With a Private School Hit Piece, The Atlantic Abandons Ethical Journalism
Caitlin Flanagin’s cover story favors easy insults and zingers over practical advice and bridge-building.
Several years ago, this high school history and journalism teacher was covering anti-private school rhetoric in the mainstream press. I wanted (and still want) all school sectors to work together, not against one another, and I just couldn’t take the complete lack of ethics involved in some truly horrendous reporting.
In 2015, I wrote an article for The Atlantic about the media’s obsession with villainizing private schools. “I can’t help but wonder how much the media have intensified animosity among all types of school personnel — and not just between those in public and private institutions,” I wrote. I focused my ire on several truly misguided books and articles, especially Allison Benedikt’s unethical 2013 Slate rant, If You Send Your Kid to Private School, You Are a Bad Person.
I also wrote several pieces for the National Association of Independent Schools, including one with my wife, a public school teacher, in an effort to stem the tide. NAIS also ran a piece I wrote about the extraordinary efforts of Milton Academy (Massachusetts) and the Punahou School (Hawaii) to reach out beyond their communities.
“Had Benedikt bothered with some more news digging before writing her piece, she might have emphasized a different point — that a growing number of independent schools are helping public schools, whose students are benefiting from the aid,” I wrote. “And this is not merely private schools paying lip service to noblesse oblige.”
You might imagine my outrage then when I read Caitlin Flanagan’s recent cover story for The Atlantic, “Private Schools Have Become Truly Obscene.” However well-written, whatever legitimate criticism Flanagan’s offers is bogged down in snarkiness, masquerading as serious journalism. I felt angry at the author — a former private school teacher at one of the “elite” schools she writes about — for favoring easy insults and zingers over practical advice and bridge-building.
Flanagan writes, “But what makes these schools truly ludicrous is their recent insistence that they are engines of equity and even ‘inclusivity.’ . . . . A $50,000-a-year school can’t be anything but a very expensive consumer product for the rich. If these schools really care about equity, all they need to do is get a chain and a padlock and close up shop.”
Yes, private school tuition is becoming prohibitively expensive, but nowhere does Flanagan mention efforts by any independent schools to address this serious issue. Had she bothered to look at “Tuition Trends in Independent Schools,” she also might have considered that “while net tuition revenue has grown along with the increased tuitions, the rate of growth of financial aid . . . has been significantly greater.” Contrary to what Flanagan would likely want readers to believe, tuition isn’t an issue that private schools, including the “elite” ones she mentions, are turning a blind eye to; quite the contrary.
Herein lies the principal problem with Flanagan’s ranting article — sensationalism. From the golden student desk chair on the magazine’s front page to hyperbolic claims about parents dictating policy, it’s clear that Flanagan has an axe to grind (likely with her former school employer). She falls victim to confirmation bias, relying on a few anecdotes and interviews to tar all private schools — not just the unfortunate “elite” ones she mentions in her article.
As a journalism teacher, I felt the need to reach out to Flanagan. I responded to a Tweet from The Atlantic Editor-in-Chief Jeffrey Goldberg, who had promoted Flanagan’s article: “This article cherry picks schools and anecdotes to make it seem as if the entire private school world is a united evil empire,” I wrote. “It comes across as nothing more than another hit job, trying to profit by sowing division between sectors.”
In the same feed, Flanagan responded to my comment, writing, “you’ve missed the explanation that the essay intentionally focuses only on a tiny group of super elite schools. . .” I told her that the headline, artwork and pulled quotes indicate otherwise, even as I regrettably kept to myself how she still unfairly treated the schools maligned in her reporting.
I sensed snarkiness when she replied, “as we would always say in the English classroom, keep your eyes on the text — all else is distraction. The argument, illustrative examples, and conclusions are there. That said, I really like the title.”
This surprised me. One might think that The Atlantic, among the nation’s most prestigious news magazines, would strive for accuracy. Headlines should appropriately complement the reporting, more so if the author has accused me of missing the focus on her essay.
As a journalist, I also wondered what Flanagan thought before hitting the “reply” button. I was especially nonplussed by her assertion that “all else is a distraction.” Come on! In every phase of journalism, from reporting to publication, even my high school opinion writers know that they and their editors have a responsibility to be as clear and fair as possible.
Did Flanagan mean to suggest to me that her article had indeed distracted its readership in some capacity, that it was on the readers, not her or the magazine, to decipher this for themselves? I’m unsure, and this uncertainty scares me because, you know, it’s The Atlantic. How could The Atlantic not be concerned with fundamental journalistic ethics?
If I could speak with Goldberg, I would ask why he felt that Flanagan’s piece was even fit for publication — not to mention as the cover article. Doesn’t he know that opinion writers, just by virtue of not being news reporters, don’t have carte blanche to write absurd rants, however well-written, to grab readers’ attention? What about doing the hard work of empathizing with sources and subjects, especially those defamed in Flanagan’s article? Finally, what about not permitting somebody with a clear agenda and confirmation bias to take over your newsroom?
I ended the exchange as civilly as I could, and Flanagan seemed to extend a peace offering by inviting me to grab a drink with her. I do want to build bridges, even with Flanagan. At the very least, after some time, maybe I can convince her to take a more critical look at her piece.