it, the fact is that the intent of certification is, well, certification. The intent of an emergency cert is, well, an emergency consisting of TWO situations, neither of which the contract with TFA met.

There was no shortage of applicants. There was no specialized skill.

That the intent of the cert/emergency cert rules was just sort of shuffled under the carpet speaks volumes, and does not bode well for a nation of laws, nor does it set an example for the students and community the district serves.

Watching said...

Melissa,

I've learned SPS is like the Wizard of Oz. YOu don't know what is going on until someone pulls back the curtain. Thanks for daylighting individuals that think they are the Masters of the Universe.

Anonymous said...

Regarding the narrative, I just googled "Teachers United" because until the Publicola article, I'd never heard of them. But they are in Olympia testifying apparently for all of us.

The only hot link on their site was an "apply now..." Well, I don't want to apply. I wouldn't mind knowing more about them: how many are there; how spread out are they; which grade levels and schools do they represent: public? private?

I guess you have to apply since not all of us are good enough for the group. I'm wondering if that organization would be a good one to make more transparent on this blog?

Any ideas?

n...

Define Moderate said...

Melissa,

Some have given you the hairy eye while claiming to be moderate and civil. I"m feeling the moderates aren't as moderate as they would like some to believe. Actually, I think some of these so called moderates might even be aggressive.

Anonymous said...

I know that rationally if our blog wasn't sparking discussion, no one would be writing about "those bloggers." I know that we are annoying people who want to control the narrative...

First they ignore you.
Then they laugh at you.
Then they fight you.
Then you win.

Ghandi

You're now at stage 3.

WSDWG

Sahila said...

Get the big picture... the corporate take-over of public education has been a world-wide plan for a long time. This document, Hidden Privatisation in Public Education, is the most clear and lucid matter-of-fact study I've read about it. There are many insights and understandings to be gleaned. The succinct chart (Box 23: Professional and Market Values), beginning on page 52, clarifies why so many veteran educators are feeling such angst.

Don't be afraid of the length of this document. There is lots of white space.
IRIS Documents - Research on Education Privatisation and Commercialisation

Jan said...

I must say, I think there is a "whole lotta" truth in what Sahila and the TRUTHhurts say -- and Melissa, I have been around long enough to have watched both you and Charlie do the polite, moderate "ahem, ahem" thing -- to utterly NO avail. So I have become a total believer in blunt, no-bullshit speech. But I have two concerns (neither of which means you/this blog should change -- but maybe mean I should, when I comment).

First, in my experience, discomfort with activist speech comes from 3 places -- maybe 4. First, there are a number of people who simply get really uncomfortable with "robust debate." They aren't bad; they aren't pro-ed reform; they just have a lower tolerance for conflict than others. To the extent that we can make them more comfortable when we meet them -- WITHOUT losing our "voice," the better, as many are our, and our kids' allies (and if they stay in the conversation long enough, many find their "voices" too).

There are also a number of people who disagree on the merits (substance, now -- not "form" of debate as above), but who are not manipulative, they simply are (in my opinion, I am sure they would beg to differ) -- wrong. Folks who genuinely think that massive high-stakes testing across all courses in every grade leads to better learning outcomes for kids; people who think that having teachers compete against each other to see who can earn the most based on some incentive grid will improve teaching. I used to find these folks pretty benign, but I have listened to Sahila too long, and now think that people really need to challenge their assumptions. It is not ok, when the world (at least the educational one) is in peril, to simply blindly follow the pied pipers of ed reform. On the other hand, while they are enablers, they are persuadable, if you can get them to examine their assumptions and get used to the idea of being on the "outs" with the power brokers. Civil debate is essential here, too, as misinformed people, when informed, can become great allies.

That leaves a "core" of people who know that they are spinning deeply ideological positions to try to make them more palatable (to the two groups above). These are the people who are screaming about activists and bloggers being Monsters. They KNOW they are bullshitting everyone. They feel entitled to do so (because they are right -- we are wrong; or they are rich, we are not; or they are powerful, we are not). Whatever. There is no legitimate argument to be had with these folks, because they are interested ONLY in keeping their "opposition" from pointing out the flaws, fallacies, and untruths in their positions. They are the ones who try to define what can be debated; and when debate is sufficiently "uncivil" that they won't talk to you any more (while they blithely dismiss their opponents as haters, malign their motives (e.g., claiming they are all union shills, when many are not particularly pro-union, they are just pro-education--with whatever union position that entails), and misstate their positions (anyone not pro-charter wants to continue the "status quo" -- when they know well we do not, and have been fighting the status quo far longer than they have). It is the malignancy, the dishonesty, the duplicity, of these folks that makes it necessary to persevere, no matter how uncomfortable it makes the people in groups 1 and 2; though keeping the debate as civil as possible, so the conflict-averse and the mis- or under-informed become our allies, is always a good goal.