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WHAT $5 MILLION BUYS! Chris Matthews tried to defend Obama. As always, he seemed unprepared: // link // print // previous // next //

Below—a statistics guy speaks: Yesterday, we exchanged e-mails with a statistics pro about the Post’s report on low-income students. Did the Post bungle its treatment, as we said? Below, we post the exchange.

WHAT $5 MILLION BUYS: In the current election, cable yakker Chris Matthews is plainly supporting Obama. But uh-oh! On last night’s Hardball, we were struck by the familiar ineptitude with which he advanced his brief. Speaking with Republican strategist Mike Paul, Matthews suggested that the focus on Obama’s connection to former Weatherman Bill Ayers is just a pointless McCain distraction. He discussed this topic several times in the hour. But this was the best the yakker could do at making his case:

MATTHEWS (10/6/08): Mike, do you think it’s fair ball—I don’t think you believe you think anything is ball— Do you think it is fair ball to try to sell some connection between, today we saw it, Barack Obama’s “consorting”— I think that’s Bill Kristol’s word—with this guys Bill Ayers, back in Chicago. They’re both on the Democratic side, or left side of things, if you will. And his middle name, Hussein, and the Democratic donor list right now—you don’t see them trying to put all that together to make the case that this guy is a mystery man, perhaps dangerous to the country? You don’t think that’s what they’re up to.

It’s not about hanging around with Bill Ayers. It’s about suggesting there’s a dangerous aspect to this guy, right?

Matthews claimed, throughout the show, that the McCain campaign was really trying to paint Obama as some sort of dangerous character. But it was sad to see the way he tried to frame Obama’s connection to Ayers. “They’re both on the Democratic side, or left side of things, if you will,” Matthews haplessly said. Of course, Matthews is almost always unprepared. This struck us as the latest example.

After all, it isn’t just that Ayers is “on the left side of things” in Chicago. More specifically, he is tightly connected with the city’s political establishment—even with the city’s mayor, Richard Daley. Whatever you may think of that fact, it’s a fact Obama supporters should stress in arguing the case the cable yakker was trying to make in that passage. For example, this is part of Scott Shane’s news report in Saturday’s New York Times:

SHANE (10/4/08): Since earning a doctorate in education at Columbia in 1987, Mr. Ayers has been a professor of education at the University of Illinois at Chicago, the author or editor of 15 books, and an advocate of school reform.

''He's done a lot of good in this city and nationally,'' Mayor Richard M. Daley said in an interview this week, explaining that he has long consulted Mr. Ayers on school issues. Mr. Daley, whose father was Chicago's mayor during the street violence accompanying the 1968 Democratic National Convention and the so-called Days of Rage the following year, said he saw the bombings of that time in the context of a polarized and turbulent era.

''This is 2008,'' Mr. Daley said. ''People make mistakes. You judge a person by his whole life.”

Mayor Daley isn’t a radical, a nut, a kook or a terrorist. His name is famous in American politics—and his middle name is Michael. If Mayor Daley works closely with Ayers, does it really make sense to think that Obama, as a young man in the mid-90s, should have shunned him? In a column in the Chicago Sun-Times, veteran Chicago journalist Lynn Sweet described this matter in more detail:

SWEET (4/18/08): Ayers' extremist past...has never bothered anyone in Chicago. That's why back in the day when Obama was starting his political career—making a visit to the Ayers home while running for a state Senate seat, and then agreeing to being on panels with him and serve on a foundation board together—it was no big deal, or any deal, to any local political reporters or to the editorial boards of the Sun-Times or Tribune.

Sweet may be overstating a tad. But: Should the younger Obama have shunned Bill Ayers if those editorial boards did not? Whatever your answer to that might be, Mayor Daley’s name belongs in any pro-Obama defense of this association. But last night, Matthews offered a vague and floundering characterization of Ayers’ political identity. He didn’t say that Ayers works with Chicago’s mainstream mayor—the one with that mainstream American name. Instead, he said that Ayers is “on the Democratic side, or left side of things, if you will.”

Why did Matthews offer so vague a characterization? Let’s offer an educated guess: Most likely, Matthews was un- or under-prepared to discuss this topic. Most likely, he didn’t know much about this matter, and made the best presentation he could. As long-time Hardball-watchers will know, Matthews almost never knows basic facts about the matters he raises. This was painfully apparent during Campaign 04, when he tried—and failed—to defend John Kerry against Swift boat guys who appeared on his show. Lawrence O’Donnell was equally unprepared for those Swift boat discussions. As we described in real time, the two loud fellows ranted and railed, making fools of themselves in the process, doing nothing to clarify issues for viewers—or to help Kerry advance.

Matthews is always under-prepared—except when it’s time to advance his cohort’s novelized narratives. (He was very good, in late 1999, at explaining the psychiatric disorders suggested by Gore’s three-button suits. He trashed Gore in such ways for two solid year, more aggressively than anyone else on cable.) Indeed, as late as last December, he still believed that Obama’s familial connection to Islam was found on his mother’s side of the family. We know—you’d think that couldn’t be possible. But Matthews is paid $5 million per year—and in “journalistic” circles, it’s still very hard to get good help at that price.

It’s hard to believe that anyone could be as clueless as this loud talker. But good news! In 2010, Pennsylvania Democrats may get a chance to elect him to the Senate.

THE END OF AN ERA: Joe Biden made some mistakes and odd statements last Thursday—but pundits have tended to overlook them. Example: Given the vehemence of his presentation, it’s quite surprising that this giant error (we quote Michael Dobbs) has largely gone unremarked:

DOBBS (10/3/08): Joe Biden: McCain voted to raise taxes

Biden claimed that John McCain "voted the exact same way" as Barack Obama on a non-binding budget resolution that assumed that the Bush tax cuts will expire, as scheduled, in 2011. That is not true. McCain was not present in the Senate chamber for the 51-44 vote, which split along party lines. The vote did not actually raise taxes: it merely set general budgetary guidelines.

That was a ginormous misstatement. (For FactCheck.org’s treatment, click here. Careful, though—at one point, it’s self-contradictory.) Biden’s error has rarely been mentioned by pundits and columnists, who have tended to focus on Sarah Palin’s various misadventures—or on her vast, eye-blinking appeal. In recent days, we’ve even wondered if we’re present at the dawn of a new age in mainstream pseudo-journalism. We’ve begun to wonder if a deeply destructive, 16-year era may be nearing its end.

For sixteen years, the mainstream “press corps” has reflexively adopted right-wing attacks against Major Dems. You could even accuse the Clintons of serial murder—“mainstream” journalists wouldn’t say boo. In his turn, Al Gore became the world’s biggest liar—and his troubling suits had too many buttons, suggesting his psychiatric dysfunction. During this era, there was nothing so stupid that you couldn’t say it—if you said it against a Big Dem.

Within the mainstream press corps, pseudo-liberals widdled in their pants as these jihads occurred, politely staring off into air. At the pseudo-liberal journals, toilet-trained momma’s boys kept their traps shut, hoping they’d get the next job at the Post.

You got what you got in the past eight years because these cowards rolled over and died. Pseudo-con lunacy ruled.

Recently, we’ve begun to wonder if this 16-year consensus might be nearing its end. In the minds of many mainstream journalists, financial disaster now joins the culture of war as legacies of pseudo-conservative rule; as we’ve put our ear to the ground in recent weeks, we’ve begun to wonder if these weak-minded hacks aren’t adjusting their novels accordingly. Example: Eight years ago this very month, the Gotham dough-boy known as Frank Rich was still pushing a deeply foolish idea—George Bush and Al Gore were just peas in a pod, a fatuous pair of boomer princes. (Link below. In those days, it was a liberal view if you said that Gore was as bad as Bush, but no worse.) This week, though, Rich was found in the New York Times typing sheer nonsense like this:

RICH (10/5/08): [T]here’s a steady unnerving undertone to Palin’s utterances, a consistent message of hubristic self-confidence and hyper-ambition. She wants to be president, she thinks she can be president, she thinks she will be president. And perhaps soon. She often sounds like someone who sees herself as half-a-heartbeat away from the presidency. Or who is seen that way by her own camp, the hard-right G.O.P. base that never liked McCain anyway and views him as, at best, a White House place holder.

This was first apparent when Palin extolled a “small town” vice president as a hero in her convention speech—and cited not one of the many Republican vice presidents who fit that bill but, bizarrely, Harry Truman, a Democrat who succeeded a president who died in office.

To Rich, it was “apparent” that Palin “thinks she will be president...and perhaps soon” when she “bizarrely” extolled Truman as a small-town hero, as opposed to “one of the many Republican vice presidents who fit that bill.” Patently, this idea is sheer lunacy. But at long last, Rich’s lunacy tips against Republicans only as we decide who should go to the White House.

Was it “bizarre” when Palin cited Truman? Did it indicate that she hopes her mentor, McCain, will rapidly croak in office? In fact, extolling Truman is a familiar two-party ritual; at this point, it’s about as “bizarre” as saluting the flag or saying that the voters are smart. And in fact, there are very few Republican veeps who “fit the bill” Palin was seeking. Who was she supposed to extol? A small-town veep like Richard Nixon? A big-city guy like Spiro Agnew? (A Joe Six-Pack like the elder George Bush?) Only a crackpot could really believe that Palin cited Truman, in some part, because his president died in office. But over the course of the past sixteen years, our press corps has crawled with this kind of cracked pottery. During that period, the press corps persistently peddled perfect crap of this type against people with names like Clinton and Gore. In the past few weeks, we’ve begun to wonder if we’re seeing the end of that gruesome era.

You really have to be out of your mind to put perfect nonsense like that into print. But good God! Rich kept trashing Gore as a fake (to his bosom pal Imus) even after he saw An Inconvenient Truth. The big phony only began to kiss Gore’s keister when he won the Nobel Peace Prize! By that time, he had to fight off Arianna to do it!

People like Rich will always be kooks—but this may be the end of an era. No, there’s no sign that their work will improve. But we sense that their aim may be changing.

Hard to believe, even now: In Sunday’s piece, Rich referred to Gore’s “sarcastic sighing in 2000.” It made us wonder what he’d said in real time. We almost wish we hadn’t looked, given the shape of this column.

No, Rich didn’t mention that “sarcastic sighing” in his column about Bush and Gore’s first debate. But good God! Even then, Rich wouldn’t abandon his great brilliant framework, the one he had debuted in March. Bush and Gore were peas in a pod—a pair of princely nobodies. (Headline: “The Bland Leading the Bland.”) One of the two was the Gap, Rich intoned—the other was the Banana Republic. Good God! Rich was still pimping that bull-sh*t in October, four weeks before we would vote:

RICJH (10/7/00): The first great debate didn't make or break anything except the viewer's patience. No Bush malapropisms. No over-the-top Gore attacks. No eloquence. Not only was this no Kennedy-Nixon, it wasn't even Bentsen-Quayle...

Still, I wouldn't have missed the debate for anything. Though it added exactly zero to our knowledge of either Al Gore or George W. Bush, it is a keeper for any time capsule of America 2000. At a cultural moment when many voters are forced constantly to make that hard choice between the Gap and Banana Republic, what is more apt than the spectacle of two princely boomers in identical outfits hypothesizing about how to spend a surplus of infinitely elastic trillions that both assume will last indefinitely? Now that branding and marketing are the national ideology—and focus groups have a clout unmatched by labor unions or the religious right—what could be more fitting than a debate in which not a single word is uttered that hasn't been pre-tested more rigorously than a McDonald's breakfast sandwich rollout?

What a cosmic fool Rich is! Even then, with weeks to go, he thought he was looking at “two princely boomers in identical outfits”—one the Gap, one the Republic. He’d introduced this brain-dead framework on March 7—and he carried it right to the end.

Rich is a pompous fool—always has been. (If anything needs to go in a “time capsule of America2000,” it would be that heart-breaking column.) But then, his cohort is full of scripted ninnies—and they’ve long followed the RNC line. Is the end of that era dawning? That will depend on many things. But, to our watchful eye, a few stars have begun to align.

Final point: In the past sixteen years, you’ve suffered from terrible “liberal” leadership. Don’t let your sense of team membership blind you to that blatant fact.

ABOUT THOSE LOW-INCOME STUDENTS: Did the Post bungle its recent report about low-income students? See THE DAILY HOWLER, 10/4/08. This e-mail exchange came later:

E-MAIL (10/6/08):Great job pointing out the flaws in the Post article. As a statistician, I cringe whenever I read articles like that. I have a few additional comments:

  1. I think you were a bit kind in your description of their comparison of ‘economically disadvantaged’ kids with ‘all students’ as "a minor oddity". That is a huge error. No competent statistician would make such a mistake. It completely distorts the picture. In some counties there is a higher percentage of poor students than in other counties. If the percentage is high, then the ‘all students' curve will necessarily be pulled closer to the 'economically disadvantaged' curve than in other counties. So the amount of distortion varies by county.
  2. I'm glad you mentioned the ceiling effect. Clearly, most upper income folks were passing the test. When you have a binary measure of success (pass/fail), you have a very limited story you can tell. If you define achievement as 'passing the test', then there are a lot of ways to narrow the 'achievement gap'. As you implied, if you make the test easy enough (where everyone can pass) there will be no achievement gap at all!
  3. Achievement is probably the wrong word. I think tests like this are aimed at determining if children have obtained grade-level competence. The gap that exists in the percentages of kids that achieve this minimal level of competence might be closing (or the test got easier; or...), but that's a much weaker claim than was made by the authors.
  4. There are ways to close achievement gaps that are not necessarily good. For example, schools could decide to use all of their resources on kids who are not meeting minimal standards, and ignore kids who are. Certainly achievement gaps could be narrowed, but at the expense of kids who started out ahead. There are two issues here. One is narrowing gaps that occur between birth and 5 years of age. Schools don't have much influence on that, but it should be an area of public policy focus. The other is making sure all children progress in school at a reasonable rate. If low income students are improving at a slower rate than upper income kids, that is a gap the schools should be concerned about.

With lightning speed, we replied, adopting our e-mailer’s numbering system:

RETURN E-MAIL (10/6/08): Many thanks for your feedback:

  1. I called it a "minor oddity" because I'm not enough of a statistics pro to make a stronger statement. I couldn't think of a reason why you'd want to present data that way. But so many things get done so poorly that I figured that may be some sort of peculiar convention.
  2. "The ceiling effect!" I knew it must have some simple moniker. And yes, making tests easier will have the effect of reducing the (apparent) gap, even where nothing has actually changed. Journalists need to understand that, since there’s a fair amount of evidence suggesting that tests may be getting easier in some states. And yes, if you make the tests easy enough, everyone passes! Poof—the gap is gone! (Real) problem (apparently) solved!
  3. I'll caution you on one point—I know of no reason to think that these tests are really tests of traditional "grade level" competence. In most states, I don't think they even make that claim.
  4. There have been some indications that, in some schools or school systems, instruction has been aimed at the kids "in the middle," the ones who are on the borderline of passing the state tests. According to this theory, the kids at the top are given less attention, since they’ll pass the tests no matter what. The kids at the bottom get short-changed too, since they will fail no matter what. (They're simply too far behind to catch up to what the test requires.) I have no personal experience of this. But that's why I said an improved passing rate "suggests" improvement. You can easily imagine situations where the passing rate improves, but overall achievement goes down. (Upper- and lower-end kids stagnate as mid-level kids improve.)

When I was a teacher, we were taught a naughty theory (I think it was conventional wisdom at the time): Good teaching increases achievement gaps. If you miraculously create a situation where everyone grows at his or her maximum potential, everyone will have advanced by the end of the year. But the smarter kids will be farther ahead of the less gifted kids than they were at the start of the year. I take that to be fairly obvious. But then, I've spent time in actual classrooms. Most people who theorize about these things haven’t worked in actual classrooms—and seem to have no such desire.