EXIT OKRENT (PART 2)! The New York Times does ID Moyers. So why did Dan Okrent say different?
TUESDAY, MAY 24, 2005
MAYBE NOT THE BEST IN THE WORLD: No, the Washington Post hasnt bothered describing your recent history—the recent history of judicial nominations (our series on the topic continues below). But the Post does want you to know about Finland! In this mornings paper, we get the good news about a new series: Washington Post Associate Editor Robert G. Kaiser and staff photographer Lucian Perkins are traveling around Finland for three weeks to examine what might be the world's most interesting country that Americans know least about. Indeed, how exciting is little-known Finland? The Post precis starts to gush:
WASHINGTON POST: Finland has the best school system in the world, some of the most liberated women (the president is female), more cell phones per capita than anyone else, one of the world's best high-tech companies (Nokia), remarkable information technology of many kinds, great music from rock and jazz to classical. The Finns are proud of their generous welfare state, which provides, among much else, free health care and free education at every level.Well let others complain, with Swedish-style angst, about that generous welfare state reference. At THE HOWLER, we were most surprised by the claim that Finland has the best school system in the world. In Kaisers actual piece, of course, he only claims that the Finnish system is very likely the best on Earth. But how on Earth did the Post decide that? Todays full-page dispatch from Finland focuses on that nations schools. Here is the apparent basis for Kaisers lavish judgment:
KAISER: Finland finishes first in the Program for International Student Assessment (PISA) exams that test 15-year-olds in all of the world's industrial democracies.So there you have it. Because Finland scores best on a certain test, it either has the best school system in the world or is very likely the best.
Readers, do you see why we keep discussing the intellectual standards of your Big Mainstream Press? As almost everyone but the Post would know, any school (or school system) can get high scores, depending on the make-up of its students. After hearing about those high Finnish scores, almost anyone but the Post would wonder—what is the composition of this small nations student population? In other nations, average scores get driven down by second language immigrant groups; in the U.S., average scores also get driven down by the legacy of slavery and racism. (The U.S. spent centuries driving down literacy in the black population; the legacy of this historical tragedy still affects average achievement today.) So what is Finlands student population like? Eventually, as he visits a high-scoring school, Kaiser starts laying it out:
KAISER: The student body at Arabia consists primarily of the children of college graduates and professionals, said the principal, [Kaisu] Karkkainen. But a visitor who asks if the school's successes can be attributed to this fact is quickly put straight.In this passage, we learn that Finland has relatively few immigrants; little poverty; and teachers who rush to praise their own brilliance. In the U.S., by contrast, we have many immigrants; a good deal of poverty; and many teachers who understand that certain populations of deserving kids are harder to achieve with than others. By the way, were results very good in Karkkainens prior school? Kaiser doesnt seem to have checked. The principal told a pleasing tale, and that was good enough for the Post.
Does Finland have the best school system in the world? The claim is silly, and its amazing that the Post doesnt know this. But then, lets look for the good news here. If this is the best our Big Press can do, maybe were better served when they tour the world and stay away from our own recent history—the recent history the Post has known to avoid. Finlands schools may not be best in the world. But ditto for our own challenged press.
A MINOR TIC: We enjoyed a minor semantic point. In America, we have many problem children. In exciting Finland (see above), the kids are at worst problematic.
PART 2—SPAWN OF BERNIE: Dan Okrents parting cheap-shot at Krugman should be sent straight to the Smithsonian (see THE DAILY HOWLER, 5/23/05). Krugmans a serious bum, Okrent said; hes ideological and hes unfair, and his columns are full of fake, phony numbers—numbers he has shaped, sliced and selectively cited in a fashion that pleases his acolytes. But uh-oh! Absent-mindedly, Okrent forgot to give any examples, and his remarkably nasty claims come in his last public editor column. This leaves Krugman with the perfect dilemma—nothing to respond to, and nowhere to do it! Tailgunner Joe must be shaking his head at Okrents slick demagogue touch.
What explains Okrents odd behavior? We dont know, but the gentleman seems well-disposed to rants from the angry male right. In his column, Okrent examines 13 Things I Meant to Write About but Never Did. Is Daniel Okrent an Angry White Male? The scribes familiar Topic 5 sent our analysts straight to their consoles, where they did an odd thing—research:
OKRENT (5/22/05):That was Okrents total analysis. Good question, the editor typed, implying a familiar judgment—the Times is showing its liberal bias in the way it IDs Bill and Tucker. But as it turns out, Okrents reader didnt present a good question; in fact, his question was a complete, total clunker. Sadly but typically, Carters implied claims about the Times turn out to be impressively bogus. Is it true? Does the Times ID Carlson as a conservative but give a pass to plain old Moyers? A Nexis search of the past year shows this claim to be totally false—a fever dream straight from Bernie Goldbergs old swamps. Okrent, wading through the mire, buys the claim hook, line and sinker.
Lets start with news reports from this years Times about PBS liberal bias disputes. Three such reports have named Carlson and Moyers. The first discussed the resignation of PBS chief exec Pat Mitchell. Leslie Wayne did the honors—and played it right down the middle:
WAYNE (2/16/05): Ms. Mitchell was instrumental in running ''Now'' with Bill Moyers, a free-ranging liberal talk show that conservatives have criticized. Since then, Ms. Mitchell has added conservative commentators like Tucker Carlson and Paul Gigot to the PBS lineup.In Waynes report, Carlson was a conservative commentator and Moyers was host of a liberal talk show. But then, in the most recent report citing Carlson and Moyers, Stephen Labaton was also fair-and-balanced. As noted, Labaton mentioned both men—but he didnt ID either one:
LABATAON (5/16/05): The corporation's chairman, Kenneth Y. Tomlinson, has also blocked NPR from broadcasting its programs on a station in Berlin owned by the United States government.In this case, you could even argue that Labaton IDed Moyers but not Carlson. (Moyers is being probed for liberal bias. Carlsons just a guy with a talk show.) Meanwhile, in the other report which names both men, its clear whos liberal and whos the con. Writing about a struggling PBS, John Tierney reported that Republicans in Washington have been criticiz[ing] its programming as elitist and liberal. Moyers had hosted such a program:
TIERNEY (2/17/05): Conservatives have complained about Bill Moyers's news program (he has since retired from it) and about a recent children's program featuring a rabbit named Buster who visited a pair of lesbian parents.In Tierneys piece, Carlson was a conservative commentator and Moyers had hosted a show which was slammed as too liberal. No doubt Stephen L. Carter of Bala Cynwyd, Pa., can torture cruel liberal bias from that. Others will perhaps begin to see that his good question was just the latest howler from Goldbergs well-scripted swamp.
For the record, Moyers has been named in nine news reports or editorials in the past year in which the word liberal also appears. The first such report appeared last December when the gentleman won an award. Heres David Carrs second paragraph:
CARR (12/17/04): The gospel of Mr. Moyers—an unreconstructed progressive—warns against the danger of media consolidation, the growing links between conservative government and conservative media and the threat of information control by government.Having described Moyers as an unreconstructed progressive, Carr soon called him a big liberal too—and seemed to chide him for it:
CARR: To many people with allegiances to liberal causes, he has been a kind of patron saint, a journalist-activist who never let notions of objectivity get in the way of taking a stand.So Carr didnt just ID Moyers as a big lib—he seem to criticize him for it. But so did religion writer Peter Steinfels, who mentioned Moyers in January. Steinfels described the shock and awe at Manhattan holiday parties at the dubious findings about the role of moral values in the presidential election. Heres what he said about Moyers:
STEINFELS (1/29/05): But don't suppose that the fixation on Christian fundamentalists is limited to giddy holiday revelers in Manhattan. Here is Bill Moyers, liberal sage par excellence, accepting an award last month from the Center for Health and the Global Environment at Harvard Medical School:Again, the Timesman openly called Moyers liberal. And then, calling Moyers a liberal again, he chided his ideological scholarship:
STEINFELS: [Moyers] acceptance speech drew more from two online articles that he cited and recommended to his audience than from the up-close and personal interviewing for which he is known. There seemed to be something more ideological—and maybe even apocalyptical—going on in his argument. In this he was probably representative of a much wider swath of liberal opinion.Again, a Times writer not only IDed Moyers—he criticized him for his liberalism. Carter implied that the Times just wont do this. But as it turns out, the gentlemans good question was just a big load of hot bunk.
For the record, Moyers isnt always IDed as a liberal. In the past year, he has been named in eleven Times pieces in which the word liberal doesnt appear. No doubt, Okrents blood begins to boil at the thought of such data, just like that of patron saint Bernie. But heres the most recent such mention of Moyers, on April 26. It comes from a fact-filled report entitled WHATS ON TONIGHT:
9 P.M. (13, 49) WHITE SMOKE—Bill Moyers is host of a "Wide Angle" special about the election of Pope Benedict XVI. Specific discussions touch on the advantages of a pope from a developing country, the pedophilia scandal in the American church and the former Cardinal Ratzinger's global reputation.Should the writer, Anita Gates, have IDed the liberal in this blurb? And should Louise Tutelian have IDed Bill in her piece about weekend escape homes?
TUTELIAN (7/30/04): Jacqueline Taffe Myers, an associate director at ABC News who lives in the East Village section of Manhattan, uses her mountain retreat in Roxbury as an escape from a grueling workweek that can top 60 hours. ''You can sit back and look at the views, hike or do nothing,'' said Ms. Myers, who bought the three-bedroom, two-bathroom house on 15 acres for about $150,000 in 1999 with her husband, Bryan, a producer for ''Now With Bill Moyers'' on PBS.No doubt, Carter is furious to see Tutelian covering up for Moyers liberal ways. But overwhelmingly, the Times ID-free mentions are trivial asides—just like the thirteen mentions of Carlson in which conservative doesnt appear. Here, for example, is Frank Rich, failing to ID Vile Carlson:
RICH (3/27/05): The president was not about to be outpreached by these saps. The same Mr. Bush who couldn't be bothered to interrupt his vacation during the darkening summer of 2001, not even when he received a briefing titled ''Bin Laden Determined to Strike in U.S.,'' flew from his Crawford ranch to Washington to sign Congress's Schiavo bill into law. The bill could have been flown to him in Texas, but his ceremonial arrival and departure by helicopter on the White House lawn allowed him to showboat as if he had just landed on the deck of an aircraft carrier. Within hours he turned Ms. Schiavo into a slick applause line at a Social Security rally. ''It is wise to always err on the side of life,'' he said, wisdom that apparently had not occurred to him in 1999, when he mocked the failed pleas for clemency of Karla Faye Tucker, the born-again Texas death-row inmate, in a magazine interview with Tucker Carlson.For the record, there are eleven reports which name Tucker Carlson in which conservative also appears. And then again, there are thirteen such reports in which the word is missing. These numbers are almost identical to those for Moyers. So are the items themselves—if you bother to check them.
Yes, if Okrent had done a speck of research, he would have learned a disappointing fact; Stephen L. Carter of Bala Cynwyd, Pa., had sent him a dumb-as-a-box-of-rocks question. Its simply not true that the New York Times IDs Carlson more than Moyers, Which leaves us with an obvious question—why in the world does the New York Times have a honcho so reflexively out-to-lunch? Why does the Times first public ed come across like a spawn of Berrnie?
VISIT OUR INCOMPARABLE ARCHIVES: In the best angry white male tradition, Goldberg didnt bother with research either. Enter his name in our whirring search engines and settle in for a long, hopeless ride.
TOMORROW: The public eds finest hour
PART 2—TAMING A LYONS: Last night, saintly Bill Frist was at it again, blathering on about precedents:
FRIST (5/23/05): I will continue to work with everything in my power to see that these judicial nominees also receive that fair or up-or-down vote that they deserve. But it is not in this agreement.From that, you might even think that Senate precedent would afford nominees an up-or-down vote. But that, of course, is not the way the Senate has worked in our own recent past. Yesterday, we saw the Senate eliminate Tait—fail to grant that up-or-down vote to one of Clintons early nominees (see THE DAILY HOWLER, 5/23/05). This morning, well start to se how our precedents worked once Republicans took control of the Senate in the 1994 elections.
For one easy starter case, lets skip ahead to September 1999. In the Denver Post, Mike McPhee reported an impending nomination:
MCPHEE (9/18/99): Jim Lyons, a prominent, politically connected Denver lawyer, is expected to be nominated to the 10th Circuit Court of Appeals next week by President Clinton.Two days later, Colorado Republican Senator Ben Nighthorse Campbell said hed support the Lyons nomination. And sure enough, Clinton made the nomination on September 22. Given the Senates inspiring precedents—and given the GOPs passion for up-or-down votes—surely those high-minded Senate Republicans moved to make sure Lyons got one. But uh-oh! On September 19, the Denver Posts Bill McAllister reported on Lyons prospects. It seemed there might be trouble:
MCALLISTER (9/22/99): Nan Aron, president of the Alliance for Justice, a group that monitors judicial nominations, said [Senator] Campbell's support would be very significant and extremely helpful at this stage in the process. A number of Clinton's judicial nominations are stalled before the Senate Judiciary Committee and a showdown over the issue is likely in the Senate today. Aron and others said it was too soon to know whether Lyons' prospective nomination would be delayed, but she noted the chances of any Clinton nominee who fails to win approval this year will drop dramatically next year.Say what? Surely Aron was dreaming. Everyone knows that Republican senators have a passion for up-or-down votes! But sure enough, the Lyons nod was soon in the soup. Senator Campbell had said A-OK. But one other solon would not:
MCPHEE (11/13/99): The nomination of attorney Jim Lyons to the 10th Circuit Court of Appeals appears to be hung up by Sen. Wayne Allard, who hasn't taken any action on President Clinton's choice for the federal appeals bench.Uh-oh! McPhee described a well-known Senate precedent—one that cowering American newspapers have known to ignore in recent months. Thats right; under precedents still in effect when Clinton named Lyons, home-state senators could kill a nomination by refusing to turn in that blue slip! All that bullsh*t Frist has been spewing? Its just the latest Stalinist episode—the latest airbrushing of our own history, an airbrushing that cowering American newspapers know they must avoiding challenging. Would Lyons get his up-or-down vote, in accord with those great Senate precedents? Sorry. One month later, a headline in the Rocky Mountain News said there would be no such vote:
ALLARD'S OPPOSITION DOOMS BID FOR BENCHThe report was written by Michael Romano. Allard had killed the Lyons nod. There would be no up-or-down vote:
ROMANO (12/11/99): Sen. Wayne Allard said Thursday he will oppose Denver lawyer Jim Lyons' nomination to the federal bench, a decision that effectively dooms his shot at a lifetime appointment to the judgeship.Struggling nobly to keep the judiciary relatively free of partisan politics, Allard said he was taming Lyons because of that 1992 report—the report he had authored about Whitewater. Of course, Lyons conclusions had been supported in 1995, when Republican operative Jay Stephens gave the Clintons a clean bill of health in his Whitewater probe for the RTC (the so-called Pillsbury report). And Ken Starr himself had cleared the Clintons during the 1996 trial of Jim McDougal. But so what? Allard spilled with noble principles; he wanted the courts to be free of politics, so he killed the Lyons bid. And nominee Lyons, suitably tamed, never got his sacred up-or-down vote.
Would Lyons have been a good federal judge? Should he have gotten an up-or-down vote? Those, of course, are matters of judgment. But in this short tale, we see your real history—the real recent history of judicial nominations. In recent weeks, Republican senators have blathered, dissembled, spun and lied about our great precedents and their own sacred feelings. And your big, brave newspapers have known to keep still about your actual recent history—about the procedures which have actually shaped your actual American lives.
TOMORROW: Blue slips and black guys
THE ACTUAL SHAPE OF YOUR RECENT HISTORY: For the record, the Denver Post lamented Allards action; the Rocky Mountain News applauded. But in its editorial, the News stepped up and told the obvious truth about the way your system worked:
ROCKY MOUNTAIN NEWS (12/15/99): Denver lawyer James Lyons may be disappointed but he can hardly be surprised that Sen. Wayne Allard has effectively nixed his nomination for a federal judgeship.Huh! As it turns out, many others were being tamed; according to the News, there were 35 Clinton nominees who wouldnt likely get up-or-down votes, the type of vote Bill Frist finds sacred. Republicans wanted to fill those seats. Why afford votes to mere Democrats?
Today, perfumed Republicans dissemble and lie about their deep feelings and about Senate precedents. And as they do so, your big brilliant newspapers—the closest things we have to perfection—know they should keep their big traps shut about this recent history. Instead, they send their sleuths to the Finland station, where they file dumb reports on the state of the world. Tomorrow, well continue to describe our real Senate precedents—the story the public isnt going to hear from scared rabbits at the Post and the Times.