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SHATTERED BROOKS! David Brooks invented his facts. At TNR, that’s fine and dandy:


DRIVING MR. CHENEY: There’s really nothing left to say about Elisabeth Bumiller’s spotless musings [see THE DAILY HOWLER, 03/22/04]. In today’s Times, she pens another fawning “White House Letter” about her Dear Leader, George Bush. Today’s lengthy piece lets us know that Bush is “revered” by the women around him. Headline: The Women Behind Bush: They Promote and Defend, Nudge, Revere and Defer. Sub-head: From a group of determined cheerleaders, it’s “Give me a W!”

Three photos highlight the hagiography, which runs from the top of the page to the bottom. Among other things, we learn that Bush is supported by his mother and his wife.

As she writes about Bush’s “four Valkyries,” Bumiller reports things she can’t know to be true. Let’s put her inanity to the side for a moment. How could Bumiller possibly know whether this actually happened?

BUMILLER: [Karen Hughes] so devoted that she said “I love you, Mr. President” when she told Mr. Bush she needed to move her family back home to Texas.
How does Bumiller know this occurred? Easy—Karen Hughes told her! Ditto for this, the latest from the inexhaustible store of George-Bush-is-in-charge White House parables:
BUMILLER: [Condoleezza Rice] once made the mistake of pressing the president too hard about his use of the phrase “vital role” in a speech to describe the responsibilities of the United Nations in Iraq. Ms. Rice did not agree with the phrase, but Mr. Bush abruptly cut her off. “I did it, and that’s it,” the president told her, said a senior administration official who watched the exchange.
But how does Bumiller know this “official” was telling the truth? Let’s state the obvious—she doesn’t! But for reasons only known to the Times, Bumiller has become an official arm of the Bush campaign’s propaganda machine. Every Monday, she retypes their cant, surrounding it with the pleasing images that spotless minds adore. Condi Rice? She “is so devoted [to Bush] that she spends most weekends with the first couple,” the Spotless One mindlessly gushes.

Week after week, Bumiller churns this White House pap. Let’s state the obvious—if the Washington Times ever published such crap, the paper would be widely mocked. If the Bush campaign ran this stuff as an ad, wags would ask why they protest so much. But the New York Times has plainly assigned the Spotless One to the role of Flatterer One. In doing so, they make an utter joke of your interests—and serve their own, in a way not explained.

Meanwhile, where are the weekly “Letters” about how wonderful John Kerry is? Simple—such foolishness doesn’t exist! At any rate, for those who may have lost track by this point, here is a sampling of the Spotless One’s recent gushing. American democracy is deeply mocked when “newspapers” stoop to such clowning:

March 8: White House Letter: Bush Ready And Bursting To Bring It On
March 15: White House Letter: Want a Reliable President? Here’s One You Can Set Your Clocks By
March 18: Political Memo: Bush Glad to Be in the Campaign Fray and Not Above It
March 22: White House Letter: Running on a Campaign Trail Paved in Comfy Feathers
March 29: White House Letter: Shrinking the Glamour Gap in Texas, One Celebrity at a Time
April 5: White House Letter: The Women Behind Bush: They Promote and Defend, Nudge, Revere and Defer
There’s no more to say about Bumiller’s spotlessness. But why on earth does the New York Times publish such rank propaganda?

SHATTERED BROOKS: As you may recall, David Brooks wrote a foolish-but-famous piece for the December 2001 Atlantic (see THE DAILY HOWLER, 12/21/01). “ARE WE REALLY ONE COUNTRY?” the cover asked. “A report from ‘Red’ and ‘Blue’ America.” Brooks, like a modern-day Thoreau, had gone out to limn the big questions:

HENRY THOREAU (1854): I went to the woods because I wished to live deliberately, to front only the essential facts of life, and see if I could not learn what it had to teach, and not, when I came to die, discover that I had not lived.

DAVID BROOKS (2001): I went to Franklin County because I wanted to get a sense of how deep the divide really is, to see how people there live, and to gauge how different their lives are from those in my part of America.

How absurd was Brooks’ piece? Because some states were “red” (had voted for Bush), and some states were “blue” (had voted for Gore), Brooks was afraid we might have become two different nations. So he went to see how differently life was being lived in these two different worlds. But as if to offer a cry for help, Brooks never got to the “red states” at all. Instead, he compared life in his home base (Montgomery County, Maryland) with life in the aforementioned Franklin County. Unfortunately, Franklin County is in Pennsylvania—and Pennsylvania is a “blue” state, just like Maryland! In short, Brooks compared life-styles in two blue states to see if we’d become separate red-and-blue countries. Little in his puzzling piece made much more sense than that.

Brooks’ piece made almost no sense—but we now learn that some of its “facts” were invented. Meanwhile, at the New Republic, Noam Scheiber thinks that’s fine and dandy. Brooks’ lying—and Scheiber’s approval—merit closer looks.

How do we know that Brooks invented some basic facts? We owe this knowledge to Sasha Issenberg, who writes for Philadelphia magazine. In the April issue, the eagle-eyed scribe conducts a review of Brooks’ visit to Franklin County. First, Issenberg lists Brooks’ generalizations about red-and-blue states—generalizations he finds to be rather shaky. But then he describes his own fiendish research. “In January,” Issenberg says, “I made my own trip to Franklin County, 175 miles southwest of Philadelphia, with a simple goal. I wanted to see where Brooks comes up with this stuff.” And alas! When Issenberg gets to Franklin County, he finds that Brooks simply makes this stuff up! In this, the most telling part of his article, he is quoting Brooks’ piece in Atlantic:

ISSENBERG: As I made my journey, it became increasingly hard to believe that Brooks ever left his home. “On my journeys to Franklin County, I set a goal: I was going to spend $20 on a restaurant meal. But although I ordered the most expensive thing on the menu—steak au jus, ‘slippery beef pot pie,’ or whatever—I always failed. I began asking people to direct me to the most expensive places in town. They would send me to Red Lobster or Applebee’s,” he wrote. “I’d scan the menu and realize that I’d been beaten once again. I went through great vats of chipped beef and ‘seafood delight’ trying to drop $20. I waded through enough surf-and-turfs and enough creamed corn to last a lifetime. I could not do it.”
What did Issenberg find when he went to Franklin County? “[I]t became increasingly hard to believe that Brooks ever left his home,” he says. According to Brooks, Franklin County was so deep in the sticks that you can’t even spend twenty bucks on a meal there! But when Issenberg went to the restaurant Brooks had named, he found that he had no such problem:
ISSENBERG (continuing directly): Taking Brooks’s cue, I lunched at the Chambersburg Red Lobster and quickly realized that he could not have waded through much surf-and-turf at all. The “Steak and Lobster” combination with grilled center-cut New York strip is the most expensive thing on the menu. It costs $28.75. “Most of our checks are over $20,” said Becka, my waitress. “There are a lot of ways to spend over $20.”

The easiest way to spend more than $20 on a meal in Franklin County is to visit the Mercersburg Inn, which boasts “turn-of-the-century elegance.” I had a $50 prix-fixe dinner, with an entrée of veal medallions, served with a lump-crab and artichoke tower, wild-rice pilaf and a sage-caper-cream sauce. Afterward, I asked the inn’s proprietors, Walt and Sandy Filkowski, if they had seen Brooks’s article. They laughed.

There’s more, but you get the picture. Brooks “could not have” done what he said, the scribe judged. According to Issenberg, he subsequently telephoned Brooks to ask about his puzzling claims. And Brooks—after laughing—made it official. He said that he’d made some “facts” up:
ISSENBERG: I called Brooks to see if I was misreading his work. I told him about my trip to Franklin County, and the ease with which I was able to spend $20 on a meal. He laughed. “I didn’t see it when I was there, but it’s true, you can get a nice meal at the Mercersburg Inn,” he said. I said it was just as easy at Red Lobster. “That was partially to make a point that if Red Lobster is your upper end?” he replied, his voice trailing away. “That was partially tongue-in-cheek, but I did have several mini-dinners there, and I never topped $20.”
Are we the only ones who can read? By his own words, Brooks admits that he faked the claim about how much you could pay for a meal in Franklin County. In the Atlantic, Brooks said that he had tried to spend twenty bucks at the county’s fanciest eat-place. “I waded through enough surf-and-turfs and enough creamed corn to last a lifetime. I could not do it,” he wrote. But when he later spoke with Issenberg, he broke an old habit and told him the truth. Brooks had actually ordered “mini-dinners”—not the giant spreads he’d described. And surprise! The mini-dinners Brooks wolfed down had cost less than $20.

Do you like it when writers just lie in your face? If so, it seems that Brooks is your man! Indeed, Brooks has done exactly what Stephen Glass did when he almost destroyed the New Republic; because the truth didn’t make a good tale, he invented fake facts to create a great story. As almost anyone would, we thought of Glass when we read Issenberg’s piece because the similarity with Brooks is so obvious. “[I]t became increasingly hard to believe that Brooks ever left his home,” Issenberg writes. This is because Brooks made up facts, just the way Glass had done.

In real life, the New Republic almost went down because of Glass’ endless faking. So if you have a taste for low, mordant chuckles, check Noam Scheiber at the current TNR, hotly defending Brooks’ fake stories (and trashing Issenberg, who got the facts right). Indeed, if you check Scheiber’s defense of Brooks, you’ll get a taste of the deep dysfunction routinely displayed by your modern-day “press corps.” Meanwhile, THE HOWLER waits for Atlantic Monthly to tell readers what Brooks has done.

We’ll look at Scheiber’s piece tomorrow. But let’s get clear on what happened. David Brooks made up some fake facts. Sasha Issenberg followed, and dug out the truth. So what did Noam Scheiber do? Of course! He defended Brooks, and pissed on Issenberg! Our question: How long will TNR visit these wild boys upon us?

TOMORROW: The wild boys of M Street

LATEST PAP FROM THE TIMES’ PERFUMED PAGES: Last Tuesday, the New York Times published a foolish piece in which David Sanger was shocked-shocked-shocked by problems with Richard Clarke’s book (see THE DAILY HOWLER, 3/30/04 and 4/1/04). Franklin Miller, a White House official, had come forward with troubling complaints, saying that his recollection of 9/11 differed in some ways from Clarke’s. As we noted, Miller’s complaints were astoundingly trivial, but he stuck in the knife about Clarke’s motivations. Clarke’s book was “a much better screenplay than reality was,” Miller said, hoping you’d draw the obvious conclusion. Sanger put this quote in his opening paragraph, than ran than Miller’s absurd objections, pretending the complaints were newsworthy.

It was amazing to think that the New York Times would publish such a foolish report. But today, the paper’s op-ed page extends the clowning with a pointless column by Daniel Schacter. Schacter, a Harvard psychology prof, is author of The Seven Sins of Memory: How the Mind Forgets and Remembers. The brilliant sage proceeds to explain why Clarke and Miller have different recollections.

Of course, Schacter doesn’t know if the two men have different recollections; Miller may just be lying, as almost anyone (except Sanger) would have instantly realized. But no matter! The Times published Sanger’s silly piece, and now Collins and Shipley swing into action, publishing a pointless rumination on Sanger’s piece. Schacter proceeds to tell us the following, and no, we’re not making this up:

  1. Sometimes, people’s memories differ.
  2. Sometimes, we remember one thing right and another thing wrong.
  3. “Memories tend to fade over time.”
  4. Sometimes, we remember wrong “even when we do our best to recollect accurately.”
On and on the insights went. Readers all over America asked: How can one man know so much? But we couldn’t help chuckling when the psychology seer gave an important example. There’s nothing puckish about Daniel Schachter. He passed up a chance for some fun:
SCHACTER: [E]rrors are sometimes associated with the memory sin of misattribution, where we remember aspects of an experience correctly but attribute them to the wrong source. For instance, a college student recalled that she first learned of the Challenger explosion in 1986 from television, when the actual source was a group of friends.
Schacter skipped a more recent example: “For instance, an American president recalled that he saw the first plane hit the World Trade Center on television, when the actual event wasn’t televised.”

Sanger’s report should never have been published. But you know the Times’ op-ed page! Last week, they gave us nonsense from Marlene Heath (see below). Today, they offer pointless insights from Schacter. Readers, did you realize that people’s memories differ? In case you never took Schacter’s course, the Times rushed his work into print.

FOR ANOTHER DAY: Remind us to recall the time Professor E (Harvard psych) explained his remarkable specialty.

From the annals of social promotion

HEATHERS: Yesterday, the New York Times published four letters on social promotion—replies to Marlene Heath’s strange column on the subject (see THE DAILY HOWLER, 3/30/04). One of the letters was, alas, less than helpful. It came from another of them perfesser fellers—a history prof in Hawaii:

NEW YORK TIMES LETTER: Marlene Heath’s experience with grade promotion based on accomplishment rather than age makes me think that there is hope. Perhaps if more districts, or even individual teachers, adopted a policy of holding back students who have not mastered grade-appropriate skills, we would be able to abandon the punitive and stifling No Child Left Behind tests.

Most teachers know their material and know how to teach it to prepared students, but administrative fiats like social promotion…have obliterated the concept of meaningful grades and meaningful progress.

The professer paints a pleasing picture, of urban schools where all the kids work on traditional “grade level.” This is pleasing, but, at present, a fantasy. A letter Carnegie Foundation honcho helps us recall why that’s so:
NEW YORK TIMES LETTER: Whether you are for or against social promotion, it is clear from federal statistics, published in the Nation’s Report Card, that by the end of the fourth grade, more than half of African-American, Hispanic and American Indian students are performing below basic level on national exams.

More than half of the students entering urban high schools read at or below the sixth-grade level. It is almost impossible for these ninth graders to deal with high school content.

Note the key words: A majority of students entering urban high schools read at or below sixth-grade level. Heath, of course, painted a quite different picture. According to her puzzling account, she teaches in a Chicago school where all the children live in poverty. But she said that, even before Chicago outlawed social promotion, all but a few of her sixth-grade students were working on sixth-grade level! (The other two or three were “nonreaders.”) In a world like this, the occasional retention might make some sense. But this is not the world we actually live in; Heath seemed to be writing from Neptune. As this honcho’s letter helps us recall, vast blocks of kids in urban schools are far below traditional grade-level, even by the fourth or fifth grades. In such a situation—the one we face now—it’s absurd to think that we can simply “outlaw social promotion.”

The Times was foolish to publish Heath’s column. But for the past forty years, urban systems have peddled such pap—pleasing pictures which misrepresent the state of affairs in our urban schools. Urban systems love glossing reality. And hapless editors—like those at the Times—rush to put their tales into print. Heath’s column made no earthly sense. The Times was foolish to print it.

Luckily, a retired elementary teacher writes from the real world—New York:

NEW YORK TIMES LETTER: The term “social promotion” has become a hot-button phrase, eliciting heated vocal responses on both sides. The phrase masks the real issue: What kind of intensive early intervention is being provided for students who can’t read the word “it,” as described by Marlene Heath.

Children want to learn. If, despite the best efforts of teachers, children get to fourth grade without being able to read, will just making them repeat a grade do the trick? With expert diagnoses of the problem and daily one-on-one instruction, a child can be expected to succeed.

Let’s move the debate off the term “social promotion” and on to early remediation.

Unlike Heath, that teacher is talking the talk. Many urban fourth-graders can barely read. Heath’s description came from Mars, as did her pleasing solution. Sadly, perfumed editors at our great papers never seem able to tell.

More on these topics to follow. We still need to know what to do with our legions of deserving sixth-grade kids who are far below traditional “grade level.”