Why our fascination continues: The Michelle Rhee story neatly captures the way our discourse works.
Rhee rose to prominence trailing a story which was, on its face, almost surely absurd. But journalists didn’t question or challenge her tale as she rose to national prominence. They didn’t even try to examine that study—the study which now seems to reveal her foundational claims as a joke.
For years, the “press corps” drifted along, helping Rhee tell her grand tale.
Increasingly, this is the way our national discourse works. In one area after another, our national discourse is really a novel—a novel the press corps agrees to repeat in service to billionaire preferences.
That said, let’s be clear on why this matters in the case of Rhee:
It’s isn’t so much a matter of “character,” or even a matter of basic competence. (Would you want someone to run a school district if she believed the ludicrous tales Rhee has repeated for years?)
Instead, there have been two major societal consequences to the pimping of Rhee’s glory tale:
First, there has been an educational consequence. There’s no need for serious education reform if you believe such miracle tales. Low-income children deserve intervention from the earliest years of their lives. They also deserve to go to schools with careful, well-designed instructional programs—programs carefully designed for kids who may be years behind traditional grade level. But why bother planning piffle like that if you believe Rhee’s miracle tales? It’s so simple! You just wait till the children are in the third grade! At that time, you give them a teacher from Cornell and watch all the flowers bloom!
A serious search for real reform is undermined by Rhee’s glory tale.
The second major societal consequence involves Rhee’s endlessly noxious message about teachers and teachers unions.
We’re sure that such unions have been wrong many times, as almost everyone else has been. Beyond that, we would agree that some of Rhee’s basic ideas make perfect sense; if some teacher can’t or won’t teach, he shouldn’t keep his job for the next forty years. But few people have aimed so much venom at teachers and their infernal unions as Rhee has done in the past few years. Rhee is weirdly unbalanced—unhinged—on such matters. She has helped advance a noxious attitude about unions in general, a message which extends well beyond the narrow educational focus.
(“Liberals” have stood by and stared, of course. The lives of black children are boring.)
Simple story: You simply can’t run a modern nation on the basis of ludicrous tales. Increasingly, though, that’s how our discourse works. You’ll rarely see a more fascinating example.
Al Gore never said he invented the Internet—and Rhee never churned those miracle test scores. In each case, the “press corps” agreed to pretend.
You can’t run a nation that way.
A BIT TOO KIND TO DIONNE (permalink): Steve Benen is a bit too kind to the Washington Post’s E. J. Dionne.
On Monday, Dionne wrote a piece in the Washington Post which made some accurate points. Digby said Dionne was “half right” (click here). By contrast, Benen fell all over himself praising Dionne’s acute wisdom.
Steve is too kind to Dionne—and a bit too hard on himself. Note the way Steve’s own post began—the post in which he would soon shower praise on Dionne:
BENEN (2/21/11): During the hour-long episode of "Meet the Press" yesterday, there was exactly one reference to the U.S. unemployment rate, uttered by former Michigan Gov. Jennifer Granholm (D). The word "spending" was used 40 times.
The very first sentence of the broadcast was host David Gregory telling viewers, "The battle to rein in government is shaping up to be the major fight not only of this year, but of the 2012 campaign."
There was no discussion of how, exactly, this became "the major fight," only that the political establishment has decreed it to be. If you thought economic growth and job creation was at the center of the policy discussion in Washington, I'm afraid your attitudes are so 2010.
Right out of the gate, Benen named the name of a major player in the establishment press corps. He seemed to criticize that major player for his narrow, crabbed issue focus. But that’s exactly what didn’t happen when Dionne wrote his halfway-accurate column. E. J. spoke in wide-ranging terms about the nation’s broken debate. And of course, he blamed the Tea Party for all the nation’s current problems, including that crabbed issue focus.
He didn’t blame high-ranking colleagues like Gregory. It was the Tea Party’s fault.
Everything is the Tea Party’s fault, if you believe Dionne’s column. By the end of his piece, he was making a valid observation about some of Washington’s major political players. But for us, this passage made us think of the other places Dionne had refused to go:
DIONNE (2/21/11): More striking is the Tea Party's influence on Washington's political elite, which looks down at the more extreme men and women of the right when they appear on Fox News but ends up carrying their water.
Lori Montgomery reported in The Post last week that a bipartisan group of senators thinks a sensible deficit reduction package would involve lifting the Social Security retirement age to 69 and reforming taxes, purportedly to raise revenue, in a way that would cut the top income tax rate for the wealthy from 35 percent to 29 percent.
Only a body dominated by millionaires could define "shared sacrifice" as telling nurses' aides and coal miners they have to work until age 69 while sharply cutting tax rates on wealthy people. I see why conservative Republicans like this. I honestly don't get why Democrats—"the party of the people," I've heard—would come near such an idea.
Even here, Dionne doesn’t name any names—but he criticized major Dems for the apparent focus of ongoing budget talks. Only a gang of millionaires would think this way, he complains, perhaps correctly. But how strange! While blaming the Tea Party for even this matter, Dionne says he can’t imagine why Democrats would “come near” such a narrow agenda.
Does anyone really believe that? Right in that same paragraph, Dionne had already suggested one possible explanation for such conduct by Dems. Many Big Democrats are themselves millionaires; they may share the narrow class focus of other such lucky duckies. But beyond that, many Big Democrats are funded by corporate and billionaire interests; this could explain this issue focus, and this isn’t the Tea Party’s doing. Nor is this reported focus especially new, even for Democrats. There is no obvious reason to blame the Tea Party for the conduct of these Dems—other than the desire to pander to liberal readers.
That was the part of his piece where Dionne discussed the political class. Earlier, though, he had discussed his own journalisticclass—and no names were mentioned there either. In the following passage, he describes a long-standing focus of his own class, while blaming the TP again:
DIONNE: You haven't seen a lot of news stories describing the impact of long-term unemployment on people's lives or the difficulty working-class kids are encountering if they want to go to college.
You hear a lot about how much the government spends on the elderly but not much about facts such as this one, courtesy of a report last fall from the Employee Benefit Research Institute: People over 75 "were more likely than other age groups—including children under 18—to live on incomes equal to or less than 200 percent of poverty."
Any analysis of the economic struggles many elderly people endure would get in the way of the "greedy geezer" storyline being spun to justify big cuts in Medicare benefits and Social Security.
Thanks to the Tea Party, we are now told that all our problems will be solved by cutting government programs. Thus the House Republicans' budget bill passed Saturday. They foresee nirvana if we simply reduce our spending on Head Start, Pell grants for college access, teen pregnancy prevention, clean-water programs, K-12 education and a host of other areas.
In this pandering column, everything seems to be the Tea Party’s fault or doing! But Dionne’s own journalistic class has long advanced the agenda he describes in that passage—and the most influential of them are all multimillionaires too! In the spring of 2000, for example, all elements of the high pundit class sided with Candidate Bush over Candidate Gore about the desirability of privatizing part of Social Security; the National Journal attributed this striking consensus to the wealth of the High Pundit Class. And of course, the late Tim Russert preceded Gregory as host of Meet the Press; he built a substantial chunk of his massive career around factually-bungled, billionaire-friendly claims concerning the need to cut Social Security. At the time, Russert’s employer and mentor was the conservative, near-billionaire mogul, GE CEO Jack Welch.
Dionne has never said a word about these decades-old preferences and alliances. There’s little chance that he ever will.
(Since Dionne himself mentioned the problem, Russert became a multimillionaire during his press corps career. This little cottage on Nantucket served as his summer house.)
In our view, Dionne was largely hustling us liberal rubes with this column, while protecting his own comfy place in DC’s inner circle. Everything is the Tea Party’s fault, he said, over and over again—as he described familiar old conduct from his own high class.
Dionne is a regular guest on Meet the Press; Gregory’s name will not pass his lips. It’s a basic rule of Washington journalism: You’re allowed to be right on the issues, as Dionne is. But you mustn’t discuss your own class.