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Print view: Three liberals criticized Kurtz's piece. They started with silly semantics
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LET’S START WITH SOME SILLY SEMANTICS! Three liberals criticized Kurtz’s piece. They started with silly semantics: // link // print // previous // next //
WEDNESDAY, AUGUST 4, 2010

A day in the life: As a people, are we smart enough to run our nation? On Tuesday morning, our smartest newspaper was filled with the sorts of bizarre assessments which make us wonder and ask.

Go ahead. Make your selection:

We jerked our heads back for the first time when Monica Davey profiled Paul Ryan (R-Wisc.), author of the world’s most improbable budget plan. “The White House…ha[s] problems with its details,” Davey weirdly wrote at one point (our emphasis). But that was kid stuff compared to what happened when we read this report about Atlanta’s schools.

Shaila Dewan was following up on a story she wrote back in February. We were surprised a bit by her headline: “Cheating Inquiry in Atlanta Largely Vindicates Schools.” But we were even more surprised by that headline after we read Dewan’s report. What did Dewan report about Atlanta’s cheating probe? The city has 84 elementary or middle schools, she said. According to the probe, “twelve schools had statistical evidence of a schoolwide problem. Thirteen schools showed irregularities in specific classrooms or grades.” By our count, this would mean that roughly thirty percent of Atlanta’s schools had either a school-wide problem or a problem which might include entire grades. That seemed like a fairly large problem to us—unless you were reading that headline, or Dewan’s opening paragraph. (“The Atlanta public school system was substantially vindicated Monday when the results of an independent investigation into cheating on standardized tests were released.”)

A bit later in Dewan’s piece, this degree of irregularity seems to be described as “one or two percent of educators.” By now, the analysts were openly crying and tearing out tufts of their hair.

Things got no better when we read this typically murky editorial about the use of “foreign courts and their legal rulings” in American jurisprudence. We’ve long been puzzled by this topic; our puzzlement survived this piece. The editors followed a familiar path; they threw around favorite terms like “nativism” and “xenophobia” without arranging to shed any light on this topic. (We’ll assume Ruth Bader Ginsberg was much more clear in the “brave speech” which occasioned this editorial.)

So far, so gruesome! But we simply threw up our hands when we read Tara Parker-Pope’s maddening report in yesterday’s “Science Times” section.

At last! Parker-Pope was doing a full report on a semi-ballyhooed educational study, one we’ve been wondering about for some time. In this study, a large number of low-income Florida grade school kids were allowed to select a dozen free books to take home over summer vacation. After three years of this treatment, their reading scores were compared with the reading scores of similar kids who didn’t get the free books. Excitement about this study’s results has been floating around for a while, at least since this news report in the June 1 USA Today. Six weeks later, David Brooks hailed the study’s outcome:

BROOKS (7/9/10): Recently, book publishers got some good news. Researchers gave 852 disadvantaged students 12 books (of their own choosing) to take home at the end of the school year. They did this for three successive years.

Then the researchers, led by Richard Allington of the University of Tennessee, looked at those students' test scores. They found that the students who brought the books home had significantly higher reading scores than other students. These students were less affected by the ''summer slide”— the decline that especially afflicts lower-income students during the vacation months. In fact, just having those 12 books seemed to have as much positive effect as attending summer school.

This study, along with many others, illustrates the tremendous power of books. We already knew, from research in 27 countries, that kids who grow up in a home with 500 books stay in school longer and do better. This new study suggests that introducing books into homes that may not have them also produces significant educational gains.

We’ll give three cheers for Allington’s efforts—and we’ll give Brooks a D-minus. Could anyone but a major journalist be surprised by the finding described in that third paragraph—by the news that kids from high-literacy backgrounds tend to stay in school longer? Not likely, but we were also vexed by the way Brooks described the Allington study. At two different points, Brooks used the word “significant” as he gushed about the study’s results, but he seemed to miss a basic point: The results of a study can be statistically significant without being societally significant. In other words: Brooks never said how much higher reading scores were among the kids who got the free books. It’s entirely possible that the scores were only slightly higher, while still being statistically significant. Greg Toppo also failed to deal with this point in his USA Today report.

How much higher were the scores of the kids who got the free books? Without knowing that, you don’t know much. But with Parker-Pope penning a full report in the extra-smart “Science Times” section, we just knew that we’d finally learn! Greedily, the analysts fell on her piece. And then, the analysts gnashed their teeth as they got their non-answer answer:

PARKER-POPE (8/3/10): Children who had received free books posted significantly higher test scores than the children who received activity books. The effect, 1/16th of a standard deviation in test scores, was equivalent to a child attending three years of summer school, according to the report to be published in September in the journal Reading Psychology. The difference in scores was twice as high among the poorest children in the study.

How much better were those kids’ reading scores? One-sixteenth of a standard deviation! Is that a lot? Is that a little? Why not just write in Olde Swedish?

(Careful: The fact that free books work better than summer school doesn’t tell you much either.)

As a people, are we smart enough to survive? As we keep reading our smartest newspaper, the answer keeps tilting toward no.

Special report: Not all that!

PART TWO—LET’S START WITH SOME SILLY SEMANTICS (permalink): Yesterday, we criticized an incoherent discussion Howard Kurtz led on Reliable Sources this Sunday. The next morning, Kurtz wrote a column in the Washington Post on the same general topic.

Kurtz’s column was somewhat murky, but it was much clearer than Sunday’s discussion. His headline, and his first two paragraphs, defined his general claim:

KURTZ (8/2/10): In journalism's crossfire culture, everyone gets wounded

The nastiness index keeps on rising, and all of us are getting sullied in the process.

Media outlets, which once merely chronicled this era of hyper-partisanship, now seem to be both the purveyors and often the targets of ugly attacks.

According To Kurtz, “media outlets” have become the purveyors of “ugly attacks”—and they’re the targets of ugly attacks in return. “The nastiness index keeps on rising,” he says. “All of us are getting sullied in the process,” Kurtz wrote, without quite explaining who “us” is.

In our view, Kurtz’s outlook is a bit overwrought, but it’s hard to say that he’s “wrong.” As he continued, he listed some bombs which have been thrown in recent weeks; it’s hard to deny that a fair amount of name-calling has been in the air. But several important liberals had a different reaction to this column. For them, the problem began when Kurtz named the names of some of those involved in the “ugly attacks.”

Alas! When Kurtz reviewed the attacks of the past few weeks, he started with Salon’s Joan Walsh and with Howard Dean. For our money, that was a poor choice—possibly even a bit of payback for Walsh’s recent, semi-inaccurate posts about Kurtz’s work. But just for the record, here’s the way Kurtz named names:

KURTZ (continuing directly): In just the last few weeks, Salon Editor in Chief Joan Walsh and CNBC contributor Howard Dean have accused Fox News of racism; conservative crusader Andrew Breitbart has delighted in pushing a maliciously edited video smearing Shirley Sherrod and refused to apologize; Fox hosts have denounced mainstream organizations as Obama lap dogs for downplaying a case involving the New Black Panther Party; e-mails from an off-the-record discussion group showed one liberal pundit wishing for Rush Limbaugh's death and another suggesting that conservatives such as Fred Barnes be tarred as racist; Rolling Stone's Michael Hastings was accused of betraying journalistic ethics with the story that torpedoed Gen. Stanley McChrystal, and Hastings's critics were ripped as lackeys of the military establishment.

It's journalism as blood sport, performed for the masses.

Does that array of “ugly attacks” constitute “journalism as blood sport?” Again, we’d say Kurtz is taking things a bit hard—and we can’t see why Walsh and Dean would get top billing over Breitbart. On the other hand, a lot of bombs have been flying around—and many of these bombs have been R-bombs, dropped by big stars on our own liberal team. We wouldn’t have started with Walsh and Dean—and we wouldn’t have been so overwrought in the face of all the mayhem. But if you read Kurtz’s column graf by graf, it’s hard to say that it’s generally “wrong.”

Unless you’re a fiery liberal, that is, exhibiting a type of tribal reaction Kurtz semi-predicts in his piece.

We don’t read a lot of web sites here, but two people we do read all the time criticized Kurtz rather hard, offering similar critiques. (We refer to Walsh and Digby.) So too with Salon’s Ned Resnikoff—the latest college kid thrown in the stew as the liberal world dumbs itself down. In a piece in Tuesday’s Salon (click here), Resnikoff kisses Walsh’s keister as he repeats the deathless complaints she offered in her own Monday column. Like Resnikoff, Digby linked to Walsh’s column as she too repeated its points.

When three liberal players all say the same things, the rule of three has been engaged, and it’s time to assess their critiques. Here’s the way Resnikoff started his piece, linking to Walsh as he did. Gag yourselves as you see the way our children kiss their regent’s keister—even as they repeat their regent’s claims, which may not be all that acute:

RESNIKOFF (8/3/10): Howard Kurtz columns are strange beasts. They’re fascinating, and almost always worth reading, but they’re very rarely insightful or original. They offer a different kind of enlightenment: a compressed version of the prevailing dogma on journalism as espoused within its most venerable institutions. The pleasures of a Kurtz column are more sociological than philosophical.

Take his latest, in which he criticizes, among other people, Salontopia’s most wise and gracious monarch Joan Walsh for practicing what he calls "journalism as blood sport.”

It’s a fairly banal argument, but in her response, Walsh—whom I have never met or corresponded with—makes it interesting by attacking some of Kurtz’s underlying assumptions. As it turns out, Kurtz has a pretty strange understanding of what constitutes a "journalist." (Or "blood sport," for that matter, although that’s a different column.) To wit: Howard Dean makes the cut, as does Shirley Sherrod. And of course, Andrew Breitbart does as well.

Kurtz is a copyist, Resnikoff cries, as he copies several bits of “prevailing dogma” from Joan. Howard Dean isn’t a journalist, Joan had weirdly complained, in her first direct complaint against Kurtz. And sure enough! Our college boy was there the next day, lodging the same complaint, helping us see how tribal elites reinvent themselves as Kool Kidz. In fairness to college kids worldwide, Digby had already echoed Joan’s point, right at the start of her own Monday post:

DIGBY (8/2/10): Howard Kurtz is an utter fool for finding equivalence between Shirley Sherrod, Howard Dean, Joan Walsh and Andrew Breitbart for any number of reasons. I would defend Joan on this, but she's done it perfectly well for herself, and she makes the right point about Dean as well. He is not a journalist. Indeed, among those four named above the only one is Walsh and she is perfectly correct in labeling FOX racist when, among other things, they just spent two weeks ginning up a story about "black panthers" which has no basis and which can only be seen as a tool to sow racist animus.

Just how well do we liberals reezun? Let’s start with that thrice-stated claim, in which banal old Kurtz is an utter fool for daring to call Dean a “journalist.”

How well do we all-knowing liberals reed? In fact, Kurtz doesn’t identify Dean as a “journalist.” As you can see in the passage above, he identifies him as a “CNBC contributor,” in the third paragraph of his column. (Dean has been such a critter such April 2009. For his company bio, click this.) Within the taxonomy of Kurtz’s piece, this would presumably make Dean a “pundit”—more specifically, one of the many “pols-turned-pundits” whose roll Kurtz calls a bit later. (Kurtz names six other such pundits—four Republicans and two more Dems.) In turn, CNBC is presumably one of the “media outlets” to whom Kurtz referred in paragraph 2 (see above); so is MSNBC, which invited Dean on two programs last week to declare that the Fox folk are racist. For ourselves, we wouldn’t describe Dean’s R-bombs as “blood sport,” or as “ugly attacks,” thinking those phrases a bit overwrought—though we did think Dean’s cable outings last week were hapless in many ways. But by any normal usage, programs aired by MSNBC are indeed part of our floundering “journalism.” Hardball and the Ed Show may not be “journalism as blood sport.” But these programs are certainly “journalism,” as conducted by a major “media outlet.” Dean is clearly a paid “contributor” to one of these “outlets.” Is it really so outrageous to refer to him as a “pundit?”

Actually no, it isn’t outrageous, and Kurtz never called Dean a “journalist.” He certainly never called Sherrod such a thing, but our latest college savant played snide with that notion too. And here you see the childish ways our growing liberal tribe likes to reason. Rather than make real substantive claims about the column Kurtz had written, we started with a silly semantic complaint—with nonsense for the ages.

No fair! Howard Dean isn’t a journalist! Can you see why we’re easy to beat?

By the way: Did Kurtz “find equivalence between Shirley Sherrod and Andrew Breitbart?” Actually no, unless you’ve gone virally tribal. More on that claim tomorrow.

How dare he call Howard Dean a “journalist?” Mommy’s best boy repeated the question, boot-licking royalty as he did. (Good grief! Before he was done, Resnikoff even went out of his way to kiss poor Ezra Klein’s ass! But this is how “leaders” are born.) This helps us see the childish ways our tribe is now inclined to reezun. But then, we liberals simply aren’t all that, a point you’ll never grasp if you listen to our own endless self-praise. More specifically, this is how we got in our current groaning mess, where we have to rely on Alan Greenspan to kill the world’s dumbest idea. (More on that sad tale tomorrow.)

Sorry. We modern liberals aren’t all that—we never have been—although we can’t seem to grasp such facts. Tomorrow, we’ll continue with Joan’s complaints about Kurtz’s piece—a piece which dealt with important subjects, though it too “wasn’t all that.”

Question: Will our liberal complaints get better? We wouldn’t have written that column ourselves. But how much sense has our tribe made in recent weeks about the topics explored in that column?

Tomorrow: Much as Kurtz semi-described