Originally published in The Intercept on June 16.
ON A WEEKLY basis over the last three years, an arm of the national school privatization lobbying group the American Federation for Children has been producing fake news segments and distributing them to local news stations. The stations often air the segments just as they receive them, allowing anchors to recite accompanying scripts word for word. The aired content includes no disclosure that it was produced by the education advocacy group.
The little-known project, known as “Ed Newsfeed,” has “distributed hundreds of stories in dozens of states,” said Walter Blanks Jr., a press secretary for the American Federation for Children, in response to questions from The Intercept. The Ed Newsfeed staff sends out a weekly email to producers nationwide with their new video content, including recommended scripts, available to them free of charge, and where “courtesy is optional.” The news producers can also access a full library of current and previous stories by creating an account on the nondescript site EdNewsfeed.com.
Founded in 1999 as the American Education Reform Council, and long funded by billionaire and top Republican Party donor Betsy DeVos, the since-renamed American Federation for Children pursues policies that redirect public education funding to parents to spend how they see fit. “We believe choice, innovation and entrepreneurism will revolutionize an antiquated K-12 system into a 21st century mode,” states the website for the lobby’s 501(c)(3) partner, the American Federation for Children Growth Fund, which sponsors the videos. DeVos was the group’s chair when she was tapped in 2016 to serve as secretary of education under President Donald Trump.
The news broadcasts are mostly cheerful and positive, focused on students who overcome long odds, transformative educators, and “inspiring schools.” Ed Newsfeed segments have featured organizations, apps, schools, and services that have political and/or financial connections to both the American Federation for Children and the DeVos family. Such relationships are not disclosed in the videos, which are marketed as straight news clips.
Multiple stories produced over the last year feature officials from K12 Inc., a publicly traded company founded in 2000 and the nation’s largest supplier of management services and curriculum for virtual charter schools. Betsy DeVos and her husband Dick were early investors in K12 Inc., and the company has sponsored the American Federation for Children’s annual policy conferences. One segment, produced in late November 2020, touts the growth in student enrollment at K12 schools during the pandemic. The video features Kevin Chavous, who the producers identify as the president of academics, policy, and schools at K12 Inc.
“Covid has been, I think, in many ways an opportunity to excite what is possible in education,” Chavous says. “But it’s also been a challenge because for a lot of families who have really trusted the public school system to educate their children, they now have to be more involved, and we try to take that load off with the way we offer our educational support.” The clip makes no mention that Chavous also sits on the American Federation for Children’s board. In its recommended script, Ed Newsfeed encourages stations to tell viewers how to learn more about K12 Inc.’s offerings. Another segment produced in late January, titled “How Covid has Changed U.S. Education,” features Jeanna Pignatiello, K12 Inc.’s senior vice president and chief academic officer.
Emily Riordan, a spokesperson for the company (which renamed itself “Stride” in November but is retaining the K12 brand) told The Intercept that “we have responded to [Ed Newsfeed’s] inquiries for stories about Stride K12-powered schools and online learning as we do for any other news organization or outlet, connecting them with enrolled families, teachers and school leaders, and Stride executives for interviews as appropriate.”
Ed Newsfeed stories also featured Connections Academy, another for-profit virtual charter school that has donated to the American Federation for Children. “Ed Newsfeed takes a closer look at the world of online learning and why it is successfully allowing students to be in charge of when and how they learn,” says the group’s fake anchor in one such 2019 segment, highlighting a student named Tyler enrolled in a virtual Connections Academy school. “And while there isn’t a brick-and-mortar building for Tyler to go to, online schools offer plenty of support. … Online instructors also say teaching kids virtually does away with the distractions that come with a typical classroom setting.”
Many segments are seemingly apolitical and feel-good, spotlighting things like successful tutoring programs, new research on early autism, or a local barber who gives back-to-school haircuts. But many more clips feature schools, programs, and leaders affiliated with the school choice movement. In October 2019, Ed Newsfeed produced a two-part program on homeschooling, an advocacy priority of the national lobbying group. “Homeschooling puts the curriculum completely in the parents hands,” reads the suggested script. “Find out why some say they’ve chosen homeschooling, how these clever and creative parents approach it, and the rewards.”
The Intercept reached out to several television stations that it could identify as having run Ed Newsfeed stories, including KPVM and KLAS-TV in Nevada, KTVK in Arizona, and Fox34 (KJTV) in Texas. No representative returned request for comment.
Blanks Jr. confirmed that “there are no requirements for TV news stations as far as attributing the content to Ed Newsfeed” and described the program as a “free service, run by a network of seasoned broadcast professionals, [and] offered to stations to be able to use video and interviews in any manner they see fit.” Pointing to budget cuts in the struggling news industry, he added: “The majority of news stations do not have an education reporter, so the goal is to help them bring innovative education stories, as well as heart-warming people stories, tied to education topics to their viewers.”
CORPORATIONS AND EVEN U.S. government entities have been producing deceptive audiovisual content designed to look like real news broadcasts since at least the early 1990s. In 1992, a TV Guide cover story titled “Fake News” admonished the media and PR industry’s practice of using so-called video news releases, or VNRs. The journalist, David Lieberman, warned that media outlets risked ruining their credibility with viewers if they did not label the footage clearly as the public relations content it is.
A front-page New York Times exposé in 2005 detailed the George W. Bush administration’s penchant for producing hundreds of fake news segments for television stations. At least 20 federal agencies, including the State Department, the Transportation Security Administration, and the Defense Department, produced pre-packaged content ready to air, narrated by “reporters” who were actually former journalists now working full time in public relations. While companies and government agencies told news stations they were free to edit or choose which parts of the segment or script they’d like to use, the stations often aired the footage and script in their original form.
Jon Stauber, the founder of the progressive watchdog group Center for Media and Democracy, told Democracy Now! that the New York Times’s 2005 report marked the first mainstream media exposé of the “billion dollar sub-industry of the P.R. industry” that he had been tracking for over a decade.
“First of all, we’re talking about fake news,” Stauber said in the interview, years before the term would become a household slogan popularized by Trump. “And what this is, actually, is propaganda, because these are not news stories. They look like news stories, but they have a bias in favor of a political program or an ideology or a product. And the networks and stations that air these, and we’re talking about thousands of these produced a year, are engaging simply in plagiarism and fraud, fraud perpetrated on their viewers.”
Allison Perlman, a historian of film and media studies at the University of California, Irvine, told The Intercept that prior to the 1980s, broadcast stations had much greater concern about providing reputable news coverage to their communities. “There were public interest obligations when you were up for [broadcast] license renewal, and there was also a sense at the national level that high-quality journalism was good branding for stations and networks,” Perlman said. That started to change when the Federal Communications Commission began deregulating broadcasting in 1981 and as major broadcast networks were bought out by companies less committed to producing original journalism.
“The local stations still typically air local news in the evenings, but it’s really expensive to produce that content, and I’d imagine many would welcome some free stories,” Perlman said. “The FCC does have news distortion rules, but those have not been enforced.”
The Ed Newsfeed project works to obfuscate its ties to the school privatization lobbying group, perhaps to make laundering content easier. The vast majority of news segments are narrated by a “reporter” named Kim Martinez, a former TV news anchor who is now a spokesperson for the American Federation for Children’s Arizona chapter. Nowhere on the script segments or website does Ed Newsfeed identify Martinez as a spokesperson. Neither Martinez nor Margaret Beardsley, an executive producer for Ed Newsfeed who is also an Emmy Award-winning former TV news producer, returned The Intercept’s requests for comment.
Blanks Jr., of the American Federation for Children, told The Intercept that Ed Newsfeed was launched in response to the overall dearth of education coverage. “So our team had the vision of providing a service to the industry given AFC Growth Fund’s network of relationships in K-12 education across the country,” he said in an email. Asked about conflicts of interest and financial disclosures, Blanks Jr. said, “Ed Newsfeed is not paid for our coverage by any of the schools, programs, or educators featured in the pieces so there are no sponsorship attributions.” He declined to provide details on the number of stations that have aired their video press releases.
The group’s goal, Blanks Jr. said, is for coverage “to be timely, positive, and helpful” and to produce stories covering “all types of intriguing and uplifting K-12 schools and individuals … with no bias — a good education story is a good education story.”