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Media Questions directed at Betsy DeVos demonstrates that commercial news agencies really are stenographers to power

August 3, 2017

It is well known that politicians, and often those deeply involved in partisan politics, are trained to deal with the news media. Quite often public relations firms or consultants will provide training and offer ongoing advise on how to deal with controversial matters, how to respond to questions from the public or how not to respond to questions from the public, at least how not to respond to questions directly.

Politicians are often the masters of double speak, at least those that are well trained and know how to maintain control in circumstances that could be potentially disastrous.

Betsy DeVos has been around politics for most of her life. She was the chair of the Michigan Republican Party for many years, has been involved in numerous political campaigns and has sat on numerous boards for organizations that have state and national affiliation. She knows how to deal with the news media and has perfected the art of political double speak.

Yesterday, MLive posted an article with the headline, Watch Betsy DeVos weigh in on LGBTQ rights, budget cuts and protesters

The post was based upon a “media session,” where Betsy DeVos answered questions from several Grand Rapids news agencies during her visit to Grand Rapids on Tuesday.  The questions primarily had to do with current issues her office is dealing with and one that was completely independent of education issues. There are two questions/responses that I wanted to address, since they are both rather instructive in terms of how politicians respond to reporters.

The first response I want to look at has to do with the education budget and how or if DeVos would intervene if LGBTQ students were discriminated against.

As you can see, Betsy DeVos responded by saying that the education budget would “support the most the most vulnerable students.” The essentially repeats that the budget will focus on supporting students with the greater need, but never clarifies or provides examples of what that would look like. She then emphasizes the states role in making decisions on how best to use the dollars provided by the federal government.

It is hard to know whether or not the reporter who asked this question asked a follow up question or contested the Education Secretary’s response, since the MLive videos are cut off right after her responses. However, it is fairly common for commercial news reporters to not ask challenging questions and to often act as stenographers for those in power.

We do know that the education budget would negatively impact many vulnerable students, particularly Native Hawaiian, Alaskan students and some Special Education programs, which are to be eliminated. If the reporter knew this fact and if they practiced sound journalism, they would have challenged the Education Secretary on her response. A competent reporter would also know that the Every Student Succeeds Act was essentially crafted by the American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC).

The last thing about this response from Betsy DeVos is that she makes sure NOT to respond to the question asked about whether or not she will intervene if states discriminate against LGBTQ students. This is particularly where the PR/double speak training comes in. Don’t respond to questions you don’t want to answer, particularly questions that could lead to providing a mechanism for the public to hold politicians accountable.

This second video is really an example of a reporter internalizing the values of systems of power. The reporter does what real journalists should never do, which, in this case is to praise the DeVos Family for all they have done for Grand Rapids and West MI. The reporter also asks her about how it makes her feel when there are people in the streets protesting her. Wow! Talk about showing your bias.

The response that Betsy DeVos gives is also a great example of double speak. She frames the public protest of her policies as “people resisting change” and that what she is doing is to remain focused on doing what is best for all students. This response deserves an Orwellian award, since she not only refuses to acknowledge that there is significant public opposition to what she is doing as Secretary of Education, she took a potentially volatile question and stuck to her mantra of claiming to fight for all students.

In the end, both of these video responses provide us with invaluable examples of political double speak and they demonstrate that commercial news media is in no way interested actually practicing sound journalism.

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