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SPINNING SPAIN! Did last week’s bombing swing an election? Basic facts have been quite hard to locate:


FOLLOW-UP—SOCIAL PROMOTION: A North Carolinian incomparably e-mails on the subject of social promotion (see THE DAILY HOWLER, 3/17/04). “My wife, who taught third grade for 30 years, disagrees with Mayor Bloomberg and opines that any child left back for more than one year faces social pressures a lot larger than the academic ones,” he writes. Then he shares a personal observation:

E-MAIL: I’m on the board of an “alternative” middle and high school in Durham, NC. Some of our kids are five years behind in reading. I know that having 16-year-old boys in the 7th grade is no solution.

Today you wrote about your difficulty finding social studies and science textbooks at the reading level of your students. I’d like to see a long list of the “Somerby solutions.”

For ourselves, we would be very surprised if this school’s students were only “five years behind in reading.” For technical reasons, standardized tests sometimes seem to understate the depth of the actual problem. Many kids in our public schools can barely read at all.

Needless to say, the first “solution” to this situation would be a more intelligent discourse. People who work in schools with low-literacy populations know how silly it is to think that we’re going to “outlaw social promotion.” Unfortunately, school boards—and editorial boards—do not understand. Result? Over the past ten years, one jurisdiction after another has announced it will outlaw social promotion. And in one jurisdiction after another, such plans have been ignominiously scrapped when the realities of the situation become clear. Despite this, pols like Bloomberg keep reinventing this wheel—and editorial boards show little sign of knowing why the idea is so daft.

What’s the correctable problem in urban schools? Large percentages of kids in those schools are vastly behind traditional “grade level.” And they’re almost never given textbooks they can actually read, or instructional programs geared to their educational profile. Despite this, editorial boards persistently say that we’re asking too little of these kids—that these kids would do as well as anyone else if their teachers would only demand high achievement. This vision is straight from the Annals of Dreamland, but plummy-accented editorial boards love to express it at fine cocktail parties, where they’re applauded by their peers for holding such high-minded views.

The truth? In urban schools, we constantly ask kids to do too much—to read books they can’t possibly understand, to advance through instructional programs that are far beyond their level of functioning. If you ask that 16-year-old to sit in that seventh-grade classroom, guess what? He’s going to drop out of school! And if you ask him to read a grade-level textbook, guess what? He can’t understand it! It would be quite easy to publish a range of textbooks and educational programs that are geared to the actual range of real students. But urban systems love to pretend that students are doing much better than they actually are, and editorial boards, like that at the Times, wouldn’t dirty their hands in an urban school if their seats at the opera depended on it. They don’t have the first idea of what they’re opining about.

If fifth-graders are reading on second-grade level, you simply can’t hand them a fifth-grade textbook. But that is happening today, all over the country—or they’re being handed no textbooks at all. Meanwhile, editorial boards—like that at the Times—keep churning their clueless editorials.

SPINNING SPAIN: Did the Spanish electorate cut-and-run as a result of last week’s bombing? Was the Spanish election an act of appeasement? To judge this, you might want to know two things. You might want to know where Spanish polls stood before the bombing occurred. And, of course, you might want to know what the vote totals turned out to be.

But good luck finding either fact in your American “press corps!” Pundits, of course, are pushing spin; in this morning’s Washington Times, for example, Donald Lambro—reliable lap-dog—types the official, scripted spin-point. “[F]earful Spaniards voted to throw out Prime Minister Aznar,” the troubled scribe writes. (And yes, those are his actual words. That’s what it means when we put words in quotes.) But to assess this spin, you need some facts—and as we’ve told you again and again, facts play almost no role in our discourse. Almost surely, you don’t know the facts about Sunday’s election if you read the New York Times.

For example, what did Spanish polling show before the bombing last week? The Times has given you several answers. In yesterday’s paper, for example, Lizette Alzarez and Marie Sciolino offered this assessment:

ALVAREZ/SCIOLINO (3/17/04): The contest in Spain had always been close between the governing Popular Party, which backed Mr. Bush’s policies, and the Socialists, who opposed them…

In March 2003, at the height of opposition to the Iraq war, the Socialists were ahead in polls. With the economy roaring and the Socialist Party in disarray, the Popular Party pulled ahead. On March 7, the last date in which polls were published, an Opina poll showed that the gap had narrowed, giving the Popular Party 42 percent, compared with 38 percent for the Socialists.

According to this account, “the contest in Spain had always been close.” Indeed, the last poll, published on March 7, showed a declining four-point lead for the Popular Party. But is this accurate? We’re not really sure. On March 11, Sciolino penned a contradictory account in this same New York Times:
SCIOLINO (3/11/04): Spain goes to the polls on Sunday, and Mariano Rajoy, a 48-year-old lawyer, who has pledged to adhere to Mr. Aznar’s policies, enjoys a comfortable lead in the polls. Even less charismatic than Mr. Aznar, he nevertheless has benefited from the extraordinarily well-disciplined machine of his center-right Popular Party and the country’s strong economic performance.
This report seemed to say that the Popular Party “enjoyed a comfortable lead.” Is 42-38 a “comfortable lead?” It wouldn’t seem that way to us. But on March 15, the Times’ Richard Bernstein penned a similar report:
BERNSTEIN (3/15/04): Because the Socialists were well behind in the polls before the attack, and Mr. Rodriguez was harshly critical of Mr. Aznar for his support of the Bush administration’s policy on Iraq, it will probably appear, at least at first, that the terrorist attack and public reaction to it swung the election results.
In a news report, Bernstein said the Socialists “were well behind before the attack,” then recited the familiar spin. It was the bombing which swung the election.

But let’s go in search of our second key fact. How did the final vote come out? You’d want to know this if you wanted to judge the role played by the bombing. But you have to search to find this basic fact in the Times. Deep in Sciolino’s 3/15 report, we do see the official vote totals:

SCIOLINO (3/15/04): According to official election figures, the Socialists won 43 percent of the vote and 164 seats in the 350-member Chamber of Deputies; the Popular Party won 38 percent of the vote and 148 seats.
So the final vote was 43-38. Though we’ve searched, we haven’t found that basic fact anywhere else in this week’s Times coverage. For example, in yesterday’s Alvarez/Sciolino report, there is much speculation about what caused the result (headline: “Spain Grapples With Notion that Terrorism Trumps Democracy”). But readers couldn’t judge if this had occurred. The vote totals never appeared.

So what are the basic facts? Here they are, according to the Times:

  1. In the final poll, on March 7, the Popular Party led, 42-38.
  2. On March 14, they ended up losing, 43-38.
That represents a very minor swing in public opinion. In fact, it may represent no swing at all; have you ever heard of “margin of error?” But so what! Our airwaves are full of people like Donald Lambro—people railing about the vast swing which the bombing produced. Meanwhile, it’s almost impossible to find the real facts—facts which suggest something different.

But readers, this is just as we’ve told you: Our public discourse is driven by spin. Facts play almost no role in our discourse. Indeed, the very notion of a “fact” seems to be missing from modern press culture. The Lambros invent phony tales about Gore—and rush to type approved points about Spain. How big a role did the bombing play? At last, you get a look at the facts. Your “press corps” has widely ignored them.

BEDTIME FOR BUMILLER: Well, that’s the headline we should have used when Elisabeth Bumiller penned her vacuous piece about Bush’s marvelous bedtime habits (see THE DAILY HOWLER, 3/15/04). Today, the scribe continues her stenography service with a worthless “Political Memo”—a memo in which she claims to know what Bush thinks about the campaign. Here’s how she kicks things off:

BUMILLER (pgh 1): A rule of Washington is that presidents should not descend too early into the swamp of a political campaign.

(2) President Bush, for one, thinks that is nonsense.

But is it true? Does “Bush, for one, think that is nonsense?” We don’t have the slightest idea—and neither, of course, does Bumiller! In this article, she simply repeats, in her own voice, the things that Bush’s advisers have told her. She has no way of knowing if they’re true. But they help craft a pleasing image:
BUMILLER (3): It was the president’s decision, White House and campaign officials said in interviews this week, to transform himself into an out-and-out political candidate a full eight months before the election. It was the president’s decision, they said, to directly attack Senator John Kerry the day after Super Tuesday, when Mr. Kerry became the presumptive Democratic nominee.

(4): And it was the president’s decision to start an early round of negative ads against Mr. Kerry, who with the other Democratic candidates had been lobbing verbal explosives at Mr. Bush from the first of the year.

Preferred White House image? A decisive president is making decisions! Technically, of course, Bumiller’s statements are almost certainly true; we assume that Bush did make the decision to make the speeches and run the ads. But does Bumiller know what Bush thinks about that, just because of what his aides tell her? Does she have any way of knowing if his aides are telling the truth?
BUMILLER: Mr. Bush, by all accounts, is relieved that he has finally engaged his opponent, and is happily making day-to-day campaign decisions as well as setting long-term strategy about defining Mr. Kerry.
“By all accounts”—from Bush’s aides! But is Bush really relieved by what has happened? Or is he nervous? Apprehensive? Angry about the need for the early start? Bumiller has no way of knowing. But so what? She simply types what she is told, often repeating the Bush camp’s points in her own compliant voice.

The headline on the Bumiller piece? “Bush Glad to Be in the Campaign Fray and Not Above It.” But is that true? Bumiller has no apparent way of knowing. But so what? The Times has offered this stenography service to the Bush camp ever since Bush entered the White House. It’s sad to read such silly work. But did we mention the seminal fact? Did we say it was written by Bumiller?