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Kudos to Diane Ravitch for Owning Up to Her Mistakes

Recently, Diane Ravitch posted on her blog an egregious personal attack against me, ostensibly regarding my and Laura’s efforts to keep Head Start programs open during the recent government shutdown.  Professor Ravitch, among other things, accused me of “fleecing” Enron investors and sought to link me — through outright misstatements, innuendo and implication — to disgraced Enron executives and their criminal activity.  What she wrote was intentionally defamatory and contained outright lies about my background.

Laura and I spend the majority of our time on philanthropy.  Several years ago, we co-founded the Laura and John Arnold Foundation, which seeks to effect transformative change in some of our nation’s most pressing and complex policy areas, including education, criminal justice, research integrity, public accountability and health care.  The issues that we address, both personally and through LJAF, are at times enormously complicated and controversial.  Reasonable minds can intensely disagree on everything from how to define a problem to how to solve it.  We therefore expect, and welcome, vigorous debate on every issue in which we are involved.  We expect opponents of our policy proposals to criticize our work, and to do so passionately.  That is the essence of our democracy — vigorous public discourse and debate in every forum.

When we committed to do this work, we accepted the reality that “vigorous public discourse” would inevitably include unsavory and unfair commentary from those who opposed our positions.  We believe in and are proud of our work, and we are therefore prepared to endure distorted facts, personal insults, material omissions and even blatant misrepresentations of our positions, beliefs and policy objectives.  In the past months alone, I have been referred to as everything from a “young right-wing kingmaker with clear designs on becoming the next generation’s Koch brothers” (despite my very vocal support of President Obama and my numerous contributions to left-of-center causes) to a “lipless, eager little jerk.”  Some have accused our pension reform efforts as a “craven plot to abuse workers,” ignoring the fact that the most important beneficiaries of our pension work will be those very workers.  Others refer to our “Enron fortune,” blatantly disregarding the fact that the source of our wealth, the hedge fund that I founded and ran for ten years, had nothing to do with Enron.  Some have criticized our work in education reform, falsely accusing us of seeking to “privatize” education to further allegedly sinister motives.  I have even been included on a teachers’ union “watch list” of hedge funds that manage pension money but whose managers advocate for pension reform – despite the fact that I no longer have a hedge fund and that, when I did run a fund, I never managed any pension money.  In all of these instances, neither of us, nor anyone at LJAF, was contacted for comment or even for a fact check.

In my view, these attacks lack journalistic integrity and pursue sensationalism over truth.  Although I vehemently disagree with their tactics – selectively reporting facts, distorting truth and name calling – I deeply value the rights of the authors to express their opinion.  In fact, Laura and I are among the largest financial supporters of organizations dedicated to safeguarding First Amendment rights.  We would never seek to silence anyone who cares to comment on our work, our viewpoints or any other aspect of our public life that he or she deems worthy of public discourse.

But with the power of the pen comes responsibility.  Professor Ravitch’s blog post crossed the line between acceptable public debate and malicious, defamatory — and therefore impermissible — personal attacks.  Challenging our policy positions is fully within Professor Ravitch’s rights; falsely accusing me of a crime is not.  Earlier this week, I reached out to Professor Ravitch and asked her to retract her post.  To her credit, Prof. Ravitch acknowledged that her incendiary post had gone too far, and she agreed to correct the misstatements in her post and issue an apology.  Unfortunately, her apology was equally careless with the facts, self-serving, and laden with animosity and ambiguity.  It would be pollyannaish to expect that her tactics will ever change.

Unlike many of the most vocal critics of the reforms for which we advocate, we have no financial interest in the fields in which we work.  We have no vested interest, financial or otherwise, in the status quo.  We do not stand to profit, or otherwise benefit, from any of the Foundation’s projects.  We do not sell books.  We do not collect honoraria for speeches.  We do not sell financial products.  We are engaged in this work for the sole purpose of making our country better.  We do not pretend to have all of the answers to the problems that our Foundation seeks to address.  We therefore believe there is great value in constructive – and even combative – conversation based on facts.  In hopes of fostering that conversation, and so that tangible good can come from this recent experience, we will make a $100,000 donation to www.factcheck.org, whose mission is to “monitor the factual accuracy” of political discourse, “apply the best practices of both journalism and scholarship and to increase the public knowledge and understanding.”

The issues our country faces are multiple and complex, and at times rightly evoke debate that is acrimonious and emotionally charged.  But they are too critical, and the dialogue is too important, for us to collectively surrender to malicious misstatements and character assassination rather than true public debate.  Kudos to Prof. Ravitch for recognizing when the line has been crossed, and for attempting to correct her mistakes, however half-heartedly.

– John

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