Just the Facts: A Q&A With Campbell Brown

Just the Facts: A Q&A With Campbell Brown

Just the Facts: A Q&A With Campbell Brown
January 12, 2015

Until she left CNN in May 2010, Campbell Brown was one of the most prominent television news reporters in America. Formerly the host of her eponymous prime-time show Campbell Brown, Brown joined CNN after having been White House correspondent for NBC News, the co-anchor of Weekend Today and the primary substitute for Brian Williams on NBC Nightly News. These days the Emmy award winner is no longer a journalist, instead concentrating her investigative skills on probing education issues in New York City as the co-founder of the Parents’ Transparency Project, a nonpartisan group that recently ran a television ad attacking four of the Democratic candidates for mayor. City & State Editor Morgan Pehme spoke with Brown about her organization, Eliot Spitzer, Bill O’Reilly and how she went from being an anchor to an education advocate.

The following is an edited transcript.

City & State: What is the Parents’ Transparency Project?
Campbell Brown: This is an organization that was founded by me and several other people very recently to try to shine a spotlight on a number of issues around education here in New York City. We are focused initially on one issue that came to my attention over a year ago. I am a mother of two small children and have a long background in journalism—I was at NBC News for 11 years and then CNN, so 15 years. I spend more time with my kids now, and I have started writing a lot of opinion [pieces] on subjects that were interesting to me, or things that I cared about.I was reading in the local papers about this issue here in New York about teachers who had, in some cases, done really horrible things related to sexual misconduct with children, who still had their jobs, who couldn’t be fired because of the way the system was set up— and I couldn’t believe it. I was shocked by it. I thought, “This can’t be right,” and I started looking into it. I’ve written some and I’ve spoken about it quite a bit since and have been struck by the fact that it’s been over a year [and] very little has happened to even put this issue in the spotlight, much less change the law [or] renegotiate the teachers’ contract to try to address the problem that makes this allowable … so that was the impetus for putting this group together, to try to inform people and let them know what’s going on.

C&S: This initiative seems like a pretty abrupt change of career for you. How was it that you segued from being a journalist to being an education advocate?
CB: It’s been … a natural progression. I loved being a journalist, but I think after I had children I felt like there were so many issues that needed to be addressed, and having children takes their importance to a new level. I didn’t feel like talking about it was enough, and I wanted to advocate for policies that I thought could change things and make things better.

C&S: Does your organization advocate for any specific approach to moving forward in education? Are you particularly allied, for instance, with the charter school movement? I know that you are on the board of the Success Academy.
CB: Personally, I am very supportive of charter schools, but our organization isn’t focused on that. I think over the long term we are going to be looking at ways to broaden our focus, but it will be primarily about trying to educate and inform parents about all aspects of our educational system. I think there’s a lot people don’t know. It’s very bureaucratic, it’s very complicated, the contract that sort of defines what happens in the classrooms, how teachers behave, how they’re paid, how everything works at DoE [Department of Education]. [It] is a really complex web that needs to be unraveled for parents who have an interest in [it]. When you point out these problems people are surprised; they don’t know about [them, so] the more we can do to just bring this stuff to light, I think is going to be very valuable … as part of the conversation.

C&S: When you took your leave from CNN you issued an unusually candid statement about your reasons for doing so. You cited your low ratings and wrote that you didn’t want to practice the same brand of journalism as your competitors Bill O’Reilly and Keith Olbermann. Can you explain what you meant?
CB: The business changed so much for me from when I started. I was hired in my first network job by Tim Russert, who was my mentor in Washington, D.C., when I covered the White House. The business has evolved over the years. It’s a very different world from how it was when Tim Russert was still alive and hosting Meet the Press. The cable news universe where nightly what dominated my time slot was Nancy Grace, Keith Olbermann and Bill O’Reilly screaming back and forth at each other … I was being asked to take part in that screaming match, and that’s not who I was, or who I felt I could be. What I care about, what I’ve always cared about, was honesty and truth … so for me to come up with some silly PR excuse for why I was leaving would have just been wrong. I couldn’t have done it.

C&S: A few months after you left CNN your time slot was filled by Parker Spitzer. What was your opinion of Eliot Spitzer as a journalist and a host?
CB: I don’t think I have ever watched that show. I, honest to God, never turned it on. I was so enthralled with my freedom from that world that I took some time off right after I left to just hang out with my kids and not watch cable news, and I think he was off the air by the time I turned the TV on.

C&S: Do you think that you will ever go back to being a journalist?
CB: I don’t know. I feel advocacy is much more where I want to be focused right now. I care a lot about education and I care a lot about this city, and so I feel like I can make a much greater contribution being engaged on these issues right now than yapping on a talk show. [Laughs] I am grateful for the experiences I had as a journalist, because I have a certain skill set now that allows me to sort through all the fog and the different arguments that are out there, and try to get at what really is true and hopefully bring that to light for people who … often get lost in the debate listening to both sides trying to make an argument. But this isn’t about trying to make an argument. This is about trying to bring facts to light so that we can hopefully all work together and find a way out of this situation. I am sure people will try to paint us as anti-union or anti–DoE in certain cases depending on whoever we’re going after on a given issue, because we intend to hold everybody accountable. My goal is ultimately to have people understand these issues well enough that they demand a response, and that means the UFT being a real partner, with a mayoral candidate—whoever the next mayor may be—who is willing to do what it takes, [to] make the hard decisions that they’re going to have to make politically to solve these problems. We can’t have what we’re seeing from these four mayoral candidates who’ve refused to address this—[Bill] de Blasio, [Bill] Thompson, [Anthony] Weiner and [John] Liu—who are just dodging it because they’re so afraid of what their special interest that they seem to care more about is going to say than what it means for children. That’s not acceptable. If you’re going to vote for one of these guys, then you need to know who they are and where they stand, and that’s what we intend to do: to bring that to light as much as we can.

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Morgan Pehme