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Tuesday, November 25, 2014
PBS Ombudsman

For-Profit Schools, the Feds and Frontline

When presidents (Clinton), would-be presidents (Dominique Strauss-Kahn), car companies (Toyota) or institutions (for-profit colleges and universities that cater to non-traditional college students) get into trouble, it is usually because they really did do something wrong. But that also makes them easy targets, at least temporarily — until the trouble is addressed; vulnerable, in the aftermath of the real or perceived original sin, to continuing criticism that seems credible because of the trouble they are already in.

But good journalism requires steadiness at all stages; care must be taken to get the follow-on stories right rather than just piling on. That requirement is what's been going through my mind this week as I looked into a dispute between a pair of lawyers for a for-profit college and PBS's flagship investigative series, Frontline.

The complaints are from lawyers representing the for-profit Westwood College. They challenge the way the school and its procedures were presented during a segment of a Frontline program, titled "Educating Sergeant Pantzke," that aired on June 28 and asked the question: "For-profit colleges promise veterans a high-quality degree — but do they deliver?"

The total segment ran about 18 minutes and dealt with four for-profit colleges and the bad experiences of those military veterans there who were portrayed in the film. The segment involving Westwood was only about two minutes. Representatives of all four schools wrote letters of complaint to Frontline, and these are posted on Frontline's website, along with many viewer comments. The lawyers representing Westwood were the only ones to write to me and they questioned whether the presentation violated PBS editorial guidelines, and those of Frontline as well.




Smith Delivers a One-Two Punch

The reason why the issue of follow-up stories is on my mind is because, back in May 2010, Frontline and correspondent Martin Smith presented a tough and fascinating hour-long look, called "College, Inc.," into the booming, for-profit, higher education industry that "successfully capture billions of federal financial aid dollars." That program, as Frontline described it at the time, "explores the tension between the industry — which says it's helping an underserved student population obtain a quality education and marketable job skills — and critics who charge the for-profits with churning out worthless degrees that leave students with a mountain of debt."

That program generated a lot of mail to the ombudsman. Frontline was hardly alone. The extraordinary expansion of for-profit schools has been the subject for other journalistic investigations as well as an undercover look last year by the Government Accountability Office in which "all 15 schools GAO investigated found instances of fraud, deceptive practices or misleading statements to prospective students," according to Sen. Tom Harkin, D-Iowa, chairman of the Senate's Health, Education, Labor and Pensions (HELP) Committee.

A month after the May 2010 Frontline broadcast, Harkin announced plans for his committee to begin hearings on these schools, and then issued a critical report in December.

Now, along comes a new Frontline examination of these schools, this one much shorter than the program last year, and focused exclusively on the experiences of some military veterans. Once again, Smith, a very tough questioner, was the lead interviewer.

Letters from Lawyers

The initial letter to Frontline, with a copy to me, arrived a few days before the actual broadcast and was from Peter W. Homer, whose firm HomerBonner represents Alta Colleges Inc. and its subsidiary, Westwood College. Frontline has posted Homer's letter on its website along with a response from Frontline to one of Homer's objections.

A few days after the actual broadcast, another letter addressed to me and Frontline Executive Producer David Fanning arrived from William M. Ojile, Jr., the General Counsel for Alta and Westwood. Ojile's letter is seven pages and covers some of the same points as Homer's. I'll try to summarize his key arguments.

Philip Bennett, the new managing editor of Frontline (and a former colleague of mine at The Washington Post. He was managing editor at the paper for a while when I was the ombudsman there, so he is used to answering questions from me) provided a response to Ojile, which is included at the end of this column, along with responses to questions that I asked. I'll also include my own thoughts as we proceed.

No Names, No Interview

"From the outset," Ojile writes as his first major point, "Mr. Smith's tactics were coercive and close-minded. When the Frontline producers initially contacted the College, they refused to reveal who they had interviewed about the College unless we first agreed to do an on-camera interview. This hardly seemed fair, and the College declined. The producers said that former students were leveling allegations at the College. In order to prepare for an on-camera interview, the College would naturally want to know who the students were, what their allegations were, and obtain a release of the student's federal privacy rights protections so that any interview would result in an informed exchange. The producers' efforts to coerce a blind interview do not comport with PBS Editorial Standards and Policies."

I don't agree that Frontline was under any journalistic obligation to reveal the names of its student sources prior to any interview, and the timing and record of email exchanges between the school's media representative and Frontline, plus the proceedings of the Senate committee investigating these schools, make it clear that the school knew very early on that one of those former students was Jason Longmore, a Navy vet, who appeared before the committee and was later interviewed for the film. The school actually supplied Frontline with a great deal of documentation on Longmore but stuck to the no interview policy.

I don't know if Westwood officials had other reasons for saying no to an on-camera interview but, personally, that seems to me to be a big mistake. In fact, if you feel you are being unfairly treated and have a convincing argument to lay out, it would seem to be a reason to insist on telling your side on camera. Viewers can tell if an interviewer is unfair or tries to ambush a subject. None of the officials from the four for-profit schools touched on in the program agreed to be interviewed.

Corvairs and Pintos

Ojile continues: "We urged the producers to consider the many positive examples of student success that we could provide. There was no interest. In an online chat with the producers after the airing of the Program, they [Martin Smith] responded to this same question posed by a viewer thusly: '[I]f I [Smith] am doing a story about a consumer product that has had problems I focus on those problems . . . they are the issue. That many consumers liked their Corvairs or Pintos doesn't mean they were great cars.' This response typifies the producers' prematurely formed view . . .

"It also reveals faulty perspective. Even one exploding gas tank merits attention and criticism. But one student who claims a bad educational or credit transfer experience or one admissions representative who may have said something erroneous must be presented in context and balanced and examined against the experiences of others, if fairness means anything."

I see two sides to this. On the one hand, there were no favorable words from or about students anywhere to be found in these 18 minutes, and there are undoubtedly students who feel positively about their experience. Indeed, in that same post-program online chat, Smith, speaking generally about for-profits, said, "There are students who say positive things." And his co-reporter for the program, Daniel Golden of Bloomberg News, said he has "talked with numerous students who had favorable experiences." Some sense of this could, and should, have been included.

But Smith's retort is correct. The dominant concern as Congress and the press look into this controversy is the equivalent of the exploding gas tanks. That's what needs the scrutiny; the problems and issues surrounding the quality of education and the explosion in growth, money, dropouts and debt surrounding the for-profit schools.

Peter Homer's letter points out that "veterans are less than five percent of the College's student population, and the college has no veteran-focused recruiting programs, unlike some other career colleges." So, he argues, "including the College in a relatively lengthy segment in the context of a Program about aggressive recruiting [of] huge numbers of new veterans' distorts and unbalances the image of the College, lumping it in with colleges that do actively recruit veterans."

That seems like an important point. On the other hand, there is an obvious portion of Westwood's website that is aimed at veterans. Frontline reveals excerpts of three phone calls made by recruiters. And on March 9 of this year, the Houston Chronicle in Texas reported, "The Department of Veterans Affairs has pulled GI Bill funding from all three Texas campuses of a for-profit college accused of misleading advertising and enrollment practices. The unusual decision to suspend tuition assistance affected about 90 student veterans at Westwood College's campuses in Houston, Dallas and Fort Worth."

Ojile takes perhaps his strongest exception to the less than two minute actual interview between Smith and the former Westwood student Jason Longmore. I would agree that this is the most interesting of the challenges, but the aspect that I find somewhat troublesome journalistically is not mentioned by the lawyer.

Here's the Transcript:

MARTIN SMITH: It was a Westwood recruiter who told Jason Longmore, a Navy vet, that he could earn a bachelor's degree in just three years. After his wife's MS caused her to lose her job, Longmore needed to get one quickly.

JASON LONGMORE, U.S. Navy Veteran: It felt like this was the right path, especially with my situation with my wife and my baby and a whole new life — a whole new life starting. This was going to be the right foot to set on and — and continue.

MARTIN SMITH: But six months into his program, he learned from a prospective employer that his Westwood degree wasn't worth much.

JASON LONGMORE: If I was applying for jobs, I went against somebody with a construction management degree from Colorado State University and I had my degree from Westwood College, I wouldn't be on par with that same person, although that's what I felt I was supposed to be getting through the education that they were giving me.

MARTIN SMITH: And when Longmore went to transfer to a state school, he hit another snag. His credits were no good.

We asked Westwood about this they told us they never made any promises about credits. They pointed out Longmore had initialed a box that read, "Westwood College makes no guarantee of credit transfer." Longmore says he was fooled.

JASON LONGMORE: Me and my wife both asked multiple times, does that mean that their credits don't transfer, and he said, "Don't worry. Everything will transfer. We had to put that in there because every college has credits that won't transfer, so it has to be in there. It's fine." If they would have told me directly that they wouldn't transfer, I would not have gone to Westwood College.

Ojile's Arguments

Ojile points out that Longmore didn't say "his credits were no good," something that implies "the false and unsupported inference that the failure to accept transfer of credits was related to the quality of the College." He also points out that Longmore was attempting to transfer credits earned in a construction management program into an unrelated degree program in civil engineering, that there was no record of another school ever actually requesting Longmore's records, that Longmore had previously attended two community colleges and was therefore no neophyte about procedures, and that the school's catalog clearly contains a disclosure form, that Longmore received, that states: "Units you earn at Westwood College in most cases will probably not be transferable to any other college or university."

So, on one hand, lawyers point out that the school makes clear officially that credits are probably not transferable yet criticizes Smith for the implication of his short-hand: "His credits were no good." Longmore, it seems to me, clearly shares some of the blame for his situation, and a sentence or two explaining accreditation and transfer issues with at least some of these for-profit schools would have been worth squeezing in. As I understand it, credits at some for-profit schools that have regional accreditation are transferable.

To me, however, the key quote is what Longmore says on camera — that he was told by some unidentified person, essentially: "Don't worry . . . everything will transfer . . . we had to put that disclaimer in there . . ."

Actually, given all that has now been written in the press and investigated by the GAO and Congress, that conversation sounds totally authentic and credible. It is at the heart of this controversy. Yet we don't know if that conversation was by phone or in person, that person's position, who that person is or even if Frontline knows who it is.

In response to my questions about this, Bennett said: "Martin Smith says that we were unable to reach the Westwood recruiter who told Longmore that his credits would transfer. The practice was consistent with what other Westwood students and former students told us, and with the findings of congressional investigators." No answer yet as to whether Smith knows who he has been unable to reach.

Ojile also says that those audio recordings of calls to prospective students aired by Frontline "seem to have been stolen from the College," that "we suspect the source" and that neither the recordings nor the allegations were disclosed to the college before the program aired.

Bennett told me: "We stand by the accuracy of the recordings and believe they were used appropriately in the film. We agree that giving Westwood a chance to respond to the questions raised in the recordings would have strengthened the story, and that wasn't done in this case."

In the immediate aftermath of the June 28 broadcast, several members of the Senate committee made public comments. All of those who spoke out were Democrats. Chairman Harkin said, "Frontline's findings are deeply disturbing and only serve to underscore the findings of our investigation: many of these subprime colleges are aggressively enrolling veterans and collecting their hard-earned education benefit with little concern for whether they succeed."

I give Frontline an "A" for staying on this subject which, like so many other things, gets virtually no in-depth coverage elsewhere on American television. On the other hand, I would give it a lower grade for the journalistic presentation of the Westwood segment, but I stop short of agreeing that they violated PBS editorial guidelines.

On a couple of issues, I'd say they didn't do all they could to provide the viewer with a fuller understanding of what was going on. Maybe this segment should have been three minutes instead of two. Whatever problems Westwood has, I was pleased they fought back and raised challenges to Frontline. Those challenges would have been a lot more powerful on camera, but that also can be risky.

Frontline's Response to Ojile

We have reviewed the concerns you raise on behalf of Westwood College following the PBS broadcast of "Educating Sergeant Pantzke." We regard complaints of unfair reporting as very serious charges, and have discussed your points in depth with the FRONTLINE production team that made the film.

During the six months they worked on this report, [Producer and Correspondent] Martin Smith, [Associate Producer] Chris Livesay and others interviewed dozens of people and reviewed hundreds of documents. "Educating Sergeant Pantzke" was a follow up to a broader in-depth examination of private sector colleges and universities broadcast in May, 2010. Over the course of reporting both films, Smith traveled across the country to interview scores of people involved in all aspects of the for-profit education sector. He gathered extensive data and a wide range of views about the industry from critics and supporters. His reporting method has been precisely the opposite of someone who approaches a subject with his mind already made up.

Early this year, Chris Livesay contacted Westwood College's media consultant, Mr. Rudawsky, based on a referral from the college's website. Livesay told Rudawsky of our project and asked for assistance in arranging interviews with Westwood officials. He was informed that Westwood administrators would not agree to be interviewed. Contrary to the suggestion in your letter, FRONTLINE at this point had not interviewed any students or former students from the college. While we're uncertain what you mean by an effort to "coerce a blind interview" (journalists are generally under no ethical obligation to disclose questions prior to an interview with officials), the producers at no time attempted to mislead Westwood or misrepresent the purpose of their reporting.

Rudawsky was aware of our intention to interview Jason Longmore before that interview took place. He contacted Livesay on Jan. 21 offering to share Longmore's Westwood files once the college received the appropriate waivers, which Longmore signed. These documents and an email from Rudawsky laid out in great detail Westwood's response to Longmore's allegations. This information was important to our reporting. For example, the film presents the disclosure form signed by Longmore that states that Westwood credits "will probably not be transferable to any other college or university." This form, provided by the college, was featured in the film as support of Westwood's position.

Even though Westwood officials declined to be interviewed, the college was given ample opportunity to answer Longmore's charges, as Rudawsky's emails demonstrate. The college's position on a key point (credit transfer disclosure) was included in the broadcast. These practices are consistent with a commitment to fair reporting and our goal of providing the public with information that is as complete and accurate as possible.

We have contacted Longmore to seek an explanation of the discrepancy between the number of credits he told us he had accumulated when he left Westwood (52) and the number in the college's records (39). If the figure we presented in the broadcast is inaccurate we will publish a correction on our website. Longmore has confirmed to us that his current educational institution told him that none of his Westwood credits would be accepted. (The school did accept his junior college credits).

The audio recordings of Westwood recruiters were obtained by FRONTLINE from a confidential source. We do not discuss confidential sources. We see no basis for complying with your demand that we remove the recordings from our website.

Longmore was not the only current or former Westwood student we interviewed. As often happens, we chose for limitations of time to focus on one specific subject. In order to make this judgment, we considered whether Longmore's experience at Westwood was unique and therefore might present an unfair portrait of issues facing some students. The breadth of our reporting, which included learning of hundreds of complaints by current and former students, persuaded us that it was not.

Nor did we find it unusual for veterans like Longmore to use GI Bill money to pay for living expenses while securing loans for tuition. Without the GI Bill, enrollment would be impossible for many veterans, even if the checks are used for living expenses. Longmore's statement that the money "was all for naught" speaks to his anger and frustration over the "depressing" situation that confronted him and in his family at the time of our interview, in which his experience at Westwood played a central role.

After reviewing your letter and our reporting, we are confident of the fairness of our production team's approach to Westwood and the treatment of the college in the film. Journalism is never perfect, and we remain open to correcting any errors contained in the report. We stand by its overall accuracy and believe that "Educating Sergeant Pantzke" meets a high standard of journalism that informs the public about issues of major importance.

Philip Bennett, Managing Editor


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