Sometime before the publication of his piece in the New Yorker last August (on which I posted a lengthy rebuttal by Joy Hochstadt here), pseudo-journalist Steven Brill paid a visit to the Chapel St. rubber room where Philip Nobile has been reassigned for the past three years.
Nobile has given me permission to post his report on some exchanges he had with Brill at that time.
Steve Brill, Part 2
New Yorker Hatchet Man Extends Act to the Times
Brill, oh boy, is back on the education beat with "The Teachers’ Union’s Last Stand” in this week’s New York Times Magazine. When asked last winter if he was working on a sequel to his New Yorker article on rubber room (“Worst in Class,” Aug. 31), he replied via email, “Nope. Something slightly related but different.”
But there was no difference in tone, slant, and accuracy in his twin blasts. He has poisoned the issue of teacher unions as assiduously as allegedly problematic teachers.
What the city and country needs is an Anti-Brill who will contest the ex cathedra claim that bad teachers and their unions that love them are the bogeymen of the achievement gap and dispute the notion that hardcore, top-down, you're fired accountability is the sole solution, as if schools alone can overcome the crushing social pathologies that stall learning among some minorities.
I tried to do my part by engaging Brill in a dialogue. As a rubber roomer myself with a background in journalism (we were both staff writers at New York magazine), I was perfectly situated to examine his prejudices. I offered my services to The Teacher, but executive editor Deidre McFadyen, probably on the advice of Mulgrew, did not reply. Brill was more courteous, but to my surprise this sumo of the printed word refused to go a few rounds with one of his unnamed victims.
Herewith our too brief exchange from last September:
Me: As you can imagine, your story is of great concern to us rubber room folks. I'm planning to write a reaction piece. Can we set up an interview?I did not hear from Brill again until months later. However, I brought up his destructive New Yorker article with UFT Staff Director LeRoy Barr during his semi-annual pilgrimage to Brooklyn’s Chapel St. TRC on February 8. I gave him some serious gas about the union's utter PR failure re rubber rooms.
Brill: Why don’t you write your piece and then I can react?
Me: The piece is about you and your article, not textual analysis. Need to talk to you, journalist-to-subject, as you were to us in the rubber room with the same courtesies. It will be an interesting exercise for both of us — a worst teacher in New York engages his New Yorker critic. Readers are bound to be enlightened and entertained as we advance the discussion of the swiftboating of inner city teachers. Forgive me for saying so, this is a teachable moment and you must be game.
Brill: [no response]
Me: Are we on?
Brill: For what? Your last email said you had already decided the merits of your case.
Me: I don't understand your point. Since I haven't interviewed you yet, there is no "case." My story is when you came to our rubber room. We assumed your good faith. I expect you to return the favor.
If you are reacting, perhaps overreacting, to my use of the word "swiftboating," you of course know that the term was not applied to your piece, but rather to a media trend. Surely, you won't deny that the New Yorker's cover headline "Worst in class," describing hundreds of teachers yet to be tried for alleged misconduct, rubs up against the genre.
I repeat my claim that a dialogue of sorts between you and me will sharpen the discussion on education reform. Can this project be more irresistible to a guy like you?
Lunch at Michael's?
Brill: [no response]
Me: Have you decided to observe the journalist's code and grant me an interview? If I may say so, it does not behoove the founder of Brill's Content to say no . . .
Specifically, I complained that the UFT had zero response to Brill except for a feckless letter-to-the-editor by Mulgrew. Consequently, the intelligentsia, our natural constituency, has fallen for Brill's DOE slant. Barr deflected my criticism by hyping a forthcoming but undefined publicity pushback. He said that we would be “happy” that the union had pooled its resources for this game-changing moment. Unknown to us then, Mulgrew was secretly negotiating the end of TRCs with the DOE.
Still in denial, Barr shifted the blame from the UFT to us for talking and giving the press the chance to spin. True, some anonymous rats in our room gifted the Post with uncomplimentary quotes about Alan Rosenfeld and his alleged double-dipping on the job. The other day SCI investigators visited us seeking dirt on another alleged double-dipper previously exposed in the Post. Hearing that I was no friend of the subject, they interviewed me. I told them that even if I had something on a brother or sister, I wouldn’t tell them because we’ve got enough trouble just being in the room.
I sent Barr a draft of this post, promising to quote his feedback. In keeping with the UFT’s un-solidarity with the least of the brethren, he had no comment.
Finally, I forgot to inquire whether Brill’s sequel was commissioned by the New Yorker.
Brill: Sorry. Never talk about that stuff.
Me: Or talk to me about your previous piece. We the condemned spoke to you, but you stonewalled me in return. This was conduct unbecoming a journalist, if you don't mind my saying so.
(Note: Brill's Content was a media watchdog publication he used to published. It's now defunct. See here for my comments on Brill's piece in the NY Times this past weekend, and here for what South Bronx had to say.)