What Reporters Think About Think Tank "Research"

For the past day or so, there's been an interesting discussion going on over at the Education Writers Assocation listserve about how reporters think about and use think tank reports.

One of the list members, Andy Mollison, a "nonpartisan" freelance education writer, has kindly offered his thoughts for public consumption. If you've ever wondered how some reporters think about think tank research, it's tasty stuff that not everyone will agree with.

Among other things, Mollison highlights the value that's come from think tank research on both sides, and calls out other education reporters for whining about the Times scoop.


From Mollison:

Hi Alexander!

For the record, I don't think Jack Jennings ever worked for Clinton [as Forster asserts]. As far as I know, he stopped working for the Democrats in 1994, when the Republicans took over the House. He had spent 27 years on Capitol Hill, most of them as general counsel for the Democratic-controlled House Committee on Education and Labor.

In 1995 Jack started the nonpartisan CEP, a few months before former Reagan economic adviser Milton Friedman and his wife started the nonpartisan Milton and Rose D. Friedman Foundation for Educational Choice, which now employes Greg Forster, whose anti-Jennings screed you publikcized on the EWA listserv and your blog.

(Back then, Forster was a rising young star on the Washington scene as a policy analyst for Republican Linda Chavez at the nonpartisan Center for American Opportunity, cranking out op-ed pieces that, among other things, attacked the use of affirmative action to let Colin Powell and some friends obtain a license for a radio station.)

Now, for some rhetorical questions, along with my answers:

If Jack's partisan links are relevant, are Greg's? Yes.

And, if so, should Greg's background been mentioned by anyone spreading Greg's charges that Jack is a partisan issuing partisan reports? Yes.

Still, unless it's relevant in a particular case, I think there should be a statute of limitations on obligatory use of no-think labels like "Democrat" or "liberal" or "conservative" when identifying sources.

Which leads to some more rhetorical Q&A:

Should public policy research groups be headed only by political eunachs who were never associated with either of the country's only two major parties and never tried to affect education policy? No.

Were education writers (at least at the national level) justified in reporting on Jack's annual surveys of state departments of education, even if the findings that few parents used the school-choice option disappointed supporters of school choice? Yes.

Were education writers (at least at the national level) equally justified in reporting repeatedly on Greg's groundbreaking work with Jay Greene at the Manhattan Institute in demonstrating the absurdity of official graduation rates, even if that mortified federal and state departments of education? Yes.

Would students and citizens have been well-served, had reporters declined to cover Jack's and the Jay-Greg reports on the grounds that they weren't peer-reviewed? No.

And if education writers are miffed because they got beaten by Sam Dillon of the New York Times on one portion of a CEP study, should we then (a) refuse to report on the study; (b) put down CEP's results without checking them out, (c) suggest that we stop reporting on education research, because it takes time and effort to analyze it and dig out its merits and/or flaws, or (d) console ourelves that it was blind luck or Times clout, rather than hustle, that helped Sam score a beat?

No,No, No, and, once again, No.

[For the record, Dillon has so far declined to talk about whether he broke the embargo or how his story represented the report.]


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