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Martin Schram: How good news got green-lighted at last

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We are reporting once again from the intersection of the news media, policy and politics. From here, we can see how and why government really works — and mainly how and why it too often fails to work the way it should.

It’s the place where all the vehicles of governance converge and collide: the executive, legislative and judicial branches — plus those of us in the news media. For better and worse, we play an undescribed, but always understood, role in shaping policy agendas and priorities by what we cover and what we ignore.

Now this: We’ve just seen some astonishing breaking news. Astonishing because it was good news. Yet, there it was, announced but barely noticed, smack in the middle of this glob of godawful news.

But if you care about finally fixing a longtime problem in which your government’s bureaucracy has been shafting hardworking public servants, the news that was announced last week by Education Secretary Miguel Cardona was your kind of good news. And we’ll get to it. But we must begin by reminding you what first happened back at the intersection.

Perhaps you saw yet another CBS News "60 Minutes" piece that left you fuming at the injustice of seeing your government inaction. Correspondent Lesley Stahl and a team had been investigating another long-known but forever unfixed failure of a program that was designed to reward underpaid public servants. It was a well-intentioned 2007 program signed into law by George W. Bush, implemented by Barack Obama, to forgive student loan debt of public servants ranging from school teachers to those in military service who made 10 years of monthly payments without ever defaulting.

Run by the Department of Education, the program became infamous for being a jumble of bureaucratic rules that hurt those it was designed to help. Department functionaries mindlessly rejected 98% of all who presented what they were assured was valid proof of their decade of on-time payments. When consumer protection officials first probed the program in 2017, Trump’s Education Department simply canceled it — with hundreds of thousands still in it — and was sued by the American Federation of Teachers. Last April the Government Accountability Office issued a scathing report. And CBS’ "60 Minutes" got on the case. Joe Biden’s Education Department surely knew where this story was going.

Stahl’s piece show us the faces and told the infuriating tales of impressive public servants our government had shamelessly shafted. They weren’t naïve and defenseless victims; all were skilled military lawyers. All were sure and had been officially assured that they had met the rules and paid as required for a decade. But there was always a technicality: wrong kind of loan company; wrong kind of loan. 

Biden’s Education Department put out the word that a major announcement was coming soonest. And just hours after the "60 Minutes" piece aired, Secretary Cardona announced a temporary program designed to make things right for all who were unfairly rejected by the botched and boggled bureaucracy. Teachers, military service members and all other eligible public servants will now have until Oct. 31, 2022, to re-apply, show their proof of 10 years of good-faith payments — and then get the rest of their student loan debts forgiven and wiped off the books.

Now, let’s return to our intersection of the news media, policy and politics. Think about how good governance just might have happened if our all-news cable networks were still back in the business of having teams that do enterprise journalism. What if the all-news cable nets routinely reported original stories in Washington and especially in the field? What if they hadn’t virtually abandoned that role to do it on the cheap, paying talking heads to tell us, one show after the other, the same old stuff about what they think (and how they feel about what they think) about the old news everyone already knows?

What if, several years ago, CNN, MSNBC and Fox had all been airing their own Lesley Stahl/"60 Minutes"-type versions of this failure of governance? What if we all had seen our most deserving public servants telling us how they had been misled and rudely rejected by the government they loyally served?

Isn’t it possible that Republicans and Democrats might have united to at least end that absurd injustice long ago?

Martin Schram is an op-ed columnist for Tribune News Service. Email  martin.schram@gmail.com.

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