Part 2—What would sophisticates think: What would “sophisticated readers” think of the New York Times?
We ask for a reason. On Sunday, Arthur Brisbane, the Times’ public editor, reported an interview with the newspaper’s politics editor (see THE DAILY HOWLER, 7/30/12). In the following passage, he recorded part of what Richard Stevenson said about the way the New York Times should cover this White House campaign:
BRISBANE (7/29/12): I asked Mr. Stevenson, the political editor, to provide his perspective on the choices The Times faces in covering the election.In context, “high-frequency coverage” means the silly day-to-day drivel which has dominated the current campaign.
''I don't have a problem with high-frequency” coverage, he told me. ''I guess the question is: Is it worth it in terms of news value? I think we ought to be guided, especially in coverage of politics, by: Are you really adding value for a sophisticated New York Times reader?''
As the interview continued, Stevenson said it was OK for the Times to be “insidery,” but he said the great newspaper must do more. According to Stevenson, the New York Times has to “add value” for its “sophisticated readers.”
Question: How many readers of the Times are even dimly like that?
Routinely, the New York Times panders to its readers’ belief that they are savvy sophisticates. That said, what would a truly “sophisticated reader” think of the modern-day Times?
Such readers would spill with scorn for this dumbest, most elite newspaper. For starters, consider this news report from Sunday’s Times—a report about a possible problem with testing in Texas schools.
As he started, reporter Morgan Smith described the alleged problem. The story started in 2006 when a professor was puzzled by some test results:
SMITH (7/29/12): In 2006, a math pilot program for middle school students in a Dallas-area district returned surprising results.Professor Stroup believed that these students were better than their TAKS scores suggested. It’s possible that he was right, of course. But it’s also possible that he was wrong.
The students' improved grasp of mathematical concepts stunned Walter Stroup, the University of Texas at Austin professor behind the program. But at the end of the year, students' scores had increased only marginally on state standardized TAKS tests, unlike what Mr. Stroup had seen in the classroom.
A similar dynamic showed up in a comparison of the students' scores on midyear benchmark tests and what they received on their end-of-year exams. Standardized test scores the previous year were better predictors of their scores the next year than the benchmark test they had taken a few months earlier.
Question: Could it be that those “benchmark tests” were poorly designed? Could that explain why scores on the benchmark tests weren’t matched when kids took the TAKS?
If the benchmark tests weren’t all that good, that could mean that the TAKS results were accurate after all. But this possibility didn't seem to occur to reporter Smith. He simply moved to the following passage—a passage which would have sophisticated readers gnashing their teeth and cursing the great New York Times:
SMITH (continuing directly): Now, in studies that threaten to shake the foundation of high-stakes test-based accountability, Mr. Stroup and two other researchers said they believe they have found the reason: a glitch embedded in the DNA of the state exams that, as a result of a statistical method used to assemble them, suggests they are virtually useless at measuring the effects of classroom instruction.Professor Stroup may be right, of course. It may be that the TAKS tests are a poor measure of students’ math proficiency.
Pearson, which has a five-year, $468 million contract to create the state's tests through 2015, uses ''item response theory'' to devise standardized exams, as other testing companies do. Using I.R.T., developers select questions based on a model that correlates students' ability with the probability that they will get a question right.
That produces a test that Mr. Stroup said is more sensitive to how it ranks students than to measuring what they have learned. That design flaw also explains why Richardson students' scores on the previous year's TAKS test were a better predictor of performance on the next year's TAKS test than the benchmark exams were, he said. The benchmark exams were developed by the district, the TAKS by the testing company.
But how about the New York Times’ journalistic proficiency? We’ve worked on testing issues for decades—but we have very little idea what that highlighted sentence means.
In constructing the TAKS, test developers “select questions based on a model that correlates students' ability with the probability that they will get a question right?” This statement lies at the heart of the alleged problem—and we have little idea what it means. But then again, neither did Smith—or the editor who simply waved that word jumble into print.
A sophisticated reader might have been struck by that key jumble of words. But then, such readers would hardly be surprised by incoherence and basic incompetence in the New York Times. Through several decades of creeping Dowdism, the Times has become a pseudo-newspaper—a paper designed to tickle the fancies of a self-impressed, not especially intelligent, imagined elite.
Consider the work Times readers found on Monday’s op-ed page.
Bill Keller is a major player at the New York Times. For more than eight years, he was the paper’s executive editor. In 1989, he won a Pulitzer Prize for his reporting on the breakup of the Soviet Union.
One other note: Bill Keller’s father, the late George M. Keller, retired as chairman and CEO of Chevron, a fact that is rarely mentioned but may be relevant here.
By all accounts, the late George Keller was a good decent person. By all accounts, so is Bill Keller, with whom we happen to share the old hometown, same-era tie. But Keller hails from society’s upper end. This fact may have been showing in this long op-ed piece, in which he blithely suggested significant changes in the American social contract.
From its horrible headline on down, Keller engaged in the unsophisticated thinking that defines the modern-day Times. His work may be completely sincere—but sophisticated readers will gnash their teeth when faced with such underfed musings.
At great length, Keller engages in the silly thinking which tries to decide which generation is better or best. Having primed the pump in this unhelpful fashion, he turns to questions of the social compact—and his work goes right in the dumpster.
How should we the people deal with the financial challenges facing Social Security and Medicare? When the rubber hits the road, Keller offers the kind of work which would make sophisticated readers wail and tear their hair:
KELLER (7/30/12): At least the Republicans have a plan. The Democrats generally recoil from the subject of entitlements. Centrists like those at Third Way and the bipartisan authors of the Simpson-Bowles report endorse a menu of incremental cuts and reforms that would bring down costs without hitting the needy or snatching away the security blanket from those nearing retirement. They include gradually raising the retirement age to compensate for the fact that we now live, on average, 14 years longer than when F.D.R. signed Social Security into law. They include obliging those of us who can really afford it to pay a larger share. They also include technical fixes like aligning the automatic cost-of-living formula with reality. To curtail the raging inflation of health costs, the government could better use its market clout to hasten electronic record-keeping, replace the fee-for-service model, reform medical malpractice laws and promote living wills. (A quarter of health care spending comes in the last year of life.) But you won’t hear much of that on the campaign trail.Gack! In his piece, Keller conflates the different challenges facing Medicare and Social Security. In the passage we have posted, he repeats a misleading fact about life expectancy—a fact which has been challenged, debunked and clarified about ten million times by now. (Ezra Klein: “Since Social Security’s inception, life expectancy at age 65 has risen about five years.”)
He recommends a significant cut in Social Security payments, tossing this proposal off as a mere “technical fix.” Sophisticated readers will notice this move. Most Times readers will not.
(Responding to the Keller piece, Dean Baker refers to "our broken health system." As Baker has often noted, all future budget problems disappear if we reduce our health care spending to the levels of our developed nations. But you will never read such a fact in New York Times news reporting. For one thing, such facts are too hard; silly pretensions to the side, the Times panders to high-interest topics. For another thing, “fixing the health care system would likely mean lower payments to insurers, hospitals, drug companies and doctors,” Baker notes—and the Times fawns to such interests.)
The New York Times sells itself as a paper for a brainy elite. In this way, highly unsophisticated, self-impressed readers get drawn into an unimpressive club.
In fact, the work of the Times is relentlessly low-IQ. Just consider the pitiful effort in today’s letters column.
On Sunday, the Times did a rare and good thing. It featured this opinion piece by Andrew Hacker.
Hacker’s piece bore the headline, “Is Algebra Necessary?” “My question extends beyond algebra and applies more broadly to the usual mathematics sequence, from geometry through calculus,” Hacker wrote.
Hacker had done an unusual thing. He had spoken to some people who might even know what they’re talking about. Are current math requirements needlessly swelling our dropout rates? That’s what Hacker suggested:
HACKER (7/29/12): This debate matters. Making mathematics mandatory prevents us from discovering and developing young talent. In the interest of maintaining rigor, we’re actually depleting our pool of brainpower. I say this as a writer and social scientist whose work relies heavily on the use of numbers. My aim is not to spare students from a difficult subject, but to call attention to the real problems we are causing by misdirecting precious resources.Hacker wrote a challenging piece. In response, the Times has now published six letters from readers.
The toll mathematics takes begins early. To our nation’s shame, one in four ninth graders fail to finish high school. In South Carolina, 34 percent fell away in 2008-9, according to national data released last year; for Nevada, it was 45 percent. Most of the educators I’ve talked with cite algebra as the major academic reason.
Shirley Bagwell, a longtime Tennessee teacher, warns that “to expect all students to master algebra will cause more students to drop out.” For those who stay in school, there are often “exit exams,” almost all of which contain an algebra component. In Oklahoma, 33 percent failed to pass last year, as did 35 percent in West Virginia.
Algebra is an onerous stumbling block for all kinds of students: disadvantaged and affluent, black and white.
How pitiful is the New York Times? How silly is its basic intellectual functioning? Four of the letters dispute Hacker’s thesis—and three of the four are written by high school students! In fairness, one of the three is “looking to study mathematical biology at an Ivy League university.”
These students show no sign of understanding the problems Hacker is addressing. There is no reason why people so young should be aware of these societal problems—but these teen-agers aren't. These problems afflict kids who won’t be attending Ivy League colleges, who won’t be the kinds of “modern global citizens” one of the youngsters speaks of.
But leave it to the New York Times to respond to Hacker’s piece this way! Printing those letters, the Times plays it cute—and it sets the mental age of its readers squarely at 16 years.
Sophisticated readers would quit on this Dowdian paper a long time ago. And yet, the career liberal world won’t speak about the dumbness of this societal whale.
What has made these very bright people stay so remarkably silent? The silence of the liberal world feeds the dumbness of the Times, which just keeps conning its readers.
Tomorrow: The New York Times covers the race