John Oliver Facing Social Media Backlash for Charter School Mockery

The positive aspects of charter schools were budgeted less than one minute of total air time.

Once upon a time, television was a one-way medium. Only rarely did hosts like Edward R. Murrow give the recipients of criticism, for example Senator Joe McCarthy, their own air time to respond. Almost always, television attacks were hit-and-run phenomena. One-way streets. Enter social media.

HBO host John Oliver is facing a significant backlash over a segment about American charter schools that aired last week on the program, Last Week Tonight with John Oliver. Mostly, complaints have chided Oliver not for the accuracy of the information he presented, but for the biased impression he presented by selectively cherry-picking only the very worst examples of charter school mismanagement and delivering them as if they were representative of the sector.

The editorial approach of the program can be easily quantified in time. The positive aspects of charter schools were budgeted less than one minute of total air time. The program offered 14-seconds of video showing charter school support from politicians Barack Obama, George W. Bush, Bernie Sanders, Donald Trump and Mitt Romney. A bit later, Oliver aired 20-seconds of a public television report that praised the KIPP network of charter schools. (In between, Oliver aired a clip of rapper Pit Bull at a charter school conference several years ago. Pit Bill said that Bill Cosby, who previously spoke at the conference, was someone “that I really relate to,” eliciting chuckles from Oliver’s studio audience.)

Then, Oliver’s summary of the Stanford University CREDO charter school study was close to a draw in the positive/negative ledger. He said CREDO found charter school instruction offers a “slight edge in reading and [does] about the same in math,” correctly citing that the study also found charter results are “uneven.” Of no interest to Oliver was that the CREDO study also reported that English language learners in charter schools receive the equivalent of 43 additional instruction days in reading every year, compared to how much they’d be learning at a traditional public school. The same study found that low income black students learn the equivalent of 36 additional days of math instruction for every year they’re in a charter. Cricket sounds from Oliver on that too.

The rest was negative. From about 3:15-18:03, or almost 15-minutes, he presented a litany of the worst charter school scandals, closures and corruptions. The total balance came to 34-seconds positive remarks about charter schools; 14-minutes, 48-seconds negative remarks about charter schools. That’s a ratio of 26-times the negative time to positive time.

Oliver’s anti-charter bias has since been attacked in essays by Joy Pullman, Jason Russell, Nick Gillespie, Janine Yass and Casey Given.

To be sure, social media response has been all over the map. Some Tweets critiquing Oliver have looked like this.

Here are some similar YouTube comments.

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Last Tuesday, the Center for Education Reform sought to recruit more charter school supporters to respond to Oliver. They emailed and posted an “Open Letter to Charter Schools,” suggesting charter advocates send an email to Oliver’s management group and let him know their thoughts.

Then Thursday, school choice opponent and blogger Diane Ravitch penned her own counter-plea, acknowledging that “corporate reformers and privatizers are bombarding John Oliver with tweets and messages attacking his show.” She asked her supporters, who generally oppose providing parents with charter school options, to write their own emails and Tweets, in this case to show Oliver their “support.”

And what from the man who started it all? As the social media froth has intensified, a review of John Oliver’s Twitter feed shows no comment either way on the claim of anti-charter bias and a free pass to district schools.

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