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WHEN PUNDITS PRODUCE WIDER CONTEXT! David Gregory tried to analyze Sotomayor’s now-famous statement: // link // print // previous // next //
MONDAY, JUNE 1, 2009

Every man a king: Everyone’s an expert when it comes to the public schools! We thought of that foundational precept when we read this op-ed piece from Saturday’s Washington Post.

“10 Steps to World-Class Schools,” said the confident headline. This was the authors’ fourth step:

STEP 4: Hold faculty accountable for student achievement. Take over every school that, after three years, is unable to get at least 90 percent of all major groups of students on track to leave high school ready to enter college without the need to take any remedial courses; do the same for every district in which more than a quarter of the schools are under review for underperformance for three years or more. Declare such schools and districts bankrupt and void all contracts with their staffs.

Yeah! That’ll show them! If faculties don’t simply erase our historical problems, we’ll simply void their contracts! We’ll simply take over their schools! Unfortunately, in Steps 7 and 10, the authors go on to say this:

STEP 7: Provide high-quality training and technical assistance to every school whose students are not on track to succeed. Most struggling schools are in chaos; their morale is in the basement and their faculties don't know how to improve things. States have little capacity to fix this; the federal government needs to help.

STEP 10: Offer high-quality early-childhood education to, at a minimum, all 4-year-olds and all low-income 3-year-olds. Students from low-income families entering kindergarten have less than half the vocabulary of the other students. In kindergarten and the early grades, those with the smallest vocabularies cannot follow what is going on and fall further behind. By the end of fourth grade, they are so far behind they can never catch up. By the time they are 16 and can legally drop out of school, they do so because they can no longer stand the humiliation of not being able to follow what is going on in their classes. That is why we lead the industrialized world in the proportion of students who drop out.

By the end of fourth grade, some low-income kids “are so far behind they can never catch up.” (How many low-income kids are in this fix? The authors never quite say.) And not only that! In the struggling schools these children attend, “faculties don't know how to improve things.” But so what? If you teach these kids in eighth grade and they don’t succeed, we are going to void your contract! (Even though they’re so far behind that we know they’ll never catch up.) We will then take over your school and we’ll do—what, exactly?

Technically, these steps don’t quite self-contradict. By real world standards, they do. By the way: What kind of “technical training” would the authors provide to faculties where the kids are failing? Funny, ain’t it? In all the space they gobble up, the giants never quite say.

This is perfect garbage work, of a type found all over the upper-end press. The authors pretend that we have a known cure. What is it? They never quite say.

Special report: Broken trail!

Part 1—When pundits provide wider context: To his modest credit, David Gregory tried.

During her seventeen years on the bench, Sonia Sotomayor once made a statement which may not have parsed all that perfectly. Plucked from a 17-year career, those 32 words have become the focus of complaints about her nomination to the Supreme Court.

To his credit, David Gregory has heard that statements like that deserve to be “put in context.” Result? At the start of yesterday’s Meet the Press, he endeavored to do just that. We present his text, with its marked deletions, as it appears in his program’s official transcript. In this presentation, Gregory sought to put Sotomayor’s famous 32 words “in wider context:”

GREGORY (5/31/09): The first flash point in this nomination of Judge Sotomayor surrounds the issue of race and personal experience. The comments that she made back in 2001 have captured a lot of people's attention, and I want to put them on the screen here in wider context than we've heard them discussed this week because I think the context is important, and I want to get your reaction.

This is what she said:

"I...accept that our experiences as women and people of color affect our decisions. The aspiration to impartiality is just that—it's an aspiration because it denies the fact that we are by our experiences making different choices than others. ... Justice O'Connor has often been cited as saying that wise old men and wise old—and a wise old woman will reach the same conclusion in deciding cases. I am...not so sure that I agree with the statement. ... I would hope that a wise Latina woman with the richness of her experiences would more often than not reach a better conclusion than a white male who wasn't lived that life. ... Personal experiences affect the facts that judges choose to see. My hope is that I will take the good from my experiences and extrapolate them further into areas with which I am unfamiliar. I simply do not know exactly what the difference will be in my judging. But I accept there will be some based on my gender and my Latina heritage.”

Senator Sessions, are you troubled by that?

Nothing is exactly “wrong” with this attempt to present fuller context. And yet, the analysts marveled at the way our multimillionaire pundits perform at moments like this.

Without question, Gregory did present “wider context” for Sotomayor’s famous remark. He presented comments which surround the remark, in the very lecture from which it’s been plucked. He even included a bit of context that may be relevant to the complaint about Sotomayor—the charge that she may not be willing to “set aside [her] personal and political and biases of any kind and give an objective ruling on the law and on the facts.” (We’re quoting language from Senator Sessions’ reply to Gregory.)

Is Sotomayor willing to set aside her “personal biases?” Is she willing to rule on the basis of law, not on the basis of personal preference? All last week, that question was raised—and one part of Gregory’s “wider context” might even speak to that question, if only vaguely. (“My hope is that I will take the good from my experiences and extrapolate them further into areas with which I am unfamiliar.”) But good grief! If Gregory had read to the end of Sotomayor’s lecture, he would have found her speaking directly to the question which has been widely raised. (For the full text of the lecture, click here.) He would have found her saying this about the way she judges—about what she thinks every day:

SOTOMAYOR (2001): I am reminded each day that I render decisions that affect people concretely and that I owe them constant and complete vigilance in checking my assumptions, presumptions and perspectives and ensuring that to the extent that my limited abilities and capabilities permit me, that I reevaluate them and change as circumstances and cases before me requires.

That statement also exists in a larger context within that lecture. But it comes closer to addressing last week’s central question than any bits of “wider context” Gregory managed to find.

Gregory tried to put Sotomayor’s 32 words into “wider context.” In our view, he did a rather poor job. But at the top levels of American discourse, pundits rarely use their analytical skills when faced with the latest Scripted Group Narrative; they tend to bat the complaints around, then head for the nearest watering hole. In the process, their analytical skills tend to wither and die. When they try to use such skills, the rust will often show.

Gregory tried to produce wider context; in our view, he did a poor job. Is Sotomayor willing to reign in her assumptions/presumptions—her “biases?” Is she willing to rule on the basis of law? In that very same lecture in 2001, she specifically said that she’s willing to do so—that she is reminded of that obligation every single day! But we’ve seen no pundit cite that statement as they try to put Sotomayor’s famous comment in context. And sadly, many big stars gong straight ahead, the way Bob Schieffer robotically did at the start of Face the Nation:

SCHIEFFER (5/31/09): And good morning. Senator Feinstein is in San Francisco this morning, Senator Kyl is in Phoenix, Arizona. Senators, welcome.

I want to get right to the quote that has caused all the controversy that Washington has been talking about all week, what Justice, or Judge Sotomayor said in a speech eight years ago. And here it is. She said:

“I would hope that a Latina woman with the richness of her experiences would more often than not reach a better conclusion than a white male who wasn't lived that life.”

Senator Kyl, is that enough to keep her from being confirmed as a justice on the Supreme Court?

No attempt at “wider context” here! Schieffer wanted to get “right to it!” So he simply repeated the 32 words, omitting one word in the process (“wise”). It was left to Kyl, a Republican senator, to raise the issue of wider context. He said this: “Bob, I’m sure she will argue that you have to look at the entire context of her speech.” Kyl added: “And I think that’s a fair point.”

Schieffer didn’t try to provide wider context. Gregory tried—but did so poorly. But then, it has been a very long time since your national press corps really tried to analyze questions like this. More typically, they take a script; pretend to discuss it; then head off to somebody’s brunch.

For decades, a small and unenlightened mafia has been in charge of your national discourse. They intermarry and reproduce; increasingly, their children inherit their posts. But their technical skills are remarkably weak, as is often the case when small mafias rule. This unfortunate fact was remarkably clear in last week’s hapless discussions.

TOMORROW—PART 2: Facts are stubborn things! Unless you’re watching This Week.