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SNORTER MCWHORTER! McWhorter snorted about public schools. But then, so did Nick Gillespie // link // print // previous // next //
MONDAY, FEBRUARY 2, 2009

Embarrassment of Riches: Here at THE HOWLER, we aren’t big fans of Frank Rich’s work. Yesterday’s “shovel-ready” column at the Times pretty much helps show you why.

A large dispute now fills the air about the stimulus package. Various people, pols and pundits alike, are saying the package contains too many extraneous, non-stimulus elements. Some of these people are Republican pols, or camp-followers—but some of these people are not. (Alice Rivlin would be one example.) This produces two problems for Dems:

First, the situation raises a substantive question: Is this package, as it exists, as good a stimulus package as possible? (Presumably, we all agree that our nation is in economic peril.) Second, it raises a political problem. A talking-point is all around: The stimulus package is loaded with pork! This talking-point will influence voters—unless Dems and liberals know how to respond.

Rich’s column was a giant waste of time on both points. First, it made almost no effort to speak to the merits of what has been proposed. “The House stimulus bill is an inevitably imperfect hodgepodge-in-progress,” the gentleman opined, early on. But from that point, he made little attempt to say which parts of the imperfect hodge-podge could be made better. Instead, he headed for familiar ground; he spent the bulk of the column pleasing us rubes with attacks on the motives of Republican leaders. He did so in familiar ways—in the same ways he once employed beating up on Clinton and Gore. (Incredibly, Rich was still trashing Gore even after his film, An Inconvenient Truth, hit American theaters. He did so with his buddy, Don Imus, and in his New York Times column.) In ways that typify his work, Rich offered silly accounts of things John Boehner and Eric Cantor had said on TV shows, and he ran through a string of greatest rube-pleasing hits from the past year of Republican conduct. He even wasted your time—and insulted your intelligence—pimping such nonsense as this:

RICH (2/1/09): Not to be left out, the party's great white hope, Sarah Palin, unveiled a new political action committee last week with a Web site also promising ''fresh ideas.'' But as the liberal blogger Markos Moulitsas Zuniga observed, the site invites visitors to make donations and read Palin hagiography while offering no links to any ideas, fresh or otherwise.

In this way, a harmless throw-away post by Markos becomes “research” material for a great “liberal” “thinker.” Except Markos was just offering a throw-away post—and he had enough good sense to avoid throwing in a racial remark about the Republican pol in question. (Could someone please tell Rich that the world accepts his racial greatness?) In fact, Palin’s new site has nothing to do with the questions surrounding the stimulus package. But throughout, Rich was throwing hay to the herd—and avoiding discussion of actual substance. Good God! He even threw this brand of sweet hay off his rickety wagon:

RICH: For its own contribution to this intellectual void, the Republican National Committee convened last week under a new banner, ''Republican for a Reason.'' Perhaps that unidentified reason will be determined by a panel of judges on a TV reality show. It had better be brilliant given that only five states (with 20 total electoral votes) now lean red in party affiliation, according to Gallup. At this rate the G.O.P. will be in Alf Landon territory by 2012.

But that assessment by Gallup was absolute nonsense, as anyone with an ounce of sense knows. Do you think Oklahoma “leaned Democratic” in 2008, as Gallup’s assessment would have it? If so, someone forgot to tell Oklahomans! Here’s how they voted in November 2008, at the end of the year in which Rich thinks they “leaned Dem:”

Oklahoma popular vote, 2008 election:
McCain (R): 960,165
Obama (D): 502,496

But so what? Citing the groaner by Gallup would make us hayseeds feel good, so silly-bill Rich threw it in. On the merits, how strong is that stimulus package? When voters hear that it’s “loaded with pork,” snide remarks about the “great white hope” aren’t likely to make them think otherwise. But then, there’s nothing so silly that Rich won’t include it, as long as it pleases us rubes.

Indeed, a snark hag like Rich doesn’t bother with substance, any more than his running-mate Maureen Dowd would. In the course of a 1600-word effort, this represents the high-water mark of Rich’s attempt to assess the substantive questions surrounding this proposed bill:

RICH: The Republicans do have one idea, of course, but it's hardly fresh: more and bigger tax cuts, particularly for business and the well-off. That's the sum of their ''alternative'' stimulus plan. Obama has tried to accommodate this panacea, perhaps to a fault. Mainstream economists in both parties believe that tax cuts in the stimulus package will deliver far less bang for the buck than, say, infrastructure spending. The tax-cut stimulus embraced a year ago by the G.O.P. induced next-to-no consumer spending as Americans merely banked the savings or paid down debt.

How accurate is that highlighted claim—the claim about “mainstream economists in both parties?” We’re not entirely sure—in part because when we clicked the link Rich provided, we came to this news report by David Herszenhorn. And we’re sorry, but that highlighted passage is a very weak and tortured account of what Herszenhorn actually wrote in that piece. But then, we’ve seen this sort of thing from Rich many times. In the past, he used these techniques against Clinton and Gore. Now, he’s pleasing us rubes.

In our view, Rich’s column was consummate hack-work; it was very, very low on substance, and very high on hay for the herd. He didn’t help his readers know how the “hodge-podge” might be improved; nor did he give liberals a whole lot of help in knowing how to respond to claims about alleged lard and pork. He did tell us that Oklahoma leans Dem—and that Palin is her party’s “white hope.” This may make you feel good about your team. But it doesn’t help you as a Dem or a lib—or as an American citizen.

For years, Rich aimed this crap at Clinton and Gore; your fiery liberal leaders stared off into air. (Maybe they wanted invitations to parties.) Today, Rich peddles his blather to make us feel good. We think our side loses each way.

This just in from the world of film: Yesterday, it fell to the New York Post to publish this tough-talking excerpt from David Denby’s new book, Snark. In the excerpt, Denby discusses Maureen Dowd’s treatment of Obama and Clinton in the 2008 campaign; there’s nothing here about Campaign 2000. But in his book, Denby becomes one of the first high-profile observers to note the obvious—to claim that press misconduct (in this case, Dowd’s) decided the Bush-Gore campaign.

Again, we’ll ask the obvious question: Does anyone know why you had to wait for a Gotham film critic to state such an obvious fact? Does anyone why know your fiery liberal leaders didn’t bellow this out, years ago?

Final question for fiery liberals: Do you think Keith Olbermann or Rachel Maddow will be having this fiery man on their shows? Here at THE HOWLER, we have no idea. But last week, our analysts softly groaned when Maddow described Gwen Ifill as “one of my heroes.” “It’s a real honor to have you” on the show, the fiery progressive star said.

Olbermann has five million reasons to avoid discussing the way the press works. (Except for his nightly distractions about Bill O’Reilly.) How many reasons might Maddow have? We’ve never heard anyone say.

Special report: Snorter McWhorter!

PART 1—THE LINK TO NOWHERE: At the Post, the Sunday “Book World” section is dying as a stand-alone section (click here). Long live the stand-alone section! That said, the closing paragraph of this recent review forms a starting-point for posts we will offer this week.

The review was written by Nick Gillespie, fiery “libertarian” editor of Reason.com. Gillespie reviewed the new book Street Gang, a history of the PBS program Sesame Street (author, Michael Davis). As he closed his review, Gillespie went where many journalists go; he entered the world of sweeping claims about the state of the nation’s schools. As we read his claim, we weren’t real sure he knew whereof he thundered:

GILLESPIE (1/25/09): While there's little doubt that "Sesame Street" has great market- and mind-share, whether on TV or in the nation's toy stores, it's far from clear that it has succeeded in its self-declared mission of preparing preschoolers for K-12 education. Indeed, the National Assessment of Educational Progress, which has tracked students since the early '70s, reports that there has been precious little increase in reading and math test scores among the generations raised on "Sesame Street" (despite the more than doubling of inflation-adjusted expenditures per pupil over the same period). That's not a knock on a show that continues to entertain millions of viewers, but a truly "complete history" certainly would have grappled with such questions in a more critical fashion.

Gillespie wished that Davis had “grappled with such questions” more critically. But then, we found ourselves thinking the same darn thing about Gillespie himself!

Let’s put Sesame Street to the side as we ask a central question: Is Gillespie’s statement about the National Assessment of Educational Progress really accurate? Has the NAEP really “report[ed] that there has been precious little increase in reading and math test scores among the generations raised on “Sesame Street?’” Beyond that, would that be an accurate statement about the past forty years?

As far as we know, the NAEP program doesn’t make assessments of the type Gillespie describes. NAEP has been presenting test score data since 1971—but individuals will have to decide for themselves if the recorded gains in reading and math have been “little” or “big.” (Though yes, the test scores have gone up.) But in the on-line edition of his review, Gillespie sought to source his claim, linking to a document—Table 112—from the NAEP’s “Long Term Trend Assessment.”

You yourself can access this document, simply by clicking this helpful link. But uh-oh! As non-specialists, you will have no earthly way of knowing if Table 112 supports Gillespie’s tough-talking claim! You can study the table as much as you like. You won’t really have the slightest idea what its data mean.

That’s right! “Book World” let Gillespie support his claim by linking to that NAEP document. (And to Table 125, a document about NAEP math scores.) But few Post readers were in a position to draw conclusions from that link. To understand why, just consider the murky title sitting atop the document:

Table 112. Average reading scale score, by age and selected student and school characteristics: Selected years, 1971 through 2004

As you can see, Table 112 concerns itself with “average scale scores” on the NAEP reading tests. In fairness, you can easily see some of what the table shows about those “average scale scores.” It shows, for example, that 9-year-olds achieved an average scale score of 208 in 1971—and that the average score for 9-year-olds had risen eleven points by the year 2004 (from 208 to 219). You can also see this: For black 9-year-olds, the jump in scale scores was much larger; the average score went up thirty points over this same time period (from 170 up to 200). For white 9-year-olds, the jump was twelve points (from 214 to 226). Results from similar testing in 2008 haven’t yet been posted.

Remember, this is the very document to which Gillespie linked. According to this document, the average scale score for white 9-year-olds went up 12 points in that 33-year span; for black kids, it went up 30. So how about it? Does that represent a significant gain in reading achievement? Or do these data support Gillespie’s claim—the claim that there has been “precious little increase in reading and math test scores?” Almost surely, you have no way of knowing; in effect, Gillespie gave you a “link to nowhere” when he linked you to Table 112. In fact, almost no one reading the Post last weekend would know what sorts of gains in reading achievement might correspond to score gains like those in that table. Does Gillespie know? We have no idea. But over the years, such knowledge has rarely been required when journalists declaim about the parlous state of the nation’s public schools.

Thirty points for black kids—twelve points for whites? How big a gain in reading achievement would correspond to “scale score” gains like those? If our own understanding of those scale scores is accurate, we’d disagree with Gillespie’s assessment. However: Erring on the side of caution, we’ll try to speak with NAEP staff this week and tell you what they said.

At any rate, we thought Gillespie’s gloomy claim provided a nice introduction to the work we’ve planned for the week. Gillespie isn’t a public school specialist—but then, neither is Berkeley professor John McWhorter, and in this recent piece at The New Republic, he made a truly remarkable claim about the “achievement gap.” It’s not unlike a type of claim the swells have made for the past forty years. But McWhorter’s claim was really quite striking—and his evidence struck us as weak.

Snorting claims like Professor McWhorter’s are remarkably easy to make. But did his “evidence” back up his claim? And how about the editors at TNR? Why it comes to the state of the public schools, do they require their snorting scribes to know whereof they speak?