Journalism will again become what it was more than a century ago – a form of art. –Chris Hedges
The teens did not bring Hedges’ words to fruition — mainstream journalism did not return to a golden age of revolutionary truth-telling, but quite the reverse, with our “post-truth” world, full of filter bubbles flowing with “fake news.” Yet, despite the grim state of contemporary journalism in general, Hedges prophecy has come true in the teens — for graphic journalism.
Hedges words also opened my 2011 Truthout report “Warning: This Article Contains Graphic Journalism“, a time when I found myself writing solely prose essays (the title is inspired by Rocco Versaci’s ground-breaking work of comics scholarship This Book Contains Graphic Language: Comics As Literature). Then, also, I was still making the case that comics are literature, an appropriate medium for study in college classroom. I interviewed the some of the key figures in the “new” wave of comics journalism: Sarah Glidden, who had just published the fantastic graphic memoir How to Understand Israel in 60 Days, Matt Bors (who had just published a remarkable comic on his travels in Afghanistan in a series “Afghan Life“, and hadn’t yet gone on to create The Nib), Ted Rall (who had already a long-track record of hard-hitting comics journalism), and Dan Archer who effectively defined the field in a comic and speech (click here). Indeed, graphic journalism was already heeding Hedges’ call — it was art, in every sense of the word.
And I wanted in.
A decade ago, I was a comics scholar, educator, and journalist — but what I really wanted to do was to make comics. And after meeting Dan Archer at San Francisco Zinefest, I got that first break, with our series for Truthout The Disaster Capitalism Curriculum (2012), a three part series exploring the privatization and standardization of education in the United States. I knew that as a pure-text essay, as I’d been writing for years, it would get a narrow audience of folks who already knew the issues and generally agreed. However, with this report, I hoped to broaden and diversify the audience involved in the education reform conversation.
At that time, few mainstream outlets seem to understand comics as a form of serious journalism — not only did I have to make the pitch for the story, but provide an explanation of comics as a legitimate medium (it was the same kind of argument I had made countless times in the academic setting). Truthout got it right out — thanks in large part to Anne Elizabeth Moore, co-editor of the first Best American Comics (with Harvey Pekar). Anne was also producing a fantastic series for Truthout “Ladydrawers,” and so Truthout understood comics as journalism. Thus, when we pitched the project, I didn’t have to explain why Dan and I were using comics — they were excited by the opportunity, and immediately grasped how such a project could drive active engagement over a wider and more diverse population.
Now, in 2020, you can find comics journalism in most major outlets — indeed, Wendy Macnaugthon found her “drawn journalism” (as she dubs it) on the cover of the New York Times recently. This rising tide of interest in non-fiction comics is also reflected by the popularity of graphic memoir — such as Raina Telgemeier’s immensely popular series, including most recently Guts. Further, and most personally as a cancer survivor, the emergence of Graphic Medicine has created space for patients like me to tell their stories in a vivid and humanizing form.
This comics movement of the teens — built by incredible, and often ill-compensated work by countless creators, editors and publishers, some of whom I’ve shouted out here — created the space that allowed me to not just write, but actually get a number of scripts produced and published in a wide variety of outlets, including The New Yorker, The Boston Globe, The Atlantic, The Los Angeles Times, and The Nib (Matt Bors‘ outlet truly created a platform to usher in this new era of comics journalism). I feel immensely grateful to have been able to join the field during this exciting time, and be surrounded by such incredibly talented and hard-working artists, writers, and editors, who continue be driven to illustrate the truth in a dark time — and do so artfully.
As we move into the 20s, I’m optimistic about the state of non-fiction visual storytelling. I plan to continue my work with comics journalism. However, I’m focused on my memoir It’s All In Your Head, a book-length hybrid comics/prose story of my journey living with a brain tumor while balancing being a parent, partner, and professor.
Here are my ten of the teens (with links). For all my comics, click here
Notification: You’ve Got Cancer with Josh Neufeld, at The Boston Globe
Graphic Essay: Betsy DeVos’ ‘School Choice’ Movement Isn’t Social Justice. It’s a Return to Segregation. With Erik Thurman for Fusion (now Splinternews)
Philosophers at Theme Parks with Jason Novak in the New Yorker’s Daily Shouts
“No shame in staying alive: How medical marijuana helped save me from brain cancer,” with Marc Parteneau at Fusion (now Splinternews)
Children of the Code: Big Data, Little Kids with Dan Carino, at Truthout
The Disaster Capitalism Curriculum: The High Price of Education Reform (Episode 1) with Dan Archer, at Truthout
The Teacher Ghetto with Jason Novak, at The Atlantic
This School Is Not A Pipe with Josh Neufeld, at Truthout
The War on Everything with Jason Novak at The Los Angeles Times
Pink Ribbon Envy: Living with an Uncool Cancer (with Dan Archer, and Medium’s The Nib)
This School is a Musical Masterpiece: The “Four Rs” to Reclaim Public Education from Corporate Colonialism
This is Karran Harper Royal, a real parent of a teenager in the New Orleans public school system, whom I interviewed for the second part of the Disaster Capitalism Curriculum (with graphic journalist Dan Archer for Truthout), about the “New Orleans Miracle,” as its been dubbed by corporate education reformers who believe Hurricane Katrina, which killed nearly 2,000, and displaced 400,000, was “The best thing to happen to the education system in New Orleans” (And yes, that’s a real quote from Secretary of Education Arne Duncan). In 2012, amidst the polarized presidential election between Mitt Romney and Barack Obama, New Orleans was solid ground: they both argued that the free-market, privatized model that Royal has seen replace the public school system represents a model for the country. For Royal, a prominent, nationally recognized public education activist, the “New Orleans Miracle,” also represents a model for American education – a bankrupt one, a well-funded “fairy tale” that purports to be about empowering kids, but is really about unleashing the market to dismantle the “government monopoly on education.”
While Royal speaks with unrivaled passion, hard evidence, and personal connection to the community, her voice is largely marginalized. Royal’s experience is not an isolated one, as those who are closest to children – the parents, the teachers, and especially the children themselves – have the smallest voice in education reform debate, which has been colonized by the language, ideologies, and policies of outsiders – politicians, think-tankers, Wall Street funded non-profits, and CEOs who have no direct connection or personal interest in the communities they seek to mold in their image.
Previously, I’ve dubbed this phenomenon the Gates Paradox: the power of your voice in the education reform debate is proportional to the distance from the classroom multiplied by the amount of money you earn. Of course, each additional media outlet owned increases the influence by a factor of ten. Or, expressed in the native language of the refomers, the Gates Paradox is: VαDsv*$ [MSNBC/]10 = INFLUENCE]
Indeed, the corporate colonists control the education debate, imposing the terms and language of the discussion, as they largely control the medium in which the debate takes place: it doesn’t take a complex algorithm to demonstrate that corporate media favors corporate education policy, especially when the media channel is funded by the same billionaire also funding the education policy (as is the case with Gates and both NBC and PBS).
How does a parent like Royal fight against this corporate colonialism, which floods in her hometown of New Orleans, displacing local schools, dismantling local communities, and imposing foreign values and policies? How do we get Royal – and other real parents, children, and educators – heard over the “fairy tale” of reform?
How do we overcome the Gates Paradox?
By going back to basics: The Four Rs – Recognize, Resist, Reframe, and Reclaim.
RECOGNIZE: Education reform is trending right now in popular culture – and not towards a progressive, grassroots vision. While the agit-prop documentary Waiting for Superman started the pop culture assault on public schools, there is a cottage reform media industry devoted to putting out stories which support the reform vision of education, pumped out of the big screen, the TV, the radio, the newspaper, and underwritten by reform friendly billionaires like Gates, who have spent millions on messaging. This propaganda arm of the reform movement propagates stories like the “New Orleans Miracle,” that float about in the public consciousness, supporting these policies throughout the nation.
Less obviously and more perniciously, these reform “fairy tales” provide a language for discussing education that reinforces this worldview: phrases like “failing schools” and the “cradle to career pipeline” are normalized, and in doing so, unconsciously frame the issue for a reader or speaker, as I observe in my comic with graphic journalist Josh Neufeld “This School is Not a Pipe.” (for Truthout.org). Thus, the first step towards reclaiming public education is in seeing through the propaganda, in even recognizing the stories and language of reform.
RESIST: It’s not enough just to see that the propaganda of reform doesn’t fit the reality of schools that most children, parents, and educators experience. Indeed, I became passionate about advocating for public education upon seeing such an astonishing chasm between what the media said about my profession, and what I saw every day as a teacher in a community college. Thus, I began to call out these false stories – much like Royal has (and of course, Diane Ravitch), to expose both the “fairy tales” of reform and the drum-beat of public school failure.
But this is not enough: further, it’s important to resist not just the reform stories, but the reform language itself, which is drawn largely from the lexicon of the business world, and not education. Once starting a conversation around “failing schools,” the debate is already lost; this term implies an entire worldview, one suggesting that public schools themselves are solely responsible for the struggles they face, much like a failing business. Logically, the “failing school” should be shuttered – much like failing business, with old management and employees fired, and new ones installed to secure “success”. In this way, there is a clear, unwavering line from a single phrase to an entire ideology, and specific policies, such as school closures. Thus, we must not just avoid exposing the stories of the colonists, but their misleading language – which reinforces these stories, and favors the underlying corporate ideology.
REFRAME: For the first few years of writing about education, I primarily focused on these first two steps – on pointing out the astonishing flaws of the reform propaganda. But this, too, is not enough: indeed, reformers rightly point out that while many of us decry their agenda, we don’t as readily point to our own vision. I know that I’ve been guilty on this count – even as I’m working in my own college to develop new methods of teaching, and new programs to serve students. Thus, instead of just pointing out the flaws in the corporate agenda, we must fill in the gap – to share our own stories, and our own language, through traditional media channels, and moreso, through social media.
“Public education is like producing a musical masterpiece,” Royal told me, in providing her own vision of an ideal public school system, one that would improve upon the privatized, two-tiered system that has taken over her hometown. “[You need to provide] each instrument with the right sheet music to get the best performance from that particular instrument. Each instrument is different and can not be standardized, but with the right music, each can reach its highest heights. When children are given the kind of educational support they need based on who they are, they can produce beautiful music,” she concludes, reframing schooling with a fresh metaphor, a new language, a new vocabulary of reform, one that highlights the inherent humanity and individuality of children, while still imagining a harmonious, yet diverse community.
Imagine: What kind of policies would our politicians produce if they imagined the classroom as a musical masterpiece rather than a business, or even worse, a pipeline? What kind of classroom experience would children have immersed in metaphors of music, rather than spreadsheets and oil?
RECLAIM: To reclaim the promise of public education, to develop policies that are more musical than monotonous, we must reclaim the conversation from the educational colonists. We must find ways to mitigate the Gates Paradox, to render this algorithm of inequity obsolete, to tell the stories of what we see, in the language that we use, and get the public to hear it.
This is easier blogged than done.
However, as I attend the Network for Public Education Conference March 1 and 2nd in Austin, TX, (along with Karran Harper Royal, Diane Ravitch, and many others) we will not just resist, but work proactively and collectively towards a more humane, democratic, truly public school system.
The music has just begun…
 See my essay at Truthout: “The Answer to the Great Question of Education Reform? The Number 42” for an extensive discussion on the technicalization of education – and its dissidents.
 For extensive evidence on reform propaganda see Adam Bessie.“GERM Warfare: How to reclaim the education debate from corporate occupation.” Project Censored 2013. Ed. Mickey Huff. Seven Stories: New York. 2013.
 For documentation, see my essay at The Daily Censored: “Ms. Reform: Education Reform as Starlet of NetFlix’s “House of Cards”