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SURVIVING SUPERMAN! The Post prays for a great debate. We’ll offer eight prescriptions: // link // print // previous // next //
TUESDAY, OCTOBER 5, 2010

Milbank breaks a rule: In this morning’s Washington Post, we learn some intriguing facts (just click here). Example: In a recent Washington Post/ABC News poll, 45 percent of respondents “approve of the way Obama is handling the economy.” 53 percent disapprove.

Those are important political facts. But last Saturday, Charles Blow helped us better understand the people expressing those views. Overall, 41 percent of those people can’t even name the current vice president. (Correct answer: Biden. See THE DAILY HOWLER, 10/4/10.) And only 72 percent of those people can give the correct answer to a bone-simple A-or-B question—a question with only two possible answers, each of which respondents were given: “Do you happen to know which political party has a majority in the U.S. House of Representatives? Democrats or Republicans?”

In short, when it comes to the simplest public affairs, we the people rarely know our keisters from our keyholes. Aside from the political implications of our views, why should anyone care what we think about Obama’s economic prescriptions? This is an enduring question, but it’s one the press corps sternly avoids. It has long been a matter of Hard Pundit Law: You don’t discuss the massive dumbness exhibited by us the people.

Congratulations to Blow from ignoring this stricture last weekend. And congratulations to Dana Milbank for a long essay in Sunday’s Post—an essay which ignored another long-standing prohibition. Uh-oh! When we don’t know our keisters from our keyholes, we’re susceptible to believing any damn-fool set of claims which come down the pike. In the past twenty years, our politics has endlessly been driven by such arrant nonsense.

Bill Clinton was a serial murderer! That notion was spread all over the land by one of our most famous preachers. Al Gore said he inspired Love Story! That fateful claim got its start in 1997, from Frank Rich and Maureen Dowd. Then there are the ludicrous claims which have driven our “policy discussions.” Again, a prominent handful:

Garbage, right down the line. But these claims have endlessly been recited, jumbling our major policy debates—with major journalists like Milbank looking silently on. For decades, no claims have been so dumb or so false that the “mainstream press corps” would push back against them. Indeed, when it came to the crap about Clinton and Gore, Milbank was happy to advance the history-altering claims.

But that was then—and this is now! In his essay, Milbank does something that never is done—something which, in a rational world, would be a normal press function. Unheard of! In his essay, Milbank takes a leading American broadcaster and examines the ludicrous things he has said! He identifies these claims as absurd! He does so at some length!

Let’s say it again: In a rational world, this would be a standard press function. This sort of essay would appear in the press all the time. But especially when it comes to powerful players, “mainstream journalists” have refused to engage in this basic function. Let’s recall a recent incident, involving a pair of our true moral frauds: When Sean Hannity kept making false claims about Imam Rauf, Nicholas Kristof knew what to do: He never said a word about Hannity, who was disinforming millions of people every night. Instead, he beat up on an insignificant player—a decent man who made one mistake in a minor Maine newspaper.

So the system has worked, for decades. The established world of our “liberal journals” has essentially never complained.

Milbank did something that’s never done; he performed a basic press function! Given prevailing press corps norms, it’s stunning to see such a piece appear.

Good lord! After all these years! More on his essay tomorrow.

Special report: Surviving Superman!

PART 1—SO THE EDITORS PRAY (permalink): Does the American press corps hate kids? So it often seems. Just consider an editorial in Saturday’s Washington Post—an editorial which displays, in very mild fashion, the press corps’ long-standing, feckless approach to public school issues.

Needless to say, the piece was high-minded. As they closed, the editors offered a fervent plea for Washington’s mayor-elect, Vincent Gray:

WASHINGTON POST EDITORIAL (10/2/10): Since D.C. Council Chairman Vincent C. Gray's victory in the Democratic mayoral primary, we haven't waded into the conversation on whether the presumptive mayor-elect should retain Ms. Rhee. In our view, he's entitled to some space and time to weigh such a crucial decision and to work with a chancellor he's confident in. But he should be allowed to base his decision on facts, not fears or fantasy. School reform in Washington has not been anti-black.

DC’s much-discussed school reform has not been anti-black, the editors judged. And they wished the best for Mayor Gray as he moves forward from here. Should Gray retain Chancellor Rhee, the source of major controversy? The new mayorshould be allowed to base his decision on facts, not fears or fantasy,” the editors loftily said.

But when has the press corps followed this advice when it comes to the public schools? In that same editorial, the editors presented this defense of Rhee—a defense which is riddled with claims which can’t be defended as facts:

WASHINGTON POST EDITORIAL: “By any measure, the public schools in D.C. are dramatically better today than when they started,” U.S. Education Secretary Arne Duncan said on "Meet the Press," referring to the reform efforts of Mayor Adrian M. Fenty (D) and Ms. Rhee. Under Ms. Rhee's leadership, the District went from having the country's worst scores on the National Assessment of Educational Progress to leading the nation in the rate of improvement. African American students make up about 75 percent of the public school enrollment and—contrary to claims by critics—they have not been left behind. On local test scores, 23.93 percent of black elementary students were proficient in math and 32.62 percent were proficient in reading in 2007; the percentages rose to 36.9 in math and 38.77 in reading in 2010. The gains of black secondary-school students were even more remarkable: In 2007, 22.48 percent were proficient in math and 25.85 percent were proficient in reading, compared with 37.59 percent proficient in math and 38.05 percent in reading in 2010.

We would assume that Washington’s schools are better because of Rhee. But that pro-Rhee history is built around claims which can’t be described as “facts.” We hate to disappoint the editors, but there is no factual basis for the claim that Washington had “the country's worst scores on the National Assessment of Educational Progress” when Rhee took over in 2007; in fact, this claim is almost certainly false (see THE DAILY HOWLER, 9/28/10). Nor is there any factual basis for the claim that Washington has been “leading the nation in the rate of improvement” under Rhee’s leadership.

Washington’s scores on the NAEP have improved under Rhee. But those embellished claims by the Post bear a certain resemblance to “fantasies’” They aren’t established “facts.”

Ditto for the editors’ claims about those gains “on local test scores.” The editors cite actual proficiency rates generated by the District’s annual testing; they extend their work to two decimal places to show us how careful they are. And it’s true—those proficiency rates have increased under Rhee. But are the editors sure that the District’s tests haven’t gotten easier in recent years? Are the editors sure that the gains in proficiency didn’t stem, in part, from certain test-taking techniques which have been taught in certain schools—techniques on which the Post has reported without noting the technical problems these techniques seem to present?

It isn’t like these are abstract questions. Just two months ago, the state of New York threw out years of student test scores. In the process, the state admitted that its ballyhooed gains in passing rates had been illusory, because its statewide tests had gotten easier over the years! The Post responded to this scandal in typical “journalistic” fashion; as best we can tell, the paper has simply never reported this matter! In this way, the Post covers up for favored elites. For example, the Post covers for New York City chancellor Joel Klein, a man who should have known what was happening—and a major ally of Rhee, who is presumed to be right in all things. But then, this is the way the Post behaved in 2006, when the state of Virginia (part of the Post’s “local” beat) admitted that it had reported fraudulent test scores for several years, in all schools, all over the state.

Covering up for Virginia’s elites, the Post refused to report this major news too! Today, the high-minded editors waddle forth, praying that Gray “should be allowed to base his decision on facts.” We agree with that lofty idea. But why should Gray get this advantage—an advantage the Washington Post keeps denying its readers?

Do the editors simply hate kids? Journalists who cared about public schools would surely create a more enlightened discussion. Or maybe these editors are simply too dumb to understand the issues involved here. However we judge it, the press corps has engaged in an orgy in recent weeks, in the wake of Davis Guggenheim’s new documentary, Waiting for Superman. The discussion of this simple-minded film has often been a rolling disgrace. Are we simply too dumb to do better? Or does the press corps hate kids?

Over at the New York Times, Lady Collins announced that Guggenheim’s film “has sparked a great debate about American education.” In our view, that claim is delusional—several miles past absurd. If we want a great debate, we’ll have to move beyond Guggenheim’s bungled claims and his stunningly simplistic frameworks. Over the next three days, we’ll suggest some things a nation would do if it did desire that great debate. Where should a real debate go from here? We’ll offer eight, maybe nine prescriptions.

We agree with the editors’ lofty goals! Our debate about the public schools should be based on facts, not on fictions or fantasies. But look around the modern American landscape! Given the norms of our adult world, is there any earthly chance we’ll ever see such a discussion?

TOMORROW—PART 2: Can we drop the magic bullet approach? Can we stop hiding our actual test scores? Must we make delusional statements about the recent past?