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Print view: If we require it, they will succeed, the New York Times eds still insist
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DON’T REEZUN REEL GUUD! If we require it, they will succeed, the New York Times eds still insist: // link // print // previous // next //

How to lose a debate: Your press corps’ skills are not vast.

Last night, Anderson Cooper interviewed Leo Berman, a Texas state legislator who has said that “we have a president who the American people don't know whether he was born in Kenya or some other place.” In a lengthy session, Cooper tried to challenge Berman’s birtherism. In our view, he tried and he failed.

Alas! Despite good intentions, Cooper kept letting Berman change the subject as the interview proceeded. Early on, for example, Cooper asked the following question. It was a very good question—a rather obvious question:

COOPER (11/29/10): Do you not acknowledge that the state of Hawaii has the original birth certificate? The health director there says it. The governor of Hawaii says this is not an issue.

The governor of Hawaii, who is a Republican, was quoted as saying: "I had my health director, who is a physician by background, go personally view the birth certificate in the birth records at the Department of Health. We issued a news release at the time saying the president was, in fact, born at Kapi'olani Hospital in Honolulu, Hawaii. And that is just a fact."

Is she lying?

“That is just a fact!” Was Governor Lingle lying when she affirmed Obama’s place of birth? Is she deranged? Has she been deceived? Given what this Republican governor has said, these are fairly obvious questions. But Berman never had to answer such questions. Instead, he scrambled out of the pocket in the manner which follows—and Cooper let him go:

BERMAN (continuing directly): Well, my question to you, then, Anderson, is why— Did you see it? I would like to see it.

COOPER: Well, you can go—

BERMAN: And I would also like to see President—

COOPER: You can go and see it. The nonpartisan fact-checking organization, they—they looked at it. It has a raised seal. They say it's legit.

BERMAN: A raised seal could be put on by any type of machinery. But what I'm saying is, Where are the president's passports? Where are his travel documents? Where are his school records? Why don't we know anything at all about a president who has such a radical agenda? There is a radical agenda. And I would like to know something about the President of United States.

Just like that, Berman changed the subject—and Cooper allowed him to scramble away. Instead of sticking to his question about Governor Lingle, Cooper chased Berman down the field, willingly switching to the unconnected matter of Obama’s college transcripts.

This is how crackpots and demagogues escape defeat—with the help of players like Cooper.

Can Berman actually “go and see” the original birth certificate? We have no idea. But if you read last night’s transcript (which is lengthy), you’ll see the work of a very unskilled player (click here). Cooper kept letting Berman scramble away, chasing him as he switched and shifted among a wide array of topics. This is the simplest way a demagogue can escape getting sacked. Cooper showed no sign of knowing.

Why did Governor Lingle say what she said? Berman never answered! Instead, Cooper chased Berman all over the field, discussing an ever-shifting array of unconnected topics. The analysts were crying by the time this was done. Cooper’s skill set isn’t vast—and he sits at the top of our press corps.

Special report: Newsroom culture!

PART 2—DON’T REEZUN REEL GUUD (permalink): Only in America?

On Sunday, the ombudsman of the Washington Post had some advice for his current employer—and no, the gentleman wasn’t kidding, or speaking tongue-in-cheek. The Post should consider “providing remedial math training” to its journalists, Andrew Alexander advised (see THE DAILY HOWLER, 11/29/10). Beyond that, Alexander had some advice of his own for those high-ranking journalists:

ALEXANDER (11/28/10): Many newsrooms provide remedial math training, but that's not been done at The Post. It should be considered. And given the increasing use of numbers in reporting and graphics, The Post should pay heightened attention to math and statistical literacy when evaluating prospective hires.

But above all, Post journalists should focus on the basics. Scrutinize every number. Double-check every percentage. Question every statistic. That's as basic as one, two, three.

Post journalists should “double-check every percentage,” Alexander advised. He sounded as if he might be addressing a group of sixth-graders on the day before they take the annual math exam. This helpful advice came after Alexander quoted some experts explaining where our modern-day journalists tend to go wrong with their math:

ALEXANDER: “I think what's going on is that when journalists see a number, they take it at face value and don't question it," Maier said. "With numbers, I think journalists tend to abdicate that scrutiny."

Martell agreed, explaining that those intimidated by math tend to "panic" when forced to deal with numbers.

"You don't really have to know that much about statistics to read a statistical paper critically," she said, adding that reporters often cite numbers and statistics touted in news releases without questioning their accuracy.

Welcome to bedlam! To our ear, Alexander described this peculiar scene as if it were the most normal thing in the world. At one of our most influential newspapers, reporters should get some remedial math, he said. Above all, they should remember to double-check the numbers they’re handed by various interest groups!

In what kind of world do major journalists function in the hapless ways Alexander described? In our view, Alexander describes a world which is run by a floundering, D-plus elite. Of course, math panic isn’t the corps’ only problem! Simply put, our mainstream journalists dont reezun reel guud, a problem the New York Times puts on display in an editorial this very morning.

In this editorial, the editors discuss what New York City’s schools should do now that Mayor Bloomberg will get his new chancellor. “The change of leadership could not have come at a more sensitive time for the nation’s largest public school system,” the editors say. As the editors explain what they mean, they make a type of suggestion which people of their ilk have been making for decades:

NEW YORK TIMES EDITORIAL (11/30/10): New policies promulgated by the State Board of Regents earlier this year will require schools all over the state to retool in several different areas at once.

Most crucially, they will need to redesign curriculum to conform to rigorous standards developed by the National Governors Association along with state superintendents and embraced by the regents as part of New York State’s application for the Obama administration’s Race to the Top competitive grant program.

Adapted from high-performing school systems abroad, the new standards lay out specific skills that children will need to learn in order to succeed at college. The point of this writing-intensive approach is to develop reasoning skills far earlier than is customary.

By fourth grade, for example, children will be required to write well-organized essays in which they introduce and defend opinions, using facts and details. By the senior year of high school, they will be expected to solve complex problems through research and to display skills that we now associate with the first year of college.

If we require it, they will succeed! Following the peculiar logic which has been the norm for decades (see below), the editors describe what fourth-graders will now “be required” to do—without explaining why they think such “requirements” make earthly sense.

Truly, it would be pretty if New York City’s high school seniors could “solve complex problems through research and display skills that we now associate with the first year of college.” (Why not the second or third year of college?) It would also be nice if the city’s fourth-graders could “write well-organized essays in which they introduce and defend opinions, using facts and details.” (In that case, the city’s fourth-graders could go straight to work, writing the Times’ editorials.)

Why can’t a woman be more like a man? It would surely be pretty if Gotham’s seniors performed more like freshmen in college! But in this passage, the editors revert to a type of “logic” which has pervaded education debates over the past several decades. In these debates, authority figures simply “require” teachers and students to achieve certain things by a certain time. Little attention is ever paid to the plausibility of these demands—or to how we expect to achieve them. In her new book, The Death and Life of the Great American School System, Diane Ravitch accurately recalls the way the first President Bush began his term in the White House:

RAVITCH (page 31): When President George H. W. Bush took office in January 1989, he convened a national summit of governors to agree on a course of action. The participants set specific goals for the year 2000, which included a pledge that “all children in America will start school ready to learn”; American students will be the first in the world in math and science; at least 90 percent of students would graduate from high school; all children would master “challenging subject matter”; all adults would be literate and prepared to compete in the global economy; and every school would be free of drugs, alcohol and violence.

American students will be the first in the world? Why not first in the whole solar system? These pledges were foolish in 1989, as we incomparably wrote at the time. But by the time of No Child Left Behind, we had moved from goals and pledges to “requirements,” a silly practice the editors continue today.

How do we plan to achieve our requirements? Routinely, such questions get lost.

Can we “require” Gotham’s seniors to perform in the manner described? Just a guess: Many seniors in New York City currently read at traditional fourth-grade level. Should they be required to “solve complex problems through research and to display skills that we now associate with the first year of college?” If so, what new modes of instruction will help New York City’s students transform themselves in such cosmic ways? According to the editors, some sort of “writing-intensive approach” is allegedly going to help these students “develop reasoning skills far earlier than is customary.” (Far earlier! Go ahead—laugh out loud.) But is there any rational reason to think that such an approach will succeed? It would be pretty to think so—and hapless, upper-class buffoons have been doing so for the past twenty years.

Among those detached, upper-class buffoons is the Times editorial board—detached folk who sit at the tippity top of the nation’s mainstream “press corps.”

What kinds of people “reason” this way? What kinds of people persist in pretending that if we simply “require” an outcome, that outcome will somehow occur? At the upper end of our mainstream press corps, such pseudo-thinking remains in vogue, enjoyed by people who think pretty thoughts but never step into an actual school to dirty their hands with reality. For people who spend their time dreaming such dreams, it’s easy to conjure pretty thoughts in which their city’s deserving fourth graders are transformed into scholastic giants. But such pretty thoughts are the mark of an upper-class, D-plus elite.

If we require it, they will succeed! Field of Dreams was a fantasy film; did these oafs understand that point as they watched? Whatever the answer, today’s editorial takes us beyond the simple need for remedial math. For our upper-end “press corps,” math is still hard! But that is the least of their—and our—problems.

Tomorrow—part 3: Protecting the guild