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OLDEST TRICK IN THE BOOK! Dowd wanted to lie about Obama. So she quoted the man-in-the-street: // link // print // previous // next //
WEDNESDAY, MAY 7, 2008

APPARENTLY WE CAN’T HAVE NICE THINGS: Tomorrow, more on the flag fandango. Today, we break for Dowd.

LEAVE NO BULL-ROAR BEHIND: If you want to read a really bad news report, try today’s deeply unfortunate offering from the New York Times’ Adam Nossiter.

The headline: “Changes at New Orleans Schools Bring Gains in Test Scores.” As he opens, Nossiter offers a claim which makes us feel good. But it’s quite hard to sustain:

NOSSITER (5/7/08): A broad education overhaul under way here has produced improvement in test scores, results released Tuesday showed, though many students are still struggling.

The number of fourth graders who passed a state promotional exam increased by 12 percentage points over the previous year, and eighth graders improved by four percentage points.

We’ll have to admit it. That eighth-grade improvement didn’t sound very large; indeed, it sounded like the kind of change which could just be statistical noise. (That might be especially true in a system in upheaval, like New Orleans. Or so we thought as we read this report.) But so what? As Nossiter stated his view, he didn’t betray a shred of doubt. This improvement in test scores had been produced by the city’s “broad education overhaul.” Soon, he was quoting a local official making claims which we couldn’t quite parse:

NOSSITER: ''The gains at the fourth- and eighth-grade level are impressive, and significantly outperform the state, and New Orleans historically didn't outperform the state,'' said Leslie Jacobs, a former state school board member and longtime education reformer here.

Really? Those eighth-grade gains are impressive? Last year, according to Nossiter, 32 percent of eighth-graders passed the promotion exam; this year, 36 percent passed. Yes, that’s a gain—but it strikes us as fairly minor. (In fourth grade, 36 percent passed last year; that rose to 48 percent.) And the rest of Jacobs’ statement was, as quoted, essentially indecipherable. The fourth-grade gain “significantly outperformed” the state? What exactly did that mean? As a reader, we had no real idea.

Is it true? Was this change in passing rates caused by changes in the way this system is run? If you care about struggling kids, you’ll be careful before making such judgments. But papers like the New York Times have played the game this way for decades. Low-income children are there for sport. If you can offer a feel-good assessment, well by gum, you just do it.

Unsurprisingly, the report today in the Times-Picayune is more careful—and much more professional. Maybe Sarah Carr is a more caring person; maybe she’s simply smarter than Nossiter. But Carr cared enough about her craft to offer a string of disclaimers and qualifications as she assessed the results:

CARR (5/7/08): Although substantial changes in the schools and student populations during the past two years make direct comparisons or decisive conclusions difficult, Recovery School District Superintendent Paul Vallas said the scores represent "consistent growth across the system."

He credits smaller class sizes and an energetic pool of new teachers.

"Once we bring all our reforms out to scale, I'm absolutely convinced we will have growth next year and that it will be even stronger growth," Vallas said Tuesday.

Vallas acknowledged, however, that apples-to-apples comparisons with last year are difficult because of the large influx of new students in district-operated schools. He said the district hopes soon to release a breakdown showing how the results of students who have attended district schools for two years compare with the results of more recent arrivals.

Given the instability New Orleans children faced in the two years after the storm and the turmoil as the Recovery District opened in the fall of 2006, some test score gains were to be expected. Since taking the helm a year ago, Vallas had all but promised some increase, noting repeatedly that he has never had a year as superintendent without test score gains.

Tuesday, he was pleased with the growth at all levels, and "at certain grade levels, more than pleasantly surprised.”

Go ahead. Read those three highlighted disclaimers (one by Vallas himself), then read Nossiter’s opening passage. Nossiter makes a sweeping claim. Carr does massively better.

Two thoughts:

Again, our major newspapers have always treated low-income schools as upper-class sport. For decades, they have used these types of stories as a way to showcase their own good intentions. They like to make their readers feel good. They hand them pap, pure and simple.

Then too, here’s a second thought, one we’ve offered a few times before: In modern journalistic culture, it’s amazing how often the work gets dumber as you move “up” the scale. Today, again, the Times is sad. The Picayune? Massively smarter.

OLDEST TRICK IN THE BOOK: Herr mom was a crackpot; her dad was a nut. Her brothers are out of their minds to this day. Maureen Dowd has sprinkled these nuggets in her columns down through the years. But it doesn’t seem to have occurred to her bosses that there may be a minor family resemblance playing out in her columns.

Result? This morning, lying face down in her town house, Dowd offends against even the minor decencies her “professional cohort” obeys. Then too, she offers a student many lessons in her trade’s standard deceptions. But let’s start with her most glaring performance. At long last, has the Times no shame?

DOWD (5/7/08): Wandering around Indiana, appearing in neighborhoods and at diners without any advance notice, talking to handfuls of people, Obama strived to seem less lofty and more mortal. Hounded by Hillary, Bill and Rev. Wright, he just looked sort of numb...

In a restaurant in Greenwood on Tuesday, Obama approached an older white guy who waved him off, muttering afterwards to a reporter: “I can’t stand him. He’s a Muslim. He’s not even pro-American as far as I’m concerned.”

Trust us. By this time, even Dowd has heard that Obama isn’t a Muslim. But if you’re as crazy as Maureen Dowd is, something inside you wants you to say it, even though you know it’s false. You know you can’t say it in your own voice—and so you turn to an old, treasured trick. It’s so simple! You find a misinformed man in the street—and you simply quote him saying it! That way, you get to spread the bogus tale—and your writing is “technically accurate.” (While you’re at it, why not say that Obama was “wandering around,” “looking sort of numb.”) The technical lesson is simple:

Lesson: To publish a fact you know to be false, just quote the man in the street.

We first discussed this trick of the trade back in the summer of 1999, when the Washington Times’ Bill Sammon was using it (on page one) against Gore. Dowd employs this famous old skill in the midst of this morning’s column—and thereby pimps the year’s fakest tale. Our question: Does the New York Times employ any editors? Or are they face-down drunk, like Dowd?

More on this piece of text below. First, though, let’s review some other techniques found in this gruesome column:

Lesson: To punish a target whom you loathe, come up with some sort of fake quote. As she dragged herself up from the floor, Dowd was hunting the she-bitch down. And sure enough! She knew what to do! She conjured her latest fake “quote:”

DOWD: [H]eaven help the Democrats as they try to shake off Hillary. On top of her inane vows to obliterate Iran, OPEC and the summer gas tax, she plans “a nuclear option” during her Shermanesque march to Denver. Tom Edsall reported on The Huffington Post that the Hillaryites will try, at a May 31 meeting of the Democratic Rules and Bylaws Committee, to renege on their word and get the Michigan and Florida delegations seated.

Last week, we showed you how the lords and ladies ran with—embellished—that “kitchen sink” “quote” (see THE DAILY HOWLER, 4/30/08). But Dowd’s work here is even more glorious. Did Clinton say she was planning a “nuclear option?” Dowd’s readers may well get that impression. They’ll get that impression because Dowd, while offering a stinging quote, absent-mindedly forgot to say who she was actually quoting! In fact, that was the Huffington Post’s (disingenuous) language, not Clinton’s (and no, not Edsall’s); the language was drawn from a headline on Edsall’s piece, not from Edsall himself. Again: It’s an old, classic trick. Dowd, dragging herself from the floor, knew it would work in her column.

Lesson: No assessment of body language is ever too stupid or nuanced to publish. Just before making Obama a Muslim, Dowd offered this assessment of the gentleman, who had been wandering around looking numb:

DOWD: Wandering around Indiana, appearing in neighborhoods and at diners without any advance notice, talking to handfuls of people, Obama strived to seem less lofty and more mortal. Hounded by Hillary, Bill and Rev. Wright, he just looked sort of numb. When Obama went to an 11:30 p.m. shift change at an auto components plant here, a Newsday reporter on the scene noted that many of the white men “were less likely to smile or look him in the eye or seem impressed with him.”

For the record, Newsday never published that highlighted language, apparently having too much sense; in fact, Dowd is quoting a press corps “pool report,” in which an unnamed reporter shows his skill at assessments of minute body language. Dowd’s clip doesn’t quite make sense, of course; we’re told that many of the white men were “less likely to smile” at Obama, but we’re not told less likely than whom. If you want to waste your time thoroughly, you can answer that question here. But note the types of fine discrimination a giant like Dowd will place in her column. According to Dowd’s clip, many of the white men (not all) were less likely to look Obama in the eye (not that they wouldn’t). Good God! Many men were less likely to seem impressed, we are told.

Do you really have faith in that sort of assessment? Neither does anyone else, it would seem. That’s why, according to Nexis, it was published by no one. Except Dowd.

Lesson: If you want to embarrass a target, quote letters she wrote when she was 18. In the next passage, Dowd made a key observation. Obama still won’t eat gravy. And then, she turned to another old trick. She fumbled through stacks of yellowed old letters, hoping to churn some embarrassment up. Variants on this stupid old play were frequently used against Gore:

DOWD: Even though people at diners kept trying to fatten up Obama—he drew the line at gravy—he looked increasingly diaphanous, like anti-matter to Hillary’s matter. She’s more appealing when she’s beaten down; he’s less imposing. Even his strategists admit that he will now need to “step it up,” as one said. And he did that with his victory speech in Raleigh, N.C., with a vivid paean to patriotism and “telling the truth forcefully, repeatedly, confidently.” As one aide crowed, “He’s back!”

It’s hard to believe that this Hillary is the same Wellesley girl who said she yearned for a more “ecstatic and penetrating mode of living.” What would that young Hillary—who volunteered on Gene McCarthy’s anti-war campaign; who cried the day Martin Luther King Jr. was killed; who referred to some of her “smorgasbord of personalities” in a 1967 letter to a friend as an “alienated academic,” and an “involved pseudo-hippie”; who once returned a bottle of perfume after feeling guilty about the poverty around her—think of this shape-shifting, cynical Hillary?

What would that young Hillary think? We’re not sure. What would a younger Dowd—the one who wasn’t face-down on the floor—have said about the broken-souled fruitcake who somehow produced this sad column?

We’ll be honest with you: Though Dowd has been publicly crazy for years, this was the first time we read her column and thought that she must have a substance problem. That’s unfortunate if true, of course—and the Times should get her some help. But how about giving the public some help? This column is stupid and ugly from its start to its end; it’s an open-sored pox on the public discourse. The Times just refuses to make this plague stop. They just won’t pick Dowd up from her throw-rug.

Dowd has been publicly crazy for years. But if you really want to see the place to which the Times has descended, just go back and read that paragraph about Obama being a Muslim. At long last, does this newspaper have no shame? More specifically: Does this newspaper have no editors? Yes, it’s the oldest trick in a sick book: You quote a misinformed man-in-the-street when you want to pimp a fake fact. Today, some “editor” let Dowd do it. This paper deserves to be thrown to the curb, where it may find its star pundit retching.

VISIT OUR INCOMPARABLE ARCHIVES: Sammon quoted a misinformed man in the street, thereby finding a way to print a fake, phony fact about Gore. It’s one of the oldest tricks in our book! See THE DAILY HOWLER, 7/30/99.