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AND YOU DON’T MESS AROUND WITH TIM! Clinton tugged on Superman’s cape—and the Raccoons swung into action: // link // print // previous // next //
THURSDAY, OCTOBER 4, 2007

HERBERT’S COLUMN—AND MEDINA’S STRAIGHT FACE: Why isn’t Bob Herbert more influential? A few weeks ago, T. A. Frank wrote an interesting piece in the Washington Monthly trying to define the problem, and trying to answer the question. (For Kevin Drum’s summary, just click here.) In part, Herbert is simply too boring, Frank suggests. Some of Bob Herbert’s work is quite good—though it seems to us that, in his best work, he is often covering events the Times should be reporting as news. But for a good example of the “boring” problem, see Herbert’s column this Tuesday morning about low-income schools.

Herbert must have spent ten minutes on this amazingly scripted piece. Indeed, any centrist or liberal pundit could have typed this up while sleeping. “Our Schools Must Do Better,” the headline declared. And if that wasn’t soporific enough, here’s the text of the boxed sub-headline:
Let’s identify the good teachers and find our what works.
Let's find out what works! Meanwhile, the column itself was perfect pabulum. Herbert’s two suggestions for improving the schools are so familiar that they virtually squeak. Meanwhile, he keeps suggesting that these two unexciting reforms could work a “startling” “transformation” of our schools. This is cruel and heartless nonsense. (Note the way Herbert overstates what the one “expert” he quotes really said.) Herbert shows no sign of knowing a thing about the state of low-income schools—aside from what anyone could have “learned” from a thousand other columns just like this.

Let’s find out what works! You’d think it would be hard to top the vapidity of that call to arms. But the very next day, this news report by Jennifer Medina pretty much did it.

The problem doesn’t start with Medina, though she can be faulted for reporting this “news” with straight face. According to Medina, a group of academics has formed a team to study New York City’s schools—almost literally, to find out what works. Here we see the breathless way Medina announces the venture:
MEDINA (10/3/07): For years, education experts have dreamed of a group that would gather reams of data on New York City's public schools, analyzing the numbers to figure out what works, and what does not, in schools.

Now, after years of major changes to the system under Mayor Michael R. Bloomberg, a group of academics has formed the Research Partnership for New York City Schools to do just that kind of analysis.
Quite literally, this dream team plans to “gather data” and “analyze numbers,” trying to “figure out what works.” But what kinds of data will the super-group gather? Forgive us if we’re less than impressed by the types of data Medina mentions; it’s hard to believe that much will be gained by “track[ing] things like how students perform over time, how long teachers stay in the system and how schools spend their money.” Forgive us, but it almost seems that these top academics want to do the kind of “research” that can be done inside air-conditioned quarters, without setting foot inside low-income schools. In our view, this is not a promising way to discover the types of things that might help struggling children.

But the sheer inanity of this report only becomes fully clear at the end, when Medina describes a similar group which has long been active in Chicago. Indeed, this Chicago super-group seems to have inspired the brainiacs up in Gotham. Try to believe that a major reporter could write this with a straight face:
MEDINA: As researchers did in Chicago, the New York group plans to collect data across the city to track things like how students perform over time, how long teachers stay in the system and how schools spend their money.

[...]

In Chicago, school officials are notified of each of the research topics before they are published, a practice that will almost certainly be duplicated in New York.

Some of the most useful work, Mr. Easton said, has come out of research on high school student performance, where researchers found that performance in ninth grade was a strong indicator of whether students would drop out. While the conclusion might appear obvious, he said, it sent ripples through the school system.

''You move from speculation to evidence,'' said Paul Goren, the vice president of the Spencer Foundation, which has also financed the Chicago program. [end of report]
According to Medina, this Chicago group has been active since 1990. It has “produced dozens of reports in the nearly two decades since, becoming an important and respected source of education research.” But what sorts of things has this super-group found? In some of the group’s “most useful work,” the brainiacs found that “[student] performance in ninth grade was a strong indicator of whether students would drop out.” That “might appear obvious,” one top genius said. But “it sent ripples through the school system.”

In seventeen years, that’s the best they’ve produced—and of course, it’s just breath-taking blather. (That might appear obvious? There are no words to say.) But the lack of results is hardly surprising if you look at the super-group’s methods. Sorry, but nothing much is likely to come from rummaging through the tedious data this group of detached, useless scholars explores. But here you see the sheer inanity which drives so much work on the problems of low-income schools. From the journalistic standpoint, the real shame here is the fact that Medina could report this joke with a straight face.

Sorry, but you won’t likely find out what might help struggling kids by reviewing the types of data described here. You have to go inside real schools; you have to see what sorts of things are frustrating actual children. (And you have to start on the first day of kindergarten. Check that—the first day of pre-school.) But many “education experts” seem to live their lives inside pleasant offices. And uh-oh! Working from their deathless insights, people like Herbert type ten-minutes wonders, talking about “transformation.”

Medina describes a sick, stale joke—a sick joke which has persisted for decades. Meanwhile, right next to Medina’s piece was this truly fascinating report, written by a professor, Susan Engel, who has clearly gone inside real schools, learning things about real children. The insights she reports won’t produce “transformation.” But there’s a chance they will help.

Special report:
Russert happens!


BE SURE TO READ EACH THRILLING INSTALLMENT: When NBC News fronts a White House debate, it’s inevitable: Russert happens! Be sure to read each thrilling installment:
PART 1: A millionaire couldn’t get over the cost of John Edwards’ troubling haircuts. See THE DAILY HOWLER, 9/27/07.

PART 2: Russert bungled Social Security, as he has done through the years. See THE DAILY HOWLER, 9/28/07.

PART 3: Angry lodge members banded together, certain that Russert knew best. See THE DAILY HOWLER, 10/1/07.

PART 4: All the Raccoons agreed to play dumb about the Cubs and the Yankees. See THE DAILY HOWLER, 10/2/07.
Today, we close our report with the One Great Thing all current Raccoons deeply know.

PART 5—AND YOU DON’T MESS AROUND WITH TIM: Do we have concerns about Hillary Clinton? As a matter of fact, yes—we do. We’d like to see her questioned about Iraq by someone competent. (Ditto for all the Major Dem hopefuls.) For various reasons, we regard that vote in October 02 as the worst in congressional history. (Kerry, Edwards, Dodd and Biden all cast the same vote, of course.) And we’re sad to see that no Big Dem can craft a health care debate in which the relevant, revenue-draining corporate interests haven’t already won. If the primary election were held today, we still don’t know who we’d vote for.

But Clinton didn’t start getting clobbered last week due to some reasonable set of concerns. Right after last Wednesday’s Democratic debate, Matthews, Fineman and Russert joined to headline an hour of typical blather—and for the first time in a very long while, we thought we heard the deeply cracked tone of Campaign 2000 in the air. The little guys seemed angry and hurt—and they voiced absurd complaints about Clinton, with a real tone of shared grievance. And sure enough! By the weekend, all the Raccoons were on the prowl, knocking over garbage cans and agreeing to voice the same scripted nonsense. Hillary Clinton cackles too much! And: She refuses to answer Tim Russert’s great questions! And even this complaint, with straight faces: She won’t choose between the Cubs and the Yankees! This last offense made her seem “Nixonian,” one Raccoon was willing to say; it meant she was “triangulating again,” Broder said. Even Gail Collins agreed to type this ludicrous nonsense in Saturday’s column. Let’s face it: When you can get people to echo that crap, the Grand Raccoons are very angry. And we think we can probably tell you when their new fury began.

What made the Grand Raccoons so mad? Just a guess: It began when Russert tried to play gotcha, and Clinton—refusing to play along—got the audience at the debate to laugh in his fat and garbage-fed face. Here’s the place where the problem began. The key word appears twice: “Laughter:”
RUSSERT (9/26/07): The guest who laid out this scenario for me with that proposed solution was William Jefferson Clinton last year. So he disagrees with you.

CLINTON: [Staring, unblinking] Well, he's not standing here right now.

(Laughter, applause.)

RUSSERT: So there is a disagreement.

CLINTON: [Purring coyly] Well, I'll talk to him later.

(Laughter.)
Russert tried one of his standard gotchas—and Clinton’s reply brought “laughter, applause.” (Those words come straight from the Nexis transcript. It was a big applause break.) Then, when the Head Raccoon tried to save himself, Clinton got girly-girl in reply—and the audience laughed in his fat face again. You could pretty much see that the Head Raccoon wasn’t amused by all the big laughter—and just like that, in the next hour, he and his boy toys were whining quite hard. To our ear, it sounded like Campaign 2000 again as the three presented inane complaints, voiced in a tone of high grievance. It had been a longtime since we heard that tone. And there it was again, Wednesday night.

And sure enough! By the weekend, the Raccoons were active. They agreed to complain about Cubs versus Yanks. Even Smiley wouldn’t say it was dumb.

But this is the way the world now works when Democrats mess around with Raccoons. By now, our major pundits are much more Republican; they’re corporate-selected, and they’re multimillionaires. They don’t give a fig about what affects you, and they hate the Clintons, and Gore and Edwards; they’ve plainly hated them for a long time, and there’s no sign they’re planning to stop.

But let’s face it—when a middle-class nation has millionaire pundits, that nation gets scribes who are out of their minds. When Chris Matthews sat with Jon Stewart Wednesday night, the very first thing Matthews had to say concerned the way Bill Clinton supposedly got women to sleep with him in college. This man just can’t stop discussing that penis. Meanwhile, his partner in lunacy, Maureen Dowd, offered this in Sunday’s column:
DOWD (9/30/07): Without nepotism, Hillary would be running for the president of Vassar.
Hiss! Hiss-spit! Hiss-spit! Meee-ow! By the way, do you have any idea why Dowd thinks she knows this? We seem to recall seeing Hillary Rodham on the cover of Life at age 21—and no, Bill Clinton was nowhere around. Dowd has no idea where she’d be without Bill. But she does know her cohort’s sick obsessions.

We have a deeply sick pundit corps, driven by a deeply sick pundit culture. Most likely, it will ever be thus when middle-class nations are saddled with a multimillionaire press corps. Russert and Gregory are both multimillionaires—although they’re careful not to discuss it—and they agreed, on Sunday morning, to feign concern about Cubs versus Yanks. From that ludicrous moment on, why would anyone ever believe a single word these “Lost Boys” ever said?

Digby is repeatedly calling them The Village. (That’s good!) We’ve been calling them Raccoons, stressing the remarkable way they behave like a fraternal order. But there’s one thing these crackpots all know in that Village. You don’t pull the mask off the old Lone Ranger. And you don’t mess around with Tim.