During WRAL anchor David Crabtree’s interview of newly appointed Transportation Secretary Tony Tata earlier this week, Crabtree seemed star struck.
Crabtree scored an exclusive interview with the retired US Army general, who was fired as Wake County schools’ superintendent late last year. It was Tata’s first interview since the incident.
But, rather than questioning Tata over the possible reasons he might have been fired, Crabtree sympathized with Tata about the dismissal.
While Crabtree’s opinion lines up with popular sentiment, he failed to do his due diligence as a journalist by questioning Tata about such missteps as allegations that he ruled by intimidation, a bussing debacle, and an incident in which Tata publicly accused board members of ethics violations.
Crabtree did mention the bussing fiasco, which caused children to be late for school or not picked up at all, but he also let Tata off the hook.
“I know there was a problem at the beginning of school [with bussing]” says Crabtree. “Some people tried to tie that with your firing. To me, that doesn’t wash. The decision was made. When this board changed, let’s be honest, the decision was made.”
Crabtree went on to say that Tata had a target around his neck, ever since the board changed from Republican to Democratic control. However, Tata served nearly a year under the Democratic majority before his dismissal.
Democrats, indeed, did a very poor job explaining their reasons for firing Tata, which amplified the assumption that they intended to fire him all along. But by accepting that assumption, instead of questioning it, Crabtree reinforced public opinion that Tata was unjustly fired.
People in Wake County view Tata as a superintendent who raised student achievement (which is true, though the numbers are complicated) and listened to the concerns of the community.
However, people close to the inner working of Tata’s administration, including board chair Kevin Hill, charged that Tata led central office with an iron fist and regularly berated and intimidated his employees.
An INDY Week investigation, which included interviews with nine administrators who worked under Tata, found ample evidence to suggest the allegations were true.
Despite the fact Hill cited this as a reason for Tata’s dismissal, Crabtree failed to even bring up the topic with Tata. Instead, his interview amounted to a compliment of Tata’s leadership style.
“You told me that you didn’t walk into a classroom or even down the hallway, without students coming to your mind first thing and that’s what I heard from people in D.C. when I was there,” says Crabtree. “I’ve got to think you miss those students tremendously.”
“You could have done anything almost short of walking on water and when the majority changed it didn’t matter,” Crabtree later posited. “Is that a fair statement?”
It isn’t easy to ask difficult questions. My heart still beats out of my chest every time I ask a question that challenges a leader’s honesty or actions. But even when when we admire the people we interview, we have an obligation to challenge their actions and decisions.
Crabtree's exclusive interview presented an opportunity to ask Tata what he did well as superintendent and also to take him to task on the things he didn't. Instead, it was fanfare.