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Watching a Watchdog

August 24, 2010

WASHINGTON -- Media organizations like to tout the firewalls that exist between the news and editorial pages, and the newsroom and the business staff, but when it comes to the editorial independence of The Washington Post on issues related to Kaplan, Inc., some critics are arguing that the walls aren’t strong enough.

The concerns arise from editorial stands and direct lobbying by a leader of the legendary Graham family -- someone who would get an open door in any Congressional office -- on behalf of for-profit higher ed.

On Sunday, policy makers, higher education watchers and ordinary readers opened their newspapers and Web browsers to an editorial endorsed by the Post’s staff board that took a stance that could’ve come right out of Kaplan’s playbook.

After disclosing the corporate link -- noting that the paper is owned by the same company that “owns Kaplan University and other for-profit schools of higher education that, according to company officials, could be harmed by the proposed regulations” -- the editorial bashed the U.S. Department of Education’s proposed rules, voicing concerns about access for low-income and working students, and worrying more broadly about how the country could meet President Obama’s higher education goals without for-profit colleges.

“When I first saw it, I thought, ‘Wow, this is really surprising,’ ” said Lauren Asher, president of the Institute for College Access and Success, which has been a strong advocate for the government's toughened regulatory approach to for-profit higher education. “Not just to see the Post editorializing on this issue, but to look at what the board is saying.” Asher had several objections to the editorial, including its assertion that the proposed rules on "gainful employment" would affect only for-profit colleges -- an assertion later corrected on the Post's website and in Monday's print edition.

Terry W. Hartle, senior vice president of government and public relations at the American Council on Education, said that while he is “sure the Post believes it has constructed sufficient firewalls, you can easily understand why people would raise questions based on what the board is saying and the fact that they had this editorial in their Sunday paper, which is the one with the largest distribution.”

While the federal government “is right to fashion reasonable regulation to discourage fraud or misleading practices,” the board wrote, “it would be wrong to impose rules that remove an option that is especially useful for poor and working students.” The editorial boards of The New York Times and the Los Angeles Times took pro-regulation stances in their editorials, published weeks ago, the latter wondering whether the rules were tough enough.

David Hawkins, director of public policy and research for the National Association for College Admission Counseling, took issue with that, and with many of the board’s other assertions. “The rules,” he said in an e-mail message, “would not automatically remove ‘an option’ that is useful for poor and working students. Rather, the rules would eliminate only those options that do not meet basic standards for accountability; options that may, in fact, be harmful to the very students about which the Post claims to be concerned.”

Ann L. McDaniel, senior vice president of human resources for the Washington Post Company, said the editorial speaks for itself in expressing the board’s views and revealing the paper’s link to for-profit higher education. The second-paragraph disclosure, featured as prominently as it was, “gives[s] the reader the information to evaluate our position,” she said.

Most journalistic entities, including this one, are supported by advertising. Inside Higher Ed, for example, receives ads from all kinds of colleges and organizations (including institutions on both sides of the debate over for-profit higher education). Critics of the Post aren't attacking it for running advertising from for-profit colleges, but for owning a for-profit higher education enterprise that is increasingly subsidizing the company's operations.

Because of the disclosure, Hartle said, “there isn’t any hidden agenda here – it’s clear as day.” The Post, he said, “has made no effort to hide or camouflage its interests here and convincingly maintain that they can write an unbiased editorial,” even if readers are likely to be suspicious of its content -- just like Lockheed Martin advocating for greater defense spending or a testing company calling for more testing.

The editorial’s disclosure and others like it in the Post’s news coverage of for-profit colleges -- touted by the Post’s ombudsman in a column this weekend -- don’t go far enough, Asher argued. It’s one thing to acknowledge that Kaplan is owned by the same company, “it’s another to acknowledge the financial dependencies that the Post has on Kaplan, which they don’t do.” Close to 60 percent of the company’s revenues in the most recent fiscal year came from Kaplan.

The editorial, Hawkins said, speaks to the paper’s wider “lack of attention … to the circumstances that brought about these proposed rules,” on its opinion pages and in its news reporting. “Based on the editorial, which adheres closely to the same message points repeated ad nauseum by industry lobbyists, we are left to assume that decisions about what (not) to report about this issue are being made with an eye toward the bottom line,” he said. “The adoption of such message points in a full editorial do not convey the weight of the problems at hand, and the Post’s inattention to them compromises the journalistic process.”

How fair can the journalistic process be, Asher asked, when its ultimate survival depends upon the financial success of a business it’s expected to cover skeptically?

The company’s chairman and CEO, Donald E. Graham, son of Katharine Graham, the late Washington grand dame of journalism, has visited several members of Congress to lobby on Kaplan’s behalf. A staffer for Sen. Tom Harkin (D-Iowa), chairman of the Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Committee, confirmed that Graham met with the senator.

“At one level, there’s absolutely nothing unusual or surprising in learning that Don Graham is visiting people on Capitol Hill,” Hartle said. “Corporate CEOs often meet with government officials and it would be surprising if he didn’t.” But, he added, “for the first time in my memory a leading news organization is wading into a public policy debate unrelated to their primary business.”

The only problem: The paper may be the primary source of the company’s prestige, but education has become the Washington Post Company’s primary business. “The Post is accustomed to scrutinizing public policy debates like this one, but now it’s the one that’s being scrutinized,” he said.

McDaniel declined to talk on the record about Graham's lobbying of members of Congress.

Today's Post features another op-ed denouncing the proposed rules on for-profit higher education. The author is the chairman and chief executive of Strayer Education Inc.

 

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