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Print view: Atlanta cheated its keister off. But so have the Post and the Times
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WHOLE LOTTA CHEATIN GOIN ON! Atlanta cheated its keister off. But so have the Post and the Times: // link // print // previous // next //
MONDAY, JULY 18, 2011

Teddy White voiced his regrets/Who is Natalie Jennings: Our political press corps has many flaws. Among them, the corps’ abiding love for the fatuous has to rank quite high.

Your “press corps” loves to base character judgments on pieces of consummate trivia. Where did this instinct get its start? In yesterday’s Washington Post Outlook section, Joyce Hoffmann tracked it to an iconic text—to Teddy White’s famous best-seller, The Making of the President 1960.

Way back in 1960, White went behind the scenes in the fight between Kennedy and Nixon. He did a type of reporting which had never been done in a White House campaign. But according to Hoffman, “the type of campaign reporting he helped create came to dismay him.” By the time of Nixon-McGovern, White was expressing regrets:

HOFFMAN (7/17/11): By the 1972 Nixon-McGovern campaign, White acknowledged that his preoccupation with character and strategy had given birth to quadrennial media frenzies in which presidential politics became a game. He rued the atmosphere of endless critical media attention in which candidates were forced to function, and he took part of the blame.

“It’s appalling what we’ve done,” White told reporter and writer Timothy Crouse during the 1972 campaign. As he watched the parade of reporters file in and out of George McGovern’s hotel room after he won the Democratic presidential nomination, White said: “All of us are observing him, taking notes like mad, getting all the little details. Which I think I invented as a method of reporting and which I now sincerely regret. If you write about this, say that I sincerely regret it,” he told Crouse, who was gathering material for a book that would become a critique of pack journalism, “The Boys on the Bus.”

Who cares, White asked, “if the guy had milk and Total for breakfast?”

In fairness, White didn’t make the silly character judgments; he just started the type of detailed insider reporting which would make them possible.

Who cares if McGovern had milk and Total? By 1972, the answer was clear—the boys and girls on the campaign bus cared about such Total nonsense. A bit later in her Outlook piece, Hoffman lists some of the silly trivia upon which the press corps has based its judgments in subsequent White House campaigns. No one could list all such episodes, of course; they are now a standard part of our fractured pseudo-journalism. But uh-oh! Among the many episodes Hoffman skips, we recall at least five genuine “milk-and-Total” moments—silly flaps which revolved around something some candidate ate or drank on the campaign trail.

Who cares about milk and Total? Let’s recall these flaps:

What kind of cheese did Candidate Kerry order with his cheesesteak? And did it show he was an elitist? This was a journalistic point of concern during Campaign 2004.

Why did Candidate Obama drink orange juice instead of beer when he visited a Pennsylvania bar? And did it show he was an elitist? This was a point of concern during Campaign 2008.

Why did Candidate Bush the elder (reportedly) ask for a “splash” of coffee at a New Hampshire truck stop in 1988? Did this show he was an elitist?

Why did Candidate Gore ask for a Perrier in 1988? Did it show he was an elitist?

Why did vice-presidential candidate Sargent Shriver order a Courvoisier in a Pittsburgh bar during Campaign 1972? Did it show—well, you know the rest.

(To read a bit more about the Perrier/Courvoisier flaps, see THE DAILY HOWLER 1/29/10. This isn’t exactly milk and Total. But it’s the next dumbest thing.)

A journalist has to be very silly to build judgments about a candidate’s character out of such massive trivia. But the press corps has done so again and again, in a long string of White House campaigns. Who cares if Kerry had cheese on his steak? At least when it comes to certain candidates, the answer has long been clear.

This raises a painful question: Who is Natalie Jennings?

Last week, Jennings authored what seems to be her first blog post as a Washington Post political reporter. Her post concerned a troubling fact: Michele Obama had gone to a Washington fast food joint and ordered a burger, with fries and a shake and a Diet Coke!

The fact that it was a Diet Coke brought an old stock joke to life. But this was the start of Jennings’ post. What sane person would write such crap? Who is Natalie Jennings?

JENNINGS (7/12/11): First lady Michelle Obama ordered a whopper of a meal at the newly opened Washington diner Shake Shack during lunch on Monday.

A Washington Post journalist on the scene confirmed the first lady, who’s made a cause out of child nutrition, ordered a ShackBurger, fries, chocolate shake and a Diet Coke while the street and sidewalk in front of the usually-packed Shake Shack were closed by security during her visit.

According to nutritional information on Shake Shack’s Web site, the meal amounted to 1,700 calories. But it was impossible to tell whether the first lady intended to eat the entire order, or share with friends (the latter seems a tad more likely considering the two drinks).

The first lady’s office did not comment on the subject.

“The first lady’s office did not comment on the subject?” Why would a first lady’s office comment on something like that?

Anyone who has followed the political “journalism” of the past twenty years will of course understand the gravamen of this dispatch. Jennings was exploring a typically foolish idea—the idea that Obama was being a hypocrite by ordering a high-calorie meal, given the fact that she has “made a cause out of child nutrition.” The sheer stupidity of this notion should be apparent to almost anyone. But ABC News gulped down the bait, posting this follow-up report. Needless to say, so did Fox.

If you read Jennings’ full post as it now exists, you will see that the experts ABC consulted explained how dumb her notion was. But so what? Jennings went ahead and posted, basing her work on the observations of “a Washington Post journalist on the scene.” Before long, the standard moronic discussions were flying around in talk-radio land.

You can’t run a modern nation this way. But our political “journalists” have functioned this way for a very long time. As long ago as 1972, Teddy White apologized for his starring role in creating this vacuous culture.

At any rate, who is Natalie Jennings? It’s instructively hard to find out. It seems that a profile of Jennings does exist on a secondary Post web site, but you have to go through several layers of registration before you’re allowed to read it—and it seems you have to be a government employee to get the Post’s OK. (To give it a try, start here. Then click on Jennings’ name.) Using Nexis and Google, we can find no indication that Jennings had ever published anything anywhere before her milk-and-Total-style post. (We also searched on “Natalie Grantham.”) We’re forced to offer three quick guesses about who Jennings is:

We’ll guess that Jennings is young, and still perhaps a tiny bit foolish. But if so, we’ll guess that she learned to be foolish from watching the “journalism” that has defined her tender years.

Jennings’ post was very foolish—but it’s part of our milk-and-Total press culture. That said, The Dumb is plainly the deliberate norm at our biggest news orgs. More on this culture tomorrow.

Most pathetic correction ever: Working like an actual journalist, Jennings penned the most pathetic correction ever. Yes, this really appeared at the Post’s political web site:

JENNINGS: We made a mistake in our original calculations. The calorie-count for the first lady’s order was actually 1,700, not the 1,556 we originally reported. Our apologies.

You can’t run a modern nation this way. If you doubt that, just look around.

Special report: Who’s flunking now!

PART 4—WHOLE LOTTA CHEATIN GOIN ON (permalink): In Atlanta, the public schools were cheating their keisters off. As everybody now agrees, the cheating went on for years.

On July 5, the state of Georgia released its official report on the matter, the fruit of a long state probe.

To read the New York Times July 6 news report, just click here. But this morning, Michael Winerip reviews the probe in his weekly “On Education” column—and he gives a gripping account of what happened. As he starts, he gives the basic background to this horrible story:

WINERIP (7/16/11): There had long been suspicions that cheating on state tests was widespread in the Atlanta public schools, but the superintendent, Beverly L. Hall, was feared by teachers and principals, and few dared speak out. Last summer a supposedly Blue Ribbon Commission, headed by a businessman volunteering his time, produced yet another flimsy report, urging further investigation.

Gov. Sonny Perdue said he was fed up and determined to conduct a thorough investigation. For this, he called on three men who had spent a good part of their careers putting people in prison: Michael J. Bowers, a former state attorney general; Robert E. Wilson, a former county district attorney; and Richard L. Hyde, who could well be the most dogged investigator in Georgia.

It took them 10 months to uncover the biggest cheating scandal ever in a public school district.

Was this the biggest cheating scandal ever? We’ll consider that claim below. But a bit later, Winerip gives the skinny on a state probe which “found cheating at nearly half the Atlanta schools.”

The probe had begun at Venetian Hills Elementary School:

WINERIP: The taking of Venetian Hills became the prototype for an investigation that found cheating at nearly half the Atlanta schools. A total of 178 principals and teachers—including 82 who confessed—had fraudulently raised test scores so their schools would meet targets set by the district, according to the report, released June 30.

Investigators described how Dr. Hall had humiliated principals who didn't reach their targets. Every year she gathered the entire district staff at the Georgia Dome. Those from schools with top scores were seated on the Dome floor; the better the scores, the closer they sat to Dr. Hall. Those with low scores were relegated to sitting in the stands.

Principals, in turn, humiliated teachers.


It is now clear that for years Dr. Hall headed a school system rife with cheating and either didn't notice, as she maintains, or covered it up, as investigators suspect. During that time, she was named superintendent of the year by two national organizations, and praised by the secretary of education himself—for her rigorous use of test data as an evaluation tool.

“Apparently Dr. Hall applied that same rigor to fabricated test data,” Winerip writes, “enabling her to collect $600,000 in performance bonuses over 10 years to supplement her $400,000 annual salary.”

Should those national organizations have suspected something was wrong in Atlanta? Should Arne Duncan have suspected? In this particular case, we don’t know, but our “educational experts”—and our biggest news orgs—have repeatedly failed us, down through the years, in pursuing matters of this type. Here at THE HOWLER, we first spoke to a major Baltimore Sun columnist about overt cheating in public school testing in 1972; we wrote several columns about such topics in the Sun in the late 1970s.

It was sometime around 1980 when we were first told that teachers and principals sometimes erase incorrect answers after their students’ testing is done, replacing them with correct answers. (We were told this by the editor-in-chief of one of the nation’s biggest test batteries. He also told us that the big test publishers would scan a school district’s answer sheets for unusual erasure patterns.) At this site, we first described this remarkable practice in 1999 (see THE DAILY HOWLER, 9/24/99).

Sorry, but everyone has known about this general problem for decades—unless they worked to avoid such knowledge, as our big news orgs endlessly did and still do.

Back to Winerip’s painful description of the events in Atlanta. We were struck by the symbolism found in this passage, which describes the way the state probe started at Venetian Hills:

WINERIP: ''You start by walking around the school, giving everyone your card,'' [investigator Robert Wilson] said. ''Stir the pot.'' The first time he made the rounds, nobody cracked. But then, a religious woman with a lot to get off her chest came forward. One cracked egg led to the next, and within two weeks, five teachers plus the testing coordinator, Milagros Moner, had confessed that they had changed answers to raise the school's scores.

[Investigator Richard] Hyde then outfitted Ms. Moner with a wire and videotaped her meeting with the principal, Clarietta Davis, at a McDonald's.

Ms. Davis had been so worried about leaving fingerprints while doctoring answering sheets, Mr. Hyde recalled, that she wore gloves.

This is horrible stuff. But just as this principal tried to avoid leaving her fingerprints on this story, the nation’s big news orgs will never tell you how hard they have worked to keep similar problems from coming to light. Our big newspapers have worked very hard to wipe away all kinds of prints.

Consider the way the Washington Post and the New York Times have dealt with this particular cheating scandal, and with several others:

The New York Times and Atlanta: Early in 2010, the New York Times did some decent reporting about the apparent problem in Atlanta. But in August 2010, the paper did a peculiar news report which massively downplayed what was known, then published a foolish, fawning profile of Superintendent Hall—a profile which played a set of very familiar cards regarding race and education. (See THE DAILY HOWLER, 8/30/10. Black kids are not helped by this type of journalistic conduct, though it makes the Times seem high-minded.) Two weeks later, Georgia’s governor announced the statewide probe which eventually cracked the case. The Times devoted one paragraph to that fateful announcement.

Grade: “G” for gruesome.

The Washington Post and Atlanta: The Times at least did basic reporting about the situation in Atlanta. Incredibly, the Washington Post has essentially never reported this situation at all. Even now, with the Georgia probe completed, the Post has never done a stand-alone report about the problem in Atlanta—nor have the editors offered an editorial. On July 8, education reporter Bill Turque described the findings of the Georgia report—in a brief, two-paragraph passage halfway through a news report about the DC schools. Incredibly, that represents the Post’s full treatment of this major scandal. (This is not a criticism of Turque.)

If you read the Washington Post, it is very unlikely that you have ever heard about this situation. But then, this follows this paper’s unmistakable editorial line concerning “education reform” and testing. We strongly favor annual testing ourselves—but the Post has long run a scam on its readers about this subject, which is tied to the company’s bottom line. Regarding Atlanta, the Post has essentially run a total news black-out on this major national story.

Grade: “C” for corrupt.

The New York Times and the state of New York: Does Atlanta represent “the biggest cheating scandal ever in a public school district,” as Winerip said? If you add the word “known” to that description, Winerip’s description is probably accurate. But just last year, the state of New York renounced years of statewide test scores, saying that its statewide tests had become easier down through the years. This is a much bigger abuse of the public trust than the Atlanta situation; it invalidated years of scores from every public school district in the whole state of New York! But so what? The New York Times has refused to treat this as a scandal, thus following its long-standing line of fawning to New York City’s billionaire mayor, who kept bragging about his rising test scores long after he should have known that this problem existed. Needless to say, the Washington Post has never reported this matter at all.

Grade: “F,” for (journalistic) fraud

The Washington Post and Washington/the Washington Post and the state of Virginia: Indications of widespread, Atlanta-style cheating have been found in the DC schools. The DC school district has run its own apparently phony probe, just as the Atlanta school district initially did; it remains to be seen if a serious probe will be conducted by some other agency. But just last week, the editors of the Washington Post wrote an amazingly bogus account of this ongoing situation (see THE DAILY HOWLER, 7/11/11). When it comes to matters like this, the Washington Post can truly be called Pravda-by-the-Potomac.

Also this: As in the state of New York, so in the state of Virginia! In 2006, the chairman of the state school board acknowledged that the state had been publishing bogus test scores (passing rates) for virtually every school in the state. But as in New York, so in Virginia (except a bit more so): The Washington Post never even reported the fact that this problem had occurred—that the chairman had made this admission. For several years, the state had published fraudulent test scores. Virginia is part of the Post’s local beat—but the Post’s readers weren’t told.

Grade: “B,” for business as usual

Winerip’s piece today is quite striking. In Atlanta, one principal “had been so worried about leaving fingerprints while doctoring answering sheets” that she wore gloves when she changed all those answers.

For ourselves, we thought of the Post and the Times when we read that sad description. The fingerprints of Bloomberg and former DC Chancellor Rhee are all over other testing scandals. But fawning newspapers have worked very hard to keep those prints from view.

We’ve been on this beat since 1972. Only now, thanks to a massive state probe, have our biggest newspapers been forced to go there—and they’re hiding other cases of massive fraud which occurred right under their noses.

This is what Chomsky called “manufactured consent.” And please understand: In large part, the hiding of the larger story continues because the modern career liberal world doesn’t give a fig about black kids—won’t report on matters like this, simply doesn’t care. Question: Have you seen the Atlanta story discussed at your favorite site?

All that said, one final point should be noted about the Atlanta mess. We’ll note a point from Sunday’s editorial in the New York Times:

NEW YORK TIMES EDITORIAL (7/15/11): The fraud will cast doubt on the real progress that Atlanta has made on the federally sponsored National Assessment of Educational Progress, known as the nation's report card. In the last decade, for example, the city raised its average math scores significantly. The federal tests, however, are not administered or graded by local districts and are virtually impervious to tampering.

Even as Atlanta was cheating its keister off on the Georgia statewide tests, its test scores rose on the National Assessment of Educational Progress, where there is little apparent incentive or opportunity to cheat. Remember: A school system can cheat and improve its work at the same time. Atlanta does seem to have made some “real progress,” although that question, like all other questions, will not be examined in serious ways by your biggest national papers or by the liberal world.

(Our question: Was Dr. Hall able to affect the sample of Atlanta students tested by the NAEP? If you include a disproportionate number of more capable students, you will of course push up your test scores. Was her office in a position to do this?)

Final note to readers: At present, you don’t live in a world where such questions get examined. We’ve been discussing these topics for 39 years. During that period, the “experts” and “journalists” have stared into space and pandered to the various people running the various scams.

The Georgia state probe was too much to ignore—except at the Washington Post, which continues to earn a grade of “D” by disappearing the story. (And a straight A for amazing, with a G for gall.) In fairness, though, we’d give the same grade to the career liberal world. Have you seen this story discussed at your favorite, most fiery sites?

Really? You haven’t seen it discussed? One last question:

Why not?