Breaking: This whole press corps is out of order!

SATURDAY, FEBRUARY 23, 2013

The New York Times attempts to report on the nation’s Hispanic students: In some ways, yesterday was the wrong day to be called away from our sprawling campus.

Consider a few of the day’s events as recorded by Kevin Drum:

You had a fake column by David Brooks. For Drum’s review, click here.

You had a somewhat fake review of health care costs by Steven Brill. Click this.

Following Monday’s fake interview by Charlie Rose, these presentations made us think of Al Pacino’s famous rant in that famous movie:

This whole “press corps” is out of order, as we’ve told you for some time.

This whole “press corps” is out of order! Essentially, its major presentations are Potemkin. They’re efforts by a Potemkin elite to make the public think it has a press corps.

Also from Drum, late Thursday: This post concerning a piece by Megan McArdle, in which McArdle describes the “mandarin” class which helps conduct this long-running fraud. We recommend the second half of her piece, although we didn’t have the chance to review it with full care.

Is this whole press corps out of order? Brooks, Brill and Rose are very high-ranking players. But along with their fake presentations, consider the hapless work of Motoko Rich in this news report from yesterday’s New York Times.

Rich was discussing the performance of Hispanic students on the National Assessment of Education Progress (NAEP). We were struck by the sloth and the technical incompetence displayed all through the report.

Let’s start with the hard-copy headline, which captured the sense of Rich’s opening paragraphs:
RICH (2/22/13) Test Scores of Hispanics Vary Widely Across 5 Most Populous States, Analysis Shows

Of all the changes sweeping through the American public education system, one of the most significant is simply demographic: the growing population of Hispanic students.

A new analysis released Thursday of nationwide test results in the five most populous states—California, Florida, Illinois, New York and Texas—shows that depending on where they live, Hispanic students’ academic performance varies widely.
“A new analysis shows!” Truly, that's rich.

Rich was describing a report by the National Center for Education Statistics, the federal agency which conducts the NAEP. From that headline and from those opening grafs, a New York Times reader might get the impression that the NCES report was breaking new information about the performance of Hispanic students.

It wasn’t. The information Rich discusses has been available for quite some time in the voluminous data banks presented at the NAEP site. That said, reporters wouldn’t examine those data if their grandmothers' lives were at stake. Periodically, therefore, the NCES issues reports, hoping to induce reporters to consider basic data.

Ironically, we used these data months ago to challenge bogus claims by Gail Collins, Rich’s partner in sloth at the Times. Collins was parading around the country, making bogus claims about Hispanic students in Texas. She plainly hadn’t consulted the data; eight months later, Rich treats these data as news.

If these data are really newsworthy, they have been public for some time. But at the Times, such data will go unexplored (or will be misrepresented) until such time as the NCES spoons them out in a special report, at which point the Times will make you think the data are new.

What do these data show? The errors began as soon as Rich started trying to tell us. As she started, she reported that Hispanic students in California perform less well on the NAEP than their counterparts in four other large states. This is just extremely old “news.” But look how Rich tried to explain it:
RICH: In mathematics, Hispanic eighth graders in California similarly underperformed their peers in other states, with just 13 percent hitting the proficiency mark, compared with 22 percent in Florida and 31 percent in Texas, where Hispanics make up more than half the eighth-grade student population.

In prepared remarks for a panel to discuss the report on Thursday, Richard Zeiger, chief deputy superintendent of public instruction for the California Department of Education, pointed out that one in four students in California is an English-language learner, the highest proportion in the country. He said that in addition to the state’s demographic challenges, the schools had been hampered by “a sustained disinvestment in public education, made all the more severe by the Great Recession.”
Interesting! From the highlighted comment, one might get the idea that California has an unusually high percentage of English-language learners among its Hispanic students. This might start to explain why California’s Hispanic kids don’t score as well as their peers in other states.

But is that true? Rich makes no attempt to tell us. She doesn’t say what percentage of California Hispanics are English-language learners, nor does she give the corresponding percentage for the other large states. This is terrible journalism—and then, we get handed this:
RICH (continuing directly): California’s struggles were not confined to Hispanic students. Over all, the state’s fourth and eighth graders underperformed the national average in reading, math and science. One bright spot in the state came from gains shown by black students in fourth-grade reading and math scores over two decades.
From that, you might think that California’s white and black students also underperform the national average in reading and math—possibly by a lot, since the state’s struggles “weren't confined to Hispanics.”

In fact, California’s black fourth-graders outscored their nationwide peers in reading and math in 2011; California’s white fourth-graders outscored their peers in math, essentially tied them in reading. (We didn't check science.) In that passage, Rich created confusion in the most boneheaded possible way—by failing to “disaggregate.” To wit:

California’s “overall” scores were low because it has a very high percentage of Hispanic students, and their scores were low. That doesn’t mean that other parts of the student population were “struggling.” Incredibly, Rich failed to make this bone-simple distinction—but then, all through her report, she creates confusion in this way, by her struggles with the very basic concept of disaggregation.

At best, Rich’s report conveyed some very old news—old news the Times never regarded as news until the NCES wrote a report. Along the way, she seems to make various factual errors; she also creates a fair amount of confusion by the way she jumps around between “overall” scores and scores of Hispanics alone.

That said, Rich’s report attained new heights of fatuousness as it ended. Our whole press corps is out of order when our nation’s most famous newspaper is able to “report” in this manner:
RICH: New York students’ scores appeared to be influenced in particular by whether they were enrolled in city or suburban schools. In eighth-grade reading, for example, the percentage of urban students who were proficient was 26 percent, compared with 43 percent of suburban children.

“The exposure that our urban children have to high levels of learning versus typical suburban students—there are marked differences,” Mr. Slentz said. “Whether it’s access to public libraries, to well-developed after-school programs, there is a difference between what the suburban kids have at their fingertips versus what urban kids have.”
Good God. After all these years, the New York Times thinks it’s news when it learns that suburban students score better in reading and math than urban kids. At the start of this passage, Rich seems to suggest that this gap is especially large in the state of New York, but she makes no attempt to compare New York to the other states involved in the NCES report.

We’ve marveled at Rich’s reporting before. We marvel at its ineptitude because it appears in the New York Times—and because Rich, who is 42 or 43, apparently graduated summa cum laude from Yale.

What does it mean when work this inept is found at the top of our national press corps, presented by McArdle’s “mandarin” class? For one thing, it means the New York Times doesn’t care about low-income kids. And it means that your whole national “press corps” is very much out of order.

Hooray for Hollywood! And hooray for the way a mandarin class serves a plupotent elite.

5 comments:

  1. You might do better actually reading Ms. McArdle, before recommending her. When dear Meagan says "Mandarins",she's talking about academic and governmental "elites" -- not the hyper-wealthy or the "business leaders" who actually write our laws, set our benighted national policy and who have bankrolled Megan's career from day one.

    True to her Koch brothers roots, and drawing on the long experience of someone who's never had a real job, which required producing something of actual value, Megan is broadcasting yet another love song to the wisdom and virtue of the "private sector" -- meaning the American oligarchy.

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    1. I was hoping that Mr. Somerby was being ironic about McMegan, but maybe he wasn't. Mr. Somerby can be hard to read. If he wasn't being ironic, he should check out TBogg (before that genius exits, alas).

      My reaction to this post: the difference between JOURNALism and reporting. That is, the difference between a DAILY report of what can be gathered here and now, and a REPORT claiming a longer, deeper investigation. That one newspaper should include both types of coverage, fine and good and wonderful (even if the internet has made the NYT's JOURNALism a bit irrelevant on most fronts -- which should put more pressure on its REPORTage to be good).

      I value Mr. Somerby's analysis here insofar as this piece presents itself as JOURNALism when it is actual REPORTage. As journalism, its confusion and oversights would be understandable and forgivable. As REPORTage, its confusion and oversights (many of which I would have missed without Mr. Somerby's guidance) are not.

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  2. Whoever started the twin memes of big business and all grunts as heroes needs to be tied inside a pillow case, driven to the nearest icy river and tossed into it for all the damage he or she visited upon our society.

    If you think that the NYTimes is terrible take a peek at the health care article in Time magazine. I sincerely doubt that even one editor read the piece before publishing it. It is a jumble of improper verb tenses, overly long supposed sentences, run on sentences and grammatical errors too numerous to mention. The content summarizes the problems and in the end throws its words up in the air, leaving the reader with the idea that it is too much of a mess to deal with, because it would disturb our beliefs in the wonders of capitalism.

    Intellectual dishonesty, laziness and obtuse reasoning makes up the content of the piece. Of course, I hate writing that uses case studies of anonymous characters that have suffered at the hands of fate, apparently. It is all so disappointing.

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