THURSDAY, MARCH 18, 2004
FOLLOW-UPSOCIAL 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: Im 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.For ourselves, we would be very surprised if this schools 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 were going to outlaw social promotion. Unfortunately, school boardsand editorial boardsdo 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 wheeland editorial boards show little sign of knowing why the idea is so daft.
The truth? In urban schools, we constantly ask kids to do too muchto read books they cant 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? Hes going to drop out of school! And if you ask him to read a grade-level textbook, guess what? He cant 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, wouldnt dirty their hands in an urban school if their seats at the opera depended on it. They dont have the first idea of what theyre opining about.
If fifth-graders are reading on second-grade level, you simply cant hand them a fifth-grade textbook. But that is happening today, all over the countryor theyre being handed no textbooks at all. Meanwhile, editorial boardslike that at the Timeskeep churning their clueless editorials.
SPINNING SPAIN: Did the Spanish electorate cut-and-run as a result of last weeks 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 mornings Washington Times, for example, Donald Lambroreliable lap-dogtypes 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. Thats what it means when we put words in quotes.) But to assess this spin, you need some factsand as weve told you again and again, facts play almost no role in our discourse. Almost surely, you dont know the facts about Sundays 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 yesterdays 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. Bushs policies, and the Socialists, who opposed themAccording 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? Were 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. Aznars 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 countrys strong economic performance.This report seemed to say that the Popular Party enjoyed a comfortable lead. Is 42-38 a comfortable lead? It wouldnt 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 administrations 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 lets go in search of our second key fact. How did the final vote come out? Youd 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 Sciolinos 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 weve searched, we havent found that basic fact anywhere else in this weeks Times coverage. For example, in yesterdays Alvarez/Sciolino report, there is much speculation about what caused the result (headline: Spain Grapples With Notion that Terrorism Trumps Democracy). But readers couldnt judge if this had occurred. The vote totals never appeared.
So what are the basic facts? Here they are, according to the Times:
But readers, this is just as weve 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 Goreand 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, thats the headline we should have used when Elisabeth Bumiller penned her vacuous piece about Bushs marvelous bedtime habits (see THE DAILY HOWLER, 3/15/04). Today, the scribe continues her stenography service with a worthless Political Memoa memo in which she claims to know what Bush thinks about the campaign. Heres 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.But is it true? Does Bush, for one, think that is nonsense? We dont have the slightest ideaand neither, of course, does Bumiller! In this article, she simply repeats, in her own voice, the things that Bushs advisers have told her. She has no way of knowing if theyre true. But they help craft a pleasing image:
BUMILLER (3): It was the presidents 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 presidents decision, they said, to directly attack Senator John Kerry the day after Super Tuesday, when Mr. Kerry became the presumptive Democratic nominee.Preferred White House image? A decisive president is making decisions! Technically, of course, Bumillers 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 accountsfrom Bushs 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 camps 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. Its sad to read such silly work. But did we mention the seminal fact? Did we say it was written by Bumiller?