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Print view: The Today show pandered and fawned to Rhee. But then, what else is new?
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NBC FAWNS! The Today show pandered and fawned to Rhee. But then, what else is new? // link // print // previous // next //

What “every economist knows” about the federal deficit: In the past few weeks, we've thought of Michael Moore's Oscar speech on a daily basis.

“We live in fictitious times,” Moore said in March 2003. Boos and catcalls rained on his head. But increasingly, it's an act of what Moore called “fictition” to pretend that an American “press corps” exists at all.

Consider this news report by Newsweek's Andrew Romano, a young fellow who works for one of our best-known “news magazines.”

Ironically, Romano reports on the high level of civic ignorance displayed by American voters. (His report is headlined, “How Dumb Are We?”) In this passage, Romano discusses a well-known fact-many Americans are massively clueless about the federal budget:

ROMANO: But poll after poll shows that voters have no clue what the budget actually looks like. A 2010 World Public Opinion survey found that Americans want to tackle deficits by cutting foreign aid from what they believe is the current level (27 percent of the budget) to a more prudent 13 percent. The real number is under 1 percent. A Jan. 25 CNN poll, meanwhile, discovered that even though 71 percent of voters want smaller government, vast majorities oppose cuts to Medicare (81 percent), Social Security (78 percent), and Medicaid (70 percent). Instead, they prefer to slash waste-a category that, in their fantasy world, seems to include 50 percent of spending, according to a 2009 Gallup poll.

Needless to say, it's impossible to balance the budget by listening to these people. But politicians pander to them anyway, and even encourage their misapprehensions.

It has long been clear that many Americans are clueless about the federal budget. But then, Romano is no prize himself. According to Romano, “Americans” believe that 27 percent of the federal budget goes to foreign aid. Do all Americans believe that? Romano's text doesn't say-and his text is rather fuzzy on such issues throughout.

But that was the least of Romano's problems. Here is the start of the fuller passage in which he discusses that widespread ignorance about the federal budget. Note the groaning ignorance (or submission to power) displayed by Romano himself:

ROMANO: The current conflict over government spending illustrates the new dangers of ignorance. Every economist knows how to deal with the debt: cost-saving reforms to big-ticket entitlement programs; cuts to our bloated defense budget; and (if growth remains slow) tax reforms designed to refill our depleted revenue coffers. But poll after poll shows that voters have no clue what the budget actually looks like....

Good God. According to Romano, “every economist” knows how to deal with the federal debt. Amazingly, they all agree on what we should do! Romano then presents a budget solution heavily tilted toward a very particular view of this issue. According to Romano, we need “cost-saving reforms” to our “big-ticket entitlement programs”-and we need to cut defense spending. Only if those solutions don't work should we even consider tax increases. Oh sorry! We should then consider tax “reforms.” Like the most servile politicians, Romano can't even bring himself to talk about tax “increases.”

Does “every economist” know that we should proceed in the manner described? Only in the fictitious world which seems to control this report. Some economists might tell you this: Our deficit problem would largely be solved if we simply returned to the tax rates of the (prosperous) Clinton years. Romano, ruing the public's vast ignorance, seems to be unaware of this school of thought.

Or is he just a tool? Is he simply deferring to power?

Increasingly, it's an act of “fictition” to believe that we have a “press corps” at all. (This is especially true now that the “liberal” world is adopting the culture of Fox.) Consider the painful illogic of an earlier part of Romano's report.

In the following chunk, Romano tries to explain why Americans are so ignorant about civic affairs. First, he explains why we're so dumb as compared to Europeans. After that, he explains that we actually aren't:

ROMANO: [I]t's important to understand where American ignorance comes from. In March 2009, the European Journal of Communication asked citizens of Britain, Denmark, Finland, and the U.S. to answer questions on international affairs. The Europeans clobbered us. Sixty-eight percent of Danes, 75 percent of Brits, and 76 percent of Finns could, for example, identify the Taliban, but only 58 percent of Americans managed to do the same-even though we've led the charge in Afghanistan. It was only the latest in a series of polls that have shown us lagging behind our First World peers.

Most experts agree that the relative complexity of the U.S. political system makes it hard for Americans to keep up. In many European countries, parliaments have proportional representation, and the majority party rules without having to “share power with a lot of subnational governments,” notes Yale political scientist Jacob Hacker, coauthor of Winner-Take-All Politics. In contrast, we're saddled with a nonproportional Senate; a tangle of state, local, and federal bureaucracies; and near-constant elections for every imaginable office (judge, sheriff, school-board member, and so on). “Nobody is competent to understand it all, which you realize every time you vote,” says Michael Schudson, author of The Good Citizen. “You know you're going to come up short, and that discourages you from learning more.”

It doesn't help that the United States has one of the highest levels of income inequality in the developed world, with the top 400 households raking in more money than the bottom 60 percent combined. As Dalton Conley, an NYU sociologist, explains, “it's like comparing apples and oranges. Unlike Denmark, we have a lot of very poor people without access to good education, and a huge immigrant population that doesn't even speak English.” When surveys focus on well-off, native-born respondents, the U.S. actually holds its own against Europe.

Where does our relative ignorance come from? In that passage, Romano seems to suggest that it comes from “the relative complexity of the U.S. political system.” Only after that hard slog are we told that our relative ignorance is a bit of an illusion-that our lower scores are really a function of poverty and immigration.

Is that last claim true? We have no idea. Neither does Romano, we'd guess. (Warning: Romano's language is fuzzy here too. He only says we “hold our own” against Europeans after such adjustments.)

Tina Brown is a very smart person. She has published a very dumb report. Romano's account of what “every economist knows” is what you might call an act of fictition. Two questions: How does such sorry work get into print? As a nation, can we survive it?

“How Dumb Are We?” Romano asked. As to how we get so dumb, we'd have to say that part of the answer is found in his own fictitious text.

The scariest part of this piece: “Andrew Romano is a Senior Writer for Newsweek. He reports on politics...and appears frequently on CNN and MSNBC.”

Special report: He was the son of a teacher, man!

INTERLUDE-NBC FAWNS (permalink): When it comes to reporting on public schools, NBC News gets a failing grade-a grade it has thoroughly earned.

Consider what happened on the Today show last Thursday morning. Guest host Savannah Guthrie introduced a taped interview segment with a controversial guest. Except Guthrie didn't really seem to know that Michelle Rhee is a controversial figure in the world of public schools. Neither did Jenna Bush Hager, who had taped the interview session.

The segment was a world-class groaner. The whole thing started like this:

GUTHRIE (3/17/11): This morning on “Education Nation Today,” saving America's schools.

Michelle Rhee captured headlines as the chancellor of schools in Washington, DC, making sweeping changes and some enemies along the way. Rhee lost her job, but not her passion for education reform. “Today” contributing correspondent Jenna Bush Hager, a teacher herself, caught up with Michelle Rhee recently.

Jenna, good morning!

HAGER: Good morning. That's right. Michelle Rhee is truly a maverick in education reform. She's controversial and a courageous change-maker. And these days, as budget cuts mean teacher layoffs, Rhee is leading the fight for a quality education for every child.

Michelle Rhee may have lost her job, but she gained a mission. She continues her life's passion to fix America's broken schools with a new lobbyist group, Students First.

Neither Guthrie nor Hager seemed to know that Rhee is a controversial figure. According to the hapless pair, Rhee is “a courageous change-maker” who “is leading the fight for a quality education for every child.” Hager's introduction was pure propaganda, but Guthrie hadn't done much better; she introduced the segment with Rhee under the rubric of “saving America's schools.”

Hager's interview was hapless throughout. But the worst part may have occurred when she briefly noted a basic fact-many people disagree with Rhee's outlook and ideas:

HAGER: Rhee's reforms are part of a recent documentary, “Waiting for Superman.” But her firebrand approach also inspired relentless criticism and protests in Washington. (Speaking to Rhee) While you were chancellor, the union and others who protested you, calling you names such as "hatchet lady”- How could you keep a thick skin during all of that?

RHEE: For me, what was going through my mind was, You know what? You can call me whatever names you want, you can yell at me as loud as you want to, under my watch I am not going to continue to allow the absolute dysfunction.

Why did people criticize Rhee? Hager never tried to explain. Today show viewers were told only one thing-Rhee's critics have called her bad names! In her very first statement, Rhee noted that she was “working in states across the country with governors like Rick Scott in Florida, Chris Christie in New Jersey, Governor Kasich in Ohio.” Hager never noted that these were all Republican governors. The possibility that there might be a political or ideological component to Rhee's valiant efforts never intruded on the fawning which ran all through this segment.

Hager fawned over Rhee. But then, the same thing happened in February, the last time Today ran an “Education Nation” interview with a controversial figure. In that instance, Hager interviewed Wendy Kopp, a close associate of Rhee. On that occasion, Meredith Vieira jump-started the fawning:

VIEIRA (2/2/11): This morning on “Education Nation Today,” Teach for America, a powerful movement that recruits college grads to teach in some of the nation's poorest areas. It was created by Wendy Kopp, who is out with a new book, A Chance To Make History. “Today” contributing correspondent and a teacher herself, Jenna Bush Hager, met up with her recently.

Good morning, Jenna!

HAGER: Good morning, Meredith. That's right! Wendy Kopp is a pioneer in education, and she's dared to dream big. She wants to share that dream with every student in America.

This is a comic-book version of broadcast journalism. There's another word for it, of course-propaganda.

A bit of background: NBC News invented its “Education Nation” rubric last fall, during a week of special programming geared to the controversial film, “Waiting for Superman.” In those programs, NBC News came down extremely hard on one side in the current education debate; the network has continued its clownish behavior from that day to this. On NBC, it isn't hard to understand who the heroes are in the public school fight. Last week, Hager even gushed and fawned over Rhee's significant other:

HAGER (3/17/11): Rhee is making education reform a family affair of her own. She's engaged to another education activist, former NBA player, now Sacramento mayor, Kevin Johnson. They've been called "the education celebrity couple."

RHEE: He's probably one of the most outspoken mayors in the country on education reform. We can come home and talk to one another about something that we both care about a lot. So it is kind of great.

HAGER: Rhee says they'll join forces for change and she's calling on every American to fight with them to save our nation's schools.

RHEE: We are at a moment in time right now that I've never seen in my entire career that there is more focus on education. I think a lot of people are saying, you know what, the education system in our country isn't working right now and we need to do something drastic to fix it.

According to Rhee, the education system “isn't working” and “we need to do something drastic to fix it.” According to Hager, Rhee is asking every American to fight with her “to save our nation's schools.” But does Rhee have good ideas about what should be done? Watching NBC, you'd be hard pressed to understand what Rhee's ideas are-or to understand why many people disagree with her basic outlook. You would understand that Rhee's critics have called her bad names, of course.

(To watch Today's full segment on Rhee, go ahead: Just click here.)

By the way, speaking of names: If Nexis and Google can be believed, Rhee and Johnson have never been called “the education celebrity couple.” This added a nice touch to Hager's fawning, but it doesn't seem to be accurate. Nor can we find any sign that “the union” ever called Rhee “hatchet lady,” or that any ranking critic of Rhee ever used this term. Use of the term can barely be found through a Google search at all, although it seems that the term may have been used in some way in the Guggenheim film.

How might our public schools be improved? The public discussion tends to be clownish, in large part because the career liberal world abandoned this topic decades ago. In the 1960s, the interests of black children was a large part of the basic liberal agenda. In the present day, it's hard to see a major career liberal stoop to discuss such proles.

Career liberal cable stars care about gay people, as of course they should. But black kids and Hispanic kids can pretty much jump in the lake. In large part, this explains why it's left to comedians to discuss public schools.

Jon Stewart's the son of a teacher, man! When he saw teachers being trashed by the forces with whom Michelle Rhee is aligned, he staged an intelligent discussion on his comedy program (see THE DAILY HOWLER, 3/15/11). But why is this function left to Stewart? Why don't “liberal” cable stars rush to fill the void?

Jon Stewart's the son of a teacher, man! But then again, so was Ed Schultz-a fact he first mentioned on March 1. We were surprised when Schultz mentioned that fact-and we groaned when we saw where it led us.

Tomorrow-part 4: Back to school!