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THURSDAY, APRIL 30, 2009

We take the Olbermann Challenge: Quite bravely, a $5 Million Man fought back last night against his mewling critics.

We couldn’t help admiring his courage. So we poured ourselves a glass of Pepsi—and took the Olbermann Challenge.

Background: Olbermann had just finished interviewing his honored colleague, Chris Matthews, perhaps the most consequential cable clown of the past fifteen years. (You rarely hear that, because “career liberals” simply refuse to discuss it. Career players can’t get booked on MSNBC if they tell the truth.)

Back to Keith and Matthews: After the lovin’ was done, the host played tape of President Obama at yesterday’s town hall meeting. Then, he voiced the hurt he’s felt in recent weeks:

OLBERMANN (4/29/09): Chris Matthews, who will not only bring you a special news conference edition of Hardball live tonight at 11:00 p.m. Eastern but also tonight, graces the stage of the Tonight show with Jay Leno on your local NBC station. Safe trip home, my friend.

MATTHEWS: Hey, thanks, Keith.

OLBERMANN: As senators Specter and Snowe decry those who have radicalized the Republican Party, the president took a chance in Missouri today to reach out to them:

OBAMA (videotape): Those of you who are watching certain news channels on which I’m not very popular, and you see folks waving tea bags around, let me just remind them that I am happy to have a serious conversation.

OLBERMANN: Hey, you don’t like that phrase “tea bag?” Address your complaints to him, not to me!

We’ll offer this thought about Olbermann’s comment, and about human nature in general: If you pay a “newsman” five million bucks, you’ll end up with a clown every time.

For our money, that was an uncharacteristic moment for Obama—and not an especially good one. It’s one thing to criticize political leaders who make foolish statements—and such leaders abound in our gong-show political culture. It’s another thing to make sarcastic remarks about average citizens—average citizens who have sensible fears about where the future might lead. On rare occasions, Obama seems to give in to frustration; he gets sarcastic in a way which seems aimed at regular people—and he did so in yesterday’s statement. Our general view? Obama is popular—and highly respected—because he so rarely does this.

Olbermann’s reaction to this event was that of a cable clown.

Poor Olbermann! Along with cable sidekick Rachel Maddow, he recently spent the better part of a week name-calling average people—reeling off endless strings of dick jokes at their expense. He called them “tea-baggers,” childishly insisting on a sexual slang meaning of the term; he also turned ”tea bag” into a verb, using this as a brilliant way to extend his sexual insults. Obama did none of this in yesterday’s comment. In our view, his comment was ill-advised—but he didn’t do the various things for which Olbermann has been criticized.

(In Olbermann’s defense, most of the people he has insulted didn’t go to Cornell. Or even to Stanford!)

Sorry. Obama didn’t do the things for which Olbermann has been criticized. Presumably, Olbermann understands this. But if you pay a “newsman” $5 million, you’ll get a clown every time. A clown who treats viewers like low-IQ fools. A clown who keeps deceiving the demo—even as he stalks it.

Olbermann played the fool—again. We thought his presentation was especially grimy if you consider Obama’s larger remarks from yesterday’s town hall meeting. The president was in Missouri with Senator Claire McCaskill. His “tea bag” remark occurred in this larger context:

OBAMA (4/29/09): I know you've been hearing all these arguments about, oh, Obama’s just spending crazy, look at these huge trillion-dollar deficits, blah blah blah. Well, let me make a point: Number one, we inherited a $1.3 trillion deficit. (Applause.) That wasn't from my—that wasn't me. That wasn't me. Number two, there is almost uniform consensus among economists that in the middle of the biggest crisis, financial crisis since the Great Depression, we had to take extraordinary steps. So you've got a lot of Republican economists who agree that we had to do a stimulus package and we had to do something about the banks. Those are one-time charges and they're big and they'll make our deficits go up over the next two years, but those aren't the problem that we face long-term.

What we face long-term, the biggest problem we have is that Medicare and Medicaid, health care costs are skyrocketing, and at the same time that the population's getting older, which is—means we're using more health care. You combine those two things, and if we aren't careful, health care will consume so much of our budget that ultimately we won't be able to do anything else.

We won't be able to provide financial assistance to students. We won't be able to help build green energy. We won't be able to help industry if they get into trouble. We won't have a National Park System. We won't be able to do what we—supposed to do on our veterans. Everything else will be pushed aside because of Medicare and Medicaid. That's the problem that we really confront.

That's why I've said we've got to have health reform this year to drive down costs (applause) and make health care affordable for American families, businesses and for our government.

So, so, you know, when you—when you see, you know— you know, those of you who are watching certain news channels that, on which I'm not very popular, and you see folks waving tea bags around (laughter) let me just remind them that I am happy to have a serious conversation about how we are going to cut our health care costs down over the long term, how we're going to stabilize Social Security.

Claire and I are working diligently to do basically a thorough audit of federal spending. But but let's not play games and pretend that the reason is because of the Recovery Act, because that's just a fraction of the overall problem that we've got. We are going to have to tighten our belts, but we're going to have to do it in an intelligent way, and we got to make sure that the people who are helped are working American families and we're not suddenly saying that the way to do this is to eliminate programs that help ordinary people and give more tax cuts to the wealthy. We tried that formula for eight years. It did not work, and I don't intend to go back to it. (Applause.)

We agree with much of what Obama says here—conceivably, with all of it. He did inherit a $1.3 trillion deficit; it’s abundantly fair when he says that deficit “isn’t him” (isn’t his doing). He also inherited the giant downturn/financial collapse which lies behind that massive deficit. In fact, he inherited the worst financial situation of any president since Franklin Roosevelt. That encompasses seventy-six years.

That said, massive deficits persist in years 7-10 under Obama, according to the non-partisan, Democratic-run CBO. A silly tea-bagger named Jeff Greenfield mentioned that situation on last night’s Charlie Rose:

ROSE (4/29/09): I’m struck by—in terms of these speeches and the press conferences, how [Obama] continues to come back to a sort of series of themes that fit together, reflect the kind of mindset and reflect the sense of the way he thinks the country’s potential and the country’s ability to go beyond where it is today.

GREENFIELD: But here’s what I can’t figure out at all. Maybe it’s because I was a liberal arts major a hundred years ago. I look at these numbers, and if you take Obama and the administration’s numbers, and you assume robust growth next year, and you assume that he’s right as opposed to the Congressional Budget Office, which says he’s off by $2.3 trillion—at the end of this eight years, we’re still wallowing in an awfully big deficit with an accumulated debt, and the thing that I have yet to hear from any of these people is a real, concrete explanation of why this isn’t a recipe for disaster.

Greenfield was willing to use Obama’s numbers, not the CBO’s gloomier figures. Even then, he said he doesn’t know why the numbers aren’t a recipe for disaster.

In fact, Greenfield isn’t a working-class stiff—the kind of person Olbermann and Maddow are paid to mock on your TV machine. Greenfield is a very experienced newsman—much more so than either of these overpaid “cable progressives.” And Greenfield says, when he looks at the figures, he can’t see why we aren’t headed toward a disaster. “The thing that I have yet to hear from any of these people is a real, concrete explanation,” he says.

You might see that as a request for “a serious conversation”—the kind of conversation Obama says he also wants to have.

Simple point: You’ll never see that conversation on Olbermann’s TV program. (We hold out hope for Maddow.) The big lug is paid $5 million per year—and whenever you pay that kind of swag, you end up with a dumb cable clown. (Matthews became our biggest clown in the late 1990s. He was barely pulling one million!) Last night, Olbermann talked down to the rubes again; he pretended Obama had done the things for which he himself has been unfairly criticized. But Obama hadn’t done those things. Olbermann surely knew that.

Greenfield wants a serious conversation; so does President Obama. You’ll never see it on Olbermann’s show. On his TV show, you’re a toy. You’re valued as part of the demo.

NOTHING TO LOOK AT: Down with the Post and the Times! We thought the newspapers did equal-but-opposite, rather poor jobs reporting the important test scores which were released this week. (The data were released by the National Assessment of Educational Progress—the NAEP.) In our view, each paper rushed to interpret the data before it had really reported the data. In particular, the papers presented dueling views about the merits of No Child Left Behind. Each paper’s interpretation was silly, and forced, we incomparably thought (see THE DAILY HOWLER, 4/29/06).

That said, the Times offered a much more detailed report about these new scores—a report which started above the fold on page one. At one point, reporter Sam Dillon presented an especially large dose of basic, key information. Everything in the following paragraph helps explain the basic thrust of these new data—test scores in a “long-term trend” assessment which dates to 1971.

Judging from the new NAEP scores, what kind of progress have Americans children shown since the early 1970s? Three or four important points are crammed into this single paragraph:

DILLON (4/29/09): Despite gains that both whites and minorities did make, the overall scores of the United States’ 17-year-old students, averaged across all groups, were the same as those of teenagers who took the test in the early 1970s. This was largely due to a shift in demographics: there are now far more lower-scoring minorities in relation to whites. In 1971, the proportion of white 17-year-olds who took the reading test was 87 percent, while minorities were 12 percent. Last year, whites had declined to 59 percent while minorities had increased to 40 percent.

In that paragraph, Dillon includes at least three bits of essential information. In the literal sense, he’s talking about the 17-year-olds who get tested as part of the “long-term trend” assessment. But for the most part, these basic facts also obtain for the 9-year-olds and 13-year-olds who get tested in this program:

There’s one more fact which isn’t included in that pregnant paragraph: While scores have risen for all three groups, scores have risen more sharply for blacks and Hispanics. For that reason, those “achievement gaps” have tended to narrow, often substantially, over these thirty-plus years.

Repeat: Test scores from all three groups have improved—fairly substantially, we’d have to say. And those famous “achievement gaps” have tended to shrink in the process. In 1971, for example, white 13-year-olds outscored their black counterparts by a gruesome 39 points in reading—on a scale where ten points is sometimes compared, very roughly, to one academic year. (Very roughly. But that gives you a rough frame of reference.) On these new data from 2008, that gap is down to 21 points. You can call that “half empty” if you prefer. Thinking of the very hard work many people have contributed down through the years, we would be inclined to call that improvement “half full.”

For the most part, all three groups are doing better—and those gaps have declined. By the normal rules of the game, this should count as good news. But very few people have ever heard this news, and the Post and the Times largely invested their time and energy this week in arguing about No Child Left Behind. (The Post said good; the Times said bad.) Why is the public so poorly informed? Why are these data so rarely discussed? Why did the Post and the Times feel they had to debate No Child Left Behind before fulfilling their basic function—before trying to inform the public about these important data?

We’ll discuss those questions a bit more tomorrow. But let’s understand several things:

Tomorrow, we’ll look at the assessments of No Child Left Behind found in Wednesday’s Post and Times. In the meantime, we’ll make a suggestion: Look at the new data from the NAEP—“the nation’s report card.” To see black 9-year-olds gaining on their white counterparts in reading, click here, then click to page 14. (Both groups are scoring much higher than in 1971. The “achievement gap” has shrunk from 44 points to its current 24.) To see black 13-year-olds gaining on their white counterparts in math, click to page 35. (A gruesome 46-point gap is down to 28.) Some of you will cry and complain, saying you deserve a world where there are no gaps at all. This will often (not always) be the people who have never dunked their delicate toes inside a low-income school.

Centuries of brutal, benighted history created those ugly, heart-breaking gaps. No one understood in 1965—but those achievement gaps wouldn’t be wished away just because we no longer wanted them. But forty years later, Americans simply never discuss the important data found in those charts. Whether you call it half-full or half-empty, we never discuss the progress seen there. When our very smart president misstates basic reality, it doesn’t produce the slightest reaction. And our biggest newspapers lead their reports with silly, dueling pseudo-assessments of a highly politicized program.

We progressives never discuss urban schools. Today’s question: People! Why is that?