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HOW WE GOT HERE, HOWARD FINEMAN EDITION! Olbermann did something right. We recalled actual history: // link // print // previous // next //
FRIDAY, JANUARY 22, 2010

Times wants a pony: The New York Times presents an informative editorial about yesterday’s Supreme Court ruling (click here). That said, we were puzzled by the editors’ upbeat closing paragraph:

NEW YORK TIMES EDITORIAL (1/22/10): These would be important steps, but they would not be enough. The real solution lies in getting the court’s ruling overturned. The four dissenters made an eloquent case for why the decision was wrong on the law and dangerous. With one more vote, they could rescue democracy.

“With one more vote?” Where do we go for that?

Are any of the five-vote majority likely to change their minds? Is anyone about to retire? Should Justice Sotomayor, new to the Court and its ways, perhaps find a way to vote twice?

It’s one of the dirty little secrets; youth—and its concomitant, longevity—became a criterion for GOP appointments when Justice Thomas came on board. Forget about picking the best candidate—pick the one who will be there forever! Justice Scalia is 73. In the measure known as “Supreme Court years,” this makes him a rank college sophomore.

“With one more vote,” the editors said. Give that board a pony!

How we got here/Howard Fineman edition [permalink]: Keith Olbermann did something we liked last night. In the midst of his dystopian portraits of the US after the Court’s new decision, he named the names of the corporation under whose banner he works. He spoke with Rep. Grayson:

OLBERMANN (1/21/10): The entire issue of money has just changed, has it not? I mean, a corporation—and I’ll take the one that we’re on right now, GE, because it’s the one we’re on right now, and it’d be disingenuous to leave them out this of equation—but G.E. or any other corporation of relative size could buy its own Senate, couldn’t it?

GRAYSON: Well, I think you won’t even hear people talk anymore about “the senator from Kansas” or “the senator from Oregon.” Instead, it’ll be “the senator from GE” and “the senator from Microsoft.” Maybe we’ll end up wearing corporate logos. But I think we can fight back.

Oof. Olbermann was straight enough to name the name of NBC’s owner. Grayson went ahead and named Microsoft, one of MSNBC’s corporate founders.

Grayson painted an ugly picture of a changed US under GE and/or Microsoft rule. We chuckled, because we already have that! Remember Campaign 2000?

We do! At the time, GE was being run by its near-billionaire, conservative CEO, Jack Welch, the mayor of Nantucket. At NBC News and its cable affiliates, Welch had assembled an oddly East Coast Irish Catholic gang of seemingly compliant homeboys; they pounded away at Candidate Gore for two solid years, at a time when the NBC cables were quite influential within DC’s press elite. Chris Matthews was the leading spear-chucker, with twenty straight months of insults and misstatements. But Brian Williams was remarkably strange on his own nightly newshour too.

The NBC cables were much tougher on Gore—did much more damage to his campaign—than the Fox News Channel. At several major junctures, Bill O’Reilly was notably fair to Gore; Matthews was relentlessly brutal. Leading liberals prefer different history, perhaps because many of them and their associates just sat there and helped Matthews do it.

Were NBC’s various cable hacks working in service to Chairman Jack? We have no way to know. You’d be silly to assume they were not.

We especially chuckled at the change in the weather at MSNBC as we watched Olbermann continue last night. Out came Howard Fineman, who joined his host in thundering hard against the Court’s decision. Ten years ago, Fineman was a reliable MSNBC caddy too—back when the network was working so hard to take out both Clintons and Gore. His loony psychiatric discussions (with Williams) about Gore’s deeply troubling wardrobe selections set a new cable standard for Servile Complete Pundit Nonsense.

In those days, the GE channel worked quite hard to send George W. Bush to the White House. Fineman was a willing caddy, every lunatic step of the way. Last night, Fineman, duly reinvented, voiced his view about the Court’s new decision. Bush’s appointee, Chief Justice Roberts, has now, Fineman says, changed the world.

GE “could buy its own Senate,” Olbermann said. All good liberals know not to tattle. But guess what? GE already bought its own president—and through him, its own Supreme Court.

Script never dies/Erich Segal edition
[permalink]: Speaking of Campaign 2000, we were struck by the New York Times obituary of Erich Segal, who died in London this week, of a heart attack, at the age of 72.

Segal, of course, is best known for his massively best-selling book, Love Story. (Though he was also a classicist and wrote the screenplay for the Beatles film, Yellow Submarine.) Through the lunacy and dishonesty of the insider press corps, Love Story played a major role in sending George Bush to the White House.

In her obituary, Margalit Fox recalled the incident. Her account reminds us of a key fact: Being part of the mainstream press means never having to say that you’re sorry:

FOX (1/19/10): ''Love Story'' was in the news again in the late 1990s, after Al Gore, then the vice president, was reported to have described himself as the inspiration for Oliver Barrett. (Mr. Gore denied having been the source of the observation.)

Mr. Segal set the record straight: Oliver, he said, was mainly a youthful incarnation of the actor Tommy Lee Jones. He did say that he had modeled Oliver's freighted relationship with his father on the Gore family.

Mr. Segal had met both Mr. Jones and Mr. Gore in the late 1960s, when they were students at Harvard and he was there on sabbatical.

In fairness, you can’t blame Fox, who writes obituaries of various people and can’t be expected to research and correct a decade of press corps misstatement. But that account of the Love Story matter nicely matches the Standard Account which journalists typed, and typed, and typed, all through the twenty months of Campaign 2000. (Love Story was very much “in the news again” in the year 2000 too.) In this Standard Bungled Account, Gore claimed that he (and his wife) had “inspired” Love Story. (Some variant of that word was typically used, though no one reported that Gore had used it.) Segal then corrected the record. The Clinton-like, dissembling Gore was thereby forced to back down.

(The three biggest players in creating this myth? Dowd, Rich, Michael Kelly.)

In her obituary, Fox skips the part where Dissembling Gore is forced to retract his statement. But even now, after all these years, she too has the silly vice president describing himself as “the inspiration.” She too has heroic Segal “setting the record straight.”

In fact, Segal was interviewed only once on the subject, by the New York Times’ Melinda Henneberger, in December 1997. And in Henneberger’s account of the interview, Segal agreed with the things Gore had said; rather sardonically, he chided Time for having misstated what Gore had actually said about this pointless matter. (The two reporters who heard what Gore said agreed—he’d been slightly misquoted.)

In his lone interview on the subject, Segal took Gore’s side in the brainless dispute. He spoke sardonically of the misstatements made by the mainstream press corps. But in accord with Hard Pundit Law, when a gentleman says such ridiculous things, his statements must be improved.

Erich Segal is no longer with us. By pundit law, script never dies.

(Segal was born on Bloomsday—June 16, 1937. As compared with his brother Joyce, he wrote the much simpler book.)

About those common standards [permalink]: Down in Austin, Governor Perry doesn’t much care for unelected bureaucrats. When it comes to its public schools, the state of Texas has therefore decided to do without all the federal money which those bureaucrats have put their hands on. In last Thursday’s New York Times, Sam Dillon reported the action:

DILLON (1/14/10): Texas will not compete for up to $700 million in federal education money, Gov. Rick Perry said on Wednesday, calling the Obama administration’s main school improvement grant program an unacceptable intrusion on states' control over education.

Mr. Perry's decision, days before a Jan. 19 deadline, interrupted months of work by Texas officials and a consulting company financed by the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation to prepare the application for the federal grant competition, known as Race to the Top. Texas had been eligible to win up to $700 million of a total of $4 billion the department will award for encouraging charter schools, improving teacher instruction, overhauling schools and joining an effort to adopt common academic standards.

''We would be foolish and irresponsible,'' Mr. Perry said, ''to place our children's future in the hands of unelected bureaucrats and special-interest groups thousands of miles away in Washington.”

Perry thus spat Tabasco sauce all over those common standards—the “common academic standards” involved in this “Race to the Top.”

But as we read the Dillon piece, we wondered what we always wonder: If the various states do “adopt common academic standards,” how will those common standards work? Indeed: When states conspire to “adopt common standards,” what does that phrase even mean?

Later in Dillon’s piece, we got one possible idea. If the states adopt common standards, they will likely create a “national test.” Texas spat sauce on that idea too:

DILLON: Gayle Fallon, president of the Houston Federation of Teachers, the state's largest teachers union, said she supported the governor's decision because the federal competition appeared to be leading toward adoption of a national test, which she opposes.

''I'm relieved because we've got enough problems with high-stakes tests already,'' Ms. Fallon said.

For ourselves, we’d be inclined to favor a national test, at least in reading and math. Indeed, that’s not unlike the situation which obtained when we began teaching fifth grade in Baltimore, in 1969. In those days, most school systems did their annual testing through one of a handful of national test batteries—the Iowa Test of Basic Skills, for example, or the California Achievement Test. Kids took these tests all over the country; such tests had been developed through the use of a national sample of kids. When you got the scores for your kids, you could compare your students’ achievement to achievement levels recorded by students all over the land.

That isn’t what a new “national test” would be like. But in some ways, it’s in the same ballpark.

Presumably, something more than a national test is involved in the “effort to adopt common academic standards.” Presumably, the various states will develop sets of academic skills and objectives for kids at the various grade levels. At presents, the fifty states have fifty sets of such curriculum standards. Presumably, if the states develop and adopt common standards, there will be one set of grade-level goals. Showing the kids what it means to share, all states will use the same lists.

We don’t even have a problem with that. But as we always wonder: How would such standards be used?

Suppose we all adopt the same fifth-grade “academic standards.” If you’re teaching fifth-graders who are several years below traditional grade level, and we’re teaching a group which is way above level; are we both supposed to teach the same things? Is that how these standards would work?

We taught fifth grade for quite a few years. To this day, we have no idea what it means when we talk about adopting common standards. How would those standards guide a teacher? Does every teacher just teach the same thing, no matter the needs of his students?

We don’t have the slightest idea. And here, we’ll offer an educated guess:

Neither does anyone else.