WHYY has positioned itself as a leading reporting outlet on the Central Bucks School District and all of the supposed tumult surrounding the 2021 election of a Republican-majority board. The organization has reported on some of the most minor developments, most of which helped suggest the district was in chaos and that brownshirts were roaming the halls throwing students and teachers in jail.
But when the news doesn’t suit the narrative, all of a sudden it’s radio silence from the local PBS-member station.
Reporter Emily Rizzo has been WHYY’s voice for the goings-on at CBSD and has cast an extremely critical eye on anything the board has done, while remaining completely credulous about anything its opponents have had to say. At times, she did not even appear to attempt to contact the board for comment when writing about it, a breach of objectivity that makes it hard to fully trust her reporting. (Rizzo denied that she failed to reach out to the board for comment.)
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Although Rizzo’s beat is Montgomery and Bucks counties, her bio page shows that over the last year, a quarter of her output has been focused on the Central Bucks School District — a staggering number, quite frankly, considering all the potential news when combining the third and fourth most populous counties in the commonwealth. The sheer volume and concentration of stories on Central Bucks over the last year shows this has been her top priority, and WHYY either accommodated it or encouraged it.
What happened on Thursday, April 20 was one of the key developments since Burgess was suspended nearly one year ago. Yet well over a week passed — six full business days! two full weekends! — before a published report from Rizzo could be found, even though she was in attendance that night.
Broad + Liberty sent an email to Rizzo and her editors early Monday morning — a time when still no story had been published — inquiring about the sudden dearth of reporting, asking that comment be returned by 5 p.m. Monday evening.
Sometime around 4 p.m. Monday afternoon, WHYY finally published a story on the investigation, headlined, “Duane Morris’ investigation into Central Bucks finds no discrimination against LGBTQ students.”
The investigation’s findings highlighted damning information, including Burgess’s own sworn testimony that he did not report some bullying of an LGBT student to district administration. Other evidence showed teachers and administrators at the school proactively monitoring and inquiring about the status of some LGBT students, evidence directly contradicting the broader narrative that CBSD was intentionally and systemically hostile to LGBT students.
“First and foremost, I want to thank you for bringing this matter to our attention,” WHYY Editorial Director Jamila Bey wrote back to us. “As a news organization, we strive to provide comprehensive and unbiased coverage of important issues affecting our community. It’s crucial that we remain accountable for our reporting, and we genuinely appreciate feedback that helps us to maintain the highest standards.”
Bey’s email did not say WHYY issued a news report in direct response to our inquiry, but…
The Inquirer has not covered itself in glory in this episode either, although our criticisms there are more aimed at the paper’s editorial board than its reporters.
When the news doesn’t suit the narrative, all of a sudden it’s radio silence from the local PBS-member station.
Regular readers of Broad + Liberty will remember the Inquirer’s editorial board in December published a blistering piece critical of the district. We said it lacked journalistic skepticism, was hasty in its condemnation, and that the editorial board lost its cool when claiming the district was on a “crusade” against LGBT students, going so far as to call for the current board majority to be replaced “immediately.”
Setting Burgess’s actions aside temporarily, the Duane Morris report showed several pieces of evidence in which Lenape Middle School Principal Geanine Saullo was actively on the lookout for harassing and bullying students, and also tried to protect the student who seems to have been the focus of attention.
More evidence showed that a harasser of LGBT students had his cafeteria privileges revoked temporarily, and that a teacher asked the vice principal to keep an extra-careful eye out for the well being of LGBT students when that particular harasser was set to return to the cafeteria.
Saullo worried that she was hearing rumors of bullying but that reports were not hitting her desk. When the mother of “Student 1” called but did not leave contact information, Saullo used Caller ID to track the mother down and got her to open up about her concerns.
Saullo specifically wrote to Burgess, “Please encourage [Student 1] to bring things to our attention. I would hate to see suffering in silence.”
We will not claim that the report delivers incontrovertible conclusions, but this evidence does cast serious doubt on the Inquirer’s assertion that the district was on a “crusade” against LGBT students.
For all her apparent conscientiousness, Saullo has been attacked by rabble rousers like Keith Olberman, as if one needed more evidence that the CBSD affair had become unhinged because of the political narrative.
Meanwhile, the Inquirer appears to have been in that crowd of persons and entities who “pulled the fire alarm and are now complaining that the fire engines showed up,” as one editorialist recently put it. Said another way, they were first vexed at the allegations, then had the sanctimonious brass to complain that the allegations were being investigated, an attitude they laundered under the guise of fretting over how much the investigation was going to cost.
The Duane Morris report was packed with raw evidence: emails, notes, interviews, the sworn interview with Burgess, as well as unsworn interviews with dozens of others.
As the largest news outlet in the state, the Inquirer editorial board owes the district an apology. If not that, it at least owes a follow-up editorial — but either way, intellectual honesty demands that the editorial board account for whether it still fully stands behind its December editorial now that the other side of the story is out.
Emails to members of the Inquirer editorial team requesting comment were not returned.
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