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GABRIEL GETS IT RIGHT! The New York Times ponders Boxer’s hair. But Gabriel nails a real issue: // link // print // previous // next //
FRIDAY, JUNE 11, 2010

Do as we say, not as Dowd does: On the front page of today’s New York Times, we get a look at the mainstream press corps’ enduring attraction to trivia. Jennifer Steinhauer and her editors seem to have a message for pols: Do as we say at the Times, not as Maureen Dowd does!

At issue is Carly Fiorina’s recent critique of Barbara Boxer’s crummy old hair. Fiorina’s unwitting comments were recorded as she awaited a local TV interview. To its credit, the TV station involved in this nonsense declined to run the tape:

STEINHAUER (6/11/10): News 10 in Sacramento, an ABC affiliate, used a CNN satellite to conduct the live interview with Ms. Fiorina, who was in Los Angeles. Producers at News 10 decided not to broadcast or post Ms. Fiorina’s comments.

“We had a vigorous editorial debate,” said Tim Geraghty, vice president and news director of News 10. “To put on a clip of an interview with someone talking about someone else’s hair did not fit with that brand we are trying to establish for News 10 in Northern California.”

Good for Geraghty! But at our most important newspaper, editors had a better idea. They ran the story of Boxer’s hair right out on today’s front page, hiding behind these ludicrous thoughts about the political peril to Fiorina:

STEINHAUER: Ms. Fiorina’s comments were, all told, really no more incendiary than a bit of warm pasta salad—who hasn’t indulged in some off-the-record chitchat about the grooming habits of others now and then? But they presented her with a political problem that could haunt her throughout the campaign.

They both inform and confirm the image from her days as chief executive at Hewlett-Packard that she is tart and unpleasant. And they open the entire campaign to perceptions, however tired or unfair, that women can be dragged down the road of pettiness, perceptions that detract from the serious and pressing issues of the day.

In these ways, “journalists” find ways to talk about hair, even as they scold the politician who made the diversion possible.

Do Fiorina’s comments suggest “that women can be dragged down the road of pettiness, perceptions that detract from the serious and pressing issues of the day?” At the Times, they ought to know about that! Has anyone talked about candidates’ hair more than this paper’s most famous hood ornament, the Duchess of Dim, Maureen Dowd?

We’ll skip the press corps’ endless discussions of Hillary Clinton’s hair in the 1990s. (Clinton’s hair-dos were endlessly mined for revelations about her state of mind.) Let’s jump ahead to Dowd’s discussion of candidate hair-dos, a bit of history we’ve limned in the past.

Back in 1999, when Rudy Giuliani was planning to run for the senate, Dowd built several columns around his comical hair. (September 12, 1999: “Rudolph Giuliani's hair is bright and fixed. But sometimes a tendril of it will come loose and fall into his face and he will seem open to the intrigue of dishevelment. That radical comb-over, that comb-hither look, makes me shiver.”) But her most detailed critiques of hair were, of course, aimed at Big Democrats. (Key concept: Disproportionately, the culture of journalistic inanity has been used against Dems.) Candidate Edwards was routinely disparaged as “the Breck Girl,” Before that, we had Candidate Gore, with his troubling bald spot.

Dowd is the world’s biggest dimwit, of course. Here’s the start of her first column about Gore’s bald spot, written in early 1997. Gore is talking to himself in this column, as he would frequently do in Lady Dowd’s scribblings over the next several years:

DOWD (1/30/97): Is the Spot getting bigger? Tipper says it isn't, but I know it is. At this rate, by the year 2000 I'll look like Joe Biden, wandering around with okra plugs in my head. It's making me a little crazy. Actually, everything these days is making me a little crazy. I've been so loyal for four years, staying in the shadow of President Smarmy and just praying I don't get splattered.

This was the birth of Gore as “a little crazy.” (By the end of that year, Dowd and Rich had invented the Love Story hoax.) Over the next several years, Dowd continued her “bald spot” series; she wrote columns in which Gore conversed with himself about “the Spot” in September 1997, December 1997 and June 1998. After a tantalizing hiatus, she returned to the format in August 2000, right after the Democratic convention. And then, of course! Two days before Americans went to the polls, Gore was addressing his bald spot again!

“I Feel Pretty,” Dowd’s headline said, quoting Gore’s inner voice:

DOWD (11/5/00): I feel stunning

And entrancing,

Feel like running and dancing for joy . . .

O.K., enough gloating. Behave, Albert. Just look in the mirror now and put on your serious I only-care-about-the-issues face.

If I rub in a tad more of this mahogany-colored industrial mousse, the Spot will disappear under my Reagan pompadour.

People, what a shock! In Dowd’s mind, humans have to “put on a face” when they discuss what Steinhauer calls “the serious and pressing issues of the day.” They have to pretend that they care.

At any rate, that was America’s public discourse on the Sunday morning before the election which sent George W. Bush to the White House. This morning, right on its front page, the New York Times says that Fiorina’s remark may reinforce “the perception, however tired or unfair, that women can be dragged down the road of pettiness.”

The Times harrumphs about Fiorina’s remark. Dowd’s editors cheered her on.

In search of Dowd’s beard: In 2001, the duchess was thrown for a loop when Gore dared grow a beard:

DOWD (8/5/01): The beard is magnifique. So Continental, so Pepe Le Pew.

In all those pictures from Europe, the newly hirsute Al Gore, looking like Orson Welles, strolls contentedly after a repast in Rome with Tipper.

He has a sly, freshly liberated expression that you usually see only on guys of 18, when they're finally old enough to escape from their parents, principals and guidance counselors, go off on a trek to Europe and grow a goofy-looking beard.

It took Prince Albert, who has to choreograph spontaneity, decades to break away—to escape from his alpha-male coach, media mercenaries and overshadowing political sibling, go off on a trek to Europe and grow a goofy-looking beard.

With his Hemingway growth and Heineken girth, all Mr. Gore needs is a pack of Gitanes and an earth-tone beret. It is tres formidable that Al can be so insouciant, playing the romantic, carefree expatriate when he is really the PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES!

Gore was too fat—and he had a beard! (She even worked the “alpha male” in.) You can see why the Times is so concerned about the dumb thing Carly said.

GABRIEL GETS IT RIGHT (permalink): Even as Steinhauer muses on hair, Trip Gabriel gets it very right on the front page of today’s Times. “CHEAT SHEET,” part of his headline says. “Pressed to Show Progress, Educators Tamper With Test Scores.”

Decades later, the New York Times is catching up with the problem of cheating on high-stakes tests in the public schools. (And yes, we’re talking about outright cheating, not about “teaching to the test.”) In the following passage, Gabriel describes a high-scoring school where the principal and assistant principal simply erased wrong answers and filled in right answers, after the students went home:

GABRIEL (6/11/10): Educators ensnared in cheating scandals rarely admit to wrongdoing. But at one Georgia school last year, a principal and an assistant principal acknowledged their roles in a test-erasure scandal.

For seven years, their school, Atherton Elementary in suburban Atlanta, had met the standards known in federal law as Adequate Yearly Progress—A.Y.P. in educators’ jargon—by demonstrating that a rising share of students performed at grade level.

Then, in 2008, the bar went up again and Atherton stumbled. In June, the school’s assistant principal for instruction, reviewing student answer sheets from the state tests, told her principal, “We cannot make A.Y.P.,” according to an affidavit the principal signed.

“We didn’t discuss it any further,” the principal, James L. Berry, told school district investigators. “We both understood what we meant.”

Pulling a pencil from a cup on the desk of Doretha Alexander, the assistant principal, Dr. Berry said to her, “I want you to call the answers to me,” according to an account Ms. Alexander gave to investigators.

The principal erased bubbles on the multiple-choice answer sheets and filled in the right answers.

This sort of thing has gone on for a very long time, ever since standardized testing began getting tied to “accountability” around 1970. We’ve been speaking to journalists about this sort of thing since the early 1970s. We started writing op-ed columns on this topic in the late 1970s, in the Baltimore Sun. We started discussing this topic in THE HOWLER in1999.

For decades, the mainstream press corps simply refused to come to terms with this problem. In recent years, the Times has been coming around quite smartly, doing serious work on this topic. About its “Cheat Sheet” series, the Times says this: “Articles in this series will examine cheating in education and efforts to stop it.”

The analysts whistled and cheered.

Gabriel’s piece is very much worth reading. We’ll note two omissions, skipping a third:

States can cheat too: This morning’s piece discusses the way teachers and principals can cheat on tests, driving up the passing rates of a particular classroom or school. But in recent years, something like cheating has sometimes occurred on a statewide basis. There is little doubt that some states have made their statewide tests easier over the years, without informing the public. This is an artificial way of driving up passing rates on a statewide basis. This may seem more innocent than the practice described in that excerpt from Gabriel’s piece. But when states drive up passing rates in this way, that’s basically “cheating” too. (It wouldn’t be cheating if the public was told that the tests had been made easier.)

In praise of security measures: Gabriel quotes John Fremer, an expert in this kind of cheating. “Every time you increase the stakes associated with any testing program, you get more cheating,” he sensibly says. At the end of his piece, Gabriel quotes a second expert who has “called for refocusing education away from high-stakes testing because of the distorted incentives it introduces for teachers.” But annual testing is very important; in its absence, school systems are free to tell the public any damn thing about student progress. Cheating could be greatly reduced by improvements in security measures—for example, by having unaffected proctors administer the tests, rather than affected teachers. (And by keeping the answer sheets away from affected principals.) This would cost money, and it would require planning. But it would be an obvious way to deal with this ongoing problem.

When it comes to issues like these, the mainstream press corps has been virtually ineducable down through the years. (Meanwhile, liberal journals walked away from black kids decades ago. We liberals don’t dirty our hands with such topics; we’re too busy calling conservatives “racist.”) In a very constructive way, the New York Times has been getting up to speed on cheating issues in recent years.

Today, Gabriel authors another top-notch piece. The analysts whistled and uttered a cry: May “Cheat Sheet” long prevail!