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SOMETHING WE’VE BEEN WITHHOLDING! Josh’s post is right as rain—but it’s part of a much larger story: // link // print // previous // next //
FRIDAY, JANUARY 20, 2006

SOMETHING WE’VE BEEN WITHHOLDING: Josh Marshall does superlative work as he reviews this “bizarre AP piece.” In the following excerpt, we highlight the statements he holds up for scrutiny. Judging from Nexis, the piece was authored by the AP’s Ron Fournier, although you can’t tell from the link:
THE AP (1/19/06): The Abramoff investigation threatens to ensnare at least a half dozen members of Congress of both parties and Bush administration officials. Abramoff, who has admitted to conspiring to defraud his Indian tribe clients, has pleaded guilty to corruption-related charges and is cooperating with prosecutors.

With the midterm elections 10 months away, Democrats have tried to link Abramoff to Republicans, the main recipients of his largesse.

Quite correctly, Josh attacks the highlighted statements. Indeed, he says that these statements “appear to be willful distortions, or statements with omissions so great as to be meant to confuse.” That is an exceptionally harsh judgment—but it’s quite hard to say that it’s wrong.

To Josh’s judgment, we’ll add one observation. The first of these two highlighted statements isn’t even coherently written. What exactly does it mean? Will the investigation ensnare at least six members of Congress—some of whom will be from each party? Or will it ensnare at least six Dems—and at least six Republicans too? Fournier is a highly-regarded, professional writer. What explains his incoherence? Why can’t the AP even produce a sentence which parses when it discusses this matter?

Beyond that, we ask a question about Josh’s post. When will Dems and liberals find a way to tell the larger story involved here? For eight years, we have asked—and asked; and asked—for explanations of the press corps’ “bizarre” reporting of certain major Democrats. This goes back to our years-long critique of the reporting of Campaign 2000—a remarkable topic, but one which major liberals and Democrats have simply refused to discuss.

For forty years, the public has heard concerted claims about the press corps’ alleged “liberal bias.” This tale has been outmoded for decades, but for reasons only they can explain, Democrats and career liberal writers have massively failed to explain this fact to the public in an organized way. Today, Josh presents an outstanding post—but this post is part of a much longer story, a story he has refused to discuss. The public keeps hearing about “liberal bias”—a story conservatives love to tell. But we liberals keep refusing to tell them the actual story—a story which goes back to the puzzling coverage of Clinton, and to the lunatic coverage of Gore.

“Something we were withholding made us weak,” Frost wrote, describing the pre-revolution colonists. (“Until we found out that it was ourselves/We were withholding from our land of living.”) But then, so too for us modern liberals. This morning, Josh calls that AP report “bizarre.” But the press corps’ work has been “bizarre” for more than a decade—and for some reason, writers like Josh have refused to discuss this large story. The public keeps hearing the phony story—and we keep withholding the truth.

For writers like Josh, it’s time to flesh out today’s excellent post. It’s time to tell the fuller story. And yes, it’s time to acknowledge the fact that our liberal journals failed to speak up in real time about the trashing of Clinton and Gore. That historical failure to speak ain’t a sin, but we simply have to tell the public the full truth of their country’s recent history. That “bizarre AP piece” is a tiny part of a much longer, remarkable story. Josh is right on target—today. But how long will we make ourselves weak by withholding the full, bizarre tale?

Note: It would be unfair to single out Josh because he wrote yesterday’s excellent post. When do we plan to start telling the public this larger, “bizarre” and remarkable story? We also ask Kevin Drum; Mike Tomasky; Paul Glastris; Duncan Black; Arianna; Katrina vanden Heuvel; and we ask Peter Beinart. Until we tell this larger story, the public will remain in the dark—just where they’ve been for the past dozen years as this tale, so bizarre, went untold.

The public keeps hearing about “liberal bias.” When do we bother to tell them the truth? When do we stop withholding ourselves and tell them their own recent history?

Special report—How to read literacy!

PART 4—SURVEY SAYS: What did we learn from the 2003 NAAL (National Assessment of Adult Literacy)? It isn’t real clear that we learned all that much. Adult literacy was largely unchanged from the time of the previous survey (1992). Yes, there were changes here and there—and in general, the drift was up among adults who grew up speaking English (see THE DAILY HOWLER, 1/12/06). But in candor, there was no obvious major story in the survey’s complex data—unless we decide to get upset by that drop in college graduate scores.

And that’s what happened when Lois Romano reported this story for the Post. Romano turned to some “literacy experts,” who did the things modern “experts” do best. Instantly, the experts began to misstate the data—and they began to recite simple tales. Oh, how the human mind does adore its familiar and group-approved stories:

ROMANO (12/25/05): "It's appalling—it's really astounding," said Michael Gorman, president of the American Library Association and a librarian at California State University at Fresno. "Only 31 percent of college graduates can read a complex book and extrapolate from it. That's not saying much for the remainder."
What fools we college graduates be! Later, Gorman expresses his shock at how dumb and unlettered these college kids turn out to be:
ROMANO: Gorman said that he has been shocked by how few entering freshmen understand how to use a basic library system, or enjoy reading for pleasure. "There is a failure in the core values of education," he said. "They're told to go to college in order to get a better job—and that's okay. But the real task is to produce educated people."
Should Gorman be “shocked” by those Fresno State freshmen? For us, there’s no real way to say. But one thing is perfectly clear: Few things are ever quite so much fun as railing against the youth of today. Soon, another expert gets involved in this familiar recitation:
ROMANO: Dolores Perin, a reading expert at Columbia University Teachers College, said that her work has indicated that the issue may start at the high school level. "There is a tremendous literacy problem among high school graduates that is not talked about," said Perin, who has been sitting in on high school classes as part of a teaching project. "It's a little bit depressing. The colleges are left holding the bag, trying to teach students who have challenges.”
In fairness, we can’t know exactly what these experts said in their interviews; we only get to read their statements as they’re transcribed (and selected) by Romano. But in these screaming-mimi passages, we do get to read a treasured group story. It’s astounding that so few college grads can read and extrapolate from a tough book. It’s shocking to se how few college freshmen like to read for pleasure (or know how to use the libe). It’s depressing to see that our high school grads have such a tremendous literacy problem. Indeed, as we work ourselves into a lather, we get to say the loopiest things. There’s a tremendous literacy problem out there—one that no one is talking about! You’d have to be on Mars to think that—or be in thrall to a pleasing group tale.

In fact, everyone talks about this alleged problem, whether it’s real or imagined. The problem is, we tend to discuss it rather foolishly. For example, is it really “astounding” when we see that only about 36 percent of college grads were able to “pass” the NAAL in 2003? (Yes, roughly 36 percent. Even as he rails against the kids of today, Gorman misstates the basic data. But then, he also misstates what the NAAL measures—no “complex books” are involved.) For ourselves, we’re not sure why this should be so astounding. Back in 1992, after all, only 45 percent of grads passed this test, and in the eleven years that passed, the slice of the population with college degrees widened fairly substantially (see THE DAILY HOWLER, 1/19/06). Meanwhile, just how shocking should it be when any college grad flunks this test? To state the obvious, that depends on how hard the test is, something Romano’s various experts make no attempt to assess. But guess what? As a group, WE college grads aren’t geniuses, as anyone can learn from reading newspapers or from watching the news on TV. (John Stossel—and his bosses—are college grads, and just take a look at the steaming mess they threw on the air just last week!) Let’s be unkind: What does it say for college grads when Gorman himself is surprised by these data? Presumably, Gorman is a grad—and a literacy expert besides. But in this passage, he basically declares himself “astounded” to learn that the grass is green. Meanwhile, his depressed colleague, Perin, does seem to be reporting from Mars. Despite her status as an “expert,” she seems to think there’s a literacy problem among high school grads which no one is talking about. Meanwhile, Perin’s “work has indicated that the issue may start at the high school level,” Romano reports. That construction is Romano’s, not Perin’s. But its utterly fatuous quality helps us see the foolish way issues like this tend to get discussed—yes, get discussed by college graduates, who then discuss their utter amazement at the failures of other such creatures.

Why did average performance drop among college graduates on this survey? There are many possible explanations. Among college grads, performance may have dropped because there are more college grads. It may have dropped because of “affirmative action.” And who knows? Imaginably, it may even have dropped because the population is aging. (Don’t ask.) In short, many factors may be involved in that drop in average scores. But given the way these issues get discussed, one pleasing story will always appear when we try to “explain” such data. These kids today can’t read a lick, we’ll be told—even as experts display their own reading problems by misstating elementary data.

People love that simple story. Indeed—in closing, let’s engage in a thought experiment. In the future, average scores may drop among college grads because the population is aging. Can we fail to see what may occur when we test more and more “college graduates” who happen to be in their 80s or 90s? But if that happens, we can be sure of one thing. Thundering experts will quickly emerge, blaming the troubling change in the scores on the dumb kids-of-today.

Is there a “literacy problem among high school graduates?” Presumably yes (depending on how one defines this), but then, what else is new? And nothing in this survey says that this problem is somehow growing, the impression one will likely get from reading Romano’s report. Why did scores drop? It’s quite hard to say; Commissioner Schneider has called for more study. We’ll second that motion, and see Schneider one: As we continue to study these matters, we’ll call for an end to these pleasingly simple—and simple-minded—preferred expert tales.

ONE NOTE ABOUT SCHOOL SYSTEMS: On a related note, how can we judge the performance of schools and school systems? In our view, this survey helps us see one way we probably shouldn’t judge such orgs. Overall, adult literacy (in English) stayed the same from 1992 to 2003—despite the fact that a larger chunk of the population didn’t grow up speaking English. Translation: Among adults who did grow up speaking English, literacy had been (somewhat) on the rise.

It isn’t “obvious” why that is, but at least the drift is positive. But similar interpretive problems present when we try to judge school systems. It’s often noted that American schools have made little progress in reading in the years since the NAEP began. (Measured progress has been greater in math.) But in fairness: To what extent is this affected by the growth in the number of kids who are “English learners”—kids who didn’t grow up speaking English? We don’t know the answer to that—the answer will differ from system to system—but we rarely see the question asked when such trends in reading scores are noted. In our view, if reading scores stay the same (or slightly improve) while we see a growth in non-English speakers, the schools are actually doing better. In some circumstance or other, it might be worth pointing that out.

At any rate, what lesson can we take from the NAAL? Here’s one: It’s hard to “explain” such complex collections of data! As we have noted, Romano quotes her experts saying that there is no “obvious” or “definitive” explanation for the drop in college grad scores. But you almost never find “obvious” or “definitive” explanations when you’re handed complex data like these. Many factors may be involved in the changes in data on a survey like this. All too often, “experts” ignore this obvious fact—and recite simple stories instead.

TOMORROW: Who knows? We may even post an Einstein-made-easy update!