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Print view: Sean has played this game for years. Must our side get dumbed down too?
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CREEPING HANNITYISM! Sean has played this game for years. Must our side get dumbed down too? // link // print // previous // next //

From “more than 100” to eight in three days/Quickly they turn: It’s amazing how quickly the news can change without real explanation. Consider a change in Bill Turque’s reporting last week—reporting which has been technically accurate every step of the way.

Turque reports on the DC schools for the Washington Post. He has done some good work over the years. Last Wednesday, he reported that DC’s acting public school boss had called for a cheating/erasure probe:

TURQUE (3/30/11): Acting Schools Chancellor Kaya Henderson asked the D.C. inspector general Tuesday to investigate reports that sharp gains in some standardized test scores may have been the result of cheating.

She made the request after a USA Today investigation found unusually high rates of erasures in which students apparently corrected their answer sheets for standardized tests between 2008 and 2010.

More than 100 D.C. public schools had the unusual rates of erasures, in which wrong answers were replaced by correct ones.

As of Wednesday morning, Henderson had called for a probe—and “more than 100 schools” had displayed “the unusual rates of erasures.”

But just that quickly, the world seemed to turn. The next morning, in an editorial, the editors helped us collect our thoughts:

WASHINGTON POST EDITORIAL (3/31/11): Anytime there is a suggestion a school may have cheated its way to showing improved student achievement, there is reason for serious concern. That's why D.C. school officials hired a high-priced outside expert to investigate what appeared to be anomalies on a number of student test sheets. It's also why it is prudent for the system to take another look at the schools where tests were called into question. But to use the issue of erasure marks at a handful of schools to disparage the very real improvements made in recent years by D.C. schools is irresponsible.

Acting Schools Chancellor Kaya Henderson on Tuesday asked the city's inspector general to determine whether there were any improprieties at eight schools on standardized reading and math exams in 2009. Her request follows disclosures by USA Today of suspicious rates of erasures in which wrong answers were changed to right ones. The report centered on Crosby S. Noyes Education Center in Northeast Washington, credited with dramatic boosts in student achievement.

According to this editorial, there had apparently been “erasure marks at a handful of schools.” Overnight, “more than 100 schools” had turned into eight—though the editors noted that “any time there is a suggestion a school may have cheated its way to showing improved student achievement, there is reason for serious concern.”

That same morning, Turque was still using the larger number in his latest news report. But yesterday morning, the smaller number seemed to become official:

TURQUE (4/3/11): A new mayor, the second since schools were placed under executive control in 2007, is trying to regain his political footing after allegations of improper hiring practices. A new acting chancellor is attempting to preserve past gains and pursue new ones with a tightened budget. And the D.C. Comprehensive Assessment System, regarded by officials as the critical metric for assessing academic progress, faces new scrutiny about its accuracy.

A recent National Research Council report strongly cautioned that without more-sophisticated data analysis, it was "naive" to use recent growth in test scores as evidence that mayoral control has led to improved academic achievement. Last week, a USA Today report raised the possibility that some of the growth under former chancellor Michelle A. Rhee was the result of cheating.

The multiple issues have some parents asking: Has D.C. school reform hit a pothole, or a wall?

"It's embarrassing. You have high hopes—and for this to come out," said Diane Rawlings, the mother of a seventh-grader at Sousa Middle School in Ward 7, discussing the elevated rates of answer-sheet erasures found at eight schools, including her daughter's.

Say what? According to Turque’s new construction, “elevated rates of answer-sheet erasures” had been found at eight schools.” That “more than 100 schools” was gone; Turque had adopted the much smaller number. “A test security firm hired by the District said it found no evidence of cheating at eight schools flagged for high rates of answer-sheet erasures,” he wrote a bit later. At no point did he say that the erasure problem extended beyond those eight schools.

Turque’s lengthy piece appeared on page one of Sunday’s Metro section. Presumably, many Washingtonians were reading about the erasure problem for the first time. But in this new report, they read about a vastly diminished problem.

We can find no reporting in the Post which explains the drop in that number. In Wednesday morning’s news report, USA Today did a bit better. They seconded what the Post editors said about Henderson’s probe request:

GILLUM (3/30/11): The acting head of Washington, D.C.'s public schools requested Tuesday that the district's inspector general review investigations of eight schools that were flagged in 2009 for irregularities in their standardized tests.

Acting Chancellor Kaya Henderson requested the review after an investigation published by USA TODAY showed more than half of D.C. schools were cited since 2008 for having unusually high "erasure rates," which signify wrong answers changed to right ones on tests.

"The integrity of test scores is perhaps more important to us than any other district because we use the test scores in important ways—evaluation, compensation," Henderson said in a statement. "We have no interest in basing these important decisions on information that has anything less than the utmost integrity."

To Henderson, the integrity of test scores is of utmost importance. So she requested that eight schools be probed—eight, out of more than 100!

In fairness, only 46 schools were flagged for excessive erasures in 2009—only 41 in 2010! But at the Post, the official number now seems to be eight, and things are more right with the world. (The Post makes its money from Kaplan, Inc., a major testing concern.) In 2009, Michelle Rhee had ordered a narrow probe, restricted to just eight schools. Now, Henderson, and the Washington Post, are making that number iconic.

Better yet: If you read the New York Times, you don’t have to think about numbers at all! Rhee was a “made man” in Gotham billionaire circles before she ever got shipped to DC.

Not a word has appeared in the Times about this silly nonsense.

CREEPING HANNITYISM (permalink): People sometimes wonder why we’re not big fans of the Rachel Maddow Show.

That’s a perfectly sensible question. For starters, consider the program’s Creeping Hannityism, which reached a new peak last week.

Last Thursday, Maddow complained again about “the Beltway press,” thus giving us liberals our latest cheap thrill. In the past few months, this has become a fairly standard complaint on this program, though specific offenders are rarely named. In this case, Maddow complained about the way “the Beltway press” had covered a fairly minor event which had occurred a month before. On that occasion, Maddow now claimed, the Beltway press had been “mystified” by something Obama said.

As usual, the segment began with the requisite dose of self-involvement. To watch the whole segment, click this:

MADDOW (3/31/11): We did what our staff voted our “least articulate political analysis ever” on this show recently when I had the brilliant idea to say on the air that President Obama, in an unexpectedly spunky rejoinder to Republican governors complaining about health reform, when President Obama took this as his official position on health reform: "Oh, yeah?"

Least articulate ever, according to the Rachel Maddow Show staff.

Interesting! Requisite self-contemplation completed, Maddow began her actual report. She described a position Obama announced on February 28 as he spoke to the nation’s governors. In the process, she offered a derisive complaint about “the Beltway press:”

MADDOW (continuing directly): With so many other Republican governors and other statewide officials who have an eye on higher office channeling their Republican ambitions into complaining really loudly about health reform, the president decided to call their bluff last month. The president said at a meeting with the nation’s governors that if those governors had a better idea for how to deal with health care in their states, they could go right ahead and do it. Instead of states creating their own health care systems and opting out of federal health reform by 2017, which was initially in the health reform law, the president said he’d support letting states do their own thing three years earlier. In the way these policy things work, that means they’ll pretty much be able to work on their own plans right away.

Now, this mystified the Beltway press. The Beltway response to the president’s move was basically: What now? Was he “yielding” to the governors? Was he offering them a “concession” on health reform? How “big” was this concession? Why would the president, instead of defending his health reform law, give his critics in the states the opportunity to leave, to leave it?

It’s because by doing so, he is requiring them to put their money where their mouth is! It was an "Oh, yeah" response.

As she continued, Maddow described the motive behind Obama’s modest change in position. Derisively, she said this move had “mystified” the Beltway press. She didn’t name any actual journalists who had been thus mystified—but at least in this case, she did let us know which news orgs she meant. Brief screen shots of three news reports appeared as Maddow described the corps’ vast confusion. In fact, she was quoting words from the headlines of those reports as she mocked the way the press had been mystified.

Can we talk? In our view, little was wrong with the three reports to which Maddow referred (links below). It’s absurd to say that the authors of these reports were “mystified” by Obama’s proposal. But to understand the problem here, let’s consider where those three reports appeared. According to Maddow, these are the three news orgs which, in this particular instance, constituted “the Beltway press:”

The Washington Times; Agence France-Presse; the Christian Science Monitor. When Maddow rolled her eyes at “the Beltway press,” that was who she meant!

Can we talk?

The Washington Times is a famous outlier. It was founded by someone who says he’s the Second Coming of Christ. Last year, this person repurchased the failing newspaper from his son—for the purchase price of $1. The New York Times charges twice that much just for a single copy!

Agence France-Presse is a French news agency, as its name implies. Its headquarters are in Paris.

The Christian Science Monitor is an historic but small and struggling concern. In print form, it publishes just once a week now. Have you ever seen this newspaper? For good or for ill, the Monitor plays a very small role in America’s public discourse.

Perhaps you see why we’re sometimes a bit underwhelmed by Maddow and her staff. No, we didn’t find much that was actually wrong with these news orgs’ reports about Obama’s proposal. (The Washington Times embellished a bit.) But at this point, these are extremely marginal orgs; in no way do they represent or constitute “the Beltway press.” But here is the much larger point: Searching around, we can find no sign that anyone in the Beltway press was “mystified,” in any way, by what Obama told the governors.

Simply put, nothing much was really wrong with the press corps’ work on that topic. No one was “mystified” by this story, in any discernible way.

Why then did Maddow make this claim, citing three outlier news orgs? Just a guess:

That same night, at that very same hour, the same type of foolishness was being displayed on the Fox News Channel. Sean Hannity had invited Brent Bozell to come on the air for his weekly cry; the boys devoted a segment to silly complaints about “liberal mainstream media bias” (Hannity). To their credit, they at least managed to name major names, including Diane Sawyer and even Matt Lauer. But their complaints were tortured, silly, pointless, thin.

Then again, so was Maddow’s.

But uh-oh! In the past few months, Maddow has been doing this sort of thing with increasing frequency. She makes sweeping claims about “the Beltway media” or “the Beltway press,” rolling her eyes as she lets liberal viewers revel in victimization. Her complaints are often so vague that they can’t be tracked. In other cases, they’re completely absurd.

But lord, how good these glancing blows make us feel! We’d call this Creeping Hannityism. It’s the essence of tribal living.

Sorry! As Hannity has done since the dawn of time, Maddow seems to be playing her viewers a tad, letting us feel the joy of victimization. Is anything actually gained by this? Or does the liberal world just get a bit dumber?

There was a more to complain about in Maddow’s work at the end of last week. On Thursday, she opened her program with a report about child labor laws in Maine; she didn’t know, or didn’t say, that the other New England states permit teen-agers to work much longer hours than Maine. Instead, we were encouraged to feel righteous fury against Maine’s (Republican) governor, who is a bit of a nut.

Friday night, she opened her program with this familiar old play:

MADDOW (4/1/11): The Fraternal Order of Police endorsed John McCain in 2008. In the election before that, they endorsed President George W. Bush in his reelection campaign against Democratic Senator John Kerry. In the election before that, given the choice between, again, George W. Bush and Al Gore, the Fraternal Order of Police picked George W. Bush.

Even though unions are thought of as a key part of the Democratic Party’s base, unions representing firefighters and police officers have sometimes been a more Republican-leaning outlier from that basic truth. And that has been a great image-burnisher for the Republican Party.

Come election time, Republicans need to upgrade from their standard Daddy Warbucks, billionaires-for-Bush image. And when it comes to political imagery, cops and firefighters are a really big upgrade from Daddy Warbucks. So Republican endorsements from police and firefighters unions have been really, really important to Republicans politically.

In Wisconsin, when Republican Governor Scott Walker wanted to strip union rights in Wisconsin, remember who he specifically exempted from that? He specifically exempted the police officers and firefighters unions who had endorsed him, Scott Walker, in the last election. He spared the Republican-leaning cops and firefighter unions and stripped everybody else`s union rights.

Where does she get this stuff? (A bit later on, we’ll show you.)

Maddow got part of her story right here. The Fraternal Order of Police has always tended to endorse Republican candidates. But please! The big giant International Association of Firefighters has long been very Democratic in its political orientation. Example: In 2010, the IAFF endorsed 29 Democrats in Senate races—and only four Republicans. In governors’ races, state affiliates endorsed 27 Democrats—and exactly two Republicans. (Click here, scroll down.)

And yes, as you’ll see if you click and scroll: The Wisconsin affiliate endorsed Tom Barrett, not Scott Walker, in last year’s race for governor. This remains a basic fact, though Maddow keeps fudging it. Walker was endorsed by a small local in his home base, Milwaukee. The much larger statewide firefighters union endorsed Barrett, Walker’s opponent. (For Politifact’s treatment from February 21, you know what to do: Just click here.)

Back to the Maddow show’s Creeping Hannityism, which got so absurd last Thursday night that the analysts told us to act.

What’s wrong with Maddow’s jibes at “the Beltway media?” Consider a formulation she introduced at the start of her March 10 program:

MADDOW (3/10/11): Good evening, Lawrence. Thanks very much for that. And thanks to you at home for staying with us for the next hour.

This is a special report. We’re doing sort of a special show tonight about what is going on in state politics in the United States. We’re doing this as a special report, I will admit, in part to try to put a spotlight on this, because the Beltway media really hasn’t caught on to what’s happening.

The Democratic Party’s base, particularly in the Midwest, they have figured it out. The media in some parts of the rest of the country I think so far have not figured it out. And so, tonight, we’re going to try to connect some of these dots.

Maddow never came back to explain just what the media hasn’t “really caught on to.” Nor did she cite specific news orgs, or specific journalists, who have fallen down on the job. But in her report, she offered a string of complaints about budget proposals by Republican governors, especially proposals which would give tax cuts to corporations or upper-end earners. On March 21, she returned to this theme, making a more specific complaint about “the Beltway press:”

MADDOW (3/21/11): These Republican governors and Republican legislators all over the country keep saying that they’re broke. They keep saying, “It’s about the budget, it’s about the budget, it’s about the budget”—but they are being incredibly generous to some with their budgets, whether it’s state senators’ girlfriends or the forces in our society to whom they would like to redirect what are now public assets.

There are some people who are making out like bandits toward whom states pleading poverty are being incredibly, generously profligate.

In Maine, for example, the Republican governor there wants to spend $30 million giving a tax cut to about 550 individuals, 500 of the state’s millionaires.

In Ohio, House Republicans say they want to spend $10 million to give the petroleum industry in their state a tax break.

Pennsylvania’s Republican governor wants to spend big on business as well. His tax proposals have been estimated to cost the state between $200 million and $833 million. Remember, he is pleading poverty.

New Jersey’s Republican Governor Chris Christy wants to spend $200 million on tax cuts to business. Remember, we’re broke.

Not to be outdone, Florida’s Republican governor wants to spend $1.5 billion on tax cuts for corporations.

Michigan’s Republican governor wants to spend $1.8 billion on business tax cuts.

And, of course, in Wisconsin, Republican Governor Scott Walker, his giveaways to business, his first actions as governor, are projected to cost the great state of Wisconsin nearly $140 million. And remember, “We’re broke.”

This is some spectacular generosity toward some very specific parts of society among these governments that are pleading poverty, complaining about giant state budget deficits. And states do have budget deficits. But all of these giveaways I just described are things that will make those deficits worse.

All the Beltway media reporting on the fight in the states is about how governors are making hard choices and taking controversial steps to close their budget deficits. But all of these things they are doing open budget deficits wider. They make the budget problems in all these states worse and they bend over backwards to do it.

According to Maddow, “all the Beltway media reporting” had been “about how governors are making hard choices and taking controversial steps to close their budget deficits.” That could be true, but she gave no examples. By way of contrast, it’s our impression that major news orgs have actually done very little work in this area. We would have liked to see Maddow cite some especially egregious examples, preferably not from news orgs whose oeuvre is rather obscure. But naming the names of significant journalists hasn’t been Maddow’s style.

Here’s why we find this stuff maddening:

We’ve long found Maddow quite underwhelming when it comes to domestic politics. Those Republican proposals may all be vile—but this proposition isn’t evident just because Maddow asserts it. One example: Maddow has never stopped hacking away at Walker’s relatively small corporate tax “giveaways” (see above). But many governors, including Democratic governors, make such pitches to various corporations or to the generic corporate class. Given our federal system’s “race to the bottom,” these proposals may be horrid ideas—but then again, they may not. But Maddow seems to think her job is done when she lists all such proposals by Republican governors, then simply asserts that they’re bad—very, very bad.

Question: When will Maddow and her staff discuss governors Cuomo and Quinn?

Have Republican governors been offering tax cuts to upper-end earners? Have Republican governors been cutting education funding, another frequent complaint on this program? Yes they have, but so have Cuomo and Quinn, the very Democratic governors of two very large states (New York and Illinois)—states which the Maddow program doesn’t seem to have heard of. Just this past Friday, one part of the national media (the New York Times) published its latest editorial about Cuomo’s proposals, noting the very large education cuts he has proposed—and noting the tax cuts he has proposed for New York’s biggest earners. “Mr. Cuomo and Senate Republicans decided to give a tax break to millionaires while cutting money for schools, the elderly, the poor and the sick,” the editors wrote. “That’s inhumane and fiscally backward.”

In this earlier editorial, the editors complained that Cuomo’s tax break for the highest earners will cost the state “$2 billion this fiscal year, and $4 billion the following year.” This dwarfs most of the tax cuts Maddow complains about when they come from Republican governors. If the editors are right, this particular “tax break for millionaires” is more than forty times the size of Walker’s much-maligned corporate tax cuts. It is 200 times the size of the tax cut Maddow attacked down in Maine.

On a percentage basis, Cuomo’s proposed education cuts are almost the size of Governor Scott’s. Scott’s proposed cuts have had Maddow screeching about the loathing for regular people displayed by Republican governors.

Regarding Quinn, we’ll only repeat the text of this AP report from mid-February: “Gov. Pat Quinn is proposing a budget that would cut aid to the poor, skimp on many services and count on borrowing billions to pay overdue bills.” When last we checked, Quinn was still refusing to raise corporate or income tax rates, even though Illinois has a flat income tax, with a single rate that is almost three points below the rate Walker still dumps on Wisconsin’s upper-end earners.

We don’t say this to criticize Cuomo or Quinn. Given the way our federal system works, governors may well be forced to join that “race to the bottom.” We say this to criticize Maddow’s reporting; in our view, she has been doing massively lazy budget work and behaving like a consummate partisan hack in the process. There’s nothing wrong with political rallies, but they’re better left to the politicians. Then too, there’s all that Hannityism, which crept past the point of no return in that absurd report Thursday night.

By the way: How big a concession did Obama make to the nation’s governors? The concession wasn’t really that big, the Christian Monitor said. The Monitor’s report wasn’t perfect—but Peter Grier certainly wasn’t “mystified” by Obama’s move. Neither was the nameless scribe who composed this short dispatch for an org which reports back to Paris.

Hannity has peddled this pap for years. Surely, our side can do better.

Straight outta Politico: Presumably, Maddow’s staff got Friday night’s framework from this report by Jeanne Cummings in Politico. Cummings overstated and insinuated, but she kept her work technically accurate; you’ll note she never says that firefighter unions have leaned to the GOP. (She makes vague claims about union members, failing to use any numbers.) She even made this factually accurate statement about the Wisconsin governor’s race, while making an unsupported insinuation about Walker’s subsequent motives:

CUMMINGS (4/1/11): In Wisconsin, Walker, who was endorsed by some small police and fire unions, carved out a special exemption for them in his proposal that essentially denies all other public employees the right to collective bargaining.

Note the key word: “small.” Cummings failed to add the complementary fact—Candidate Walker was opposed by the “big” police/fire unions. According to Cummings, Walker “carved out a special exemption” for police/fire unions after they opposed mainly him.

Cummings was spinning a bit in this piece. People, what else is Politico for? Perhaps confused by what she wrote, Maddow and/or her imperfect staff took things one step further.

By the way: The firefighters opposed Candidate Kasich too. In last year’s governor’s race in Ohio, they endorsed the Democrat, Governor Strickland, as they so typically do.