As soon as our story about Leonie Haimson, the prominent parent activist who ceased being a public school parent last summer, went live on Wednesday, comments applauding Haimson’s advocacy began rolling in.
Among the first to comment was Assembly Education Committee chair Cathy Nolan, who wrote as “freshmanmom,”
I love working with leonie haimson; her dedication, research skills, advocacy and passion are very helpful to me both as a parent of a nyc public school student and as the chair of the assembly’s education committee. Leonie has a right to send her child to whatever school she thinks is best for her child, especially after fighting for years to improve the public school system for all familes.
Later, Haimson herself added a comment and urged readers to visit her blog, NYC Public School Parents, to read the post she had published before seeing our story:
Thanks for the tremendous support from those of you who commented here, on the lists or privately; your friendship, understanding and support helps keep me going!
Many of Haimson’s supporters also questioned, sometimes with ferocity, whether we should have written the story at all. We have invited Kelly McBride, a media ethicist at the Poynter Institute, to weigh in on that question and on the question of how well our story accomplished its goals. We’ll publish her ombudsman-style response next week, no matter what she says.
For now, we’ll point you to what the public editor of the Education Writers Association, Emily Richmond, wrote when she discussed our story on her own blog today, in a post that also appeared at the Atlantic:
GothamSchools does have its defenders, including Robert Pondiscio, executive director of the civic education initiative CitizenshipFirst, who wrote on his public Facebook page that:
This piece is far from a hatchet job. A high-profile, fierce public school advocate decides to send her kids to private school? That meets the basic test for newsworthy and fair. And the piece is hardly an attack. Her would-be defenders are making this a much bigger deal than it needs to be by loading up Gotham Schools comments with intemperate overreactions.
I asked GothamSchools managing editor Philissa Cramer to explain the decision to run reporter Geoff Decker’s story, and here’s what she shared with me:
We spent a lot of time thinking about whether to do this story and took the decision seriously, as we do about all stories. We decided to do it because Leonie Haimson is a very public figure — now national — who has staked her credibility on being a public school parent. She has made that part of her identity and in turn has made her identity part of her argument. Given that context, we have a responsibility to report that her identity has changed. We aren’t saying anything about whether the change undermines her credibility. We’re saying, here’s a change in the facts, and here are some ways to think about the change based on reporting about how others think about them. We also appreciated the opportunity to report about the tension between personal school choice and political belief, which is a real and difficult part of the world we cover.
I also heard from Lindsey Christ, an education reporter at NY1 News who’s been following the controversy, and she emailed me the following:
You don’t need to be a public school parent to advocate for public school parents, but when someone bases a public profile on personal circumstances, it makes changes to those circumstances relevant. I’ve been assuming she still was a public school parent, based on how much she’d previously emphasized that as a key part of her identity, perspective and authority. I could have easily referred to her as a public school parent in a story, so in that sense, it’s misleading by omission.
Christ makes an important point: If for no other reason than accuracy in reporting, the disclosure was warranted. In their online comments, many of Haimson’s supporters are framing this as a personal attack that will hurt her political influence. But why should it? Does making a decision based on the needs of her own child really negate Haimson’s many years of advocacy? If entire communities benefit from a better public education system, shouldn’t all of us have a say, whether or not we have children in those schools?
At the same time, it’s understandable that the the enrollment status of a public education activist’s children might be considered pertinent information under certain circumstances. GothamSchools makes a strong case that its reporting met that threshold. But that’s probably not going to satisfy critics intent on shooting the messenger.
At least one of our readers came to the same conclusion. Juggleandhope wrote in the comments section:
If someone read just the comments it would seem like this article must have been a “gotcha” hit job on a well-loved champion of the common good. But actually the article carefully emphasizes multiple viewpoints – including eloquent quotes from Haimson and her defenders – on the issue of her family’s educational choices. Some comments have argued that personal and political should be separated – but Haimson herself has specifically argued against this. I can understand why people feel upset that a grassroots activist has been challenged about her credentials if they feel that the scrutiny hasn’t been evenly applied. But her blog is called, “New York City Public School Parents – independent voices of public school parents” and has served as an important voice in important debates – how can questioning the foundational self-description of an important member of the discourse be irrelevant?