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Daily Howler: Important new test scores were released. So the Post and the Times started spinning
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GOLDBERG’S TEST SCORES! Important new test scores were released. So the Post and the Times started spinning: // link // print // previous // next //
WEDNESDAY, APRIL 29, 2009

Rage of Brian: The analysts formed an office pool when Keith teased an upcoming treat:

OLBERMANN (4/28/09): Late developments on the buzzing of downtown Manhattan by the back-up Air Force One, an FAA memo shows the agency knew it might scare people but it insists on secrecy anyway. A rare comment tonight from my guest, NBC’s Brian Williams.

You’re watching Countdown on MSNBC.

A rare comment—and a rare treat! Quickly, the analysts formed an office pool, built around a mordant question: How long would it take Williams to pimp his tie to fire-fighters? The group’s excitement only grew as Keith teased the segment again:

OLBERMANN: Brian Williams next on something about which we are both outraged, the buzzing of New York City on the OK of the head of the White House Military Office. What’s next? That’s next.

The multimillionaires were both outraged! Or were prepared to pretend:

OLBERMANN: In our number-one story, one blogger is really mad about this. He will join me in a moment. His name is Brian Williams.

The analysts shoved their money out onto a table, guessing how long it would take.
We’ll have to be honest. Once Williams’ rare comment began, it took him longer than anyone guessed. Several tiresome minutes dragged by. Then, the NASCAR-loving Target-shopper humbly mentioned this:

WILLIAMS: This is an enormous quality of life issue here in New York. I spoke to a gathering of fire-fighters the other night here in midtown. And in the quiet of that ballroom, 9/11, as I said that night, was 10 minutes ago.

OLBERMANN: Of course.

The key word came at 2:37. As Olbermann said: “Of course.”

Readers may think we’re being cynical. But NBC News invented the practice of pimping the wholesome everydayness of its multimillionaire stars. For Russert, it was the Buffalo days—the days he mused about on Nantucket. For Williams, it has always been that teen-age stint as a volunteer fire-fighter. And his love for NASCAR, of course. And the way he loves shopping at Target. (For a three-part report, see THE DAILY HOWLER, 12/14/07.)

And yes, this has been a marketing ploy. “Of course,” as Olbermann said.

Roars went up in our sprawling complex as one analyst raked in his winnings. But another roar had gone up earlier. What follows is part of Brian’s thinking on this topic—a topic which provoked a rare comment. Could these big fake over-stuffed suits get dumber if they tried?

WILLIAMS: One of the points I made on my blog: I couldn’t believe they didn’t make this a virtue. Say to folks in New York—and we`re good at getting the word out. The web’s really good at it. You know, Mary Kate Olson can order a latte at 4:00 and we know about it at 4:05 on Gawker.

So we are good at telling folks, “Come out Saturday morning, Battery Park for those of you in Jersey, Liberty State Park, bring the kids, bring your camera. You`re going to see a once-in-a-lifetime picture of Air Force One making a low pass near the Statue of Liberty.” Make it an event.

Instead, it was cloaked in this automatic, don’t ask any questions, post-9/11 secrecy, an empty 747. We were so fearful that the wrong element would find out we were flying an empty plane over New York, we forgot to tell the right element.

OLBERMANN: Exactly.

WILLIAMS: That would be you and me.

Hard to believe.

Let’s be clear: This fly-over reflected some very poor judgment; the event never should have occurred. But even dumber was Brian’s suggestion that the event should have been publicized! It was dumb to stage this event at all—but isn’t the reason for the secrecy obvious? Do Williams and Olbermann really think the feds would ever disclose a location at which Air Force One would be taking long, slow overhead passes at very low elevations? Let’s expand a bit on Brian’s characteristically absurd rumination:

WILLIAMS EXTENDED: I couldn’t believe they didn’t make this a virtue. Say to folks in New York...“Come out Saturday morning, Battery Park for those of you in Jersey, Liberty State Park, bring the kids, bring your camera, bring your shoulder-launched missile weapon. You’re going to see a once-in-a-lifetime picture of Air Force One making a low pass near the Statue of Liberty.”

Would anyone but an NBC newsman be dumb enough to say what he said?

Brian was outraged—and Keith was agreeing. This network has long been the Ship of Fakes. But for our money, last night’s Countdown was especially egregious:

How bad did it get last night? To see Olbermann and his guest, Chris Matthews, complaining about the fakeness of pols, just click this. Chris Matthews! Complaining that others are fake! We rubes got run very hard last night. We wondered how many rubes noticed.

Fury of Brian: For Brian’s original blog post, click here. In the comments, you’ll meet a few brave souls who recall the various things which haven’t seemed to outrage Williams down through the years. Of course, the handsome anchor was outraged by Candidate’s Gore’s deeply troubling clothes—by his disturbing polo shirts, by the number of buttons on his suits. These trivia provoked months of discussions about Gore’s strange psychiatric state. For a taste of how we got to Iraq, see THE DAILY HOWLER, 2/15/00, 12/11/01 and 9/11/02. In such places, you’ll meet a public disgrace. His name is Brian Williams. Last night, he was Keith’s special guest.

“Of course,” “exactly,” Olbermann said. Our general view? Two of a kind.

GOLDBERG’S TEST SCORES: Wow. We thought we’d seen bad “news reporting” before. Then we read this morning’s Washington Post—and this morning’s New York Times.

In each case, a mighty newspaper was “reporting” important new test scores. How significant are these test scores? In the Times, the story appears above the fold. On page one.

But in each case, before much real reporting occurs, the reporter in question tells the reader what he should think about these new test scores. And alas! In each case, the reporter’s interpretation borders on the fatuous. And uh-oh! The interpretations crammed into these newspapers’ opening paragraphs are directly at odds with each other!

Simple story: If you want to like No Child Left Behind, read the Post. If you want to think it stinks, go out and purchase the Times.

In each paper, the “news reporting” strikes us as quite bad. To start, let’s get clear on where these new national test scores come from.

As each reporter is able to say, the test scores come from the National Assessment of Educational Progress (the NAEP), the so-called “nation’s report card.” More specifically, these test scores come from the NAEP’s “Long-Term Trend” assessment, one of two major national assessments the NAEP conducts. In its Long-Term Trend assessment, the NAEP tests large samples of the nation’s 9-year-olds, 13-year-olds and 17-year-olds, in both reading and math. This “Long-Term Trend” assessment has been conducted since 1971. The new test scores, from 2008, were the first gathered in this program since 2004.

(In its other major national assessment, the NAEP tests the nation’s fourth-graders, eighth-graders and twelfth-graders. For the NAEP’s explanation of these two programs, just click here.)

Because the NAEP is considered the “gold standard” of educational assessment, these new test scores are important. But alas! At the Post, Maria Glod couldn’t even finish one paragraph without telling her readers what they should think about the new scores:

GLOD (4/29/09): Math and reading scores for 9- and 13-year-olds have risen since the 2002 enactment of No Child Left Behind, providing fuel to those who want to renew the federal law and strengthen its reach in high schools.

In the very first sentence of her report, Glod tells readers that the new test scores “provid[e] fuel to those who want to renew” No Child Left Behind. By paragraph five, she’s quoting Bush Ed Sec Margaret Spelling, who gushes about the way the new scores prove the success of her work.

If you read this morning’s Post, the new test scores seem to enhance the reputation of No Child Left Behind. And this is odd, because in the opening paragraphs of his own “news report,” the New York Times’ Sam Dillon seems to say just the opposite. As Dillon begins, he tells readers that the new test scores make No Child Left Behind look like a big flop. And for his first quote, he chooses an expert who says what he wants you to think:

DILLON (4/29/09): The achievement gap between white and minority students has not narrowed in recent years, despite the focus of the No Child Left Behind law on improving the scores of blacks and Hispanics, according to results of a federal test considered to be the nation's best measure of long-term trends in math and reading proficiency.

Between 2004 and last year, scores for young minority students increased, but so did those of white students, leaving the achievement gap stubbornly wide, despite President George W. Bush's frequent assertions that the No Child law was having a dramatic effect.

Although Black and Hispanic elementary, middle and high school students all scored much higher on the federal test than they did three decades ago, most of those gains were not made in recent years, but during the desegregation efforts of the 1970s and 1980s. That was well before the 2001 passage of the No Child law, the official description of which is ''An Act to Close the Achievement Gap.''

''There's not much indication that N.C.L.B. is causing the kind of change we were all hoping for,'' said G. Gage Kingsbury, a testing expert who is a director at the Northwest Evaluation Association in Portland. ''Trends after the law took effect mimic trends we were seeing before. But in terms of watershed change, that doesn't seem to be happening.”

It’s like the old joke known as Goldberg’s Law: The man with one watch always knows the time. The man with two watches isn’t sure.

Let’s be clear: There’s nothing automatically wrong with “interpreting” facts right up front. To some extent, all reporting involves acts of interpretation and judgment. But we groaned when we read Glod’s report—then groaned even louder when we read Dillon. In our view, each scribes is straining to offer an interpretation. Each interpretation strikes us as weak—and each interpretation intrudes on the need to understand basic information.

Tomorrow, we’ll look at what these test scores show, and we’ll discuss these dueling interpretations. By the way: The Post typically tends to pimp No Child Left Behind—and the Times typically tends to denigrate it. There may be reasons for these familiar slants—perhaps even a conflict of interest of two! We’ll discuss that tomorrow as well.

These new test scores are very important—if you care about low-income kids. They just don’t seem to be as important as the desire, at the Post and the Times, to tell readers what they should think about a highly politicized program. But then, low-income kids tend to finish second in these lofty, upper-class precincts. They never really seem to get their own day in the sun.

Something else always seems to come first. Tomorrow, we’ll guess what it is.