January 14, 2016

Conservative activist catches Houghton Mifflin Harcourt employee on camera telling the truth


IT'S ALL CONNECTED. Image via Youtube.

IT’S ALL CONNECTED. (Image via Youtube.)

James O’Keefe, the conservative activist known for his many failed attempts to reveal sinister liberal conspiracies using laughably edited hidden camera footage, has found a new target: book publishing. Specifically, textbook publisher and proud grilling enthusiast Houghton Mifflin Harcourt.

In a recently released video, several O’Keefe agents attempt to prove that Common Core is a price-fixing scheme between the government and publishers. Caitlin MacNeal reported for Talking Points Memo:

Houghton Mifflin Harcourt on Tuesday distanced itself from comments made by a now former employee about the publishing industry’s role in Common Core, which were captured in a sting video produced by conservative video maker James O’Keefe.

In the video critical of the education standards, individuals with O’Keefe’s Project Veritas posed as political consultants to ask about Common Core. They caught on camera teachers disparaging the standards and filmed a Houghton Mifflin Harcourt employee saying that textbook publishers care more about making money than educating young students.

Not a great look for a textbook publisher, though at least they aren’t called “Project Veritas,” which sounds like a forgotten plot element from the Matrix sequels. So what did this now-former employee, Dianne Barrow, actually say? Well, the video opens with the O’Keefe plant telling Barrow that it “sounds like you’re in it for the kids,” to which Barrow quickly responds “I hate kids” and laughs. Cue dramatic fade.

But wait, there’s more. As reported by MacNeal:

In the video, Barrow tells the videographers, “I’m in it to sell books, don’t even kid yourself for a heartbeat.”

And she says that all textbook publishers feel the same way.

“It’s all about the money,” she says in the video. “You don’t think that educational publishing companies are in it for education, do you? No. They’re in it for the money.”

“The fact that they have to align to educational standards is what they have to do to sell the books,” she adds later.

When asked if publishers have lobbied for Common Core, Barrow replies, “No, they didn’t lobby for them to be put in place, but they lobby — now they go after the money.”

The video also contains clips of a teacher disparaging the Common Core, proving that with enough journalistic courage and a few free drinks, you can do the impossible: get a public school teacher to complain about bureaucracy.

In a subsequent interview with the Washington Post, a woman, who identified herself as Barrow, commented on the video and confirmed that she had been recently fired.

She said she was told she had put the company “in a bad light.”

She said she had not yet seen the video, but after being told about the statements attributed to her, she said they had been taken out of context. “None of those statements were standalone statements, and they were completely misconstrued,” she said.

Barrow, who said she began her career as a teacher, said she believes that Common Core is a good thing for children because it creates consistent academic expectations across the country. As for the statement about hating kids? “I said that as a joke,” she said. “Who hates kids?”

HMH’s CEO Linda Zeche was quick to issue a public statement reassuring all reasonable people that the textbook giant is definitely, totally not in it for the money:

“These statements in no way reflect the views of HMH and the commitment of our over 4,000 employees who dedicate their lives to serving teachers and students every day…The individual who made these comments is a former employee who was with HMH for less than a year.”

The video is classic Veritas: off-camera voices attempting to shoehorn unsuspecting liberals into blithely admitting criminal conspiracies, a gimmick O’Keefe’s used ever since the 2009 takedown of ACORN put him on the map and brought him into the orbit of Andrew Breitbart, the late king of Internet right-wing tabloids. It’s provocative, low-overhead non-journalism at its finest.

Barrow’s Linkedin profile lists past employment in sales roles at Pearson, Harcourt Achieve, Zaner-Bloser, and the ASCD, so it’s entirely possible that she knows what she’s talking about. She gets a few shots in at her old employer in the video, claiming Pearson does “underhanded things…it owns the world.” Which is not news. She also touches on Donald Trump, a noted critic of the Common Core—“Do you know who’s listening to Donald Trump? It’s all old white men that are frustrated with their lives.” Which is also not news, but always nice to have as a reminder.

Despite the video’s proud claim as proof of collusion between textbook publishers and the government, it really (really) isn’t. The agents try repeatedly to shepherd their subjects into just such a confession, but the best they get are teachers bemoaning the profit motive and Barrow’s vague claim that HMH “lobbies.” Veritas’ “smoking gun” is a few low-level employees blowing off steam by complaining about their jobs, and it’s telling that Veritas refers to Barrow repeatedly as an “executive” probably to lend her words false gravity, but more likely because he genuinely doesn’t understand that a book sales rep doesn’t dictate or reflect political reality.

But here’s the thing: Textbooks are sold in a huge and uniquely constrained market, which is why there is a lot of actual fraud that occurs in the supply chain all the time. We recently wrote about HMH’s link to an ongoing FBI probe into municipal corruption involving rigged bids for textbooks. The textbook market, and the influence of corporate publishers, and all the accompanying financial chicanery is a story worth covering, but that’s not O’Keefe’s style.




Liam O’Brien is the Senior Sales & Marketing Manager at Melville House, and a former bookseller.