September 7, 2021

NPR Report Highlights Wall Street Journal Role in Smear on Obama Official

NPR Report Highlights Wall Street Journal Role in Smear on Obama Official

A report out today from NPR highlights the pernicious role that the Wall Street Journal has played in spreading false attacks and innuendoes, invented by the for-profit college industry, on former Obama Department of Education official Robert Shireman.

The new article, by David Folkenflik, NPR’s media reporter, details misleading aspects of Wall Street Journal reports on Shireman in the context of a decade-long effort by predatory for-profit colleges to falsely tie leading critics of the industry to Wall Street short-sellers who sought to profit from industry setbacks.

A decade ago, for-profit colleges faced a wave of new investigations from Members of Congress, state attorneys general, the media, advocates for students, and the Obama administration. These investigations exposed deceptive and abusive industry practices that left veterans, single moms, and others saddled with overwhelming debt. The probes posed an existential threat to an industry whose schools, which routinely received as much as 90 percent of their revenue from taxpayers, needed Washington’s approval to survive.

With plenty of cash still on hand, with the facts decidedly not on their side, and with an urgent need to change the subject, some for-profit schools seized on the idea of a smear campaign, one that falsely implied that industry critics were corruptly acting at the behest of, and with funding from, greedy short sellers. 

There’s not a shred of truth to these smears, but the for-profit college industry has found no shortage of people willing to amplify them. Most of those people — from politicians dependent on campaign cash, to non-profit advocacy groups looking to pay the bills, to esteemed college presidents seeking to defend their own troubling deals with shady operators, to random has-been or never-been political hacks ready to sell their opinions — had financial incentives to trumpet the false charges. (Disclosure: Bob Shireman is a close friend and colleague of mine — I have posted above a photo of us conspiring at one of Washington DC’s elitist restaurants — and the phony short-seller attacks have included repeated false charges against me, as recently as two weeks ago.)

The paid shills for the industry have repeatedly cited the Wall Street Journal‘s reporting to lend credibility to the smears. But the WSJ‘s motivations to advance these phony attacks seem less clear. The rabid editorial page of the Rupert Murdoch-owned paper hardly ever meets a business regulation it likes, so it may not be surprising that it has repeatedly defended the predatory college industry and swallowed its propaganda. But why has the respected news side of the newspaper published the innuendo-filled articles, and defended them even when pressed hard this year by Shireman to reinvestigate and reconsider?

A Journal spokesman told Folkenflik, “we fully investigated the complaints Mr. Shireman brought to us, and after a full review concluded that no corrections were warranted” — roughly the same empty response they gave Shireman.

It’s not too late for the Journal editors and reporters to do better and fix their misleading articles.