Post Ethics


By Peter S. Goodman
The Huffington Post

Nearly four decades ago, the Washington Post found itself faced with the sort of agonizing decision that can define a reputation. The New York Times had begun printing classified federal documents known as the Pentagon Papers, laying bare the terrible miscalculations and deceptions that had produced the Vietnam War. A federal judge had barred the Times from continuing its series. The Post had gotten hold of the documents and was mulling whether to publish them.

The company’s lawyers implored the paper’s publisher, Katharine Graham, not to do it, warning that crossing the court would imperil the company’s business interests. The journalists countered that not publishing risked the paper’s credibility. As one editor intoned, “the soul of the newspaper was at stake,” Mrs. Graham later recalled in her Pulitzer Prize-winning memoir.

She published, making a forthright choice that secured her and her newspaper an enduring reputation as a champion of the public good.

These days, recalling that history feels sad and even painful, given the contemporary choices being made at the Washington Post Co., now run by the late, great publisher’s son, Donald E. Graham, himself a legitimate icon of journalistic values. Inside the corporation today, the newspaper is vastly overshadowed by a fast-growing business known as Kaplan Higher Education — a sprawling empire of for-profit college campuses and sundry online course offerings alongside the test preparation business that first made the brand famous.

The Kaplan name has been doing no favors for the Washington Post’s reputation or that of the Graham family. As HuffPost business reporter Chris Kirkham detailed this week in a hard-hitting piece drawing on former Kaplan insiders, management has employed deceptively aggressive marketing practices to recruit students, while enrolling many in classes without their knowledge, enabling the company to pocket a larger slice of the federal financial dollars that comprise upwards of 85 percent of their tuition revenues.

Like many schools in the thriving for-profit college industry, Kaplan has churned out graduates with debts most cannot hope to repay, given the meager wages they will likely earn. Indeed, Kaplan’s graduates have wound up defaulting on their federal student loans at roughly twice the rate of counterparts at non-profit university programs.

In short, the same company bearing the name of the newspaper that uncovered Watergate, that published the Pentagon Papers, and more recently revealed the existence of secret CIA-operated prisons in Eastern Europe now draws its largest share of revenues from an enterprise that seems on par with subprime mortgage lending in terms of its commitment to public welfare.

The Department of Education has been crafting new rules aimed at curbing the abuses of admissions and financial aid officers at for-profit colleges, an initiative applauded by many advocates for higher education. The Washington Post Co. has been actively lobbying against the rules, arguing that they will limit higher education options for the sorts of students who fill the ranks at Kaplan and other for-profit programs–those from lower-income backgrounds.

At the forefront of this lobbying effort is none other than Don Graham. This revered figure, the son of the most courageous publisher in the history of American journalism, is now applying his prestige and legacy toward protecting an enterprise that, by many indications, makes its money fleecing vulnerable people.

As a writer fortunate enough to have worked for Don Graham at the Washington Post for a decade (from 1997 until 2007), I find this hard to stomach, and difficult to square with the institution I knew and loved. The Post tended to impart an enduring, almost tribal sense of identity on those of us who worked there, and many alumni now feel disturbed by what is happening.

The Post I knew was an obsessively ethical place. Ironclad in its adherence to the so-called separation of church and state that divided the business side of the paper from the realm of editors and reporters, it was infused with a sense of mission in holding powerful people and institutions to account.

The Post loved most of all those stories that revealed how politicians and companies failed to live up to their rhetoric or, worse, took advantage of ordinary people. It would have feasted on the story of the moment: How a great newspaper company that has held itself up as a champion of the public interest became dependent on revenues derived from cheating the powerless. (This story has, alas, been conspicuously absent from the Post‘s own pages, as the newspaper’s ombudsman pointed out recently in a column.)

The Grahams ran their newspaper like a public trust, insisting that the price of the Post remain low enough that virtually everyone in the Washington area could afford it. As other papers stopped delivering in low-income neighborhoods deemed of no benefit to advertisers– pocketing the savings on news print on truck deliveries– the Grahams would have none of that. Good information was a vital part of a healthy democracy, they argued, and the Post played a crucial role in that regard–a spirit that ruled the newsroom.

Don Graham was something of a legend in the building, a plainspoken former city cop and a reporter who seemed to read every story in the paper with total recall, a man who knew more about his community than anyone. He adamantly refused to pander to Wall Street’s hunger for quarterly profit growth, insisting that if the Post produced quality journalism over the long haul, advertisers would buy advertisements, and the bottom line would be fine. As greedy, small-minded chains like Gannett and Knight-Ridder swelled their profit margins by taking news out of the paper, shrinking their staffs and cutting their costs, Graham invested intensely in journalism, maintaining news bureaus around the country and the globe while expanding Metro operations as well.

Here was a businessman who, refreshingly, seemed to be making money for his shareholders by doing the right thing. A former colleague has said, without the slightest trace of irony, that Don Graham is nothing short of an American patriot. Most of us who worked under him would not disagree.

So how could this same man now spend his days defending the interests of Kaplan, a company that increasingly looks like a machine built to gobble up burgeoning quantities of federal financial aid dollars while selling students’ bogus dreams?

I spoke to him on Wednesday. He did not care to discuss our latest story and its unpalatable findings, but he defended himself and his company without hesitation. He cast Kaplan’s programs as a crucial means of expanding access to higher education, particularly for low-income students.

“There is a strong desire among Americans who don’t have college degrees to get one for the best of reasons,” Graham told me. “High-quality for-profit colleges, in time, will become highly valued parts of the educational system.”

He promised to investigate allegations of wrongdoing inside the company, and he dismissed my suggestion that Kaplan seemed intrinsically at odds with the values of the organization he and his family had long overseen.

“I know the leadership of Kaplan deeply enough to have complete trust in them,” he said. “I’m proud to stand up for Kaplan in the same way I’m proud to stand up for the Washington Post.”

Maybe out of sentiment, and perhaps just out of not wanting to find fault with someone you have long known and admired, I hung up pretty much convinced that, at minimum, Graham believes in his defense of the for-profit college industry and was not just spewing a self-serving corporate line. Like perhaps anyone who has worked as a reporter for a few years, I like to think that I know when I am being lied to. I confess I simply cannot imagine that Don Graham was spinning me.

He marshalls a reasonable case that for-profit schools like Kaplan cannot reasonably be judged using the same criteria that apply to all other colleges, precisely because they take on students who are often neglected by the educational system and who start out in school with a greater likelihood of struggling in their ultimate careers.

But the more you absorb the argument, the more it begins to sound like the same flavor of case that predatory mortgage lenders made in justifying the high-interest loans they actively focused on poor and minority communities across the country. You who might find fault with a working poor family signing off on a subprime loan: Are you suggesting that people who are not wealthy, who do not work in elite offices, don’t deserve the American dream of homeownership?

Attacking as elitist those who question the integrity of services aimed at the working poor: This is an oft-used device in the predatory lender’s tool kit.

Call up the trade group that represents for-profit colleges, the Association of Private Sector Colleges and Universities and invite them to justify the continued flow of federal aid dollars to institutions whose graduates are at elevated risk of defaulting on their loans. They promptly come back with their own question as ad hominem attack: Are you suggesting that Harvard is the only acceptable college? Shouldn’t students from lower-income backgrounds and lower-achieving high schools be given a shot at higher education?

Of course they should, but that question amounts to a straw man. The real issue isn’t whether we ought to expand higher education opportunities, but rather how we ought to do that, and who ought to get the money. So far, the people proving most adept at getting their hands on swelling federal dollars fail to distinguish themselves as quality educators, and they leave behind a trail of impossible debts. Wouldn’t we be better served expanding funds for community colleges, rather than funneling federal dollars through a for-profit bureaucracy that seems to value the bottom line above the interests of students?

Let us suppose Don Graham really is intent on eradicating the unscrupulous practices that seem prevalent at many Kaplan campuses. (I, for one, am predisposed to believe that.) Let us further accept that he is taking on the Department of Education’s proposed new rules not out of crass corporate interest, but because of a genuine fear that the new regulations will close off needed educational options for students. If the Grahams were the only people in the for profit college industry, I would be inclined to give them the benefit of the doubt, if for no other reason than their history of public stewardship and basic decency.

But the rules Graham is lobbying to water down would apply not only to Kaplan, but also to the rest of the for-profit college industry–a vast and disturbing frontier that includes disreputable entrants such as the Apollo Group, which owns the University of Phoenix, and Career Education Corp. And Graham asks us to believe these players, too, can be trusted; that together, Kaplan and the industry of which it is but a single piece are not just in it for the money, but for the welfare of students.

That is a hard proposition to swallow, an assertion that runs headlong into unfortunate truths–truths that the greatest family in journalism would surely be probing itself, were it not increasingly dependent on what looks like ill-gotten money to pay for the ink.

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