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THE REAL MCCOY! The real McCoy—John McCain—is doing the press corps’ work for them:

FRIDAY, MARCH 19, 2004

FOLLOW-UP—SPINNING SPAIN: In this morning’s papers, E. J. Dionne and Paul Krugman respond to one of the week’s major spins—the spin which says that Spanish voters appeased al Qaeda is last Sunday’s election. We tend to agree with the points these scribes make. But neither scribe mentions the fact we cited yesterday; neither man notes that there is no sign that last week’s bombing produced a vast swing in the Spanish vote. Indeed, it may not have produced any swing at all. Did Spaniards reject the Popular Party because of the bombing? The evidence just isn’t there; see THE DAILY HOWLER, 3/18/04.

In some ways, Dionne and Krugman do what libs often do, understandably enough, in the current climate. In rejecting a bit of conservative spin, they go along with a bogus conservative premise. We agree with the general views they express. But what are the actual facts on the ground? Spanish polling was close before the bombing, and the election was narrowly decided when Spaniards actually went to the polls. The debate has been built on a bogus premise—the notion that Spaniards flipped because of the bombing. Liberals and centrists need to say it every time: There the pseudo-cons go again, inventing another preferred tale.

FOLLOW-UP—SOCIAL PROMOTION: In this morning’s Times, Bob Herbert discusses social promotion in New York City schools. In the process, he provides a fact that helps illuminate a point we made this week. “There are 1.1 million children…in the [New York] system,” he writes. That means there are roughly 100,000 third graders. And you can take it to the bank: If New York adopted a “strict new promotion standard,” many more than 15,000 kids would have to repeat third grade next year. But that was the number the New York Times used in Wednesday’s editorial (see THE DAILY HOWLER, 3/17/04).

In this morning’s column, Herbert reflects the relative cluelessness which press elites bring to these questions. (This is true even of sympathetic, caring scribes like Herbert.) Herbert says that widespread retention is “a lousy approach to school reform.” But he paints an unrealistic picture of our urban schools. “Listen up,” he writes. “It is not a good idea to allow children who are not learning to simply walk out of one grade and into another without any kind of an intervention.” But if “not learning” means “not performing on grade level,” this would mean that we need to perform an “intervention” on the vast majority of urban students. Herbert’s formulation reinforces a picture which dominates our public discourse, even though it is vastly misleading. What is the truth about urban schools? In these schools, substantial majorities of the students don’t perform at or near traditional “grade level.” Sadly, few journalists seem to grasp this fact. And neither do urban systems themselves. That’s why a string of systems have announced that they’re banning social promotion, then have had to abandon the plan when vast numbers of their students can’t meet the “strict new standards” they need in order to pass.

Citizens need to understand the facts on the ground in our urban schools. One reader describes his own experience:

E-MAIL: Your description of the situation in urban schools vis-a-vis materials/reading levels/expectations was so absolutely correct it was scary.

I used to teach middle school at [a well-known institute] and worked as a reading specialist in the [major city] elementary schools…

Matching reading materials with students’ reading level is a huge problem. If the kids are special ed, everybody pretends the teacher and special educator can make “accommodations” and everything will be okay. Then there’s that huge percentage of kids that aren’t identified as special ed, but are reading nowhere near their grade level. As you said—high expectations as the solution for these kids’ educational problems is a fairy tale.

Key statement? Everybody pretends! As we have said, urban systems—and urban newspapers—love to “pretend” about urban schools. They like to pretend that the students are doing better than they actually are. They like to pretend that success will be achieved if we just put in some new testing program, or if we make a few kids attend a few weeks of summer school. And they pretend that if teachers would work a bit harder—or show their students that they care—then our urban kids, in their current state, will do just as well as everyone else. To use the reader’s language, these are “fairy tales”—pleasing tales which keep us from seeing what we must do to improve our urban schools. But these pleasing tales pervade our discourse, and have done so for the past forty years. This morning, even Herbert fails to convey the tragic depth of our situation. But then, few journalists really know much about urban schools, not even caring scribes like Bob Herbert.

Final point: Be sure to note what our e-mailer said. It is very hard to find textbooks and instructional programs designed for kids who are far below traditional “grade level.” As a result, these delightful and deserving kids may not get any textbooks at all, and, of course, they then “fail to thrive.” Such textbooks and program could be produced. But before we will do so, we must stop pretending. We have to stop telling fairy tales about our urban schools.

THE REAL MCCOY: It took a Republican pol who endorses George Bush to state the obvious about this campaign. Yesterday morning, John McCain went on TV—and he said the recent attacks on John Kerry have been a load of bullroar. Charles Babington reports in the Post:

BABINGTON: Republican Sen. John McCain yesterday defended Sen. John F. Kerry’s record on national security, undercutting the Bush-Cheney campaign’s latest attacks on the Democratic presidential challenger…

“I do not believe that he is, quote, ‘weak on defense,’” McCain (Ariz.) said on NBC’s Today show.

Asked on the CBS Early Show whether he agreed with Vice President Cheney’s assertion that Kerry is a threat to national security, McCain said: “I don’t think that. I think that John Kerry is a good and decent man. . . . I think he has different points of view on different issues, and he will have to explain his voting record. But this kind of rhetoric, I think, is not helpful in educating and helping the American people make a choice.”

Isn’t it sad that John McCain—a supporter of Bush—seems to care about this matter more than your hapless “press corps?” In the past few weeks, the press has been stampeded into a silly debate about Kerry’s honesty, based on a somewhat ambiguous statement he made (or may have made) about the views of foreign leaders. As usual, the “press corps” mistranscribed what Kerry said—it seems to be Hard Press Corps Law—then engaged in a scripted debate about his troubling comments.

But why has the press focused on Kerry’s comment? Duh! Because the White House told them to! Meanwhile, does the press really care about candidates’ truthfulness? Last week, Bush launched an absurd attack on Kerry. Richard Stevenson described his charge in the March 9 New York Times:

STEVENSON: President Bush accused Senator John Kerry on Monday of having tried to “gut” the nation’s intelligence services in 1995 when Mr. Kerry introduced legislation that would have cut intelligence spending by $1.5 billion over five years.
“His bill was so deeply irresponsible that he didn’t have a single co-sponsor in the United States Senate,” Bush had said, misleading a group of campaign contributors. “Once again, Senator Kerry is trying to have it both ways. He’s for good intelligence; yet he was willing to gut the intelligence services.”

The inanity of Bush’s charge is obvious. On March 12, Walter Pincus and Dana Milbank laid out the basic facts in the Post. Would Kerry’s bill have “gutted the intelligence services?” Which part of there he goes—Bush is dissembling again doesn’t our “press corps” understand?

PINCUS/MILBANK: Bush appears to be wrong when he said the proposed Kerry cut—about 1 percent of the overall intelligence budget for those years—would have “gutted” intelligence. In fact, the Republican-led Congress that year approved legislation that resulted in $3.8 billion being cut over five years from the budget of the National Reconnaissance Office—the same program Kerry said he was targeting.
There’s more, but you get the picture. To state the obvious, this is the kind of rank flim-flam which seemed to have John McCain’s goat.

But if McCain is upset, your “press corps” is not. The Bush campaign has sent out a string of gonzo claims, but the “press corps” simply couldn’t care less. Indeed, though Pincus and Milbank did their jobs, the New York Times refuses. To this day, the Times has presented no analysis of Bush’s laughable claim about “gutting intelligence.” Instead, Elisabeth Bumiller analyzes Bush’s impressive bedtime habits, and David Halbfinger keeps spinning “flip-flop” (see below). This president can lie in your face all he likes. At the sad-sack New York Times, your “journalists” simply couldn’t care less.

John McCain supports George Bush! But he is more concerned with the Bush campaign’s lies than your hapless “press corps” is! Meanwhile, the “press corps” continues to pound away at their mis-transcribed Kerry “quotation.” And why are they so upset with this statement? Because the White House has told them they should!

Scandals swirl around the Republican establishment. Bush’s groaning misstatements never end. But your “press corps” is concerned with that mis-transcribed “quote”—and it’s eager to praise Bush’s bedtime habits. Let’s say it again, just because it’s so perfect: John McCain—a Bush supporter—is more concerned by the Bush campaign’s lies.

THE MOVING HALBFINGER WRITES: David Halbfinger is “Kit” Seelye! Watch as he crams the Requisite Spin-Point—Kerry’s a flipperinto this morning’s lead:

HALBFINGER (pgh 1): John Kerry was in the air, approaching the Continental Divide, and the candidate often ridiculed as straddling both sides of political divides was wrestling with the big matter at hand.

(2) Should he ski, or snowboard? Or maybe both? He gave no clue where he stood. But that was Wednesday night.

Readers, it’s almost impossible to get that stupid—unless you write for the New York Times. But trust us: The Halbfingers actually think that they’re clever. Vacuous people always think that. But it’s amazing to think that such empty vessels steward our discourse for the Times. Will the meek inherit the earth? The vacuous have beaten them to it.

Annals of scripting

RIP-N-REID: If it weren’t for their scripts, would they know how to speak? In this morning’s Washington Post, T. R. Reid reports on C-SPAN’s 25th anniversary. And yes, to prove he’s one of the gang, he starts with a Requisite Spin-Point:

REID: Suppose you’re the producer of a new TV series, and you’re looking for a boffo opening scene to grip the attention of viewers and critics. What's the chance you would choose to start with a characteristically wooden oration by Al Gore on communication between American voters and their elected representatives?

In fact, that very scene, of a young Rep. Gore (D-Tenn.) flickering across a few million TV screens 25 years ago today, launched one of the most innovative and successful ideas in television history: the Cable-Satellite Public Affairs Network, or C-SPAN.

Tara Reid would have more to say! By happenstance, we saw Gore’s statement played on C-SPAN this morning, and no, it wasn’t especially “wooden.” But people like Reid know their Requisite Spin-Points—and they seem to know nothing else. Despite this, they steward your national discourse. Your democracy will be deeply challenged as long as this gang stays in charge.