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HONEST PAUL AND OTHER GROUP FICTIONS! Scribes invented a fictional lad, as they’ve done many times in the past: // link // print // previous // next //
THURSDAY, APRIL 7, 2011

From eight schools down to maybe just one: Some things get talked about, other things don’t.

This morning, Trip Gabriel surprised us with this news report in the New York Times. Gabriel discusses a bit of carping—carping about comments Obama recently made about too much standardized testing.

Obama’s comments truly were a bit odd, and the discussion is worth having. But this is a very low-level discussion. Despite that, it made the Times.

Then there’s that major educational topic, the one the Times hasn’t mentioned.

The Times still hasn’t mentioned the scandal about possible cheating on Washington DC’s high-stakes public school tests. Ten days after USA Today broke the story, Times readers haven’t heard Word One about it. Meanwhile, ex-chancellor Rhee has paraded about, helping massage the facts.

On Monday, Rhee appeared on the Kojo Nnamdi Show, an interview program on WAMU, American University’s NPR station. Listening to the first Q-and-A, a listener might even have thought that this scandal involves just one school:

NNAMDI (4/4/11): This is a big two weeks for students in D.C. All across the city, kids are taking standardized tests to measure their progress in reading and math. The progress posted during your tenure as schools' chief has been called into question by the resurfacing of allegations of improprieties that may have occurred on such tests, a USA Today investigation taking a particularly close look at the gains made at Noyes Elementary. Your successor, Kaya Henderson, has called on the city's inspector general to look into the matter. What do you see as being at stake here?

RHEE: Well, I actually think that it was an excellent call for the chancellor to call for the I.G. investigation. You know, we took a lot of steps to make sure that testing integrity was a priority with the District when I was there, but because there are all of these allegations right now about Noyes, I just think that it is—it’s better to kind of lift the cloud and make sure that everybody is clear, that the gains were real. And if there were problems in, you know, isolated instances, then those problems should be dealt with directly.

In fact, USA Today reported on irregularities at more than 100 schools! Nnamdi never noted this fact—and listening to Rhee, you wouldn’t likely get that impression:

NNAMDI (continuing directly): At first, you pushed back against the story pretty hard. You said that enemies of school reform were once again trying to argue that the world was flat, and that there's no way test scores could have improved for DCPS students unless someone cheated, the implication of the series of reports, but you've tried to walk some of that initial statement back. What are your thoughts about that USA Today series of reports right now?

RHEE: Yeah. So the part of that statement that I wanted to walk back was the part about the Earth is flat, because I just thought that was a silly part of the statement. And these are—you know, these are serious issues, now especially with test scores playing a greater role in accountability and teacher evaluation. We have to make sure there's test integrity and good test security, so it absolutely makes sense that people take those allegations seriously. So the Earth is flat part was a little silly.

What I did, though, think was problematic is the fact that the USA Today article took one school in particular, and then, it said, you know, this is, you know, an indication of cheating across the District. And we really had never had any indication that that was the case. When schools were brought to us, where classrooms were brought to us as potentially having an irregular rate of erasures, we actually handed it over to an external investigation company to do a full investigation in each of those cases that—well, the vast majority of them, they said, you know, there are no—there's no improprieties. There's no evidence of cheating. And the couple of instances where there were, we took the appropriate actions.

So we've really never saw any data that would indicate that there was widespread cheating. And I do think that it is extraordinarily problematic to paint the entire District and all of the kids and all of the teachers who put in a tremendous amount of hard work with a broad brush stroke.

From that, a listener might realize that questions were raised about more than one school. But in the next Q-and-A, Rhee almost made it sound like USA Today was concerned with just one classroom:

NNAMDI: Obviously, one does not want to paint the entire school system with that broad brush, but the number of erasures that were reported in the USA Today series is really remarkable, being compared at one point to being so many that the chances of there being so many erasures by accident is greater than the chances of—or is less than the chances of winning the lottery or winning the Powerball. What, in your view, could be the explanation for that large number of erasures?

RHEE: Right. So they were talking, I think, about one particular classroom—

NNAMDI: Sure.

RHEE: —and I think in classrooms like that, where there is that large an irregularity, you should absolutely look into it. But, again, we handed that off to external investigators. They run their own process. They're the experts in this, and they said that they found no impropriety.

“Sure,” Nnamdi said, helping Rhee pimp a con.

“I, for one, am reluctant to believe that large numbers of administrators or teachers would be involved in cheating,” Nnamdi now declared, prejudging a problem whose extent he had completely failed to describe. Again: At no point did Nnamdi tell listeners that USA Today’s report involved more than 100 schools. (By the way, “Noyes Elementary” is also a middle school. But how could a talk host know that?)

Rhee would simply be funny, if she weren’t so influential. At one point, a caller suggested that students will typically change answers from right to wrong when they make erasures on a test. Skillfully, Rhee used this claim as a way to muddle matters further:

CALLER: Hi. I guess I'm going back to “Erasuregate” here. I've got just a quick observation and a quick question. I'm a professor at Rutgers, and I've been teaching at the university level for about 15 years. And in my own observation, and I admit that this is unscientific, students over the years, about 70 percent of erasures I have found to be changed from the right answer to the wrong answer. And that, you know, this—that the possibility that somehow better test-taking skills, as you suggested before, might be driving students changes from the wrong answers to the right answers, it doesn't make sense, because presumably, by the time students get to Rutgers, they've got pretty good test-taking skills already. So I'd just like you to, sort of, reconcile that. And the second thing is just, you know—

NNAMDI: Okay. Let's deal with the first thing first because we're running out of time.

RHEE: Yeah. So this is actually an important point because— Just because you have a high number of erasures does not mean that a school is—should be investigated. Because if you have a high number of erasures but, as this person said, those erasures were from right answers to wrong answers or there were stray marks on the paper or something like that, or the school, or the classroom actually saw a decreased in their test scores, then that's really not a worry that you're going to have that something—you know, some kind of cheating was occurring. So you have to look at the places where there weren't irregular number of erasures coupled with a dramatic rise in test scores.

Duh! Rhee said you wouldn’t worry if you got a lot of erasures changing answers from right to wrong. Of course, USA Today had reported the opposite pattern; in over a hundred schools, a very high number of answers were changed from wrong to right. Rhee knew that, but she ran a rather typical con. The caller was no longer on the line, after all, and Nnamdi seemed clueless throughout.

Too much! Last weekend, the Washington Post changed “more than one hundred schools” to just eight (see THE DAILY HOWLER, 4/4/11). On Monday, Rhee whittled it closer to maybe just one school—and maybe just one classroom! Questioned about erasure patterns, she confused things even further.

Rhee would simply be a good joke, if she weren’t so influential.

Nnamdi utterly failed to perform. The Times still hasn’t said boo.

HONEST PAUL AND OTHER GROUP FICTIONS (permalink): Wouldn’t you know it? It looks like Paul Ryan was pretty much lying about Alice Rivlin’s support!

As he rolled out his budget proposal, Ryan kept claiming he had the support of Rivlin, a ranking Democrat and head of the OMB under President Clinton.

How many times did Ryan tell the world that he had Rivlin’s Big Love? Late Tuesday, Politico’s Meredith Shiner rattled off a string of Ryan’s howlers:

SHINER (4/5/11): Ryan unveiled a substantial GOP budget package Tuesday that slashes trillions in federal spending and lays the groundwork for a fundamental shift in how Medicare will operate down the road by setting up private exchanges. Ryan pitched this concept of “premium support” plans as a bipartisan measure he developed with Rivlin.

And at Tuesday’s big roll-out press conference, Ryan was quick to boast about his Democratic partner.

“Alice Rivlin is a great, proud Democrat,” Ryan said, citing her position at the Brookings Institute and as the head of the Office of Management and Budget under President Bill Clinton. “This path to prosperity builds upon those Ryan-Rivlin plans that we put in here.”

Tuesday morning on MSNBC’s “Morning Joe,” he delivered a similar line when asked where he might be willing to compromise.

“Alice Rivlin and I designed these Medicare and Medicaid reforms,” Ryan said. “Alice Rivlin was Clinton’s OMB director… she’s a proud Democrat at the Brookings institution. These entitlement reforms are based off of those models that she and I worked on together.”

Later, at an event at the American Enterprise Institute, Ryan invoked the name of the first-ever director of the Congressional Budget Office again in explaining his plans for Medicare.

“I worked with Alice Rivlin,” Ryan told the crowd. “She and I were the chairs of the health care task force in the commission, and we agreed on a structure, which is not the voucher structure but a premium support structure.”

Unfortunately, Rivlin doesn’t support Ryan’s proposal for Medicare. Speaking with Politico, she even said that she recently told Ryan this. (“We talked fairly recently and I said, ‘You know, I can’t support the version that you have in the budget.’”) Yesterday, Rivlin told the full tale in an interview with Ezra Klein.

Ryan told the world he had Rivlin’s support. We’re waiting to hear that the Morning Joe gang has corrected this claim for their viewers.

So let’s see: Ryan made a repeated claim about Rivlin’s support—a claim that wasn’t accurate. Several key numbers supporting his plan are, to use Klein’s word, “outlandish.” And of course, at the heart of his plan, we find an apparent assault on the poor—and a big wet kiss to Power.

But so what? As the plan was being rolled out, a string of big pundits, Klein included, praised Ryan’s wonderful character.

How to explain this peculiar conduct? Over at Slate, Dave Weigel described the process—a process which has characterized a good deal of political coverage over the past twenty years. Weigel described the invention of “Honest Paul,” an essentially fictional character:

WEIGEL (4/6/11): Two products made their debuts in Congress on Tuesday. The first was "The Path to Prosperity," House Republicans' budget resolution for the next fiscal year. The second was the budget's author: Honest Paul.

Honest Paul is the heroic persona of Rep. Paul Ryan, the chairman of the House budget committee. He's like the regular Paul Ryan, except he must pause regularly to accept plaudits for his candor, heroism, and courage. This persona had been in beta-testing for several years, at least since the Weekly Standard profiled him as one of the GOP's rising stars in October 2007 (headline: "The Thinker"). Honest Paul got a good, long trial run in 2010, when Ryan introduced—after plenty of Democratic goading—the budget-cutting "Roadmap for America's Future." The trial run was a success, because for all of the bashing Democrats and liberal-leaning think-tankers did, it didn't stop the Republicans from taking the House.

And so Tuesday belonged to Honest Paul. David Brooks wrote a column praising Ryan for "the most comprehensive and most courageous budget reform proposal any of us have seen in our lifetimes." When Ryan appeared on MSNBC's "Morning Joe," he was interrupted several times to accept more praise.

For our money, the fawning by Klein and E.J. Dionne was more significant than the Morning Joe banter, at least to the extent that we have seen that banter reproduced. But Weigel was describing a process which has occurred again and again over the past twenty years. Twelve years ago, Washington Post ombudsman E.R. Shipp described the way a similar novelized scam was unfolding as the Post pretended to cover the candidates in Campaign 2000:

SHIPP (3/7/00): Typecasting the candidates

There is something not quite satisfying about The Post's coverage of the quests of Bill Bradley, George W. Bush, Al Gore and John McCain to become our next president…

This appears to derive from The Post's determination to give readers in-depth, closely observed insights into the hearts, minds and souls of the candidates…

But The Post has gone beyond that kind of reporting in favor of articles that try to offer context—and even conjecture—about the candidates' motives in seeking the office of president. And readers react—sometimes in a nonpartisan way, more often not—to roles that The Post seems to have assigned to the actors in this unfolding political drama. Gore is the guy in search of an identity; Bradley is the Zen-like intellectual in search of a political strategy; McCain is the war hero who speaks off the cuff and is, thus, a "maverick"; and Bush is a lightweight with a famous name, and has the blessings of the party establishment and lots of money in his war chest. As a result of this approach, some candidates are whipping boys; others seem to get a free pass.

Shipp was too polite in much that she wrote this day. But she went on to describe the way the Post was picking and choosing—and inventing—its facts in order to sustain “the roles that The Post seems to have assigned to the actors in this unfolding political drama.”

That said, here’s the good news:

In those days, the press corps was much more uniform in its “typecasting” than is the case today. Yesterday, a range of major insider pundits began whaling away at Ryan; some big players pimped “Honest Paul,” but many others did not. (Example: Ryan was pounded in three different columns, out of just four, on the Post’s on-line “Opinion” page.) By way of contrast: All through the twenty months of Campaign 2000, virtually everyone joined the parade as Gore was cast in the role of delusional liar. There was remarkably little distinction between the work of mainstream or conservative organs. Heroic liberals like Frank Rich pushed this fiction as gaily as everybody else did.

People are dead all over the world because these people behaved this way. Have you ever seen even one of these “journalists” asked to explain why they did it? Sorry, but we obedient “liberals” simply don’t function that way!

In the past few days, the remnants of this novelized system were on display as people like Klein, Dionne and Brooks accepted the need to praise “Honest Paul”—despite the fact that Ryan seemed to be lying about various parts of his plan.

Why did players like Brooks, Klein and Dionne sustain this novelized process? We can’t answer that question. That said, we were a bit disappointed by Paul Krugman’s account of this nonsense. In a post called “The Puzzle of Gullibility,” Krugman assumed that these people were in fact being gullible. And he offered a highly selective account of pundit misconduct in the past eleven years:

KRUGMAN (4/6/11): Looking at the House budget proposal, in all its ludicrousness, makes me wonder about an enduring puzzle: the gullibility of so much of our pundit class.

In the time I’ve been writing for the Times, I’ve watched my colleagues in the commentariat, en masse, agree that:

George Bush is a nice, moderate guy, who will work in a bipartisan way.

George Bush is a heroic leader, who has risen to the occasion.

The case for invading Iraq is overwhelming; only a fool or a Frenchman could fail to be persuaded by Colin Powell.

John McCain is an independent-thinking maverick.

Paul Ryan is an honest, deeply serious thinker who really cares about the deficit.

The tax cut deal paved the way for a new phase of bipartisanship.

The Ryan plan sets a new standard of seriousness.

In each case, any educated citizen with internet access could quickly see overwhelming evidence that these things weren’t true. And you would think that people would learn something from the repeated failure of these kinds of consensus.

Do you think Klein was being “gullible” when he praised Ryan’s courage and talent—when he hailed him as “the kind of politician I fundamentally like?” That wouldn’t be our first guess, though we have no way of knowing. But good grief! Krugman began his hugely important, bi-weekly column on January 2, 2000. In yesterday’s list, he omitted perhaps the most consequential “en masse” judgment his colleagues have made since that time:

Al Gore is a delusional liar, just like Bill Clinton!

Krugman knows about that group judgment; in the past, he has described it in some detail. (In 2006: “Why, after all, was Mr. Gore's popular-vote margin in the 2000 election narrow enough that he could be denied the White House? Any account that neglects the determination of some journalists to make him a figure of ridicule misses a key part of the story.” See THE DAILY HOWLER, 5/26/06.)

Yesterday, Krugman recalled the novelization of Bush and McCain—but skipped the novelization of Gore, which sent George Bush to the White House. But then, as a general matter, the liberal world has agreed to let the history of the Clinton-Gore years disappear. As a group, we bravely remember the way Bush and McCain were fluffed and peddled. Engaging in our own en masse fiction, we have agreed to forget about what happened with Clinton, then Gore.

“Honest Paul” is the latest in a long line of fictional characters. Luckily, there’s much more diversity in today’s press than there was in the recent past. Almost no one dissented from the Standard Group Portraits of Big Liar Clinton and his heir, Liar Gore—or from the Standard Group Portraits of Straight-Talking Maverick John McCain and Plain-Spoken Bold Leader Bush.

Yesterday, many pundits dissented about Honest John. Meanwhile, on a cable show, we were handed some crap all our own.

Tomorrow: Collins appears