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Bob Herbert typed an old novel. A writer of childrens' books balked
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SHE SPIES! Bob Herbert typed an old novel. A writer of childrens’ books balked: // link // print // previous // next //
FRIDAY, MARCH 5, 2010

Tomorrow: Tomorrow, a special “cultural uplift” edition, including the world’s greatest movies.

Down with Hatch/Or, you can’t spell “Orrin” without it: Now that the week is over, it’s time to pop a basic question. Exactly how bad was that column by Orrin Hatch, the one in the Washington Post? (Just click here.)

The piece appeared in Tuesday’s paper. Hatch argued that it would be wrong to use the process known as “reconciliation” in the case of our current proposed health reform. The headline on his piece said this: “Reconciliation on health care would be an assault to the democratic process.”

Just how bad was Hatch’s piece? In yesterday’s Post, E. J. Dionne rattled off the two most obvious problems. First, Hatch’s piece suggested that reconciliation would be used to pass the health bill as a whole. In fact, the process will only be used to pass “a series of amendments that fit comfortably under the ‘reconciliation’ rules established to deal with money issues,” Dionne wrote.

Second, Dionne noted the grossly misleading way Hatch quoted Senators Conrad and Byrd. Each solon has said that it’s OK to pass amendments through reconciliation. Misleadingly, Hatch quoted things they said last year, when each solon said that it would be wrong to pass the whole bill that way.

These were obvious problems with Hatch’s column. Neither problem was mentioned Tuesday night, when Rachel Maddow attacked poor Orrin. Maddow was full of her usual complete total certainty and full righteous fervor. Also as usual, she missed the most obvious problems with Hatch’s column. Substituting, she loudly churned some plainly illogical claims.

Thrills did run up liberal legs. But this process occurs on Fox every night. Is it really good enough for our side?

What was wrong with Maddow’s analysis? Before she started in on poor Orrin, she let poor Lamar Alexander have it. Sorry. This “analysis” made no earthly sense, despite the lady’s sense of complete total absolute certainty:

MADDOW (3/2/10): And there’s Senator Lamar Alexander. The Senate Republicans have been trying to elevate into a prominent position on health reform since maybe Senator Grassley needs some help. Lamar Alexander is now denouncing the use of reconciliation to get around the fact that Republicans are filibustering health reform. He’s denouncing it as a “political kamikaze mission.” A mission, it should be noted, that Senator Alexander himself has flown many, many times when he voted for things under reconciliation rules. It’s amazing actually that he’s still around to be so hypocritical after flying all those kamikaze missions.

For the record, Maddow’s factual statement about Alexander is accurate–if by “many, many times” you actually mean four times. (Alexander entered the Senate in 2003. By now, this type of blatant overstatement has become Classic Maddow.) That said, Alexander hasn’t said that every use of reconciliation represents a political “kamikaze mission”–he has predicted that this use would have that effect for Democrats in November, because opposition to the health reform bill is so strong. Maddow’s critique didn’t make any sense–though it was stated with total assurance.

Maddow made the same logical error when she started in on poor Orrin. She didn’t mention his bungled premise about passing the whole bill by reconciliation. She didn’t mention the way he misquoted Senators Conrad and Byrd. (Professional courtesy?) Instead, she started with this. Sorry. This too makes no sense:

MADDOW: Take another example. Take Senator Orrin Hatch. Senator Orrin Hatch of Utah has just published an op-ed in the Washington Post that has so many blatant, outright, laugh-out-loud falsehoods in it that it made me wonder if maybe there’s a deal or something where if you’re a United States senator, if you’re a United States senator who`s been in office for 33 years like Orrin Hatch has, you just don’t get fact-checked any more in the Washington Post. They just agree to let you print whatever you want. Is that the rule?

Because if that isn’t the rule, how else do you explain this? This Orrin Hatch from the Washington Post: “The use of reconciliation to jam through this legislation against the will of the American people would be unprecedented in scope. And the havoc wrought would threaten our system of checks and balances, corrode the legislative process, degrade our system of government, and damage the prospects of bipartisanship.”

Doesn’t it sound horrible, this reconciliation thing? Senator Orrin Hatch sure makes it sound awful. Senator Orrin Hatch, who voted for a reconciliation bill in 1989, and in 1995, and in 1996, and in 1997, and again, a second time in 1997, and again in 1999 and in 2000, and in 2001 and in 2003 and in 2005, and again in 2005, and then in 2007. Now, he says that doing what he’s done all those times would wreak havoc.

Sorry, that doesn’t make sense. In the passage Maddow quotes, Hatch doesn’t say that any use of reconciliation would be wrong; obviously, that would make no sense whatever. (Reconciliation was specifically created, in 1974, to be used in certain kinds of cases. It was invented to be used.) In a clumsily written sentence, Hatch says the procedure would “wreak havoc” in a case like the current case–in a bill which is strongly opposed by the public, in a bill of this “scope.” (In his previous sentence, Hatch has described the health reform bill as “a bill that would affect one-sixth of the American economy.”) Personally, we don’t find Hatch persuasive here, but Maddow’s logic is thoroughly AWOL. In this thundering passage, she’s making the same type of error she made when she “fact-checked” poor Lamar.

As she continues, Maddow thunders with massive complete total certainty. Thrills ran up every liberal leg. But her analysis still didn’t make sense:

MADDOW (continuing directly): Orrin Hatch then goes on to admit that yes, “Both parties have used the process," he says, “but only when the bills in question stuck close to dealing with the budget. In instances in which other substantive legislation was included, the legislation had significant bipartisan support.”

That is a total, utter, complete, 100 percent unambiguous lie. It is a lie. It is an L-I-E. And I do not mean the Long Island Expressway. It is not the truth. I– Maybe I’m naive. I find it hard to believe they can get away with stuff like this.

In 2003, Republicans used reconciliation to get the Bush tax cuts passed, the tax cuts that exploded the deficit. They did not get significant bipartisan support for that. They passed it with 50 votes. Dick Cheney had to come in as vice president and president of the Senate to break that tie to give them 51.

Crikey. Maddow quotes Hatch saying that both parties have used reconciliation–but only when the bills in question “stuck close to dealing the budget,” or in cases “in which other substantive legislation was included,” where “the legislation had significant bipartisan support.” But alas! For her refutation of Hatch’s claim, Maddow presents the 2003 Bush tax cuts, a bill which–drum roll please–“stuck close to dealing the budget!” By the way: Did those tax cuts “explode the deficit?” We’d call that a bit of a stretch. (The 2001 cuts were the really big ones.) But at no point did Maddow attempt to explain why that would even be relevant.

For the record, this was Maddow’s thundering finish. Her analysis only got worse:

MADDOW (continuing directly): Two years later, another reconciliation vote, this time, on Medicaid. Republicans were only able to get that one passed using reconciliation, too, because they only got 52 votes for that one–significant bipartisan support.

When Orrin Hatch says, hey, we never use reconciliation for big substantive bills when the vote was going to be close, and when he says that would be unprecedented, he is not telling the truth. It is a lie.

Health reform passed the Senate by 60 votes. It passed the House by a majority. And now, Democrats are going to pass the last fixes to align the two bills using reconciliation.

Republicans used reconciliation a lot, for major legislation. They did it all the time, and they’re now lying about that record. Orrin Hatch, in particular, has been there voting with them while they did it, just about every single time. And now, Orrin Hatch is lying about that in the Washington Post. And the Washington Post is just printing the lying.

But was that 2005 bill “a big substantive bill?” Was it “major legislation,” dealing with matters apart from the budget? According to Wikipedia, the bill in question–“The Deficit Reduction Act of 2005"–“saves nearly $40 billion over five years from mandatory spending programs through slowing the growth in spending for Medicare and Medicaid, changing student loan formulas, and other measures.”

It saved nearly $40 billion over five years? Was that “a big bill?” And by the way: Big or not, wasn’t that an obvious budget bill? It also seems to have been a bill which actually reduced the deficit, to adopt the framework Maddow introduced but didn’t explain.

In her thundering screed about Hatch, Maddow did what she often does. She preached with absolute moral assurance, yelling “lie” and “lying” throughout. She did this even though she skipped past the most obvious problems with Hatch’s piece, substituting a set of claims in which her logic was persistently AWOL.

This sort of thing happens on Fox every night. In fact, it lies at the heart of Fox. It defines the dumbness now sweeping our political culture. Is it good enough for our side?

Final question: Was Dionne right in his third, final complaint about Hatch? In this passage, Dionne makes an argument which is similar to Maddow’s wider, louder set of complaints:

DIONNE (3/4/10): Hatch said that reconciliation should not be used for "substantive legislation" unless the legislation has "significant bipartisan support." But surely the 2001 and 2003 Bush tax cuts, which were passed under reconciliation and increased the deficit by $1.7 trillion during his presidency, were "substantive legislation." The 2003 dividends tax cut could muster only 50 votes. Vice President Dick Cheney had to break the tie. Talk about "ramming through."

The underlying "principle" here seems to be that it's fine to pass tax cuts for the wealthy on narrow votes but an outrage to use reconciliation to help middle-income and poor people get health insurance.

Sorry. Even Dionne seems to be bungling what Hatch said, even though we agree with his general conclusion. (We know of no obvious argument against using reconciliation in the manner proposed, unless Alexander turns out to be right about the political backlash.) Hatch seemed to say that reconciliation could be used in two types of cases. He seemed to say it could be used “when the bills in question stuck close to dealing with the budget.” Or it could be used in another type of case, he seemed to say: “In instances in which other substantive legislation” is included, he said the process could be used if “the legislation ha[s] significant bipartisan support.”

No one has to accept this framework. But to “refute” it, Dionne cites the 2001 tax cuts—a case in which “the bill in question stuck close to dealing with the budget!” People! Does it all depend on what the meaning of “or” is? You can’t spell “Orrin” without it!

We don’t think Hatch made a strong case. Beyond that, he made at least two glaring misstatements. In particular, he quoted Conrad and Byrd in a blatantly dishonest way. (For the record, Maddow tends to “quote” the other tribe’s people in this very same way. )

But good grief! We liberals are eager to shriek and wail. We especially love to yell “lie” and “lying.” It’s hard to believe that we have to cut corner to manufacture complaints about GOP conduct. But we’re increasingly willing to do so to give ourselves that pleasure.

This is the nature of life on Fox. Increasingly, Maddow’s shtick drifts that way too. It’s hard to believe that you have to cut corners to come up with complaints about GOP conduct. But certain people will persistently do that. It makes their followers dumb.

That’s the way life is lived on Fox. Is it really good enough for our side? In a badly devolving culture, does this constitute good citizenship?

In the long run, is this really good politics? This crap has worked well for the other side. Will it really work well for ours?

SHE SPIES: Let’s start with a standard disclaimer: Until shown otherwise, we assume that Deborah Kenny is a superlative, admirable person. We assume the kids who go to her schools are getting an excellent deal.

Who the heck is Deborah Kenny? She founded, and runs, the Harlem Village Academies, a trio of charter schools in New York. Bob Herbert spilled with praise for her program in his February 22 column in the New York Times.

Until shown otherwise, we assume that Kenny’s schools are a great deal for the kids who attend them. But it actually matters if people like Herbert know how to evaluate schools of this kind. But alas! We thought his column maintained a decades-long tradition of unhelpful novelization about low-income schools.

Herbert visited Kenny’s middle school. He was impressed by what he saw. Indeed, city kids are getting a very good deal when they attend schools like this:

HERBERT (2/22/10): When I visited a Harlem Village Academy middle school on First Avenue, the first thing I noticed was an apparent paradox: There was a great deal of energy and excitement in the school but not much noise, not even when children were changing classes. The school day is longer. The curriculum is carefully thought out. And discipline is obviously important. Youngsters are not allowed to make fun of one another. And there is no fighting.

When I asked one boy why there were no fights in the school, he replied, “Because it’s not allowed.”

Kids are lucky when they go to such purposeful schools. But how did Kenny’’s school get that way? More important, how easily can this atmosphere be replicated on a large scale? In our view, Herbert buys the pooch when he starts talking with Kenny. He recites her theories as if they were written in stone and hauled down from a mountain. Before long, he’s offering this:

HERBERT: Ms. Kenny has established two middle schools and one high school and is in the process of creating three elementary schools. Her track record has been extraordinary.

The majority of the youngsters come into the middle schools performing at three to four years behind their grade levels. Within a very short time, they are on the fast track toward college. In 2008, when the math and science test scores came in, Ms. Kenny’s eighth graders had achieved 100 percent proficiency. It was not a fluke.

What’s ironic is that the teachers are doing everything but teaching to the tests. Ms. Kenny’s goals for the youngsters in her schools are the same as those that she had for her own three children, who grew up in a comfortable suburban environment and are now in college. Merely passing a standardized test was hardly something to aspire to.

This is a very familiar novel. It has been typed by credulous scribes for more than four decades now. The kids entered fifth grade three to four years behind, Herbert somewhat improbably says. “Within a very short time,” they were headed for college. In 2008, as eighth graders, they achieved 100 percent proficiency in math and science.

Do you believe in miracles? This makes educational miracles sound rather easy. True-believing journalists have been typing this novel for lo, these many years.

When Herbert’s column appeared, we looked up the official state report about this school. Today, through the miracles of New York’s state bureaucracy, the state report cards seem to be unavailable on-line. But this is what we found when we checked—although we’re forced to work from memory:

Yes, 100 percent of Kenny’s eighth-graders passed the 2008 math test. But only 30 kids were tested in eighth grade that year. (This school has a very small enrollment.) The year before, 41 kids had been tested in the school’s seventh grade.

What happened to the eleven kids? Do some of this school’s lower-achieving kids leave before they get to eighth grade? We have no idea, and again, we’re working from memory today when it comes to those numbers. But these are the kinds of questions a journalist should ask before he runs off to type that novel. Sorry! For decades, people like Herbert have done something different. They’ve spent a few hours walking through urban schools, then gone home to type what they’ve been told. This is irresponsible “journalism.”

Can lessons be drawn from Kenny’s schools? We don’t have the slightest idea, in part because Herbert doesn’t have the first clue. But Kenny’s enrollment is very small—and all her kids, and all their parents, have all agreed to take part in her demanding program. (Good for them!) It isn’t clear that this tells us much about the way the wider population of kids can be educated. Although we’re sure that the kids at this school are getting a very good deal.

A few days after Herbert’s column appeared, a letter appeared in the New York Times. Its writer asked some tough, direct questions—the kinds of question a person should ask about a school like Kenny’s:

LETTER TO NEW YORK TIMES (2/26/10): Though Bob Herbert did not overtly frame his column in the context of today's debate over the value of public schools versus charter schools, I couldn't help but read it that way.

I went to public schools as I grew up, so did our children, and I served for 10 years on the local school board. As a children's book author, I have visited many public schools—urban, suburban and rural—over four decades, and have met countless terrific teachers, aides, principals and children eager to learn. At the same time that I congratulate Deborah Kenny on her three wonderful charter schools, I'd like more information.

I wonder if her schools receive private funding unavailable to public schools and if she can cherry-pick her students. I wonder about the percentage of English-language learners and special education students in her schools. I wonder if test prep is offered. I'd like to know which math and science tests (city, state, local?) were taken by the eighth graders and if the test results were verified by outside experts.

Because Dr. Kenny's goals for her students, in addition to academic goals, are so inspiring (wholesome character, compassion, responsibility, sophisticated intellect, love of reading), she deserves to have more substantial information presented about her success so that it can illuminate the debate.

The letter came from Jean Marzollo, author of the I Spy series. For our money, the highlighted questions don’t quite reach the heart of the situation. (Example: When kids volunteer for a demanding program like Kenny’s, they are “cherry-picking” themselves.) But that one naughty question (Was there test prep?) especially warmed our cockles.
There’s no sign that Herbert asked.

Marzollo congratulates Kenny; we do too. We assume her kids are getting a very good deal. But we’re now in at least the fifth decade of know-nothing columns like the one Herbert offered. It’s stunning to see how our journalism works—rather, this thing which resides in its place.

As we were saying/Central Falls edition: Hay-yo! Yesterday, the New York Times published an AP report about the mass firing at Central Falls High (see THE DAILY HOWLER, 3/3/10). The AP included more data about the school’s passing rates. Look what the AP wrote:

ASSOCIATED PRESS (3/4/10): The state's education commissioner earlier ordered Dr. Gallo to choose from one of four options, including mass firings, to improve the high school. Only 7 percent of 11th graders tested this fall were proficient in math, while 33 percent of the high school students tested proficient this fall in writing and 55 percent were proficient in reading.

Say what? Only 7 percent passed the math test, as everyone and his uncle has said by now. But 55 percent passed the reading test! This is a very unusual pattern. Normally, schools can bring up passing rates of low-income kids (especially “second language” kids) with more ease in math.

This suggests that the state’s math test is unusually “hard.” But again: None of these data tell us much about Central Falls until we’re told what the passing rates are for the state as a whole.

Those comparison data should be in every report. So far, we’ve never seen them.