MEDIOCRITY ALL THE WAY UP: Public schools meet managed news!

MONDAY, APRIL 22, 2013

Conclusion—The New York Times needs to report: In yesterday’s column, New York Times public editor Margaret Sullivan disagreed with a reader’s complaint.

The reader thought a certain photograph from the Boston bombing had been too disturbing to publish. As she agreeably disagreed, Sullivan saluted the flag of her noble profession:
SULLIVAN (4/21/13): I respect this view, which I heard from many others, but I found the photo choice reasonable. If it had shown one of the dead, or gruesome detail of a severed limb, I would have felt differently. The journalistic imperative is to give readers an accurate sense of what happened—simply put, to tell the truth.
Shortening that up a bit, Sullivan said this: “The journalistic imperative is to give readers the truth.”

It would be hard to disagree with that principle. The New York Times and other news orgs should feel that imperative. They should feel that it’s their obligation “to give readers an accurate sense of the truth.”

But alas! That is exactly what the Times didn’t do on April 13 when it published a very long op-ed column by Harvard professor Jal Mehta. Cherry-picking his facts with reckless abandon, Mehta gave readers a grossly distorted sense of the progress which seems to be occurring in our public schools.

Mehta cherry-picked a set of facts from international testing programs. More dramatically, he cherry-picked facts from the National Assessment of Educational Progress (the NAEP), the federal program which is the widely-praised “gold standard” of domestic educational testing. (For details, read part 4 of this series. After that, read part 5.)

How did Mehta handle his facts? He presented sets of facts which conveyed a very gloomy impression about the progress, or lack of same, being displayed in American schools.

In publishing his lengthy column, the New York Times didn’t just fail “to give readers an accurate sense of the truth.” The Times gave its readers a grossly distorted understanding of the relevant facts.

How are things going in our public schools? That is a complex question. But here’s the good news, the news Mehta chose to withhold from the Times’ misused readers:

In reading and in math, black students have shown large score gains on the NAEP over the forty-year life of the program. So have Hispanic students.

White students have shown strong score gains too. In all three groups, the gains have continued to be strong in the past two decades.

Mehta should have told Times readers about those impressive score gains. If you want to discuss NAEP test scores at all, those large, continuing test score gains are an obvious part of the story.

What does it mean to cherry-pick facts? Mehta presented the gloomy news, citing data which show that achievement gaps still exist on the NAEP. But he withheld the dramatically upbeat news:

He hid the fact that those gaps persist because all three major student groups are recording much higher scores.

As he cherry-picked his facts, Mehta grossly misled Times readers. Today, we petition the Times:

Mehta should have told Times readers about those large score gains. At long last, so should the New York Times, in a series of front-page reports.

In short, the time has come for the New York Times “to give readers an accurate sense of what” the data from public schools seem to show—“simply put, to tell the truth.”

This request may see obvious, absurdly mundane. But this simple request is necessary due to a remarkable, long-term pattern of journalistic misconduct.

In the past decade, our big newspapers have constantly discussed the test scores attained by American kids on international and domestic tests. But during that period, these newspapers have persistently fed the American public a diet of cherry-picked facts.

What Mehta did is completely routine! For whatever reason, it represents the norm in modern American journalism. When journalists discuss the NAEP, they persistently cite basic facts about the “achievement gaps” between our largest student groups.

They discuss the gaps, but they hide the gains! The public is never told the good news. We’re never told about the large score gains exhibited by all three groups.

This represents an act of fraud against the American public. Why do our major news orgs keep behaving this way?

We can’t answer that question. But when newspapers behave this way, they baldly deceive the American people. In the process, they further the interests of powerful advocates of certain types of “education reform.”

Alas! For whatever reason, advocates of certain types of reform want the public to think that our public schools are an ungodly mess. This has enabled waves of attacks on American teachers and their infernal unions.

This claim has served the interests of those who want to privatize public schools.

Those advocates are entitled to their own views about public schools. But they shouldn’t be entitled to their own set of facts.

But within the mainstream American press corps, these powerful people are routinely allowed to present their preferred set of facts. It’s done in the way Mehta did it:

Readers are told about the achievement gaps which persist on the NAEP. They aren’t told about the large score gains achieved by all three major groups.

How can this steady deception persist? Let’s create a bit of perspective.

Decades ago, during Vietnam, a certain concept became familiar—the concept of “managed news.” Powerful interests were restricting the facts the public was allowed to hear, thus managing public opinion.

Noam Chomsky has a different name for this general process. He has referred to this general process as “manufactured consent.”

But whatever you call it, one fact is clear. In the past decade, this particular chicken has come home to roost when it comes to the public schools.

Black and Hispanic students have made large score gains on the NAEP. But given the managed state of our news, the public is never told this.

The time has come for the New York Times to stop deceiving its readers. It needs to do a series of front-page reports about a topic which is widely discussed—the performance of American students on international and domestic tests.

The time has come for the Times to report on the full range of international tests—on the TIMSS and the PIRLS as well as the PISA. Even more significantly, the time has come for the New York Times to tell the truth about the full set of data which have emerged from the NAEP.

Can test scores from the NAEP be trusted? That basic question should be part of this series of front-page reports. But please understand: In Mehta’s lengthy column, there was no suggestion that NAEP data aren’t reliable.

Mehta never said or suggested that something was wrong with the NAEP. He simply withheld the data which suggest that American schools are producing much better outcomes in reading and math. Through the act of cherry-picking, Times readers were baldly misled.

It’s always possible that something is wrong with the NAEP. If so, it’s time for the Times to report that fact as part of a larger effort “to give readers an accurate sense of what” the data from this program suggest.

In its own education reporting, the Times routinely cites the NAEP. If something is wrong with the NAEP, it’s time for the Times to say so. If not, it’s time to report the full set of data from the NAEP—the gains as well as the gaps.

Readers, we’re going to tell you a secret: In reading and in math, black kids have been recording much higher scores on the NAEP. So have Hispanic kids. White kids are recording higher scores too.

Unless something is wrong with those data, this is very good news—and this news should be reported.

But over the course of the past dozen years, these basic facts have been kept from the public in a truly shocking manner. Very few people have ever heard about those rising test scores.

Mehta is a bright young fellow from Harvard—and he committed an act of fraud in his recent column. But in fairness to Mehta, many others have committed this same act of fraud. In the process, our public schools have run head-first into our managed news.

A group of “reformers” want you deceived about the state of the public schools. This helps them attack our teachers and push for privatization.

Those advocates are entitled to their views. But as any civics textbook will tell you, the American people are entitled to a full set of facts.

As any civics textbook could tell you, “The journalistic imperative is to give readers an accurate sense of what” is happening in our public schools—“simply put, to tell the truth.” For the past dozen years, the New York Times has refused to do this.

The time has come for the New York Times to get off its ass and do some reporting. Simply put:

When will the New York Times tell the truth about our public schools?

The managers’ willing enablers: The time has come for the liberal world to insist that the Times tell the truth.

If you watched Melissa Harris-Perry attempt to discuss public schools on April 14, you saw the fruit of thirty years of liberal indifference. Liberals quit on these topics a long time ago. Our liberal heroes have been silent—complicit—as the journalistic scam we’ve discussed has misled the public.

Harris-Perry and her panel are hardly alone. We liberals don't know how to discuss public schools. Our “leaders” don’t have the slightest idea what the data show—or if they do, they aren’t talking.

Someone needs to tell the public the full set of facts about public schools. When will Rachel or Lawrence or Revered Sharpton decide it’s their job to do this?

When will your favorite liberal bloggers add this topic to their play list? When will liberal journals accept this obvious task? When will Digby or Drum or Walsh or Chait insist that this full story be told? Does Jonathan Alter exist?

Black kids’ test scores are way up. As their teachers are trashed and reviled, when will the public be told?


  1. Nice post, Bob.

    Does Margaret Sullivan not know that it's normal for the New York Times to choose a narrative and then slant their reporting to support that narrative? It's wrong to present news this way. IMHO even opinion pieces ought not to be presented this way.

    E.g., Paul Krugman's op-eds argue intelligently for his thesis. Times editorials generally argue unintelligently for their thesis. Both sorts of column generally ignore facts tending to undermine the chosen POV. IMHO the Times' opinion pieces would be more convincing if they included a fair presentation of the opposing argument and showed why their argument is stronger. Who knows? If they started to include all the facts in their opinion pieces, maybe they'd do the same for their news coverage.

  2. Is there a conspiracy against TDH by liberals who can't handle his criticism of them? The abject dishonesty of the Washington Post and (mostly) the New York Times that is apparently desperately afraid of Bloomberg has been documented so thoroughly here that there really is no excuse for their continuing to pass on this core, fundamental stuff of progressive policy. Hurt feelings certainly isn't one. I am getting pretty pissed off myself at people I follow regularly like Digby, Marshall, Walsh, Matthews, Maddow, Ed Schultz and even Drum and Chris Hayes (who at least have made occasional stabs at the subject). If any of you occasionally come to this site for in-depth analysis, you are put on notice. Some of your readers are going to start besieging you to show some courage.

  3. There is evidence that the Times knows what it is doing: especially distorted editorials and "News" stories never allow viewer comments.

  4. John Merrow should take note as well.