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FLYWEIGHT MAINSTREAM PRESS! Is Sonia Sotomayor a “lightweight?” A flyweight newspaper asked: // link // print // previous // next //
MONDAY, JUNE 8, 2009

Is Harold O. Levy the rational animal: “Man [sic] is the rational animal,” Aristotle is said to have said. In fairness, he hadn’t read the column which sits atop today’s New York Times op-ed page.

The piece was penned by Harold O. Levy, former chancellor of New York City’s schools. Reading the piece, we got an idea why Levy served just two years in that post.

The column appears beneath a misleading headline: “Five Ways to Fix America’s Schools.” In fact, Levy is talking about ways to improve higher education, as his first paragraph makes rather clear. We’ll assume this is an editor’s error—as was the decision to print this column at all.

In his first paragraph, Levy says he wants to offer “a few radical ideas to improve matters” in higher education. (In this case, “a few” means five.) What follows is Levy’s fifth “idea,” presented in full. No, we aren’t making this up:

LEVY (6/8/09): The biggest improvement we can make in higher education is to produce more qualified applicants. Half of the freshmen at community colleges and a third of freshmen at four-year colleges matriculate [start college] with academic skills in at least one subject too weak to allow them to do college work. Unsurprisingly, the average college graduation rates even at four-year institutions are less than 60 percent.

The story at the graduate level is entirely predictable: in 2007, more than a third of all research doctorates were awarded to foreigners, and the proportion is far higher in the hard sciences. The problem goes well beyond the fact that both our public schools and undergraduate institutions need to do a better job preparing their students: too many parents are failing to insure that their children are educated.

President Obama has again led the way: “As fathers and parents, we’ve got to spend more time with them, and help them with their homework, and replace the video game or the remote control with a book once in a while.” Better teachers, smaller classes and more modern schools are all part of the solution. But improving parenting skills and providing struggling parents with assistance are part of the solution too.

Let’s see if we’re following Levy here. According to Levy, we “need to do a better job preparing students” for college! Public schools should do a better job. But parents could do better too!

To describe this as “twaddle” would be too kind. To refer to it as an “idea” leaves us just this side of insanity. Yet this is one of the five “radical ideas” Levy presents today. And the New York Times thought his piece was so sharp that it sits at the top of today’s op-ed page. Its headline spans four columns (out of five). It contains the page’s lone illustration. (For the record, Levy’s first four ideas are quite underwhelming too.)


How could someone capable of such twaddle ever have served as New York City’s chancellor?

What does it mean when our biggest newspaper prints such perfect blather?

Regarding that second question, we’ll take a guess: A dollop of High Manhattan Courtesy may have been involved here. (We picture Charlie Rose pretending that this is the world’s most fascinating “idea.”) But then, this education piece in this morning’s Post is a fairly weak piece of cheese too.

If a student fails Virginia’s statewide tests in reading and math, should he get credit for “passing” anyway, based on a “portfolio” of his work through the year? In some cases, that might make perfect sense. In other cases, this could become a transparent attempt to avoid the (rather unfortunate) logic of “high-stakes testing.”

It’s hard to tell what’s happening in Virginia, in part because reporter Michael Alison Chandler never tells us what percentage of Virginia’s students are now getting “passed” in this manner. (He only gives us absolute numbers. These numbers doubled last year—and “state officials predict another jump this year,” Chandler says.) But do the state’s procedures make basic sense? This passage is not reassuring:

CHANDLER (6/8/09): Assembling the portfolios is a feat. Throughout the year, teachers compile worksheets, quizzes, audio or video clips and other examples of what students have learned. Third-grade math teachers documented that students understood 93 concepts, including some at first- or second-grade levels. One six-inch binder was filled with activity sheets that showed how a student used Goldfish crackers to count by twos and compared piles of cubes to demonstrate the concepts "more than" and "less than.”

Gack. If the state has created a sensible year-end test of its third-grade math curriculum, it shouldn’t matter if a child passed a quiz on some topic or concept at some earlier point in the year. In all candor, it doesn’t really matter if the child briefly understood some topic in October if he no longer understands it in June. On a sensible test, students will be required to get a sensible proportion of test items right, displaying a sensible degree of mastery of the material. Except in unusual cases, we’d have to say this: If a student doesn’t know the material in June, it’s hard to see why it should matter if he managed to pass a bunch of short-term quizzes at various points in the year.

Is Chandler describing a sensible procedure—or is this just the latest scam? In a world where Levy counts as the “rational animal,” trust us—you’ll never find out. On several key points, though, we all can agree. We need to do a better job preparing students for the fourth grade. Public schools should do a better job. But parents could do better too!

FLYWEIGHT MAINSTREAM PRESS: Even as it sinks into oblivion, the mainstream press, at its highest levels, is often stunningly unintelligent. Consider this Bloggingheads discussion—a discussion which was prominently featured by the New York Times on its web site this Sunday.

At the Times web site, tape of the discussion appeared beneath a striking headline. “Lightweight Sotomayor?” the Times headline said. This headline was prominently featured on the site’s front page. It also appeared above the video if you foolishly linked and watched.

Presumably, it would always be slightly strange to ask if a person with Sotomayor’s credentials is, in fact, a “lightweight.” It takes a special tone-deafness to keep pushing this framework when the (distinguished) person in question comes from an ethnic minority which has been sneered at in such ways for decades.

But to see how dumb your dying press corps will be, even at its highest levels, you have to consider the groaning discussion which generated that headline. It’s stunning to think that the New York Times would link to such abject nonsense at all. It takes a very unintelligent paper to present it beneath such a headline.

The discussion involved a pair of youthful pundits: Matt Yglesias (Center for American Progress) and James Poulos (Postmodern Conservative). In the segment displayed by the Times, Yglesias quickly says this: “Conservatives have gone after Sotomayor on a lot of sort of really tangential notions,” including “an idea that somehow she is dumb.”

Poulos, a rather callow lad, soon offered this acknowledgment: “Obviously, she’s sort of credentialed in the right ways and hasn’t made a fool of herself on the bench.” He then said that, “Gosh, if Earl Warren was allowed to be on the Court,” then Sotomayor was probably “ready for prime time” too. But then, the young flyweight offered this “thought.” It formed his central critique:

POULOS: But one of the first things I noticed about Sotomayor when she gave her “Oh thank you, Mr. President” little blurb speech is she was talking about her mother and, you know, was very sweet, said, “Oh you know, this is really gratifying to me because there is one person in my life who is my great aspiration.” (Poulos’ emphasis.) And just sort of went on and didn’t skip a beat and, you know—obviously you’re nervous and you’re human and we all know that she meant “inspiration.” But you know, it’s that kind of tic, or sort of quirky faux pas, that in a way gives me more pause than, “Oh they’ve been overturned sort of sixty percent of the time.”

That last comment was an attempt to mention Sotomayor’s legal rulings. Five of her rulings have been reviewed by the Court; three have been overturned. (Those are very small numbers.)

It would be hard to offer a dumber “analysis” than the own Poulos dished. For what it’s worth, we have reviewed Sotomayor’s statement that day, and we don’t think it’s clear that she meant to say “inspiration.” She seems to be saying that she has aspired, throughout her life, to be as good a person as her mother. (We’ll agree that her meaning wasn’t perfectly clear on this one very tiny point.)

That said, it would be hard to overstate how silly Poulos’ “analysis” actually was. One might wonder why Bloggingheads would choose such an unprepared lad for such a discussion in the first place. But once the discussion had been recorded, why on earth would our most important newspaper recommend such nonsense to its readers? Worse: How foolish must that newspaper be to run this abject nonsense beneath that insulting headline?

Rarely has The Cult of the Offhand Comment offered such a moronic analysis. But so what? The New York Times thought you should ponder it well—that you should ask yourself if that single word marks Sotomayor as a “lightweight.”

This is the way your press corps keeps behaving at its upper end as it sinks beneath the waves.

But then, we came to this abject nonsense after reading this analysis piece in Sunday’s Washington Post. In this report, Jerry Markon attempts to examine Sotomayor’s “complex approach to race, discrimination and the law.” In particular, he considers eight rulings which “help inform the debate over whether her ethnic identity would influence her opinions on the court.”

Markson’s work struck us as very weak. Examples:

But good God! We sank to the floor when Markon tried to discuss a particular case—the discrimination case which has “attract[ed] perhaps the most attention in legal circles,” he says. In this case, Sotomayor’s dissent did favor a group of minority plaintiffs—and her dissent was “blunt!” This looks like a perfect case for examining charges of bias! Surely, this is the case where Markon will get right to his subject’s soul:

MARKON (6/7/09): The split decision attracting perhaps the most attention in legal circles was the one dealing with felons' voting rights. The original lawsuit was filed in 1994 by a black inmate convicted of killing two New York City police officers. Though he was later dropped from the case, other prisoners also challenged the New York law that blocks them from voting, citing historic racial discrimination in the criminal justice system.

A lower court had dismissed the case, and when it reached the full 2nd Circuit, the court upheld that dismissal in a decision written by Judge José A. Cabranes, a Sotomayor mentor. Sotomayor and four other judges said the lawsuit should proceed, even though nearly every state bars felons from voting.

"The duty of a judge is to follow the law," Sotomayor wrote in dissent, arguing that "it is plain to anyone reading the Voting Rights Act" that it covers disenfranchisement of felons.

Like much of her writing, which often relies heavily on legal precedent, the dissent was cast in blunt, unemotional language.

Wow! Surely, this is the perfect case! Does Sotomayor follow her ethnic biases, thereby favoring minorities? In this case, she offered a blunt dissent—saying "it is plain to anyone reading the Voting Rights Act" that her view was right! The lady’s claim was perfectly clear. But so was Markon’s haplessness as he proceeded from there:

MARKON (continuing directly): Roger Clegg, president of the conservative Center for Equal Opportunity, criticized the result. "To say this is all part of a giant conspiracy to keep African Americans and Latinos from voting is absurd," he said in an interview.

Kevin Russell, one of a group of lawyers the White House has put forward praising Sotomayor's record, said that her position is "controversial" but that "it would be unfair to characterize it as showing a judge who disregards the law or engages in judicial activism."

Good God. If Markon simply showed us the Voting Rights language in question, we could judge Sotomayor’s claim for ourselves. Instead, he took a familiar route. He quoted a conservative saying Sotomayor was wrong—and a White House spokesman saying different. What does the actual Voting Rights language say? Markon doesn’t bother with that. (He also glosses the fact that Sotomayor was part of a fairly narrow 8-5 split in this particular case.)
Was your upper-end press corps always this weak? We’re not sure. But this weekend, the New York Times threw the term “lightweight” around—as the Washington Post was giving its readers a piece which fit the description.