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Daily Howler: Journalists love those feel-good tales--when they come from our low-income schools
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FEEL-GOOD LOW-INCOME SCHOOLS! Journalists love those feel-good tales–when they come from our low-income schools: // link // print // previous // next //

Margaret Carlson had a feeling/Or, we’re all Ann Coulter now: We’ll skip that promised last dose of football facts.(Maybe Monday.) Instead, let’s discuss Margaret’s feeling.

On Tuesday night, Keith Olbermann was dragging his usual collection of guests onto the air at Countdown. As we noted on Wednesday, his first two guests went out of their way to breathe that most wonderful name: Miss Lewinsky. To Olbermann’s credit, he rolled his eyes the first time this happened. But when his second guest did the same thing, he seemed to know he’d been defeated.

But Olbermann had one more miserable guest to throw at his viewers this evening. It doesn’t get worse than Margaret Carlson—but all through the hour, Olbermann kept suggesting that Carlson had some “breaking news” to offer us about the Blair House matter. Here’s how he previewed Carlson’s appearance, right at the top of the program:

OLBERMANN (1/6/09): Two weeks to O-Day. Inauguration plans finalizing, 10 inaugural balls, and breaking news from Margaret Carlson about one last incredible insult from the president to the president-elect.

Wow! Carlson had “breaking news” about an “incredible insult!” We know—you’ve never seen the terms “Margaret Carlson” and “breaking news” in the same sentence! But as the evening proceeded, Olbermann kept throwing raw, red meat to us, his liberal rubes:

OLBERMANN: An unexpected twist to that happy picture of the Obama family staying in a Washington hotel, because the Bush administration said that the traditional temporary residence of the incoming-president was booked until the 15th. It ain’t. Ugly details ahead. You are watching Countdown on MSNBC.

OLBERMANN: As the plans for the inauguration come together, word of a final diss from the 43rd president to the 44th. These stories ahead.

OLBERMANN: Two weeks to the inauguration. The polite term for what President Bush has done to the president-elect is “ungracious.” The impolite term is “petty.” Margaret Carlson with a stunner.

OLBERMANN: The story about the president-elect having to stay in a hotel rather than Blair House may be exactly that, a story to cover what turns out to be an insult from the out-going commander-in-chief to his successor. That’s next, but first, time for Countdown’s number two-story, tonight’s “Worst persons in the world!”

You’re right! With the use of that little world “may,” Olbermann had already scaled back the promise he’d been making—the promise that Carlson would present “breaking news,” and “ugly details,” about an “incredible insult.” By now, he no longer seemed completely sure about the truth of Carlson’s story. But, when Carlson finally arrived, it was much as you might have expected. Carlson had no “news” or “reporting” to offer at all, though she herself used the latter term. She didn’t offer any new facts about this lingering story. Instead, Margaret Carlson “had a feeling”—and that was plainly all she had. We offer you the full exchange, the “breaking news” Keith had been pimping:

OLBERMANN: The spit in the punch bowl—the Bush administration`s claim that Blair House was unavailable to the Obamas until January 15th due to prior bookings. Let’s turn now to Bloomberg News political columnist and the Washington editor of The Week magazine, Margaret Carlson. Good evening, Margaret.

CARLSON: Good evening, Keith.

OLBERMANN: So the Obamas are in a hotel for now, admittedly a lovely hotel, for another nine days because the Bush administration says Blair House is unavailable. As I have been hinting, you have information that suggests that’s not entirely correct?

CARLSON: Well, I reported, but also the Washington Post reported on December 11th and 12th that there were no foreign dignitaries booked into Blair House during that period of time. It turns out that a former prime minister of Australia is going to be staying there overnight soon. However, not only is he a former, but I have a feeling they asked him to come and stay, so that there might be some plausible reason for not letting the Obamas stay there.

Blair House is—looks small, but it’s actually 119 rooms with 35 bathrooms. Howard wouldn’t even have to share a sink with the Obamas. There’s a dry cleaning, a florist, a beauty salon. There’s everything there. It’s a little town. But most importantly, it’s secure. By staying, having to stay at the Hay-Adams, not only do the Obamas have to move twice, which nobody likes to do, but the security cost to taxpayers is enormous, because the area a block away from the White House is totally cordoned off with barriers and police cars and buses to keep it locked up. And downtown is already completely jammed, because so much of it is cordoned off. It would have been a small thing for the Bushes to say yes. They still have control over Blair House, and they decided to say no.

OLBERMANN: As one caveat here, given how unpopular John Howard is in Australia at the moment, it’s possible that he’s coming here to seek political asylum. So he might need the whole place.

CARLSON: And that no hotel would take him.

OLBERMANN: Exactly. But—what startles me, and what has startled me with so much of this administration, how could the Bush administration possibly think that all of this wouldn’t get out?

CARLSON: Well, it doesn’t matter that much anymore, when we’re being left with our retirement funds, you know, losing 50 percent of their value...

Please understand: In 1999 and 2000, Carlson endlessly ridiculed Gore on CNN, thereby helping put Bush in the White House. Now, she’s just extremely upset by all the vast harm he has done.

Why couldn’t the Obamas stay at Blair House? We don’t know—but Carlson had no information that wasn’t made public all the way back in mid-December. There was no sign that she’d done any “reporting;” she had no “breaking news” at all. (The fact that Howard would spend one night at Blair House had been released by the White House.) What she did have was “a feeling”—a feeling that didn’t exactly make sense. Let’s look again at the pitiful way these hacks throw sweet hay to their herd:

CARLSON: I have a feeling they asked him to come and stay, so that there might be some plausible reason for not letting the Obamas stay there.

Interesting! As it happens, we have a feeling that Carlson’s from Neptune. Might we go on Countdown tonight and have this promoted as “news?”

Why aren’t the Obamas staying at Blair House? We don’t know, but Carlson had no information—none at all—to demonstrate that this was “spit in the punch bowl” or “an incredible insult.” Indeed, even her “feeling” didn’t quite make sense. Back in December, a White House spokesman had said “there were previously scheduled events and guests that couldn't be displaced” during the period in question (though the spokesman said this included “no foreign dignitaries”). For that reason, Howard’s newly-scheduled stay really wouldn’t be a “plausible” explanation for the earlier denial to the Obamas. As with so many of Margaret’s past feelings, this feeling didn’t quite parse.

What’s the story with the Blair House? For ourselves, we don’t much care. But Carlson has had an entire month to do some reportorial snooping—to develop some real information about this overblown matter. By Tuesday night, she hadn’t done that—she just “had a feeling”—but that seems to be good enough when you’re throwing sweet hay to us rubes. And by the way: If you doubt our assessment of Olbermann’s standards, here’s what happened this very same night when he crowned the world’s “Worst Person:”

OLBERMANN: Our winner, Governor Sarah Palin. The father of her grandson, Levi Johnston, has now quit his job in the oil fields of Alaska`s North Slope after a newspaper columnist pointed out to get the electrical apprenticeship Johnston had, applicants were supposed to have had a high school diploma. Levi Johnston, of course, dropped out. The columnist wondered if the governor might have used her influence to get the rules bent for her supposed future son-in-law. Maybe it was her husband, who works on that same oil field.

They deny it, which I’m willing to believe, even though Levi Johnston’s response to this scandal was to quit his job, which is an indicator of innocence. Sure it is! I’m believing this because it doesn’t matter, because the governor is the bottomless pit of political scandals, the all-you-can-eat buffet of political scandals, the endless wedge of Velveeta of public scandals. Governor Sarah Palin, today`s worst, and by worst, I mean the gift that keeps on giving and I would be lost without her, person in the world!

In fact, the “columnist” was an Alaska talk host—and he had no evidence that the Palins had interceded on Levi Johnston’s behalf. Olbermann was too disingenuous to say so, but Levi Johnston’s father works for the company involved in his son’s apprenticeship; he had already told the Anchorage Daily News that “his own position as an ASRC construction engineer accounts for any help his son received in landing work” through the firm. (For the ADN’s full report, just click here.) This silly issue was never worth discussing, and Olbermann plainly had no idea what had actually happened. But so what? During the show, he’d also promoted this turkey:

OLBERMANN: Worsts: Governor Sarah accused now of getting her future son-in-law an apprenticeship for which he was academically ineligible. There’s got to be more story behind this photo.

OLBERMANN: Worsts: What did she do now? Tried to fix it so her future son-in-law could get an apprenticeship for which he was academically ineligible?

Apparently, if you just ask a question, or say your target’s “accused,” that doesn’t count as a statement.

This was a very bad program. It started with the Lewinsky nonsense; moved on to a kiss-kiss interview with Ezra Klein in which he kiss-kiss-kissed about Sanjay Gupta; and proceeded through these endless promos, for “breaking news” that didn’t exist, for a “worst person in the world” whose denial Olbermann said he believed. And, of course, the ultimate insult: The use of hacks like Carlson and Fineman as regular guests on this “liberal” program. But what made the evening even more striking was Olbermann’s lecture about Ann Coulter, who was righteously said to have “no ethics and no standards and no self-respect!” We agree with those judgments of Coulter; indeed, we worked on them, long before Olbermann got here. But we were having a hard time this night telling Keith and Coulter apart. Coulter has always treated her readers like fools. Increasingly, that’s the way this liberal hero treats his liberal viewers.

We wasted our time, for years on end, documenting this sort of thing when it came from the pseudo-right. Today, Olbermann “earns” $5 million per year throwing this same sh*t at you.

Special report: Tell us a story!

PART 4—FEEL-GOOD LOW-INCOME SCHOOLS: Journalists love certain feel-good tales—and often work quite poorly with facts. For a moment, forget the feel-good death-camp tales that seem to drive so many films. Instead, consider a feel-good story about low-income schools from yesterday’s Washington Post.

Marc Fisher wrote the piece, having visited Broad Acres Elementary School in suburban Montgomery County (Maryland). The school’s student population is almost wholly black and Hispanic; that seems to include a lot of kids whose parents are immigrants. Let’s be clear: Until we’re shown different, we’ll assume that Broad Acres is an admirable school, run by superlative, hard-working teachers. (God bless them all, every one.) But Fisher knows nothing about public ed. To prove that, he was soon offering this:

FISHER (1/8/09): [Principal Michael] Bayewitz and his faculty work to turn Broad Acres into the center of its community. There's a health clinic in the building. Teachers make home visits. A sign on Bayewitz's office wall says, "Student achievement will not be predictable by race."

"Yes, our kids have been through trauma—unbelievable stories," he says. "We recognize that and we sympathize, but it's no excuse for not learning."

He hands me a stack of essays that students wrote about their journeys to America. They tell of being chased across the border, of encounters with coyotes both human and animal. Whatever your beliefs about illegal immigration, these are children who were ordered onto trucks to travel to a place they could not imagine, for reasons they could not comprehend.

Now those children are learning: 81 percent met reading proficiency standards this year, up from 47 percent in 2003.

Wow! That jump in passing rate sounded great—but its meaning just isn’t clear. Almost surely, Fisher didn’t have a clue about what follows; for decades, the Washington Post has insulted the world with its know-nothing, feel-good education “coverage.” But that change in passing rate closely mirrors the change in passing rates among black and Hispanic kids statewide, in the six years under study. This may mean that such kids are reading much better. (Although in theory, a large gain in “passing rate” can derive from a small gain in average scores.) But then again, it may just mean that Maryland’s reading tests have gotten easier down through the years.

This question is very important.

What has happened to statewide passing rates? Maryland releases its data on a grade-by-grade basis—and in 2003, fourth-graders weren’t yet being tested. (All data can be found at this site. You’ll have to jump around a bit—to this page, for example.) But from 2003 to 2008, the statewide passing rate for Hispanic kids has essentially matched the size of the change recorded at Broad Acres. In 2003, 39.2 percent of Hispanic kids passed the third-grade reading test; by 2008, the statewide passing rate had jumped to 73.3 percent. And in fifth grade, the statewide gain was almost as large. In 2003, 51.4 percent of Hispanic kids passed the state reading test; in 2008, the passing rate was 82.6 percent. Over the course of these years, similar jumps in passing rate were recorded by Maryland’s black students. (For those data, see below.)

Passing rates have soared at Broad Acres—but then, they’ve soared all over the state. We hate to kill a feel-good tale—the kind of story your “journalists” love—but this reduces Fisher’s piece to a bit of know-nothing non-analysis.

Why have those passing rates jumped statewide? At present, there is no way to know, though Fisher almost surely didn’t realize that fact. It may be that Maryland’s kids are just reading better—but then too, the jump in statewide passing rates may reflect easier tests. Have the tests in the state gotten easier? The state produces no technical manual settling this blindingly obvious question, as any professional test-maker would—and anyone who follows public education knows that this question has popped up all over the country in the years since “accountability” has driven up pressure on test scores. (For the record, we strongly favor annual testing.) But big news orgs like the Washington Post seem to like simple, feel-good stories a bit more than they like real facts. The paper persistently embarrasses itself with its incompetent education reporting. It does so because it loves heartwarming tales—and doesn’t seem to care about kids.

Over the holidays, we read the latest groaning report about the latest death-camp tale (see THE DAILY HOWLER, 1/6/09)—about the latest bogus, feel-good tale about life in the prison camps. For some reason, people seem to love these tales; no matter how implausible such stories may be, some publisher—or some TV host—can’t wait to promote them. But when we read about that latest fake tale, we thought about another familiar type of tale, the kind which comes from our low-income schools—the kind of corrupted, feel-good tales which have blighted education journalism for roughly forty years now. “Journalists” have always loved these heartwarming stories—and they’ve refused to learn how to work with real facts. And yes, you can always count on these scribes to do this again. Indeed, we started this series on Tuesday morning. Two days later, Marc Fisher obliged us.

Let’s say it again, as we end: We assume that Broad Acres is an admirable school, full of admirable, hard-working teachers. But what does those jumps in test scores mean, at Broad Acres or in the whole state? Fisher offered a pleasing story. A more serious newspaper would employ people who knew how to work with basic test scores—with bare-boned, essential, real facts.

Three cheers for Broad Acres: Please note: We don’t know how much of those statewide gains may have resulted from easier tests; real newspapers should demand that the state provide technical manuals. Meanwhile, it may be that Broad Acres’ kids are more “disadvantaged” (in relevant ways) than most black and Hispanic kids in Maryland. Someone who did a real report about this school would pursue these facts further than we have. At any rate, the size of this school’s passing-rate gains closely match those of the state.

But Post reporters—even the paper’s education reporters—rarely show any real signs of any real technical competence. (Fisher’s a general-interest columnist. Did he show his piece to an education editor?) That’s how they managed, in 2006, to praise a school at the top of page one—a school which turned out to have the second-lowest reading score in the whole state of Virginia! (See THE DAILY HOWLER, 2/9/06.) Serious people don’t work this way—if they actually give a fig about the subject at hand.

Have Maryland’s tests been getting easier? That’s the basic question here—and this obvious question is very important. The Post should insist that the state “show its work,” in an appropriate technical manual. Until it does, those changes in passing rates may not mean squat. Bottom line, for the ten millionth time: When will the Post do its job?

Maryland’s black kids: Passing rates have also jumped among Maryland’s black students. This is very good news, if it means kids are reading better. Or its’s totally meaningless news, if it reflects easier tests.

The data:

In 2003, 41.4 percent of black kids passed the state’s third-grade reading test; by 2008, the statewide passing rate had jumped to 74.2 percent. In fifth grade, 48.0 percent of black kids passed the reading test in 2003; in 2008, the passing rate was 78.4 percent. How much does that reflect actual growth—and how much does that reflect easier tests? At present, there is no way to know—and the Post keeps settling for that.