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TELL US A STORY! Ezra Klein types a Disneyfied version of what Gene Robinson said: // link // print // previous // next //
MONDAY, OCTOBER 10, 2005

SLOWLY WE TURN: As we shift the focus of TDH, we’re working on last week’s two-hour PBS special, Making Schools Work, about public schools which have success while serving low-income minority kids. According to moderator Hedrick Smith, one such school is Charlotte’s Spaugh Middle School. But uh-oh! This past spring, only 57.7 percent of Spaugh’s black eighth graders passed North Carolina’s end-of-grade reading test; statewide, 80.5 percent of black eighth graders passed! Nor were things better on the seventh grade level. At Spaugh, 58.2 percent of black seventh graders passed, compared to 76.2 percent of black kids statewide. Statewide, 92.3 of white seventh graders passed (94.3 percent of white eighth graders). Needless to say, these facts weren’t mentioned in Making Schools Work. To check data using the official North Carolina state report, you know what to do—just click here.

Without criticizing the staff at Spaugh, why would a school with these results be singled out as a “school that works?” With a whole nation of schools to choose from, why on earth were we asked to ponder the great reforms which Spaugh hath wrought? We’re not sure, but the press has played schoolboy games for decades when it ponders the schools of minority kids. Smith’s report made viewers feel good—and that often seemed to be its chief purpose.

TELL US A STORY: Jesus always spoke in parables—and the human mind still loves them. We love to put our thumbs on the scale and pick and choose among our facts, creating stories which please our souls—and serve our ideological predisposition. Over the course of the past several decades, our public discourse has been dominated by silly, pseudo-conservative stories—stories we’ve endlessly scanned at this site. Now, with Bush’s numbers in the tank, we may see the rebirth of a public discourse driven by pseudo-lib fantasies.

We humans live to rearrange facts—to produce pleasing stories. Example? Consider again what the Post’s Gene Robinson said about violence in New Orleans post-Katrina—then consider the way Tapped’s Ezra Klein rearranged what the Post pundit said.

We discussed Robinson’s column last Friday (see THE DAILY HOWLER, 10/7/05). With apologies for length, here’s the portion where he describes two “extreme versions” of what happened post-Katrina:

ROBINSON (10/7/05): I got [to New Orleans] five days after the deluge, when the story, as the whole world understood it, was one of "Mad Max" depravity and violence. Hoodlums were raping and pillaging, I just "knew”—even shooting at rescue helicopters trying to take hospital patients to safety. So it was a surprise when I rolled into the center of the city...and found the place as quiet as a tomb.

The next day I drove into the French Quarter and was struck by how pristine St. Louis Cathedral looked, almost like the castle at Disney World. I got out of the car and walked around the whole area, and I wrote in my notebook that except for the absence of tourists, it could have been just an ordinary Sunday morning in the Big Easy. Then I got back into the car, and on the radio a caller was breathlessly reporting that, as she spoke, a group of policemen were "pinned down" by snipers at the cathedral.

I was right there; nobody was sniping at anybody. But the reigning narrative was Mad Max, not Magic Kingdom. Thanks to radio, television and the Internet, everyone "knew" things that just weren't true.

That was a month ago. Last week the New Orleans story shifted to the other extreme: There weren't but a handful of murders after the flood, about what the city would expect in a normal week; there were no documented cases of rape at the Superdome or the convention center; "hoodlums" in baggy pants helped with rescues instead of hindering them; and most of the "snipers" were stranded people firing in the air to try to attract the attention of helicopters, not chase them away.

I'll bet the truth is more subtle and complicated than either of those extreme versions...

Robinson says that the “Mad Max” story was overstated—“extreme.” (As we noted last Friday, his reasoning here was a bit hard to follow, since no one had said there was violence everywhere.) But then, he goes on the say something else—he says that the new, revised story about New Orleans is an “extreme version” of what happened too. Two weeks ago, he says, the “Mad Max” story “shifted to the other extreme”—and he places a bet about that new narrative: “I'll bet the truth is more subtle and complicated than either of those extreme versions.” In short, Robinson challenges both “extreme versions” of what happened post-Katrina. The “Mad Max” story was inaccurate, he says. But so is the newer, Disneyfied story, in which everyone helped out all around.

Let’s say it again: According to Robinson, there have been two “extreme versions” of what happened post-Katrina—and both of them are probably inaccurate. But that isn’t what you’d think he said if you read Klein’s account of his column. Instead, Klein edited Robinson’s column to pimp the story which pseudo-libs like. Here’s Klein’s full excerpt from the Robinson column:

ROBINSON’S COLUMN, AS EXCERPTED BY KLEIN: I was right there; nobody was sniping at anybody. But the reigning narrative was Mad Max, not Magic Kingdom. Thanks to radio, television and the Internet, everyone "knew" things that just weren't true.

That was a month ago. Last week the New Orleans story shifted to the other extreme: There weren't but a handful of murders after the flood, about what the city would expect in a normal week; there were no documented cases of rape at the Superdome or the convention center; "hoodlums" in baggy pants helped with rescues instead of hindering them; and most of the "snipers" were stranded people firing in the air to try to attract the attention of helicopters, not chase them away.

Klein ignores Robinson’s description of the new story as “the other extreme,” and he stop quoting just before Robinson says that this second “extreme version” is inaccurate too. Then he stirs pseudo-liberal souls with a fiery denunciation of the vile, racist media. Here you see the pseudo-lib impulse in all its excited irrationality:
KLEIN (10/7/05): Those horror stories, now proved untrue, were not simply mistaken, they were racist. From the widely reported but never confirmed rapes in the Superdome all the way to the false accounts of sniped rescue workers and roving gangs of looting blacks, Katrina exposed a latent cultural racism that many Americans assumed had vanished. These were tropes more suited to the Deep South of the 1800s than the cable networks of the 21st century. Maybe if more reporters followed Eugene Robinson's lead and explained—prominently—how wrong they'd been, the news media would be a bit more cautious next time.
But which horror stories were “proven untrue?” As we’ve noted, there were some “roving gangs of looting blacks” in New Orleans post-Katrina. (It’s extremely hard to understand why someone would find that surprising.) And there were some shots fired at rescue workers. And the fact that some rapes were “never confirmed” doesn’t necessarily mean that they didn’t occur. To state the obvious, there’s no way to know exactly what happened in New Orleans post-Katrina. But Klein, whose pseudo-liberal soul is afire with the chance to tag (other) people as racists, is eager to shill us a Disneyfied story, in which simple facts are wiped away. In last Friday’s column, Robinson said that this Disneyfied story was a second “extreme version” of events post-Katrina—that it is probably exaggerated too. Result? Klein deep-sixes that part of the piece, then seems to suggest that no crime ever happened—and, of course, that the media were racist for daring to say otherwise. According to Digby, we were back in 1741 when the media dared to report the things officials were saying that week (see THE DAILY HOWLER, 9/28/05). Klein, a relative moderate on this matter, says that this media conduct was “more suited to the Deep South of the 1800s” than to the present day.

Alas! The human mind is a cesspool of odd, twisted narratives; even in our modern world, Enlightenment values are honored in the breach. As a country, we’ve suffered for the past several decades as waves of pseudo-conservative nonsense have driven our challenged public discourse. But the ludicrous backlash to post-Katrina reporting reminds us of something we saw in the 60s. It reminds us that silly, fact-averse tales can stir pseudo-liberal hearts too.

OUR FAVORITE PART: How much crime occurred post-Katrina? To state the obvious, it’s quite hard to say. But here’s our favorite part of Robert Pierre’s report in last Wednesday’s Post—the piece we reviewed last Friday. Pierre quotes Jim Letten, U.S. attorney for the Eastern District of Louisiana:

PIERRE (10/5/05): In recent days, the retractions have begun. Then-Police Chief Eddie Compass appeared with Nagin on Sept. 6 on "The Oprah Winfrey Show." The mayor said people inside the Superdome had witnessed murders and rapes. Compass added that "little babies [are] getting raped." Both have since pulled back. "The information I had at the time, I thought was credible," Compass told the Times-Picayune last week before submitting his resignation. The paper had pointed out several inconsistencies in his statements.

Violent crimes with a weapon, such as aggravated battery, numbered only a few dozen, Letten said. Officials made arrests for a double homicide and two rapes in Jefferson Parish and one rape in Orleans Parish, said Pam Laborde of the Louisiana Department of Corrections. Federal agents arrested a man for shooting at a helicopter, on Sept. 5. But several officials, including Blanco, now believe that some of the gunfire people reported in the city was attempts to signal rescuers because residents have told them so.

But how can Letten possibly know how many violent crimes occurred in New Orleans? Most flood victims were soon transported out of the region; do we think their buses stopped by police headquarters to file crime reports as they left the city? Other reporters have noted the difference between actual crimes and crime reports. But Pierre was typing the Disneyfied version of events post-Katrina—the one Robinson called “the other extreme”—and in this pleasing, Disneyfied version, if it wasn’t reported, we just say it didn’t happen. How much violent crime occurred in New Orleans? It’s hard to see how Letten could know. But Pierre was advancing that new “extreme version,” so Letten was permitted his statement.

THE JOYS OF RACE: It’s always pleasing to call other folk racists. Oh, how easy it would be to savage Klein for racial bad faith—for his immaturity about racial matters, for his racial condescension, for his need to pretend that African-Americans, alone of all groups, never engage in crime. In fact, the vast majority of New Orleans flood victims behaved with super-human forbearance as they waited for assistance to arrive. How easy it would be to slime vile Klein for failing to note this fact—for instead pretending that no crime occurred, an absurd and illogical racial pander. How easy, how pleasing—and how dumb—it would be to slime Klein for bad faith.