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Daily Howler: Giant events are under way in your world. So Keith limned Joe the Plumber
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LET THEM EAT JOE THE PLUMBER! Giant events are under way in your world. So Keith limned Joe the Plumber: // link // print // previous // next //
FRIDAY, MAY 8, 2009

Oversight styles of the rich and famous: Good grief. In New York State and New York City, passing rates improved this year on statewide reading tests. Jennifer Medina reports the new scores in this morning’s New York Times. Medina introduces a helpful new way of reviewing such scores, although she does make a series of technical flubs in the process. But we were stunned by the way her report ended—specifically, by a statement Medina attributes to Merryl Tisch, the “newly elected chancellor of the State Education Department.”

To her credit, Medina had already focused on a key question: Is there any chance that these statewide tests have gotten easier over the years? (For ourselves, we have no way to know. But the question is stunningly basic.) This basic question is even raised in her report’s sub-headline: “Welcome news, but skeptics wonder if the tests have become easier.” We give Medina big props for that. But at the end of Medina’s report, Tisch’s quote is a stunner:

MEDINA (5/8/09): The test is given to public school students in the third through eighth grades. Math scores are expected to be released later this spring.

Several lawmakers and critics have said they were suspicious of gains in the state tests, compared with results on the National Assessment of Educational Progress test, which showed few signs of progress for New York City students in 2007, the most recent year for which results were available. City officials dismissed that criticism on Thursday, saying that the national assessment results for 2009, which will be released in the fall, could show a different picture.


Ms. Tisch suggested that New York and other states should adopt a single standard so that scores and proficiency levels could be compared. She raised questions about the difficulty of the state’s tests. “As a board, we will ask whether the test is getting harder or easier,” she said.

Let’s be fair to Tisch. She’s new to her post as head of the Board of Regents—although she’s served as a member of the board since 1996. And we don’t have a full transcript of what she said. We just have Medina’s quote-and-paraphrase.

That said, Tisch’s statement is quite remarkable.

“As a board, we will ask whether the test is getting harder or easier?” What the fig has the board been doing for the past thirteen years? To state the blindingly obvious, the question Tisch raises is well beyond basic; it makes no sense to compare test scores from one year to the next unless we know that the tests in question have remained equally difficult. And in New York City, this question was specifically raised by skeptical teachers at least as far back as 2005 (see THE DAILY HOWLER, 10/6/05). But good God! Four years later, Lady Tisch is quoted saying, somewhat airily, that the Board of Regents will now check this out. What on earth has the board been doing up until now?

Again, let’s be fair: All we have is the quote Medina presented; Tisch’s full statement may make fuller sense. Then too, why wouldn’t Medina see the oddness of the statement she recorded? As we’ve noted in the past: State education departments should be able to demonstrate that this year’s test is as hard as last year’s. If tests of this type have been competently devised, this shouldn’t be a matter of guesswork. State departments should have technical manuals which show the new tests are equally hard. For some time, we’ve noted that reporters at newspapers like the Times should be insisting on this.

But the New York Times hasn’t insisted. And now, years later, we’re airily told that the board will look into the matter!

In education, as in other fields, the screaming incompetence of oversight boards can be a thing to behold. A few years back, the state board in Virginia stared off into space while a deeply ludicrous test-score scam was perpetrated on the public. One member of the nine-member board was a major “educational expert”—we didn’t know until years later—but no one said boo about the scam until the HOWLER came along, heroically busting the matter wide open (see THE DAILY HOWLER, 3/23/06). Now, Lady Tisch has apparently declared, at least four years after the question went public, that New York’s board will engage in a type of oversight that should have been done from the start.

But so it may go when oversight boards are composed of the rich and connected.

Who the heck is Merryl Tisch? By all accounts, she’s a very fine person. And she may turn out to be a great chancellor. But what follows is part of a New York Times profile written when Tisch ascended to head of the board. Lisa Foderaro described Tisch’s vast wealth and social connection—then quoted a strange assessment of Tisch’s remarkable status:

FODERARO (4/4/09): Dr. Tisch's ability to press her strengthened not only by her ascent to chief regent but also by her rank in New York's ruling class as the wife of James S. Tisch, the chief executive of the Loews Corporation, a conglomerate that includes hotels, insurance and oil-drilling operations.

She has enjoyed a decades-long friendship with her Upper East Side neighbor Mayor Michael R. Bloomberg. She has celebrated Passover Seders with Schools Chancellor Joel I. Klein. She counts among her closest friends Iris Weinshall, the wife of Senator Charles E. Schumer.


''One thing about Merryl—she's not afraid to say what she thinks,'' said Seymour Fliegel, president of the Center for Educational Innovation-Public Education Association, a nonprofit organization. ''That goes for the mayor and chancellor and so on. People who have a lot of money tend to be more independent than people who don't have a lot of money, and the Tisches have a lot of money.”

In fact, the Tisches are enormously wealthy (link below)—not that there’s anything wrong with it! But what an amazing presentation we get in that Times profile! Foderaro frankly describes Tisch as part of “New York’s ruling class”—close friends, for example, with Bloomberg and Klein, people whom the Board of Regents is supposed to be overseeing. Most amazingly, we then see these apparent conflicts turned directly on their head. According to Fliegel, the fact that Tisch is vastly wealthy and vastly connected means she’s just that much more likely to tattle-tale on her close friends! Let’s just say that Fliegel’s a man who knows how to see things half full.

At any rate: After thirteen years on the Board of Regents, Lady Tisch has now decided to find out if the sky is blue—or at least, she says she’s planning to do that. In a culture which turns on wealth/fame/connection, it can be quite an “education” to see the way oversight works.

More on Medina’s report at a later date. She does introduce a helpful new type of analysis, while making some flubs in the process. Meanwhile: For a tangier account of Tisch’s “fabulously wealthy family,” you know what to do: Click here. Oversight styles can really be grand among the rich and famous.

Can anyone play this ball game: As you may recall, Joel Klein seemed to say, in a recent letter, that he doesn’t know if the tests have gotten easier! (See THE DAILY HOWLER, 4/25/09.) Does anyone in the whole state of New York know how this ball game is played? So it goes when fellers like Klein get oversight from their good friends.

LET THEM EAT JOE THE PLUMBER: Once again, what follows came from Naomi Klein, on Wednesday evening’s Maddow Show. Klein, who’s very smart and serious, was discussing your nation’s ongoing bank bailouts:

KLEIN (5/6/09): I mean, the scale is absolutely unprecedented. And I do believe—you know, I hate to say this, people are feeling a little bit optimistic—that I really do think this will go down, the bailout will go down, as the greatest heist in monetary history.

Good grief! Finally, one of our progressive shows had gone where the rubber meets the road! Klein made a truly stunning assertion—an assertion which screams for further examination. And sure enough! Showing he took such matters to heart, Keith Olbermann started last night’s show with—the latest from Joe the Plumber:

OLBERMANN (5/7/09): Good evening from New York.

Losing Senator Arlen Specter might have been one thing—but in our fifth story on the countdown: If even Joe the Plumber, the guy who has come to symbolize the target voter for the Republicans, if even he no longer wants to be a Republican, is the GOP truly going down the tubes?

In a new interview, Mr. The Plumber, Samuel Wurzelbacher, telling Time magazine that he is ready to leave the party.

Truly, it can’t get dumber. Do you mind if we note a few things about the modern world?

It was sad to see Time play the fool with that interview—but Time has been an occasionally silly place for a good long while. (That doesn’t include Karen Tumulty!)

It was much more striking when TPM headlined the site, yesterday afternoon, with this simpering nonsense. And Olbermann? He told you all you need to know when he started his program with this.

As Klein reminded us Wednesday night, gigantic events are under way in our world. But so what? Keith the Harlequin served us a pleasing dose of Joe the Plumber! Indeed, how blindingly dumb was this topic last night? To our eye, even our own Richard Wolffe was briefly flummoxed by an absurd first question:

OLBERMANN: Time now to call in our own political analyst, Richard Wolffe. Good evening, Richard.

WOLFFE: Good evening, Keith.

OLBERMANN: The Republicans lost Congress; lost the White House; lost a can’t-lose election to fill Senator Gillibrand’s seat in the House; lost Senator Specter to the Democrats, and now, it looks like they’ve lost Joe the Plumber. And as inconsequential as he is as a person, as a symbol—does he represent some sort of tipping-point?

WOLFFE (Understandable flummoxed pause): Well, ahhh...

To our eye, Olbermann’s query was so dead-dog dumb that even our own Richard Wolffe was briefly forced to take pause. But you can check it out yourself. Go ahead—just click here. (Once he adjusted, our own Richard Wolffe soldiered on bravely from there.)

Let’s review: Gigantic events are underway in the world. And Olbermann started us rubes last night with the latest from Joe the Plumber! Has there ever been a better example of this “news” program’s grinding fraudulence?

Why does this “news channel” dumb you down so? We’ll start to speculate next week, asking this question: Who is Bill Wolff? For the record, Wolff has a very good sense of humor, a point very much in his favor. And then too, he’s in charge of MSNBC’s evening news programs.

Meanwhile, understand this: Progressive interests can’t be served by dumbing progressives down. Nor can progressive interests be served by mocking perfectly sensible concerns, as Steve Benen unwisely did in this post, provoking strings of superior, clueless comments from progressive readers. On progressive cable, on the liberal web, a Great Dumbing-Down is underway—and this can’t serve progressive interests. Unless it’s all a tribal game—a game designed to make us feel superior to plumbers like Joe.

Time was dumb—but Keith was dumber. Next week, we’ll start exploring that conundrum. And yes! We’ll suggest the answer to this puzzle may lie in the world of Bill Wolff!

Final point: No, the Gillibrand replacement really wasn’t a “can’t-lose election” for the GOP. Olbermann seems to have reached the point where he simply can’t tell us the truth.

A street-fighting e-mail: The following e-mail came from a reader whose perspective is a bit tougher than ours. (We can still imagine Rachel Maddow creating a strong news program, for example. Though we wouldn’t bet the lean-to on it.) We’re more of a softy than this reader. But we thought you might gain from perusing his perspective.

From the first four words, you might think it’s Bill Clinton. We’re fairly sure it’s not:

E-MAIL (5/7/09): I feel your pain, and viewers may well regard these programs as news or educational rather than entertainment, but I think you're flogging the wrong animal.

Maddow and Olbermann, like their counterparts O'Reilly and Beck, labor under a burden: delivering audiences to the network.

On balance, the "progressives" appear to serve the public interest (i.e., the truth) far better than their right-wing counterparts, and with a higher standard of discourse. But ultimately all these programs have a commercial imperative and answer to the suits, who have one concern. And it ain't the truth.

Why do we expect fairness and thoroughness from corporate-owned networks, whose interests, in many cases, are actually antagonistic to a fair airing of the facts?

It's a pity these "progressive" programs can't do better. But where does the expectation that they will come from, and is there a structural basis to suppose they *could* do substantially better? When has corporate America ever funded truth? When has the truth ever been aired on radio or TV?

I don't know what the answer is to trivial, inaccurate, tendentious or inane programming; perhaps, around the edges, these hosts can be shamed into goodness. But it's the system which is rotten, and attacking program elements or hosts won't achieve much. There is no way to air the truth on MSNBC or CNN, much less Fox. Didn't one of them fire its most profitable host before or during the Iraq invasion, because all the other networks were "waving the flag", and he wasn't?

Is it simply coincidence that even during progressive eras, when there's a presumed audience for it, there are no left-wingers on TV or radio?

Readers, we think the answers to those provocative questions may lie in the world of Bill Wolff!