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Schools Not Interested in Obama Commencement, CBS Urges Them to Get Interested

Tuesday's CBS Early Show featured a fawning story on President Obama's Race to the Top Commencement Challenge that sounded like it was written by the White House communications department. What the segment failed to mention was the severe lack of high schools that had actually entered the contest to have Obama speak at their graduation ceremonies.

Co-host Erica Hill teased the story at the top of the 8:30AM ET half hour and portrayed the program as a great success: "More than a thousand high schools tried to get President Obama to deliver their commencement address at last year's graduation. No easy feat to get the President to your high school....how high schools around the country can compete for that honor and a visit from the President again this year." She left out the fact that this year the White House was having tremendous difficulty attracting a similar level of interest.

According to a March 7 report on CBS's own Political Hotsheet blog on CBSNews.com: "An internal White House memo indicates that the White House is facing a shortage of applications less than a week before the deadline....CBS News has learned a White House Communications Office internal memo dated February 22 noted 'a major issue with the Commencement Challenge.'"

Political Hotsheet writer Peter Maer went on to quote from the leaked memo:

"As of yesterday we had received 14 applications and the deadline is Friday," the memo said. The memo also urged recipients to, "please keep the application number close hold."

A follow-up memo on February 28 reported receipt of 68 applications. Noting the competition among more than 1,000 schools last year, the memo said, "Something isn't working." It called on staffers to ask "friendly congressional, gubernatorial and mayoral offices" to encourage schools to apply.


Apparently that also included friendly news networks.

The follow-up memo went to specifically instruct staffers: "We do not want the actual application number out there (we didn't release the number of applications we received last year until after the submission period)-so folks should not use it in their pitches." The Early Show seemed to follow that advice to the letter by not mentioning the memos in the Tuesday on-air segment.

Special Early Show contributor Ayla Brown, daughter of Massachusetts Republican Senator Scott Brown, put together the glowing piece on the Race to the Top initiative: "The program asked students to showcase the innovative ways they're preparing for college....The President hopes the program encourages more kids to graduate from college, but at the very least, it provides lasting memories for students."

Near the end of her report, Brown urged schools to apply to the program as soon as possible: "The President plans to again deliver a commencement address to one graduating class at the end of the school year, but you have to be in it to win it, so get those applications in before Friday's deadline." She didn't mention that the deadline had been extended due to the low number of schools that applied. The headline on screen read: "The President's Speech; Schools Compete for Obama Visit."

Hill asked Brown: "Why did the President start this program?" Brown replied: "You know, he started this program because he wants this country to further their education. He believes that we need to be on top, we need to prove that kids can go to college and I think that that's really his message in wanting to do this program." Hill added that the winning school would get "a huge gift" of Obama speaking at commencement.

Brown again urged schools to apply: "And what the application process is all about is this year the public can vote, so if you go to WhiteHouse.gov, you can find out a lot more information." The White House website address appeared on screen.

In case those plugs were not enough, Hill concluded the segment with: "And again, for more information on how your school can enter the Race to the Top Commencement Challenge, you'll find it all on our website, EarlyShow.CBSNews.com."

Here is a full transcript of the March 8 segment:

8:31AM ET TEASE:

ERICA HILL: Also ahead this half hour, more than a thousand high schools tried to get President Obama to deliver their commencement address at last year's graduation. No easy feat to get the President to your high school. One school, though, managed to make it happen. And the Early Show's special contributor Ayla Brown visited that Michigan high school, spoke with the principal, some of the students who were able to get President Obama there. She's going to join us this morning with a little bit more on what she found about that very special high school and how high schools around the country can compete for that honor and a visit from the President again this year.

CHRIS WRAGGE: Remember last year we actually spoke with that principal and a bunch of the kids from that school. Quite an honor, they did a nice job. And now they're giving advice to everyone. Alright Erica, we'll see you in just a couple of minutes. We're going to get to those stories coming up, but first, guess who's here? Marysol Castro with a check of the weather.

MARYSOL CASTRO: Well, I have to just say very quickly President Obama did speak at my alma mater Wesleyan, before he came president, just want to-

JEFF GLOR: And one day you'll be speaking there.

CASTRO: Not anytime soon.

GLOR: With high honors.

8:39AM ET SEGMENT:

HILL: If you think back to your high school graduation, chances are you may not remember who the commencement speaker was. That was certainly not the case for one graduating class in 2010. Early Show special contributor Ayla Brown is here with their story this morning. Good to see you this morning, Ayla.

AYLA BROWN: Good morning, Erica. Thank you. Booking a bold-faced name to speak at your high school graduation, it's no easy feat. But last year's senior class at Kalamazoo Central High School proved that school spirit and a little bit of hard work can pay off in a very big way. Since taking office 25 months ago, President Barack Obama has given hundreds of speeches-

BARACK OBAMA: Thank you!

BROWN: To thousands of people-

OBAMA: God bless the United States of America!

BROWN: All across will this country. But for Kalamazoo Central High School's class of 2010-

OBAMA: Hello, Giants.

BROWN: This one trumps them all.

OBAMA: Congratulations class of 2010!

BROWN: President Obama came to K Central High School in Kalamazoo, Michigan last June to honor the winners of his very first Race to the Top Commencement Challenge.

PA ANNOUNCER [KALAMAZOO CENTRAL HIGH SCHOOL]: Kalamazoo Central High School has been selected by the President of the United States.

BROWN: The program asked students to showcase the innovative ways they're preparing for college. Nicole Allen, a member of K Central's class of 2010, teamed up with fellow students to enter the competition.

KALAMAZOO CENTRAL HIGH SCHOOL VIDEO: We are the giants.

BROWN: Their entry, illustrating the school's diversity, was one of six finalists chosen from more than 1,000 applicants.

STUDENTS IN SCHOOL VIDEO: I am going to college!

BROWN: The commander in chief hand picked the winner himself. Let's talk about when you found out that your school had won this competition.

NICOLE ALLEN: Oh, my gosh, I cried.

BROWN: You cried?

ALLEN: I cried. Little bitty Kalamazoo, Michigan is on the map.

OBAMA: I think that America has a lot to learn from Kalamazoo Central about what makes for a successful school in this new century.

BROWN: The President hopes the program encourages more kids to graduate from college, but at the very least, it provides lasting memories for students.

ALLEN: To just be there, right there, so close to him, it's ridiculous. I would have never thought I'd have that experience in my life.

BROWN: Kelsey Wilson, a junior last year, received a personal shout out she'll never forget.

KELSEY WILSON: He was like Kelsey Wilson, is she here?

OBAMA: Is Kelsey here?

WILSON: I just stood up with my mom and I was like, 'Yeah, I'm right here.'

OBAMA: So Kelsey was quoted as saying, 'We're the kind of school that never gets credit for what we do. And our school is amazing.'

BROWN: Now the search is on for the next commencement challenge winners. And while only one lucky school will receive a visit from the President, Nicole believes every student will walk away with something special.

ALLEN: It's a beautiful experience. Even if you don't win, who cares? You're part of history.

BROWN: The President plans to again deliver a commencement address to one graduating class at the end of the school year, but you have to be in it to win it, so get those applications in before Friday's deadline.

[ON-SCREEN HEADLINE: The President's Speech; Schools Compete for Obama Visit]

HILL: So this is the second year, Ayla. Why did the President start this program?

BROWN: You know, he started this program because he wants this country to further their education. He believes that we need to be on top, we need to prove that kids can go to college and I think that that's really his message in wanting to do this program. And you saw Nicole, she was so excited, as the rest of the school was, to have the President of the United States.

HILL: Understandably.

BROWN: Oh my goodness.

HILL: I mean it's a huge gift for anyone. And especially when you're heading off to college, at that point. Why do you think it was - because ultimately last year he picked Kalamazoo Central - what was it about that school that made the President say, 'That's where I'm going'?

BROWN: Kalamazoo Central is a very unique school. It showcases diversity and they had a great video. And what the application process is all about is this year the public can vote, so if you go to WhiteHouse.gov, you can find out a lot more information.

[ON-SCREEN HEADLINE: Race to the Top Commencement Challenge: www.WhiteHouse.gov]

BROWN: But you do it essay form first and then it narrows it down. And if you're a top three finalist, then the President picks the winner and that's what it's all about. So K Central was the winner last year and they have something called the Kalamazoo Promise, which, if you do four years at Kalamazoo, you get your education paid for, for college, the whole four years.

HILL: And what an incentive that is, especially now.

BROWN: Absolutely.

HILL: Always tough to pay for school, so what a great incentive. And what a fun piece. Ayla, thanks for coming by this morning.

BROWN: Thank you.

HILL: And again, for more information on how your school can enter the Race to the Top Commencement Challenge, you'll find it all on our website, EarlyShow.CBSNews.com.

- Kyle Drennen is a news analyst at the Media Research Center. You can follow him on Twitter here.