FRIDAY, APRIL 30, 2004
A PAIR OF DISORDERED ELITES: We agree with one of our readersbecause he agrees with us. He wrote us about yesterdays HOWLER, in which we warned of the mortal danger created by our press elite.
E-MAIL: I never forward e-mails, articles, etc. on to my relatives After reading today's Howler (April 29, 2004), I changed my mind. I have often read your column and have appreciated your insight into our national media and get a laugh out of your observations regarding those Millionaire Pundit Values. I never really considered the consequences until todays column sucker punched me in the stomach and, quite literally, sent shivers down my spine.Our reader did forward yesterdays HOWLER to his relatives, he incomparably said. But is it true? Will Osamas men come with a bomb and destroy an American city? Theyre hoping to do sobut our national press corps wont stop writing about peanut butter sandwiches. The day that bomb goes off in this country, will Maureen Dowd have a column on that?
Yes, we have a disordered press elite. But our political elite is disordered too. This is off our usual beat, but since no one else will tell you to do so, we strongly suggest that you read Dana Priests front-page report from Tuesdays Post. According to Priest, even after 9/11, you couldnt get the House or the Senate to pay attention to intelligence matters. How many senators actually read that October 2002 NIE on Iraq? Hint: You can count the number on your two hands. Americans should be deeply troubled.
Why wont senators do their job? Jay Rockefellers embarrassing explanations forced us to avert our gaze. Americans should be deeply frightened. Your political elite refuses to work. Your press elite loves peanut butter.
ALAN MURRAY SEES NO EVIL: Weve promised you Dick-and-Jane tales from Woodwards book, and dont worry, Woodward provides them. On pages 255-56, for example, he pens a strange but uplifting tale as we see George rise above politics. Later, the author struggles amazingly hard to help us see Colin be honest. Often, his book seems written for seven-year-olds. In the following passage, Woodward records some deathless advice Bush supposedly got on Iraq:
WOODWARD (pages 251-252): Other than Rice, Bush said he didnt need to ask the principals whether they thought he should go to war. He knew what Cheney thought, and he decided not to ask Powell or RumsfeldThats the end of chapter 23. It would make a sterling passagein a third-grade biography of Bush. But can this passage possibly reflect the type of counsel that guided Bush as he moved toward war with Iraq? Sorrywe find that hard to believe. This passage reads like something elselike a dumbed-down, crafted White House version of The Advice Our Wise Leader Was Given. Did Hughes really capture Bushs own sentiments in these remarksor did she capture Karl Roves PR strategy? Because we assume that Bush conducted some sort of adult discussion, we assume the latter is more likely true. But Woodward puts this passage right in his book, and pretends that he thinks it did happen.
We may get to those more significant Dick-and-Jane tales next week. But today, we ask you to consider the way the press is reading this puzzling book. In particular, we direct you to Allan Murrays remarkable piece in this Tuesdays Wall Street Journala column which shows the Deliberate Group Blindness informing reviews of this book.
Murray starts with a simple question: So why is the White House giving [Plan of Attack] such a warm embrace? After all, Murray notes, Rush Limbaugh has called the book an anti-Bush screed, and Bill Press has said that Kerry will win by a landslide if it is widely read. Why, then, has the White House expressed satisfaction with Woodwards text? Murray finally gives his answerthe book makes Bushs aides look bad, but it makes Bush look like that Strong Leader:
MURRAY: If there is any bias in the Woodward book, it is the standard tendency of Washington journalism to lean toward their best sources. In this case, Woodwards best source was the U.S. president. All else aside, the book depicts the president as strong and in charge of his own administration. Those around him appear in less flattering light.Murray notes the way other figures get dissed. Secretary of State Colin Powell is Hamlet on the Potomac, he says. Vice President Cheney has the fever for war and refers to Mr. Bush as the Man. With regrets, one must ask the obvious question: Has Murray even read Woodwards book?
In fact, Murrays account is hard to square with what occurs in this book. Does Plan of Attack depict the president as strong and in charge of his own administration? As we have noted, the book shows something hugely different in the summer and fall of 2002, as the White House moves toward war. In August 2002, Cheney proposes a major address about Iraqand if you believe Woodwards book (we dont), Bush doesnt bother asking Cheney what he plans to say in it! And what did Cheney plan to say? Trouble is what Cheney had in mind, Woodward says. In Woodwards account, Cheney gives a speech in which he issued his own National Intelligence Estimate of Saddam, an assessment of Saddams WMD that went beyond anything the CIA had said. Cheney also said that these WMD were as great a threat as can be imagined. According to Woodward, Powell was astonished by this, and rightly so, because [t]hese remarks, just short of a declaration of war, were widely viewed as administration policy. RememberWoodward says that Bush didnt even know what Cheney was going to say in this speech. Two weeks later, Woodward shows Bush following Cheneys leadnow Bush starts overstating the intelligence, just the way Cheney has done.
If you believe this account (and again, we find it hard to do so), a virtual coup has now occurred. The vice president, not the president, has gone out, given a major speech, and recast U.S. war policy. According to Woodward, three more months go by that fall before Bush gets briefed about WMD. Cheney, not Bush, has revamped U.S policy. Again: Powell was astonished, the book says.
But dont bother waking up Alan Murray as he limns Plan of Attack. Like every other establishment pundit, Murray chooses to ignore this astonishing episode as he describes Woodwards book. Plan of Attack depicts the president as strong and in charge of his own administration, he politely agrees to say. Cheney refers to Mr. Bush as the Man, Murray sayswhen he wasnt taking over the United States government, wed guess.
Again, we find Woodwards account very hard to believe; we find this story absurdly implausible. But if it actually did occur, its a major scandal. So why does the White House promote Woodwards book? Easyit has taken the measure of pundits like Murray! The White House knows what you know now: Every pundit, Woodward included, will agree to ignore what this book really says. How fake, how phony is American news? First, read Woodwards Plan of Attack. Then, read Tuesdays Journal.
WOODWARDS SUMMATION: Heres how Woodward summarizes this episode in his epilogue:
WOODWARD (page 442): [G]iven her closeness and status with Bush, if anyone could have warned the president to moderate his own categorical statements about WMD, it was Rice.If true, that is an astonishing story. Murraya good boyignores the tale. Woodward says that Bush was in charge, he knows he has to pretend.
SHOULD-HAVE-SEEN TV: Last night, Frontline went where most pundits wont with a show about Bushs religion. Why is Bushs religion an issue? In recent weeks, the president has made a number of statements about spreading freedom around the world. These statements seem to contradict the humble foreign policy on which he ran. And the statements have seemed to contain a religious dimensiona dimension which has rarely been explored by the nations press. Americans need to understand the basis of the presidents thinking. But then, how many of our timorous pundits will dare to raise such naughty questions? After all, Murray wont even acknowledge the contents of Woodwards book; does anyone think that such good boys will dare ask Bush about his new views? Its much more fun to go back thirty years in time and lament John Kerrys troubling comments. Your half-witted pundits know their scripts. Let them eat peanut butter, they have said.
TIMES GETS TOOK: How inept (or corrupt) is the New York Times? Yesterday, the paper published an inexcusable letter about Kerrya letter which played Times readers for fools (see THE DAILY HOWLER, 4/29/04). The letter said that Kerry had only fingernail scrapes to show for his three Purple Hearts, a statement which is blatantly false. Plainly, this letter should never have been published.
Yes, this bogus letter should have been deep-sixed. The facts it proclaimed were blatantly false, as any editor should have known. But how big a mark is the New York Times? Yesterday, a reader wrote us about Cook Barela of Riverside, California, the man who wrote this bogus letter. No, he isnt just the consummate rube we incomparably took him to be:
E-MAIL: Cook Barelaits even worse. Hes a Republican hack who ran for Congress from Riverside. It smelled like a bullshit letter so I googled him. Took me all of 3 seconds to find, but that was apparently too difficult for the NYT.To see Barela listed as a candidate, click here. Ironically, the gentleman is a retired police chaplainjust the type to be sending nasty, bogus facts to be published in the hapless New York Times.
Now, lets clarify something our e-mailer says. Former candidates should of course be free to have their letters published. This letter should have been dumped because its facts were fake, not because of who sent it. But Barela played the Times for fools, and the Times got took real good.
For the record, Barela sports a colorful recent history. In 2003, a school district in southern California threatened legal action against him for maintaining a look-alike Web site. According to the Riverside Press Enterprise, the district also accuse[d] Barela of trying to force the district to buy the Web site. But by that time, such disputes were old hat for the New York Times newest war correspondent. Three years earlier, a local Vietnam Veterans of America chapter threatened to sue him over a similar matter, eventually paying Barela an undisclosed fee to relinquish a look-alike site. Also in 2003, a local school board member resigned his post, complaining of harassment by a Barela-led group. A group like this is just evil, the board member told a local newspaper. Why was Barela upset with the board? According to the paper, Barela had launched a loosely organized campaign against the board after the panels vote to name Glen Avon High School. (Barela said they should have allowed more time for public comment.) Most intriguingly, Barela organized a petition drive in 2000 against Virginia senator Chuck Robb, who was running for re-election (he lost). Barela served under Robb in Vietnam; the petition claimed that Robb was lying about two wartime incidents, although Barela acknowledged that he hadnt been present to witness either event. Barelas way with the facts was already clear; according to the Norfolk Virginian-Pilot, [a]nother of Robbs oft-told war stories is mischaracterized in the petitions text. But so what? According to the Norfolk paper, Barela readily admits that he has no respect for Robb, as a captain and as a U.S. senator.
None of this would make any difference if Barela had sent the Times an accurate letter. Sadly, he sent a baldly inaccurate letterbut the Times ran to publish it anyway, trashing Kerry and exposing readers to more of the ugly disinformation which is fouling this White House campaign. Our crackpots are now spreading tales about Kerry, just as they did for two years about Gore. Question: How in the world did the New York Times fail to see that the facts here were false?
DUMBING DOWN OUR NEWSPAPERS: As weve told you, our major papers never tire of fairy tales about urban schools. The Post published such a column on Tuesday. Headline: Dumbing Down Our Schools. The piece was written by Ruth Mitchell, an educational consultant.
MITCHELL: Im not alone in trying to focus attention on the low level of teaching. A West Coast group called DataWorks has been analyzing the work given to students since the late 1990s. In one California elementary school, DataWorks found that 2 percent of the work in the fifth grade was on grade. Thats not a misprint: 98 percent of the work that students were doing was at the level of the fourth, third, second and even first grades. In South Carolina, DataWorks looked at work assigned in 14 high schools and found that most of the 12th-grade work was just below 10th grade level.Where are these atrocities occurring? Mitchell seems to be citing schools which serve minority kids. Students in the schools we visit are not turned on, she laments. Black, brown, speaking broken or accented English, with cultural values clashing with those of the white middle class, they are seen as needing elementary instruction in secondary school. But why would someone see them this way? Since the 60s, the answer has been traditional: racism. Mitchell suggests another reason, even as she rejects it:
MITCHELL: Teachers say they have to teach the students where they are, which means at sixth-grade level in high school if they cant read well. Their attitude may be compassionate, but it is misguided. Theres ample evidence that accelerating instruction works better than retarding it in the name of remediation. Observations made in the Dallas Unified School District show that students who score well have teachers who cover the curriculum appropriate to the grade level.Kids should be taught on grade level, she says, insisting that we should reject the teaching professions excuses. This feel-good prescription always plays wellin the nations newspapers, if not in its classrooms.
Mitchells column takes us back to an earlier discussion. How should schools deal with kids whose reading skills are years below traditional grade level? Lets state the obvious: If a high school student is reading on sixth-grade levelthe example Mitchell cites in her columnyou simply cant hand him a standard twelfth-grade book! Duhhe wont be able to understand it! (That, dear readers, is what it means when we say hes reading on sixth-grade level!) Unless youre writing fairy tales, you really cant wave a magic wand and make these students perform a task for which theyre completely unprepared. Thats why we dont ask average twelfth-grade kids to do the work of MIT grad students.
How should such students be instructed? The answer has been clear for decades, but major newspapersand educational consultantsinsist on muddying waters. Suppose a tenth-grader reads on fifth-grade level; what should be do in a history class? To the extent possible, he should be asked to study tenth-grade materialbut his textbooks should be written at a level he can read and understand. Yesyou can produce a tenth-grade text written at fifth-grade reading level. Its called high-content, low-readability. The concept was already dog-eared when we started teaching Baltimore fifth-graders in 1969.
Of course, such books are hard to find. Textbook companies dont like to publish them, because urban systems dont like to buy them. Urban systems like to pretend that their students are doing better than they are. And consultants like to wander about talking up magic solutions.
What really happens in urban schools when kids are far below grade level? Teachers know the kids cant read standard textsso they often dont give them a textbook at all! The failure to thrive proceeds from there, as the educationally poor get poorer.
Mitchells ideas sound really greatunless youre actually in a classroom. Or unless you have a magic wand, which consultants use to help them zip in and out of our troubled urban schools.
POSTSCRIPT: In that California fifth grade, why was 98 percent of the work being done at third or fourth grade level? We werent there, but we can guess. Frequently, no one in an urban fifth grade is working at traditional grade level! Every urban teacher knows this. Consultants, though, are suitably shocked, and so are the nations concerned editors.