May 29, 2012

Fox Business Lets For-Profit College Lobbyist Uncritically Deceive Viewers

Big Money corrupts our political system with its campaign contributions, public relations campaigns, insider access, and other means of drowning out the voices of ordinary people.The media is supposed to be our democracy’s guardian against this onslaught of money.

But last week Fox Business abdicated its responsibility to cut through the lies of Big Money. It featured Steve Gunderson, CEO of the Association of Private Sector Colleges and Universities (APSCU), the chief lobbying group of the for-profit college industry. I’ve embedded the segment below:

The segment Gunderson appeared in focused on the “Rising Problem of Student Loan Debt.” Although the host noted that “there’s a lot of blame placed on the soaring cost of private sector (for-profit) schools,” he then uncritically allowed Gunderson to tout his industry’s agenda and defend its subprime schools, many of which have high prices, high dropout rates, and high levels of student loan defaults.

“The private schools have actually held their (cost) increase down because we’ve always been private,” said Gunderson. “So we haven’t been dependent on the public subsidies.”

The APSCU lobbyist’s claim is wildly inaccurate. Although these for-profit schools, unlike state public universities, don’t generally receive state government support, many are almost entirely dependent on federal government support. The largest schools in his industry get up to 90 percent of their revenues from federal Department of Education loans and grants, and even more money from military and veterans education aid. If anything, the industry would be unable to exist in its current form without public subsidies.

Rather than correcting or challenging Gunderson, the Fox host simply played along. “The latest survey I saw was that 72 percent for the state schools, 29 percent for the privates. Pretty impressive,” he said of tuition increases at both public and private universities.

The problem with this statistic is that it is comparing private and public universities, not non-profit schools to for-profit schools like those that Gunderson represents. Harvard and the University of Georgia are private and public schools, respectively, and neither are for-profit. By conflating the terms, Fox made it easier for the industry to defend itself.

The chyron that the network ran during Gunderson’s appearance was just as deceptive — it read “Gunderson: private colleges serve more than 3m students.” Again, the topic being discussed is not private schools, but for-profit colleges.

Fox Business did a real disservice to its audience by allowing Gunderson to make deceptive claims unchallenged — indeed abetted by the Fox host. One group that will no doubt appreciate this is the corporate lobbyists at APSCU.  (To her credit, Fox Business’s Gerri Willis has asked hard questions about this industry on her own Fox Business show.)

It’s hard to understand why the conservative Fox network, supposedly committed to smaller government, would cheerlead for the widespread waste, fraud, and abuse at taxpayer expense engaged in by Gunderson’s industry.  But perhaps what matters is that the Republican Party of John Boehner and Mitt Romney has forged a strong tie with this industry and receives extensive campaign contributions from its members, and that Fox gets its talking points from the party and its lobbyists.