Oct 1 2007


Time Reporter’s Genius Fails Him

You can’t expect much from a story about undervaluing intelligence that starts by noting that a 14-year-old girl “has the looks of a South American model.” Time‘s “Are We Failing Our Geniuses?” lives down to that beginning, with reporter John Cloud (best known for his defense of Ann Coulter–Time, 6/9/06) offering a polemic on how America is spending too much on the wrong kids. Noting that schools spend $8 billion on the mentally disabled vs. a “generous calculation” of $800 million on gifted programs, he writes, “It can’t make sense to spend 10 times as much to try to bring low-achieving students to mere proficiency as we do to nurture those with the greatest potential.” Cloud’s estimate grossly underestimates the resources devoted to high-achieving students–is he aware that Harvard has a $35 billion endowment?–but the big picture he’s missing is that you might need to devote more resources to people who are harder to teach. Cloud does provide evidence that his own genius was undernurtured when he bungles an arithmetic problem, writing that “a 160-IQ kid trying to learn at the pace of average, 100-IQ kids is akin to an average girl trying to learn at the pace of a retarded girl with an IQ of 40.” He’s trying and failing to do a ratio here; actually, 160 is to 100 as 100 is to (roughly) 63.

Faster, Deadlier, Not as Sexy

An August 27 USA Today front-page story, “Faster, Deadlier Pilotless Plane Bound for Afghanistan,” epitomized the weapons fetishization school of military coverage. The article reported that a new remote-controlled drone–evocatively named the Reaper–will soon be dropping bombs on Afghanistan, and promised that this will “help stop the stubborn Taliban insurgency in Afghanistan.” An article less dominated by military sources might have pointed out that the U.S. and its allies are now killing more civilians in Afghanistan than the Taliban (AP, 6/24/07), and that this death toll, attributed largely to U.S. airstrikes, is threatening to increase support for the insurgency (Reuters, 7/5/07). A tool that makes it easier to kill people from a distance might not be seen as an unalloyed blessing–but not in an article that ends with an Air Force trainer lamenting that running a drone isn’t as “sexy” as piloting an F-16.

Headline Whodunit

Two headlines, same day’s New York Times (8/25/07):

“In Air Attack, U.S. Soldiers Kill 18 Gunmen”

“U.S. Bomb Dropped; 3 British Soldiers Die”

Note the confidence with which the first headline reports the Pentagon’s claims that the dozen and a half people killed with helicopter gunships in a northern Baghdad neighborhood were all “gunmen.” This confidence disappears in the second headline, in which the passive voice–and a semicolon–separates the U.S. bomb (let alone whoever dropped it) from the consequences of its action.

Accepting Bush’s Fantasy History

Given an advanced look at a new book profiling George W. Bush, the New York Times‘ Jim Rutenberg (9/2/07) uncritically quotes Bush’s delusional analysis of the Iraq War: “Bush… suggest[ed] that the United Nations emboldened [Saddam Hussein] by failing to follow up on an initial resolution demanding that Iraq disarm…. ‘I was hopeful that diplomacy would work.'” It’s far from clear what Hussein could have done differently had he been less “emboldened”: His government had issued the report called for by the U.N. resolution saying that Iraq had destroyed all its banned weaponry, and he had allowed inspectors into the country to verify this accurate claim. Bush’s assertion about his diplomatic hopes is belied by the available evidence, notably the Downing Street Memos that have him committed to military action by July 2002 (Extra!, 7=8/05). Rutenberg’s only comment following Bush’s bizarre and deceptive claims–that diplomacy “did not” work–seems to accept this fantasy version of history as fact.

exposé Poseur

Washington Post reporter Robin Wright’s article (8/9/07) on the growing fervor in Washington for an attack on Iran–or what she called “a new drumbeat for bolder action”–cited one hawkish source after another, but failed to include any opposing voices. When the Think Progress website, in a post written by former FAIR intern Igor Volsky (8/9/07), chided the Post for providing “a platform for discredited neocon pundits” with no opposing views, Wright heatedly responded that she was “merely trying to identify the people, institutions and arguments for more aggressive action against Iran,” since “the press is constantly coming under attack for not identifying early enough the arguments made for going to war with Iraq.” Actually, though, the media in 2002-03 endlessly laid out the arguments for invading Iraq; it’s the arguments against military action that went unheard–as they were again in Wright’s article.

Say Anything

Josh Marshall was surprised to see his Talking Points Memo website included in a short list of partisan, amateur, unjournalistic blogs in an op-ed by journalism professor Michael Skube (L.A. Times, 8/19/07)–surprised because TPM is a blog with a restrained tone, a staff of paid reporters and a track record of original investigative journalism. When contacted by Marshall (TPM, 8/19/07), Skube responded: “I did not refer to you in the original. Your name was inserted late by an editor who perhaps thought I needed to cite more examples.” Skube’s op-ed contrasted the blogosphere–described as “a potpourri of opinion and little more”–with the “thorough fact-checking and verification and, most of all, perseverance” exhibited by mainstream media. Those qualities seem to be in short supply on the L.A. Times op-ed page.