The Trump administration’s FCC recently changed local media ownership rules, paving the way for Sinclair Broadcasting to buy Tribune Media for $3.9 billion dollars. When the deal goes through, Sinclair has access to 72 percent of households nationwide. The Hunt Valley-based Sinclair is the largest distributor of local news in the country, and forces its stations to run commentary from pundits such as former Trump aide Boris Epshteyn and frequently offers up news with an unabashed, pro-administration spin (“Did the FBI have a personal vendetta in pursuing the Russia investigation of President Trump’s former national security adviser Michael Flynn?”).
While Sinclair consolidates its grip on the nation’s local TV market, in Baltimore, Sinclair is ramping up its local coverage with Project Baltimore on local affiliate Fox45, which aims to “save” Baltimore schools by bashing them. Project Baltimore’s propaganda is subtler than Sinclair’s employing click-bait headlines, skewed statistics, and half-truths to push a narrative that portrays Baltimore schools as beyond redemption and casts Project Baltimore as coming to the rescue.
Its austere logo, in red, white, and blue offers up the tagline, “Save Our Schools.”
Although Project Baltimore launched in March, recent stories have gone viral raising its profile and influence. A Nov. 8 report from Chris Papst titled “13 Baltimore City High Schools, zero students proficient in math” reported that over a dozen Baltimore City High Schools had zero students proficient in the math PARCC test—a test that’s aligned to the Common Core curriculum, aimed at evaluating students. Project Baltimore’s story was picked up by national right-wing outlets such as Breitbart and Fox News.
While Papst’s reporting is technically accurate—13 city schools do indeed have no students that are math proficient—the story does not mention that in 2016 some of the highest performing schools in other parts of the state (including Montgomery County’s elite Walt Whitman High School) also have few if any students who scored proficient. Also not mentioned is that the PARCC test is not aimed at measuring achievement, rather measuring proficiency with Common Core curriculum. More than half the states administering the PARCC test have stopped using it due to concerns over the effectiveness of the test in measuring academic achievement and the burden it places on students. The test is also usually given on computers, which many Baltimore students lack access to at home or in their classrooms.
“[Project Baltimore] are building a case to privatize schools,” Diamonte Brown, a Baltimore school teacher and an advocate for reforming the school system told The Real News.
Brown added that she noticed “a pattern” that Project Baltimore “would expose any negative information” without discussing “solutions or the the root cause of the problem.”
“The general narrative is that public education is broken,” said Loyola University’s Associate Dean of Education Rob Helfenbein. He argues that Project Baltimore’s narrative helps pave the way for charter schools, for-profit schools and vouchers. As a whole, such schools do not perform any better than public schools, but Helfenbein added, lax oversight opens the door to “financial fraud, negligence, violation of civil rights and equity problems.”
Lawrence Grandpre, Policy Director of Leaders of Beautiful Struggle, noted that Project Baltimore glosses over decades of racism in schools. He sees their coverage as part of a “larger societal issue about how we see what’s happening in public schools as a reflection of the inability for us to take a larger systemic view about how we got here.”
That perspective presupposes the need for “a white savior to save black kids” rather than seeing the “agency in the black community that’s let the black community educate itself and save itself,” Grandpre said.
The claim that Baltimore City Schools has the fourth highest per-pupil funding in the country is often parroted. According to Eighth District Councilman Kristerfer Burnett, his constituents frequently call him and say, “We’re spending too much money on school system.” He pushes back with, “We’re not spending enough.”
In a Nov. 13 follow-up story to the Nov. 8 piece titled “‘That’s outrageous’: Gov. Hogan on 13 High Schools, Zero Math Proficiency,” Project Baltimore reporter Chris Pabst quotes Larry Hogan who, in addition to calling the zero proficiency, “outrageous,” said, “We spend more money in Baltimore City than any other jurisdiction in Maryland – two or three times more. And if we get zero proficiency, the taxpayers are not getting their money’s worth and we’ve got to hold them more accountable.”
Courts have found the state has underfunded Baltimore’s schools by hundreds of millions of dollars. By the state’s own calculations, Baltimore schools are inadequately funded by almost 20 percent. A 2016 study by National Bureau of Economic Research found conclusive evidence that increasing funding “is highly productive in low-income school districts”.
This is not mentioned by Papst, who also quotes, in addition to Hogan, Facebook user “Victor” and somebody on Twitter named “ScrappyBigBird.”
Rather than offer context, Project Baltimore seems intent on blaming students and the schools, Grandpre says, and ignoring systemic problems that put city schools at a significant disadvantage: “All [Project Baltimore has] really said is that poor black kids in Baltimore city don’t really score as well as middle class white kids, to which I say, ‘Duh, right?’”
The best predictor of test scores is family wealth, and government-sanctioned segregation, redlining, and mass incarceration have concentrated low-income families in Baltimore.
Project Baltimore’s Papst declined to comment for this story, but Sinclair’s Vice President of News Scott Livingston denied that Sinclair has influence over Project Baltimore, saying their stories “come from our viewers.”
“We have the responsibility to discover the truth and empower students [and] parents,” Livingston said.
He also denied Project Baltimore favors privatization. Although the word “privatization” is never uttered, Project Baltimore consistently feature voices that support deregulation of charter schools, and union busting, such as Ben Carson, Trump’s HUD secretary, who doesn’t believe in evolution, but does believe the government should support privately-run voucher schools.
“Some of the hardest-hitting reports we have produced have been on charter schools,” Livingston said. “We will look at every aspect of these enormous government entities and report on their successes and failures.”
Project Baltimore has run stories critical of charters but Maryland charters are unique. They are commissioned by, and held accountable to their local school board, and faculty members are represented by a union and therefore,far more regulated than those Project Baltimore claims could save Baltimore.
Case in point: pop-rapper Pitbull’s charter school chain SLAM Academy. Papst heralded the school’s self-reported 96% graduation rate, which excludes students who dropped out, and fails to mention SLAM earned a ‘C’ rating from the state of Florida for the past three years.
The Miami Herald series “Cashing in on Kids” detailed how Academica, the company that helps operates SLAM makes $9 million dollar a year profit while owning over $100 million in tax-exempt real estate that it rents out to its schools for $19 million a year, all on the Florida taxpayers’ dime.
Such examples are shown by Project Baltimore as models Baltimore to emulate, while homegrown success stories, as Grandpre notes, are ignored by Project Baltimore.
“Over the past 10 years, there have been 10 black national [high school debate] champions and six of them are from Baltimore, all public school graduates,” Grandpre says.
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An earlier version of this story said that the PARCC test is part of the Common Core curriculum and was used to evaluate teachers. The Real News/ The Beat regret the error.