WHY HER STORY MATTERS! We tried to learn why Rhees story had changed. Heres why that actually matters: // link // print // previous // next //
FRIDAY, DECEMBER 19, 2008
When fiery liberal dogs fail to bark: By last night, the fever had broken. Pundits stopped imagining, parsing, speculating, pretending about Obamas troubling ties to Blago. Instead, they discussed purpose-driven gay-bashingand Caroline Kennedys background, of course. After a deeply disturbing delay, theyll get their report from Obama on Blago at the start of next week. Which is disturbing, of course.
That said, pundits staged ten days of punishing nonsense as they speculated, imagined and parsed. And heres the good news: All over the web, liberals and progressives pushed back hard, often doing so with great skill. Wellall over certain parts of the web. In certain other precincts, those fiery liberal dogs didnt bark.
We know, we knowtheyre our nominal allies. But we thought you might want to know what occurred at one fiery site.
For us, it began late last Friday. Posting at Tapped, Tim Fernholz criticized the press corps clowning in the prior four days. And yet, his criticism of the press was restricted to one parenthetical remark, in a longer post about an Ed Rendell comment. And uh-oh! Though he did criticize the press, he framed his criticism thusly:
Quite correctly, Fernholz said the medias reporting had been bad. But in the same breath, he said this: the Obama team's handling of the issue has been almost as bad. But what had Obamas team done wrong? We had no ideaand Fernholz didnt say. But then, we think youve seen these constructions before: On the one hand, the press corps was wrong. On the other hand, so was Obama!
To us, this was an odd (but sadly typical) post, after four days in which many liberals had pushed back, with considerable skill, against the press corps clowning. But then, a question popped into our heads: How many of the other fiery liberals at Tapped had criticized the press corps at all? And sure enough, when we scrolled back, we got a sadly predictable answer: As best we could tell, Fernholzs post represented the very first time anyone had criticized the press corps at all! Nor could we find such criticism in the American Prospects articles, or on Ezra Kleins site.
This week, the Group Disinterest continued, with one exception: On Tuesday, A. Serwer posted this dead-on complaint about a New York Post column by Kirsten Powers. But aside from that, the silence continued. Thats a tremendous amount of disinterest from a large group of fiery liberals. (On Wednesday, Serwer completely vindicated himself, offering this plainly intelligent post on a different topic.)
Lets be clear: Theres no reason why any particular individual just has to address this topic. And of course, the professors will tell us: Theres almost surely a very good reason for all this liberal silence. But we think weve seen this movie before, at other times when the mainstream press has committed startling fouls. Example: When Time put Ann Coulter on its cover and massively fawned, many liberals pushed back hard on the web. But at career liberal sites, it was silent night. All was calmand the future looked bright (see THE DAILY HOWLER, 4/28/05).
To our reckoning, career liberals seem to keep their traps shut when the press corps goes after your interestsand your leaders. We have a term for that silence: Dead weight. But almost surely, the professors will see right through that take on our nominal allies. There must be a high-minded reason, theyll say, when fiery liberal dogs fail to bark.
Part 4Why her story matters: Sigh. Even after Obamas election, what explains the success that conservatives have enjoyed in framing arguments that leave Democrats and liberals at an automatic disadvantage?
That quotation comes from E. J. Dionnes column in this mornings Washington Post. And sure enough! If you want to explain the success that conservatives have enjoyed in framing arguments, wed advise you to read that very same column, in which Dionne discusses Arne Duncans role in the current education debate.
Dionne describes two warring camps (each of which have valid ideas for improving public schools, by the way). Duncan gets along with each camp, Dionne says. In this passage, Dionne describes the more liberal of the two warring camps:
This liberal camp wants to expand early childhood programs; it wants to teach low-literacy parents how to raise more successful kids. Those are both perfectly valid ideas. And as he continues, Dionne describes the (perfectly valid) ideas of the other, non-liberal camp:
This second camp wants an effective teacher in every classroom, and an effective principal in every school. Those are valid objectives too. But back to our question: Why does it remain so easy for conservatives to frame our public debates? Heres one reason: All through this column, Dionne refers to this second campand this camp aloneas reformers in search of reform. In this way, he adopts the language of the conservative worldlanguage which heavily tilts this debate against the more liberal camp. In Dionnes column, firing bad teachers counts as reform; expanding pre-school doesnt. In this way, big pundits help conservatives frame arguments that leave Democrats and liberals at an automatic disadvantage.
Read carefully, all the way to the end. In Dionnes column, Michelle Rhees a reformerbut the EPI isnt. With liberals like this on the Posts bloated payroll, who needs anyone else?
This brings us to our topic today: The way Amanda Ripley profiled Rhee on the cover of last weeks Time.
Lets be clear: Rhee may turn out to be an excellent superintendent of schools in DC. In our view, its OK that shes inclined to bang heads (though she may be inclined to overdo it a tad); we think you should probably err on that side if youre running a big urban system. But Rhee is a darling of press corps elites, who often know nothing about urban schools. That has led to some unfortunate journalismas in this important passage from Ripleys profile of Rhee:
Including its gratuitous slam at those bad fourth-grade teachers, thats the classic foundational tale of the Rhee is a Miracle Worker myth. Except for one small fact: The miracle claims attributed to Rhee have been vastly downsized here. In Ripleys telling, Rhee started out with second-graders who were scoring in the bottom percentile on standardized testsbut after two years of miraculous work, the majority were at or above grade level. But that is not what Rhee has said all through her flashy public career. Last year, the Washington Posts Nikita Stewart actually quoted her long-standing, undocumented, boast:
On balance, that is a much more dramatic claim than the one Ripley described in Time. According to Rhees long-standing claim, she worked so major a miracle that ninety percent of her floundering students ended up scoring at the 90th percentile or higher. That is a truly astonishing claimand, in Ripleys profile of Rhee, that claim has been massively downsized.
Thats right, readers! A majority of kids at or above grade level is a much more modest claim than the claim which helped Rhee get where she is. So how about it? Has Rhee actually changed her claim? Twice last week, we e-mailed Ripley through the Contact mechanism on her web site, hoping we could find out:
We dont know if Ripley got our request. But we got no reply.
Does this question actually matter? Yes, it does. Heres why:
Dionnes reformers build their world around the idea of improving the stock of public school teachers. This is a perfectly valid objectivealthough, in some hands, it can quickly devolve into brainless, old-school union-bashing.
To these heroic reformers, Rhee is a leading figure. And if you believe her self-glorying tales, you might start thinking that the only problem in low-income schools involves those lazy teachers. According to Rhee (and others like her), when teachers roll up and their sleeves and get to work, even the lowest-scoring kids end up in the top ten percent. If you really believe such inspiring tales, its hard to see why we should waste our time with all those other types of reform. We should just send high-minded Princeton kids into the schools and let the miracles happen.
Rhee may turn out to be a good superintendentbut no, we dont believe her tale. And we think Wendy Kopp should go to jail for that crap she told Charlie Rose last summer (see THE DAILY HOWLER, 7/16/08). But Charlie just sat there and let her blab, with nothing resembling a real question asked. And this morning, Dionne restricts the use of the loaded term reform to Kopp and her tellers of tales.
It matters if Rhees hero tale is correct. Tales like that have created bogus ideas about low-income schools for the past forty years now. Unfortunately, Time sent an unschooled scribe to profile Rhee, and through some process or another, she vastly downsized Rhees long-standing claimperhaps without even realizing. Last week, we asked her how this change had occurred. But in the world the Dionnes and Roses have built, you dont really question reformers.
Meanwhile, low-income kids can go hang in the yard; our journalistic world is built around pleasing tales, not the real search for reform. Press elites have always found it pretty to believe pleasing tales like Rhees. For ourselves, we dont believe her inspiring taleand we think the search for real success will surely be hard, and quite long.
This just in from the ivory tower: Uh-oh! Both camps in Dionnes column have valid objectives. But read back through the two sets of reforms. Neither group mentions instructional practice! Such fluff isnt mentioned at all.