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AND THE BEAT GOES ON! Milbank threw Krugman under the bus as he just kept obsessing on Palin: // link // print // previous // next //
MONDAY, JANUARY 24, 2011

Just in from the kingdom of narrative: In today’s column, Paul Krugman looks ahead to Obama’s State of the Union address. As he does so, he challenges a certain framework Obama has recently presented—and he says this about the sad shape of our national discourse:

KRUGMAN (1/24/11): My guess is that we’re mainly talking about packaging here. And if the president does propose a serious increase in spending on infrastructure and education, I’ll be pleased.

But even if he proposes good policies, the fact that Mr. Obama feels the need to wrap these policies in bad metaphors is a sad commentary on the state of our discourse.

Indeed. As we have endlessly noted, the American discourse is largely defined by an array of bogus claim and “bad metaphors.” In almost every major policy area, bogus claims drive the discussion—bogus claims which have been repeated for decades, bogus claims which every citizen will have endlessly heard.

The money isn’t there—we’ve already spent it! In the discussion of Social Security, everyone has heard this bogus claim, which is built around a bad metaphor. In the past four decades, the liberal world has done a miserable job confronting this system of disinformation.

Bogus, heavily-scripted claims routinely drive our national discourse. Yesterday, we saw something resembling such a claim in the New York Times. Michelle Rhee did the honors, at the start of a short opinion piece:

RHEE (1/23/11): The past year was a sobering one for American educators, as we learned that the United States is falling farther behind in international student rankings. To his credit, President Obama put forward a plan for change that hit the mark, a brilliant stroke that even the ''abolish the Department of Education'' crowd had to admire.

Is that true? In the past year, did we “learn that the United States is falling farther behind in international student rankings?” We certainly heard many people say that. On Saturday, Richard Whitmire said something similar in the Washington Post, in an opinion piece praising Rhee’s efforts in Washington:

WHITMIRE (1/22/11): The well-documented decline in the caliber of those aspiring to teach—calculated by SAT scores, grades, scores on certification tests, etc.—has been evident for many years. That phenomenon, a natural offshoot of more attractive career options opening up for the best and brightest women, is somewhat noticeable in well-functioning suburban schools—but glaring in low-performing urban and rural schools.

The result of this long slide in teacher quality can be captured in multiple snapshots: the declining U.S. ranking on international education comparisons (down to middle of the pack), the embarrassing number of military applicants who get rejected (more than one in five does not meet the minimum standards for Army enlistment) and the astonishing rates of those needing remedial classes in college (as high as 40 percent).

Whitmire is a former president of the National Education Writers Association; we’re inclined to agree with some of the views he expressed in his column. But he too cited “the declining U.S. ranking on international education comparisons;” he says this decline has taken the U.S. “down to the middle of the pack.” But then, everyone has heard such claims in recent years. These claims have been made by everyone from President Obama on down.

These claims are everywhere—but are they accurate? Did we really learn, in the past year, “that the United States is falling farther behind in international student rankings?” For ourselves, we don’t know what Rhee means by that statement. The highest-profile such rankings were released in November, when results of the 2009 Program for International Student Assessment (the PISA) were published. PISA’s testing is done every three years, in reading, math and science. But have we been “falling farther behind in student rankings” on the PISA? Again, this is what the Department of Education said in its official report on these latest results:

In reading literacy: There was no measurable difference between the average score of U.S. students in reading literacy in 2000, the last time in which reading literacy was the major domain assessed in PISA, and 2009, or between 2003 and 2009. There also were no measurable differences between the U.S. average score and the OECD average score in 2000 or in 2009.

In mathematics literacy: The U.S. average score in mathematics literacy in 2009 was higher than the U.S. average in 2006 but not measurably different from the U.S. average in 2003, the earliest time point to which PISA 2009 performance can be compared in mathematics literacy.

In science literacy: The U.S. average score in science literacy in 2009 was higher than the U.S. average in 2006, the only time point to which PISA 2009 performance can be compared in science literacy.

In fairness, none of this means that the U.S. couldn’t be “falling further behind;” even in science, where our average score was higher, other countries could have been gaining more ground. But it isn’t clear to us why you’d say we’re falling further behind, based on the high-profile PISA results. If it’s the PISA we’re talking about, Rhee and Whitmire may be more committed to gloom-and-doom more than to elementary facts.

(Instantly, Whitmire also said this: “When Rhee took over in 2007, D.C. schools were tied with Los Angeles for worst-in-the-nation status.” That too has become a standard claim. But at best it seems to be grossly misleading, and it’s most likely just wrong. We wanted to ask Whitmire about these claims, but couldn’t find an e-mail address.)

In the kingdom of narrative, Standard Statements are everywhere. Presumably, our elites respect this current claim because it leads us to make good judgments about then need for education reform. But then, that was the type of reason they would have given for the endless misstatements they bruited, not long ago, about the twin demons Clinton and Gore.

On the PISA, the US has been “in the middle of the pack” pretty much since the program’s inception. Are we really “falling further behind?” As these claims start defining our discourse, we’d like to see the Post or the Times commission competent writers to examine them.

But don’t hold your breath! Facts play a modest role in our discourse. Bad metaphors are more important, as Krugman sadly notes.

AND THE BEAT GOES ON (permalink): We were intemperate in our personal framing of Emily Bazelon last Friday. (We blame it on the word “daily.”)

Having said that, we stand by our basic judgments: It’s an astounding, culture-defining problem when someone of Bazelon’s cultural and “educational” standing issues the kinds of ridiculous work we discussed in that piece. But then, fatuous work from our highest elites almost defines the current gilded age of mainstream American “journalism.”

Consider the silly column by Dana Milbank in the Outlook section of yesterday’s Washington Post.

Like Bazelon, Milbank hails from Yale—was Skull and Bones, in fact! That said, his Sunday piece made no real sense. But so what? It received a sprawling presentation by Outlook, using up more than half of the section’s front page.

The previous Sunday, Outlook led its front page with Amy Silverman’s bizarre dispatch from Demon Arizona (see THE DAILY HOWLER, 1/19/11). Incredibly, Silverman said the state was “ripe for a copycat killing” because, among other failings, Arizonans don’t sit on their porch or honk their car horns, and because they drive their cars with the A/C on. (Also, her mother was lonely, decades ago, in a large Tucson high school.)

Yesterday, Outlook led with another fatuous piece. In it, Milbank continued obsessing on Sarah Palin, while pledging to do so no more.

“I pledge to stop obsessing over Sarah Palin,” the headline read. Milbank’s essay started like this:

MILBANK (1/23/11): Though it is embarrassing to admit this in public, I can no longer hide the truth. I have a Sarah Palin problem.

I have written about her in 42 columns since Sen. John McCain picked her as his vice-presidential running mate in 2008. I've mentioned her in dozens more blog posts, Web chats, and TV and radio appearances. I feel powerless to control my obsession, even though it cheapens and demeans me.

But today is the first day of the rest of my life. And so, I hereby pledge that, beginning on Feb. 1, 2011, I will not mention Sarah Palin—in print, online or on television—for one month. Furthermore, I call on others in the news media to join me in this pledge of a Palin-free February. With enough support, I believe we may even be able to extend the moratorium beyond one month, but we are up against a powerful compulsion, and we must take this struggle day by day.

Anyone with an ounce of sense would of course know how foolish this is. If Palin announces next week that she’s running for president, should journalists refuse to mention this fact? What if she presents some new framework about some issue which carries the weight of her “death panel” construct? Should journalists boycott that too?

Perhaps we’re all supposed to see that Milbank is writing tongue-in-cheek. That said, his reason for writing this most recent column might be revealed in the following passage, where he explains why it might be hard to hold colleagues to his lofty pledge:

MILBANK: It's impossible, I figured, because Palin is a huge source of cheap Web clicks, television ratings and media buzz. If any of us refused to partake of her Facebook candy or declined to use her as blog bait, we would be sending millions of Web surfers, readers, viewers and listeners to our less scrupulous competitors.

The media obsession with Palin began naturally and innocently enough, when the Alaska governor emerged as an electrifying presence on the Republican presidential ticket more than two years ago. But then something unhealthy happened: Though Palin was no longer a candidate, or even a public official, we in the press discovered that the mere mention of her name could vault our stories onto the most-viewed list. Palin, feeding this co-dependency and indulging the news business's endless desire for conflict, tweeted provocative nuggets that would help us keep her in the public eye—so much so that this former vice presidential candidate gets far more coverage than the actual vice president.

We need help.

In that passage, Milbank seems to say that he has obsessed on Palin because it got him lots of web clicks, not because he thought his work was journalistically significant. In a serious journalistic world, this would be cause for professional sanction. But in the world of the Washington Post, Milbank’s naughty-boy confession is cause for giving him half the front page of the Outlook section—where he (and his paper) can benefit from all those Palin web clicks again! And then, another familiar move! As he continues, Milbank pretends to name the other miscreants who have obsessed along with him:

MILBANK (continuing directly): I found some hope in last Sunday's New York Times, where columnist Ross Douthat said it is time for the media and Palin to "go their separate ways" and for the press to "stop acting as if she's the most important conservative politician in America."

Let's take it one step further. I call on Douthat (who has mentioned Palin in 21 of his Times columns since 2008, according to a Lexis-Nexis search, and in scores of blog posts) to join my moratorium—thereby forming a bipartisan coalition of The Post and the Times. I challenge columnists Eugene Robinson (33 Palin mentions), Paul Krugman (14), Kathleen Parker (30) and Maureen Dowd (45) to do the same.

To his credit, Douthat wrote a serious, generally insightful column in which he criticized Palin and the mainstream press for their “twisted, wretched, ruinous relationship”—for a “mutual antipathy [which] looks increasingly like co-dependency.” In classic fashion, Milbank borrowed Douthat’s “co-dependency” hook while misstating the date of his column. (It actually appeared in Monday’s Times.) Completing the hat trick, he then employed a familiar bit of passive aggression, suggesting that Douthat was a bit of a hypocrite, given his own past mentions of Palin.

(And yes—that is why Douthat’s number of mentions was cited by Milbank.)

Milbank included Paul Krugman on his list of miscreants, citing the fourteen times Krugman has mentioned Palin “since 2008.” (For the record, Milbank is including mentions from 2008 in this ambiguous construct.) But this is passive aggression too, of the type Milbank’s cohort tosses off with great ease. Is fourteen citations somehow too many? Does this number somehow suggest an obsession? Was it wrong to mention Palin in 2008, when she was nominated for vice president and actively campaigned for the post? Was it wrong to mention her in 2009, when she came up with the “death panels” meme which drove so much public debate? On face, fourteen mentions doesn’t necessarily seem like too many to us. And remember, this is fourteen mentions of Palin’s name, not fourteen full columns about her.

Sigh! In classic silly-boy fashion, Milbank moves directly from confession of obsession to an equally foolish suggestion that no one should have mentioned Palin at all. But so it goes among a modern class of inane, silly children from Yale.

No one should have mentioned Palin at all! Fourteen mentions in 2.4 years is somehow too many! As Milbank makes these silly suggestions, he of course receives the clicks which come to a major piece about Palin. And by the way—isn’t that possibly one of the reasons why he mentioned Krugman? On its face, fourteen mentions in 2.4 years doesn’t seem like a giant number. But people! Mention of Krugman brings web clicks, somewhat like mention of Palin! Is this why Milbank cited Krugman’s fourteen mentions, but skipped past the fatuous Lady Collins, who has mentioned Palin in sixty-two (62!) of her own New York Times columns? Good lord! This high lady has even mentioned Bristol Palin in eleven New York Times columns! (Levi Johnston has rated eight cites.) Why did Krugman get thrown into the stew, while this lady managed to slide?

The fatuity of modern press culture has long been a thing to behold. It’s especially striking when the nonsense is churned by an upper-class crowd which journeyed through our most vaunted “educational” institutions—who bear the imprint of places like Yale. During the Clinton-Gore years, these darlings told their brain-dead, memorized tales about the twin demons, Clinton and Gore, thus sending George W. Bush to the White House. But so what? Today, we liberals largely let them slide. At present, they’re telling the types of silly tales we enjoy—and we fail to see how quickly such darlings can shift their sights in the course of their upper-class lounging.

Outlook continues to amaze. So of course do the languorous, intellectually helpless children being churned out by places like Yale.