Do as we say, not as Dowd does: On the front page of todays 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 Fiorinas recent critique of Barbara Boxers crummy old hair. Fiorinas 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. Fiorinas 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 elses 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 Boxers hair right out on todays front page, hiding behind these ludicrous thoughts about the political peril to Fiorina:
STEINHAUER: Ms. Fiorinas comments were, all told, really no more incendiary than a bit of warm pasta saladwho hasnt 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 Fiorinas 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 papers most famous hood ornament, the Duchess of Dim, Maureen Dowd?
Well skip the press corps endless discussions of Hillary Clintons hair in the 1990s. (Clintons hair-dos were endlessly mined for revelations about her state of mind.) Lets jump ahead to Dowds discussion of candidate hair-dos, a bit of history weve 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 worlds biggest dimwit, of course. Heres the start of her first column about Gores bald spot, written in early 1997. Gore is talking to himself in this column, as he would frequently do in Lady Dowds 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, Dowds headline said, quoting Gores inner voice:
DOWD (11/5/00): I feel stunning
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 Dowds 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 Americas 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 Fiorinas remark may reinforce the perception, however tired or unfair, that women can be dragged down the road of pettiness.
The Times harrumphs about Fiorinas remark. Dowds editors cheered her on.
In search of Dowds 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 awayto 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 fatand 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 todays 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, were 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 ProgressA.Y.P. in educators jargonby 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 schools 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 didnt 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. Weve 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.
Gabriels piece is very much worth reading. Well note two omissions, skipping a third:
States can cheat too: This mornings 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 Gabriels piece. But when states drive up passing rates in this way, thats basically cheating too. (It wouldnt 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 measuresfor 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 dont dirty our hands with such topics; were 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!