Exactly one year ago today, this site published an article entitled “Pink Hula Hoop Part 1: Is This the Future of Public Education?” While widely read for a blog piece, the story was ignored by the main-stream media–and that was no surprise. It was a complicated account of personal, political and business relationships that may have resulted in a sweetheart deal on the sale of the public 18th Avenue school to a charter school operator in Newark. Finally, yesterday, other media–PolitickerNJ and NJ Spotlight–picked up the story. They had to, because it was a major topic of a four-hour grilling of Newark superintendent Cami Anderson by the Legislature’s Joint Committee on Public Schools (JCPS). To ignore it would have been a lapse of journalistic practice.
One media outlet, however, continues to ignore the story, despite what happened at the hearing. Despite the thoroughly quotable comments by state Sen. Ronald Rice (D-Essex), the JCPS chairman who stared down state-appointed superintendent Cami Anderson and accused her of “taking the fifth”–of avoiding answering questions out of fear she could find herself in deep trouble. Despite the equally quotable remarks by Assemblywoman Sheila Oliver (D-Essex) who wondered why the building was sold (and to a former associate of both Anderson and former Education Commissioner Christopher Cerf) rather than rehabilitated for $8 million. It was Rice’s and Oliver’s relentless questioning of Anderson about the sale of the school to a company with the name “Pink Hula Hoop” that led David Hespe, the state education commissioner, to call a halt to the hearing.
(When the whole truth about the sale emerges, if it ever does, Hespe will not be implicated in any wrong-doing– but, as an attorney, he knows this issue could spin out of control and damage, not just Anderson, but the reputation and aspirations of his master, Gov. [and presidential contender] Chris Christie).
That one media outlet that, despite the difficulty involved in not covering it, ignored any mention of “Pink Hula Hoop” today is my former employer for nearly 50 years, The Star-Ledger.
Not only did the newspaper–once headquartered in Newark, once a paragon of local investigative reporting–ignore the story today, it has never mentioned it in the last year, despite multiple press conferences, releases, and statements from Rice and others about “Pink Hula Hoop.”
Ignoring it yesterday and today, however, was truly a nearly impossible journalistic achievement: At a public hearing in the Statehouse Annex, a state senator accuses a high-ranking state appointee of “taking the fifth”–refusing to answer legally explosive questions–and a local newspaper represented in the room ignores it? Censors the senator? Censors itself? Refuses even to mention a story that has, among its characters, not just Christie, Cerf, and Anderson, but also David Samson, Michele Brown, Cory Booker? Wow.
The Star-Ledger was represented by a fine young professional I do not blame for this lapse of journalistic standards. I blame the editors who allowed stories to be posted on line and in print without reference to the “Pink Hula Hoop.” Those editors might not read Bob Braun’s Ledger but I know they read Max Pizarro at PolitickerNJ and John Mooney–also a Star-Ledger alum–at NJ Spotlight and so they know the controversy came up.
I do not know why The Star-Ledger continues to ignore the story. Possibly, because I broke it. Possibly, because my sources were representatives of the Newark Teachers Union–and everyone knows how much The Star-Ledger hates that organization, and all unions. Perhaps because it involves a stampeding herd of the newspaper’s sacred cows–Christie, Anderson, Booker, and Samson among them.
But there is probably just as much meat behind this story than there was behind the alleged wrong-doing of former Mayor Sharpe James and Newark’s sale of South Ward city property to developers. Allegedly, James was rewarded with the company of amateur developer Tamika Riley. What about efforts of friends involved in Pink Hula Hoop to find Anderson a home outside Newark? They are remarkably similar stories and the newspaper tripped over itself to make sure it printed everything it could milk from the leaks spurting from Chris Christie’s US Attorney’s office to put James (and Riley) behind bars–and to catapult Christie into national prominence as a truly oxymoronic figure, a corrupt anti-corruption crusader.
Possibly, the newspaper ignores the story because it is so complicated and it would rather spend its resources to hire a gossip columnist to cover Christie’s presidential campaign than allow an actual reporter to take a few weeks–that’s all it would require–to check out the story. To expand on it, to find out more than I did–or even to debunk it, to say it’s not true, to say Braun is full of, well, whatever he is full of.
And, even if “Pink Hula Hoop” interests the Star-Ledger editors not at all, the newspaper cannot claim to be a legitimate news outlet and ignore a year’s worth of press conferences by Rice and others demanding answers. It cannot be a real newspaper and cover yesterday’s hearing and still ignore a legislator all but accusing a state official of committing a crime.
Why? I don’t know. Ever since Cami Anderson became state-appointed superintendent, The Star-Ledger’s editorial board and chief columnist have embarrassed themselves by fawningly smothering her in satiny praise. A cross between Joan of Arc and Karen Silkwood. No matter how ridiculous she looks to the rest of the world, these writers want to pretend she is the key to urban school reform. Meanwhile, the news side of the newspaper has revealed just how badly–perhaps for commercial reasons, perhaps for ego reasons–it wants Christie to run for president and win. Imagine all those clicks. How happy Google will be with what was once a genuinely gritty newspaper.
Perhaps these two ignoble aspirations–fulfillment of adolescent-like hero worship and search engine optimization– have bled together to create a deliberate, extraordinary boycott of a story that, at the very least, should be mentioned because it was a cause of, and condition precedent to, a newsworthy event, a legislative hearing.
If so, then I am saddened to see what has happened to a newspaper I loved and served for a half-century and still want to see succeed. To see what has happened to the legacy of dozens of journalists–writers, photographers and editors worthy of the title–who worked tirelessly over the decades to make The Star-Ledger one of the nation’s best newspapers.
My editor and mentor, Mort Pye, taught me that, if the competition broke a story I should have had, I should go after the same story and find something new and better–and make it my own story. But The Star-Ledger is not what it was when Pye–or even Jim Willse– ran it. That’s not nostalgia. It’s the sad truth.
Hey, guys, is Cami really worth that much to you? Is Christie? Google? Just where are you going?