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STUNNINGLY BAD! Charlie Rose rolled over and died. Kopp seemed like a music man: // link // print // previous // next //
THURSDAY, JULY 10, 2008

WEISMAN REACTS—TO THE REAGAN RULES: On the third day, the Post has responded—grotesquely; ineptly—to John McCain’s bizarre presentation about Social Security. The New York Times still hasn’t said boo. First, a bit of background:

The “Reagan Rules” have been in place for roughly thirty years now. They’re widely accepted by the DNC; by liberal journals and intellectuals; and of course, by the mainstream press.

Under terms of these “Reagan Rules,” Republicans and conservatives can say whatever they please, no matter how ludicrous, about major budget issues. The grand-daddy of all such howlers is this: If we lower tax rates, we produce extra revenue! But under terms of the Reagan Rules, Republican pols are expected to make bizarre statements about Social Security too. McCain performed this task on Monday, in Denver. This morning, Thursday, on the third day, the Post finally tries to respond.

The Post’s attempt is worse than pathetic. Jonathan Weisman was asked to hack out a treatment. Here’s how he begins:

WEISMAN (7/10/08): Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) once said economics was not his strong suit—and yesterday Social Security became a problem for the presumptive Republican nominee as well.

In remarks at a town hall meeting in Denver on Monday, McCain laid out what he likes to call "a little straight talk."

"Americans have got to understand that we are paying present-day retirees with the taxes paid by young workers in America today. And that's a disgrace. It's an absolute disgrace, and it's got to be fixed," he said.

Reaction to McCain's statement was slow to build, but fiery when at last it came yesterday.

Too funny! “Reaction was slow to build,” Weisman writes. In fact, our “reaction” started building on Monday, as we watched McCain’s presentation. (We watched on TV, a technological device now available to millions.) But apparently, no such “reaction” took place at the Post. Michael Shear reported McCain’s town meeting on Tuesday morning—and he failed to note that the Republican candidate had wildly misstated a string of key facts about our most important retirement program. Remember: Under terms of those “Reagan Rules,” workers like Shear don’t notice such howlers. Republican pols are expected to misinform voters—the people who attended that town hall event, the thousands who watched on TV. They can tell us rubes whatever they like. Journalistic workers, understanding these rules, don’t “react” to such statements.

According to Weisman, reaction finally got started on Wednesday, when Reed Hundt offered this short post at TPM about what McCain had said. In fact, Todd Gitlin had offered this more informative post ninety minutes earlier. But Weisman was apparently waiting for something a bit shorter and easier to bungle. And sure enough! Hundt mentioned only one of McCain’s many groaners—a number that seemed to work for Weisman. Following Hundt’s “reaction,” Weisman finally had a question he could pose to McCain.

So here’s Weisman’s question, posed in Hundt’s words: “If Senator McCain doesn't want payroll taxes to fund Social Security (as has long been the case), then how does he propose to pay for it?” This fails to capture the sheer stupidity of McCain’s remark on this matter, and it omits all the rest of his howlers about Social Security. But Weisman at least had a question to throw at McCain. And then, incredibly, he hacked out what follows. Please note: There is absolutely no reason, except propaganda, to throw in the name of that bus:

WEISMAN: McCain sought to clarify his remarks yesterday afternoon on the Straight Talk Express. Young people, he said, "are paying so much that they are paying into a system that they won't receive benefits from on its present track that it's on—that's the point."

The Social Security trustees "have clearly stated it's going to go bankrupt," he said, adding that this is what he meant when he called the system a disgrace. "I don't think that's right," he said. "I don't think it's fair, and I think it's terrible to ask people to pay into a system that they won't receive benefits from. That's why we have to fix it."

Yes, that appears in today’s Post—and yes, that’s the end of Weisman’s report. And that is why we state the obvious: It’s time for Weisman to go.

Is it true? Have the trustees used the word “bankrupt?” If so, they’ve surely used it in some technical way. That statement by McCain is, at best, grossly, deeply misleading; presented in the Post without challenge, it serves to disinform voters again. Meanwhile, McCain seems to say, two separate times, that young people are currently “pay[ing] into a system that they won't receive benefits from.” That is an astounding claim about the future of Social Security; absent an asteroid hitting Manhattan, the claim is utterly ludicrous. But so what? Weisman simply quotes the claim, twice, without any comment. And we rubes get misled once again.

So it’s time for the hackworthy Weisman to go (and he should take his “editor” with him). And people like Hundt might get off their keisters and behave like sentient humans for once. This has gone on for thirty years, since the Reagan Rules started to clunk into place. But in his two-days-afterwards post, Hundt was puzzled by the fact that reporters weren’t asking McCain about his groaners. In this way, our highest-ranking liberal leaders keep refusing to tell the public the truth about a game that’s three decades old. Does Hundt not know how this game is played? Has Hundt not noticed this pattern for the past thirty years? If so, it’s time for him to go away too. It’s time to get some people in place who will get off their over-paid, perfumed rear ends and tell the truth about the way our system has worked—on the watch of leaders like Hundt.

By the way, the New York Times still hasn’t said a word about McCain’s presentation. But then, after reading Weisman’s report, perhaps we’re all better off.

Bottom line: The DNC and the career liberal world have accepted these rules for the past thirty years. It takes them days to react to such nonsense; when they finally get off their keisters, they send weak arrows into the air. For this reason, the United States is full of people who think Social Security “is going bankrupt” (“won’t be there for them”)—who know that, if we’d cut tax rates, the revenues would come pouring in.

These rules have been in place for three decades. You still can’t get “liberals” to say so.

Also this: According to last evening’s Countdown, McCain grossly misstated his record on veteran’s issues at that same town hall event. Sadly, we no longer have confidence in Countdown’s treatment of facts, and the program posed a few of its claims rather poorly. (And the laugh track can get in the way. First news program to have one!) But if Countdown is right, this matter should have been reported too. Sadly, though, it’s as we’ve long told you: The very notions of “accuracy” and “fact” play little role in modern press culture. The press corps claims that its culture is built around fact. In truth, it’s built around narrative. Journalists memorize group story-lines. All else follows from there.

TOMORROW: Why did McCain seem so much better back then? A remarkable TPM confab. (For the first of several posts, just click here. For a semi-related Post op-ed, be our guest—click this.)

Special report: Worst ever?


PART 1—JUST STUNNINGLY BAD: To his credit, Charlie Rose asked Wendy Kopp an obvious question. By our count, he asked it five times.

On July 1, Rose interviewed Kopp, founder and CEO of Teach for America, for roughly forty minutes. Kopp has run TFA for the past nineteen years, to major acclaim; indeed, Time magazine named her one of the “hundred most influential people in the world” in its May 12 issue. In 1989, while a senior at Princeton, Kopp had a wild idea, Time said—a wild idea “that turned out to be a very good thing for millions of kids.” A professor called her “deranged,” Time said. But that was then—and this is Kopp now:

TIME MAGAZINE (5/12/08): The wild idea Kopp, now 40, had was to launch a U.S. national teaching corps, similar to President Kennedy’s Peace Corps, that would recruit young teachers straight out of college and sign them up for a two-year hitch working in some of the country's more disadvantaged schools...

In 1990, Kopp, then 23, raised $2.5 million to get her teaching corps started. From that beginning came Teach for America, a nationwide organization that today boasts more than 5,000 member teachers, who work in communities all over the country and reach 440,000 kids. Some 12,000 veterans of Teach for America have continued their teaching careers, often providing leadership for troubled schools in their own communities. A 2005 study showed that 75 percent of school principals consider Teach for America teachers more effective than other teachers, and a 2004 study showed Teach for America students do better than other kids in math. Deranged or not, Kopp's idea is working—and as a result, more kids are learning.

That account of the studies is profoundly selective—but we’ll discuss that in Part 3 of this series. For today, let’s just say this: Among our corporate and journalistic elites, Kopp is considered a very big deal. That’s why Rose’s question, asked early on, was so perfectly sensible:

ROSE (7/1/08): OK, you’ve given a lot of thought to this. We talk about it a lot, this program and other programs. Here’s what I want to know: What do we need to do to make better schools?

“What do we need to do to make better schools?” The question was sensible—obvious, even. In Part 4 of this series, we’ll look at the remarkable answers Kopp gave to this obvious question—to a question Rose had to ask again and again and again. For today, we’ll only say this: You’d certainly think a person like Kopp would have a lot to say to that question. But Kopp seemed to have very little to say—so little that this session struck us as perhaps the worst interview ever. Kopp seemed to have virtually nothing to say about the topic on which she’s considered an expert. And as she fumbled, flailed and killed time, her interviewer failed to challenge her in the most obvious ways. What do the studies say about the success of Teach for America? Like most people who interview Kopp, Rose seemed to know that he mustn’t ask. But then, Kopp has long been a darling of upscale elites—and under our broken-souled modern regimes, such darlings get this sort of treatment.

For ourselves, our fascination with this interview began about half-way in. We turned on the TV—and there was Kopp! Within moments, she was explaining what her program’s alumni have learned about low-income schools. Why do our low-income schools struggle so? The public thinks one thing, Kopp explained. Her program’s alumni think another.

What is wrong with our low-income schools? Kopp described a Gallup poll which asked the two groups to answer that question. Shown a list of twenty answers, respondents were asked to pick three:

KOPP (7/1/08): There’s a Gallup Poll, actually, that asks the public why we have low educational outcomes in low-income communities and gives the public 20 options. And the top three answers the public gives are number one, lack of student motivation; number two, lack of parental involvement; and number three, home-life issues.

So we ask our teachers at the end of their two years the same exact question with the same 20 options. Their answers could not be more different: teacher quality; principal quality; and expectations for kids—academic expectations for kids. So, you know, it’s fascinating, right? Because our people, after two years of working with the kids and the families, come out of this knowing it’s not lack of student motivation. It’s not lack of parental involvement. It’s actually us. We can solve this problem. I think that’s the fundamental difference.

Why do our low-income schools struggle so? The public picked three reasons off Gallup’s list—and TFA alumni picked three others. But as we watched, we were struck by a single word in Kopp’s statement. The word we were struck by was this word: Knowing. TFA alumni “come out of this knowing” what’s causing the problem, Kopp told Rose.

Fascinating! After spending two years in low-income schools, Kopp’s teachers know what the problem is. They know it isn’t lack of student motivation. They know it isn’t parental involvement—or, presumably, “home-life issues.” Kopp didn’t say they “believe” these things; she stressed the fact that they “come out knowing.” What do our low-income schools struggle so? Because the question is so important, let’s scan those two lists again:

What the public thinks is the problem:
1) Lack of student motivation
2) Lack of parental involvement
3) “Home-life issues”

What TFA alumni think is the problem:
1) Teacher quality
2) Principal quality
3) Academic expectations for kids

The public thinks one thing; the alums think another. But according to the confident Kopp, the alumni “know” they’re right.
We were very struck by that statement. We ourselves spent more than a decade in low-income schools; our answer to that important question would be different from both those groups. (If we had to make a choice, we’d tilt toward the public’s list, much more strongly.) Why do our low-income schools suffer so? We wouldn’t say we know the answer. But if we had to list three reasons, we would go with these:

What we think is the problem:
1) Low-income kids are way “behind” on the day they first enter school. (See THE DAILY HOWLER, 11/29/06.)
2) At those schools, instructional programs and materials are designed for a different population. (See THE DAILY HOWLER, 9/1/05.)
3) For forty years, the Roses, the Kopps and the Time magazines have churned an unhelpful discussion.

Our basic idea of what is wrong would differ from both those groups. But we were so struck by Kopp’s confident tone that we went back and watched the whole program—and we’re not sure we’ve ever seen an interview quite that awful. Rose rolled over and died throughout, refusing to challenge Kopp’s claims and statistics—and ignoring the studies which suggest that her program hasn’t been the huge big deal described in that fawning Time profile. Kopp, meanwhile, was stunningly bad. After nineteen years as an education guru, you’d think she’d have something to say to Rose’s question. Once again, here it is, the most obvious question on earth:

ROSE: Here’s what I want to know: What do we need to do to make better schools?

Rose asked that question again and again. Kopp seemed expert at one thing—she seemed expert at refusing to answer.

We’re not sure we’ve ever seen an interview as bad as this. How broken are our intellectual elites? Rose rolled over—refused to perform. Kopp seemed like a music man.

TOMORROW—PART 2: Accepting the anecdotes.

Monday—part 3: Avoiding the studies.

Tuesday—part 4: Gruesome answers.