Supplemental: Who in the world is Emma Brown?


Concerning the ongoing promulgation of our many fake facts:
Emma Brown is an education reporter for the Washington Post.

It’s hard to believe how bad an education reporter she is. And what about her unnamed editors? What role do they play in this mess?

We refer to Brown’s latest bungled news report. It stretches across the top of page B1 in today’s hard-copy Post—the first page in the paper’s Metro section.

This report helps answer an important question: Where do bogus facts come from? Headline included, this is the way Brown starts:
BROWN (2/28/15): Suburbs’ increasing poverty a challenge for schools

The District and dozens of other city centers across the country are becoming younger, more affluent and better educated while poverty rates in inner suburbs are rising, according to a study from the University of Virginia’s Weldon Cooper Center for Public Service.

The study is based on an analysis of demographic changes in 66 cities between 1990 and 2012. It follows research that has shown a rise in suburban poverty, including a recent Brookings Institution study that found that more Americans are living in poverty in the suburbs than in rural or urban areas.

This sweeping demographic shift has clear implications for public schools in the Washington area and nationwide. Student populations are changing in traditionally high-performing suburban school systems, and superintendents and school board members are wrestling with how to adequately serve the rising number of poor children who come to class with far more needs than their affluent peers.

“This is the new reality in America,” said Joshua P. Starr, the newly departed superintendent of the Montgomery County school system, which, despite its reputation as a tony suburb of the nation’s capital, has more low-income students than the District of Columbia. The amount eligible for free and reduced-price meals, a rough proxy for poverty, has risen from 29 percent to 35 percent just since 2009.
That passage strings together a bunch of claims, many of which may be accurate, at least on a technical basis.

Example: Does “the Montgomery County school system” actually have “more low-income students than the District of Columbia?”

Maybe! The Montgomery County Public Schools is one of the nation’s largest school systems. That said, the DC Public Schools reports that 76 percent of its students received free or reduced-price lunch last year.

According to the passage above, the corresponding number in Montgomery County is 35 percent. And according to our statistical bureau, that would be a whole lot “less” than 76 percent!

Whatever! We were mainly struck today by Brown’s continued insistence on a claim that is basically false—the claim that eligibility for free and reduced-price meals is “a rough proxy for poverty.”

At best, that claim is wildly misleading. More sensibly, it should be described as false.

That said, education reporters at the Post seem to adore this bogus claim. For reasons only they can explain, they just keep advancing this claim, along with a group of attendant false facts.

Let's take a look at the record:

Is eligibility for the federal lunch program “a rough proxy for poverty?” Yes it is, in much the way a solid C average is “a rough proxy” for being a straight-A student.

In fact, eligibility for the lunch program extends to families whose incomes are roughly twice the federal poverty rate. And by the way, participation in the program isn’t the same thing as eligibility:

The FBI isn’t called in to monitor this program! There are plenty of kids receiving free or reduced-price lunch who don’t actually qualify for the program, based on their actual family income.

No, Virginia, and Montgomery County! Students don’t have to be living below the poverty line to qualify for the federal lunch program.

Eligibility for the lunch program isn’t a measure of poverty; it isn't anything close. If 35 percent of Montgomery County students are receiving free or reduced-price lunch, then the poverty rate among those students is much lower than that.

There’s nothing confusing about these facts. Surely, everyone at the Washington Post secretly understands them.

But so what? A wide array of pseudo-journalists, mostly on the pseudo-left, are now pretending that participation in the lunch program is a measure of poverty. For unknown reasons, the Washington Post has been leading the way in the promulgation of this latest bogus fact.

For unknown reasons, the Post just won’t stop with this stupid shit. Brown’s incompetence is especially striking, given her academic background.

Brown graduated from Stanford in the year 2000. Two years later, she got an MAT in teaching from the University of Alaska.

In 2009, she got a master’s degree in journalism from Cal Berkeley. She’s been a reporter at the Post more than five years.

By the norms of the society, Brown has received an elite education. But so what? Today, Brown tells readers of the Post that eligibility for the federal lunch program is “a rough proxy for journalism.”

She never tells them just how rough this “proxy” actually is!

As the Post keeps pushing this formulation, it keeps spewing streams of ludicrous fake facts. This includes last month’s ludicrous claim that more than half the nation’s public school students are currently living in poverty.

That claim appeared on the Post’s front page.
Needless to say, it’s balls-out false. For our real-time report, click here.

Editors at the Washington Post keep waving this crap into print. It’s another example of the way fake facts become widely believed.

Can we talk? College students don’t describe their female professors as “bossy.” Also, participation in the federal lunch program isn’t a measure of poverty, “rough” or otherwise.

If memory serves, Tina Turner always “liked it rough.” So do scribes at the Washington Post when it comes to measures of poverty. In the past, bogus factual claims of this type typically came from the pseudo-right. Increasingly, they now come from the pseudo-left, a point we’ll discuss all next week.

Who the heck is Emma Brown? Why is she typing this manifest bullshit?

What role do her editors play in this mess? Does the Post still employ such workers?

WHO IS NICHOLAS KRISTOF: A Dimmesdale, perhaps a Gantry?


Part 4—Self-anointed, racially-nagging light unto the world:
Where do you start with a journalistic problem like Nicholas Kristof?

If memory serves, the problem started in earnest for us with his pimping of the latest feel-good tale about the achievement gap.

Here he was in 2007, stating his newest true belief. Upper-end scribes gain wisdom like this from attendance at too many TED Talks:
KRISTOF (5/1/07): The reality is that paper credentials can't predict who will be an effective teacher...

Yet teachers still vary tremendously in their effectiveness, as the Hamilton Project study found when it examined results in Los Angeles schools. It looked at the 25 percent of teachers who raised their students' test scores the most, and the 25 percent who raised students' scores the least. A student assigned to a class with a teacher in the top 25 percent could expect—after just one year—to be 10 percentile points higher than a similar student with a bottom-tier teacher.

''Moving up (or down) 10 percentile points in one year is a massive impact,'' the authors wrote. ''For some perspective, the black-white achievement gap nationally is roughly 34 percentile points. Therefore, if the effects were to accumulate, having a top-quartile teacher rather than a bottom-quartile teacher four years in a row would be enough to close the black-white test score gap.''
Over the past fifty years, we’ve learned to think poorly of people who toss off bromides like this—bromides which make it sound like it would be oh so easy to erase the achievement gap.

(Typically, these simple-minded stories have blamed the nation’s teachers. At one time, it was because the teachers were racist. Today, it’s because the teachers are selfish and lazy—though no one is lazier than the “journalists” who “analyze” schools in this way.)

Certain types of people never stop with these simple-sounding solutions. We have learned to think of these people as secret haters of children.

In this case, Kristof seemed to have no earthly idea of the many apparent problems with the happy talk he was selling. It just sounded so good!

Back in those days, Michelle Rhee was about to become the rage; Kristof would pimp her greatness. In truth, he didn’t seem to know what the heck he was talking about. But her story just sounded so good!

As of today, Kristof seems to be changing some of his stripes. He may even be sincere in his flips, though we never advise you to bet. Just last week, he said he has changed his mind about labor unions—at least about private labor unions—now that he has learned, at age 55, that corporate tycoons can sometimes be greedy too.

Even as he typed that ludicrous claim, he couldn’t stop bashing the teacher unions. But then, he seems to have little shame and few brains, a fact he made abundantly clear in last Sunday’s column.

Our advice: Whenever you feel inclined to assume that Kristof just has to be sharp, remember the way he got clowned by the latest meme on the web. In that exciting new tale, we were told that college students are inclined to describe their female professors as “bossy.”

It was a clown show of the highest order, but Kristof typed it right up. He presented this latest tribal bullroar under a typical headline:

“Straight Talk for White Men”

We’ll return to that race-nagging headline. But in this instance, our own Dimmesdale’s “straight talk” started with the latest piece of manifest world-class bullshit.

Try to keep that display in mind when your limbic brain starts insisting that Kristof, a former Rhodes scholar, simply has to be sharp. In fact, has anyone ever been conned more often than Kristof has?

He got conned by Greg Mortenson (Three Cups of Tea). He got conned by Somaly Mam.

In the wake of 9/11, someone conned him into writing a series of columns which suggested that Stephen Hatfill was responsible for the anthrax mailings which had the nation upset. Later, he devoted a column to his apology for this rather large error.

(Thanks to an indulgent judge, the Times got dismissed from the lawsuit.)

You could even say that Kristof got conned by Joseph Wilson—that he failed to see that Wilson’s findings on his trip to Niger didn’t refute the “sixteen words” President Bush had actually said. It sometimes can seem that Kristof gets conned a lot, although such things are hard to measure.

Last June, Slate’s Amanda Hess wrote a fascinating analysis piece concerning Kristof’s errors and the method which seems to produce them. We strongly recommend Hess’ piece. For a sensible-seeming response by Kristof, you can just click here.

Does Kristof bungle more often than others? We can’t exactly tell you. But in the past year, his error-strewn work has come to feature a racially-hectoring style. In our view, this politically stupid racial nagging takes his frequently bungled work all the way over the top.

That race-baiting often appears in the headlines which sit atop Kristof’s columns. For one example, consider this headline, which sat atop yesterday’s column about Israeli settlements:

“When Jews Just Don’t Get It”

Tell the truth. What good can come from a race-baiting headline like that?

Full disclosure—no such headline appeared atop yesterday’s column! The sure-footed Kristof would never create such an unfortunate banner.

But other columns repeatedly carry similar race-baiting headlines. Again, this is the headline which sat atop last Sunday’s embarrassing mess:

“Straight Talk for White Men”

On what meat does this egomaniac feed that he keeps churning headlines like that? What fuel drives our own Reverend Dimmesdale, who longs to lecture entire racial groups?

“Straight Talk for White Men,” our Dimmesdale proclaimed, thus anointing himself the great white father to a whole class of people. He borrowed the “straight talk” hook from McCain—and he’s often equally dumb.

Kristof’s performance as race scold has been underway for some time. A few months ago, he did five separate columns which bore this headline:

“When White People Just Don’t Get It”

What a headline! It involves the sanctimony and condescension which are guaranteed to thrill true believers and drive wedges everywhere else.

It’s very, very hard to believe that this represents a winning brand of politics. It does let our liberal tribe swell with pride as we offend and annoy everyone else, often through our own manifest dumbness.

Is Kristof the light unto the world? We’d have to say no, he is not.

His recent work has often been appallingly dumb. In closing, let’s return to the lack of feeling he seems able to muster for the children of the world.

A few weeks ago, Kristof wrote one the strangest columns we’ve ever seen in print. In this highly peculiar column, two highly unattractive traits staged a vivid duel.

On the one hand, Kristof displayed a stunning lack of feeling for two children who were abandoned by their father, one of his high school friends.

Kristof seemed unable to see the tragedy in the way these children had been abandoned. At the same time, he displayed an instant desire to scold wide segments of American society for being less morally fine than he, Nick Kristof, is.

Our own Dimmesdale was scolding conservatives hard, even as his own lack of feeling seemed to be on vivid display. Shortly thereafter, we came upon his puzzling conduct in Haiti as he filmed his infomercial-like PBS series, A Path Appears.

Here too, Kristof was confronted with a real child—and didn’t seem able to feel.

As it turned out, the story he told on the PBS show was a journalistic confection. But as we saw him drag a lovely child all over the Haitian countryside—as we saw him reduce her to piteous weeping—this great, race-nagging moral scold couldn’t even bring himself to tell us why this child was being subjected to all this apparently unneeded pain.

Our moral god didn’t seem to know that other people would wonder about the unexplained conduct they were observing! Put another way, he didn’t seem to know how to care, just as he hadn’t seemed to care about the abandoned sons of his wonderful high school friend.

Kristof works well on leafy terraces, swilling drinks with his movie star friends. Aside from that, we increasingly regard him as a bit of a fallen soul—as a person inclined to scold, distort, mislead and misstate, and to pretend to feel.

Should he possibly stay on those terraces with all those stars and leave the world’s children alone? We’re just asking the question!

Dimmesdale was a fallen person, although he may not have started that way.

Is Nicholas Kristof our own Reverend Dimmesdale? The other night, we had a dream in which college kids described him as “fake,” even as “a bit of a fraud.”

We don’t know what to make of that dream. It hasn’t quite gone away.

Strongly recommended: We strongly recommend Hess’ piece about Kristof’s reporting method. Early on, she quotes him telling some college kids about the way he works in the field:
HESS (6/18/14): [T]he forum’s moderator, Filipina investigative journalist Sheila Coronel, asked Kristof if he ever got depressed at the prospect of flying halfway around the world to hunt down another sad story.

“I’m sometimes embarrassed by how clinical I can become when I’m out reporting,” Kristof replied. When he arrived in Sudan that weekend, he said, “I’ll be out to find the most compelling story that I can within a limited time.” He predicted that he’d hear “some heartrending story about some 30-year-old man. And, frankly, I will know that I can do better as an anecdote. I want to get American readers to care about my story, and if I have some middle-aged man in my lede, they’re going to tune out.” Instead, Kristof would hold out for a more compelling subject, like “some 9-year-old girl with soulful eyes.”

Kristof feels lousy when he has to “cut somebody off and say, ‘It's terrible that you were shot in the leg,’ ” he said. “Meanwhile, I will go off and find someone who was shot in both legs.” But he does it because he knows that if he finds a compelling story abroad, Americans back home will line up to help. “I want to make people spill their coffee when they read the column,” he said. “I do want them to go and donate, volunteer, whatever it may be, to help chip away at some of these problems.”
That’s a dangerous way to work. When a fellow starts out that way, he might end up making a Haitian girl weep for his PBS cameras, then doctoring the real events of her life to give us a better story.

He might even type a sanctimonious headline, “Straight Talk for White Men.” Beneath it, he might hand his readers a pile of pure perfect world-class piddle.

Is this what our Dimmesdale has become? We’re not sure what to tell you.

Supplemental: The New York Times submits to his threat!


O’Reilly gets a pass:
Here at THE HOWLER, we have a bit of a cultural soft spot for Bill O’Reilly.

(Full disclosure. Years ago, we chatted with Bill on the phone. He called us, of course.)

That said, O’Reilly has made a number of statements down through the years about his journalistic service in the Falklands War. This conflict was fought between two actual nations (Great Britain and Argentina) on and around the Falkland Islands, pretty much way out at sea.

O’Reilly was never in the Falkland Islands, or anywhere close. As everyone agrees, he covered demonstrations about the war—demonstrations which occurred in Buenos Aires, a thousand miles away.

The British navy wasn’t present. Neither was Margaret Thatcher.

Despite these stubborn geographical facts, Bill has occasionally misstated the location of his service in the most elementary way. As recently as 2013, he said this on The Factor:
O’REILLY (4/17/13): I was in a situation one time, in a war zone in Argentina, in the Falklands, where my photographer got run down and then hit his head and was bleeding from the ear on the concrete. And the army was chasing us. I had to make a decision. And I dragged him off, you know, but at the same time, I'm looking around and trying to do my job, but I figure I had to get this guy out of there because that was more important.
Perhaps this was a slip of the tongue, but it was a basic misstatement. Mr. O was never “in the Falklands!”

(To watch tape of Mr. O making this statement, you can just click here.)

Bill was never “in the Falklands.” But uh-oh! In his 2001 book, The No-Spin Zone, O’Reilly said this:
O’REILLY (page 110): You know that I am not easily shocked. I've reported on the ground in active war zones from El Salvador to the Falklands.
O’Reilly wasn’t really in an “active war zone” when he was in Buenos Aires. But he certainly wasn’t in any such zone in “the Falklands,” an impression anyone would have gotten from reading that published statement.

O’Reilly has made other statements through the years which gave the impression that he was actually in the Falklands. But how strange!

The New York Times has now published two lengthy reports about this ongoing flap. But as the Times has sifted Bill’s comments, they’ve never noted that O’Reilly has sometimes directly said that he was “in the Falklands.”

Which he never was!

These Times reports have not been brief. On Tuesday, Emily Steel and Ravi Somaiya devoted 1267 words to the flap about O’Reilly’s alleged misstatements. This morning, Jonathan Mahler joined Steel for a report on the same topic which covered 1674 words.

That’s almost 3000 words in all! But in these reports, the Times has never noted the fact that O’Reilly has said, and directly implied, that he was physically present “in the Falklands.”

Instead, the Timesmen have piddled around with other alleged misstatements which are harder to parse. This morning, the Times even said this early on:
MAHLER AND STEEL (2/26/15): David Corn, one of the authors of the Mother Jones article and a former Fox News contributor, said he received the tip about Mr. O’Reilly the day after NBC News announced its suspension of Mr. Williams for six months without pay. According to Mr. Corn’s source, Mr. O’Reilly had repeatedly made false claims about his experience covering the Falklands war as a young CBS News correspondent.
“His experience covering the Falklands war?”

That lazy construction may give the impression that he actually performed that service. Arguably, that’s already a stretch!

According to Steel, O’Reilly dropped a T-bomb on her when they spoke on the phone this week. This is the way the incident was originally reported:
STEEL AND SOMAIYA (2/24/15): Mr. O'Reilly's efforts to refute the claims by Mother Jones and some former CBS News colleagues occurred both on the air and off on Monday. During a phone conversation, he told a reporter for The New York Times that there would be repercussions if he felt any of the reporter's coverage was inappropriate. ''I am coming after you with everything I have,'' Mr. O'Reilly said. ''You can take it as a threat.''
Full disclosure: Bill was much more polite to us when we spoke on the phone.

Mr. Bill dropped a threat on Steel. After reading the subsequent Times reports, our analysts came to us with tears in their eyes.

“At the New York Times, threats seem to work,” the youngsters sadly said.

Final point, with one army in flight: In today’s report, the Times has even toned down what Mr. O is said to have said to Steel on the phone. An unpleasant word has been softened:
MAHLER AND STEEL (2/26/15): In the days after the Mother Jones article was published, Mr. O’Reilly mounted an aggressive campaign against the article and its authors on Fox, and aired a video clip and an interview with a former NBC journalist that he said supported his version of events. He also threatened a New York Times reporter that he would come after her “with everything I have” if he deemed her reporting unfair. “I don’t want you to get hurt,” he said. “This is as serious as it gets.”
In today’s report, his actual quote with the T-bomb has been disappeared. Again, this suggests a possibility:

At the New York Times, T-bombs may actually work!

WHO IS NICHOLAS KRISTOF: How should college kids describe him?


Interlude—Kristof does Port-au-Prince:
We’ve been happy to spread the good news in our recent reports:

Despite what Nicholas Kristof wrote in last Sunday’s New York Times, college kids almost never describe their female professors as “bossy!” The term appears in their reviews of female professors less than once for every million words of text.

Kristof’s column was grossly misleading concerning ascriptions of “bossy!” On the brighter side, his slippery writing made us liberals feel tribally good. Increasingly, it seems like that’s what the nation’s pseudo-journalism is all about.

For the record, Kristof was actually right in one of the claims in that column. College students do use the word “genius” disproportionately in reviews of their male professors. By a ratio of almost four-to-one, they use that flattering term more often in reviews of the men.

That said, the same is true of the word “jerk,” a fact Kristof failed to mention. For the record, the disproportion is much higher in the use of that unflattering term—a term which college kids almost never apply to female professors.

Whatever! Once again, Kristof jumped on the latest tribal bandwagon in his latest bungled column. Misusing a tricky new research tool, he spread the latest false and/or misleading claims around.

With that in mind, what words should college kids possibly use in their descriptions of Kristof? Based on his frequently horrible columns, they won’t likely go with “genius.”

Should college kids possibly go with “creepy?” Increasingly, the unflattering term pops into our heads when we see Kristof touring the world with his female movie star friends, helping us learn to admire his vast moral goodness.

Should they possibly go with “slippery?” Should they go with “international spokesman for a big industry which can be problematic?” We’ll explain that last point below.

How about a counterintuitive word? Should college kids consider describing Kristof as “unfeeling?”

For us, the unflattering word came to mind as we watched the exalted Timesman doing Port-au-Prince. The same word had popped into our heads when we read this recent column by Kristof, one of the strangest columns we have ever encountered.

At this point, does Nicholas Kristof understand the look and the feel of his interactions with the world’s children? To answer that question, we must review a column which is now fourteen months old.

The column was called “A Girl’s Escape.” It appeared on January 2, 2014—fourteen months ago.

Early in that column, Kristof introduced a 13-year-old Haitian girl named Marilaine. As he did, he defined a new term, “restavek:”
KRISTOF (1/2/14): Marilaine was one of 200,000 or more Haitian children called restaveks, typically serving as unpaid maids in strangers' homes, working for room and board. It is a vast system of child trafficking that is often characterized as a modern form of slavery. I followed Marilaine for a week in Haiti as she tried to flee, find her parents and start life over—and this is her story.

Marilaine grew up in a remote village where no family planning or public schooling is available, one of 12 children to impoverished parents
who later separated. As Marilaine tells the story, one day when she was 10 years old, she walked to her father's house to ask him to help pay her school fees. Instead, he dispatched her here to the capital to work as a restavek, a Creole term used to describe child laborers, without even telling her mother.

''My father didn't want to spend money on my school fees,'' Marilaine explained.

As is common for restaveks, Marilaine slept on the floor and woke up at 5 each morning to clean the house, fetch water and wash dishes. She says she was beaten daily with electrical cords.
“[T]he restavek system isn't always slavery,” Kristof wrote. “Sometimes the child gets more food and education than would have been the case in her own family.”

In this case, “Marilaine says that she was fed properly and that she was also allowed to attend a free afternoon school,” Kristof wrote. But because she was being beaten, she tried to run away at one point.

Eventually, an international agency intervened. In this passage, Kristof told the rest of Marilaine’s story:
KRISTOF: An aid group called the Restavek Freedom Foundation helped Marilaine escape her home and find refuge in a safe house for restaveks. The mood was festive in the beautiful home as the dozen girls living there cheered Marilaine's arrival and hugged her.


A few days later, I drove for several hours with the police and the Restavek Freedom Foundation to Marilaine's village. When Marilaine stepped out of the car, family members and neighbors were stunned. They had assumed that she had died years ago.

Yet the reunion was a letdown. Marilaine's mom didn't seem at all thrilled to see her daughter again, and Marilaine quickly made it clear that she wanted to return to the safe house in the capital so that she could attend a good school. The police told Marilaine that she would have to stay in the village with her family, and she burst into tears.

The authorities will probably eventually let Marilaine return to the Restavek Freedom Foundation safe house,
but the episode was a reminder that helping people is a complex, uphill task—and that the underlying problem behind human trafficking is poverty.
Because Marilaine is an important person, this is an important story. Fourteen months ago, that’s the way Kristof told it.

When Kristof’s column appeared, Marilaine was back in her deeply impoverished rural village, a place without public schools. She hoped to return to Port-au-Prince “so that she could attend a good school.”

That’s the way the story was told in Kristof’s column, fourteen months ago. Earlier this month, these same events formed the basis for a thirty-minute segment in a three-part PBS series, A Path Appears.

The PBS series was hosted and narrated by Kristof; he starred in all its events. If you watched this PBS series, you saw the footage from the events he had described in that column.

Kristof is present in all the footage, accompanied by one of his endless posse of female movie star friends.

The PBS series showed you the footage from the events Kristof discussed in that column. But if you watched the PBS series, you saw a story which was quite different from the story he told in that piece.

On a purely journalistic basis, we’re surprised that PBS can get away with this sort of thing, or that it’s even willing to do so. How had the original story been changed?

In his column, Kristof said that Marilaine burst into tears when she was told, by the police, that she had to remain in her village. On the PBS show, you thought you saw Marilaine weeping because her mother had said that she couldn’t afford to keep her—in effect, because she couldn’t stay in the village.

In the column, we were told that Marilaine was forced to stay in the village. On the PBS show, you thought you saw Marilaine get into the Restavek Freedom Foundation’s big van and drive straight back to Port-au-Prince.

In the column, we were told that Marilaine had been cheered and hugged by a dozen girls on the night that she was freed from her abusive adoptive family.

On the PBS show, you saw her being welcomed and cheered as described. But you saw her being cheered that way after she'd been rejected by her mother—after the van ride back to Port-au-Prince, the van ride which didn’t occur.

According to Kristof’s original column, the story he showed us on PBS isn’t the story which actually happened. We’re surprised to think that PBS is willing to play it that way.

On a purely journalistic basis, we’re surprised that PBS is willing to do that. If Kristof’s original column was accurate, his PBS broadcast resembled “reality TV,” with basic events and chronologies changed to tell a better story.

PBS could almost sell the rejiggered footage to Bravo for airing as “Real Restaveks of Port-au-Prince!” But our problems with Kristof’s role on that PBS program go a bit deeper than that.

The presence of the movie stars is one “creepy” part of the problem. In the eight or nine segments on the three-part series, Kristof is accompanied by a different female star in each and every segment.

No male movie stars allowed! That said, Ronan Farrow was allowed to tag along with mom in Mia Farrow’s guest segment.

Should college kids call PBS “cynical” as they watch this unfold? Rather plainly, we’re being told that PBS viewers won’t watch a show about Haitian kids unless a female star is present on-screen to help them choke it down.

There is one “repulsive” scene in the Haiti segment where Kristof sits on a leafy terrace high above Port-au-Prince. He’s enjoying drinks with Alfre Woodward as they gaze, just a bit grandly, on the city below.

(Should college kids be wondering what the plane fare must have been to jet the two stars in? Should they wonder if the same amount of cash could perhaps have opened a school in that forgotten village?)

The presence of the movie stars is a somewhat “creepy” element. That said, we were actively troubled by other aspects of the Haiti segment, at least until we learned that the segment didn’t show us what actually happened.

In the segment on the PBS show, we see tears streaming down Marilaine’s face after she has been taken back to her village. We think she’s crying because her mother has told her she isn’t wanted.

According to Kristof’s column, that isn’t why Marilaine was crying. But as we watched the show, we were appalled, for these reasons:

Why in the world had this lovely child been exposed to this torment? Why hadn’t adults from the foundation gone to the village without Marilaine to determine whether her family was willing and able to take her back?

Kristof never explained. Instead, the camera kept playing on his face so viewers in PBS land could see how concerned he was.

We had another question. Were Kristof and the foundation really planning to take Marilaine back to the western world’s worst rural poverty and just leave her there?

On TV, we got to enjoy a happy ending! Marilaine returns to Port-au-Prince, where she is greeted by those cheering girls.

That said, we were puzzled as we watched the show. Had Kristof really planned to take Marilaine back to that village and leave her? Despite the happy ending we got, we were puzzled, left a bit sickened, by the whole presentation.

On the PBS program, Kristof seemed to be too “unfeeling” to explain the puzzling events we saw unfolding. And by the way:

What had the legal basis been for the events we saw unfolding? At no point did Kristof, or his move star friend, explain this basic matter. Instead, we got lots of footage designed to make us appreciate Kristof’s greatness, intercut with the movie star shots which set our hearts at ease.

Only when we read the earlier column did we realize that these events had not occurred in the manner shown on PBS. Beyond that, the column suggests that Haitian law and Haitian legal authorities were involved in these events, a matter that went unexplained on Kristof’s reality show.

Increasingly, we don’t think much of Kristof. Rather, we wonder if college kids should think that something may have gone a tiny bit “wrong” in his head.

As his PBS program aired and re-aired, we watched the Haiti segment several times, trying to figure out what we were seeing. When we stumbled upon his earlier column, we realized that we had seen a rejiggered reality show which reshaped basic events.

We wondered what kind of person could have produced that segment without seeing that the events, as shown, would be puzzling and upsetting to decent viewers. It reminded us of the “unfeeling” column Kristof had written a few weeks before, in which he couldn’t seem to understand the horror of a story he told about the abandoned children of one of his high school friends.

Is Nicholas Kristof “unfeeling?” We've heard that it can happen to people with too many movie star friends! This brings us to the overall framework for his PBS series.

Forgive us, but the series almost seemed like an advertisement for a major industry—an industy you might describe as the philanthropic industrial complex. It wasn't just the female stars who accompanied Kristof in every segment. At the very start of the series, George Clooney and other stars appeared, assuring us of the general greatness and worth of what we were going to see.

Forgive us for saying what follows, but we see a problem with that.

We will assume, until we’re shown different, that the Restavek Freedom Foundation is run by good decent people (in Cincinnati) who are doing good work in Haiti. That said, there is an ongoing question about the value of various programs run by various such entities—programs in which a lot of money (from PBS viewers, for instance) may be changing hands.

In his somewhat self-serving PBS show, Kristof almost struck us as a bit of a tool for his rich and famous and powerful friends. The program seemed a bit like an infomercial for a set of organizations which may also need the services of normal journalistic scrutiny.

Watching a rather “creepy” man sipping drinks with his movie star friend—watching the PBS cameras instruct us in his obvious moral greatness—we thought back to the very strange column he wrote about the children his high school friend had failed or refused to support.

In that peculiar column, Kristof seemed unable to empathize with the abandoned children of his high school friend, who he praised to the skies. He didn't seem able to understand the tragedy of those children.

On his PBS show, he seemed to display the same problem. We thought we heard college kids call him “lacking in empathy” as he dragged Marilaine all around the countryside with his latest movie star friend.

Increasingly, we’re wary of Kristof’s heavily-pimped moral greatness. Tomorrow, we’ll return to his recent columns.

We’ll explain why you should possibly be just a bit skeptical too.

Tomorrow: “When Israeli Jews Just Don’t Get It”

WHO IS NICHOLAS KRISTOF: An embarrassment and a hack?


Part 3—In support of The Raleigh 43:
Where do “journalists” like Nicholas Kristof acquire their various “facts?”

For those who find such questions intriguing, the former Rhodes scholar’s most recent column constitutes a fecund case study. Let’s examine a few more “facts” the pundit advanced in that piece.


Do college students disproportionately describe their female professors as “nasty?” If they do, does this represent a situation in which female professors must overcome a stereotypical “unconscious bias?”

Plainly, Kristof advanced both ideas in last Sunday’s column. These are the statements in question:

“[T]he evidence is overwhelming that unconscious bias remains widespread in ways that systematically benefit both whites and men...Female professors are disproportionately described as ‘nasty,’ ‘ugly,’ ‘bossy’ or ‘disorganized.’ ”

The first idea we cite above seems to be factually accurate, based on the new research tool to which Kristof linked in his column.

(To access that tool, click here.)

It’s true! When college students rate their professors at, the word “nasty” appears more often in reviews of female professors. This fact advances a notion which pleases Kristof, so he types it for his readers.

(Quite possibly, he draws on the work of a “research assistant” even more clueless than he is.)

It’s true! In their reviews at, college students use the word “nasty” more often in reviews of female professors, by a ratio of roughly two-to-one.

Kristof looks on their work and is pleased, so he puts this fact in his column. Here’s what his column didn’t tell you:

College students also use the word “pleasant” more often in reviews of female professors. In that case, the ratio is closer to three-to-one—and the word “pleasant” is used two to three times as often as “nasty.”

(Neither term is used especially often. The word “nasty” appears in reviews of female professors about ten times in each million words of text.)

Why did Kristof tell you this: “Female professors are disproportionately described as “nasty?” The most likely answer would seem to be fairly clear.

The notion that female professors are disproportionately described as “nasty” (and “bossy”) fits a pleasing preconception. For that reason, Kristof presented those facts.

He didn’t give you other facts—facts which would have made his picture cloudy:

He didn’t tell you that female professors are almost never described as “bossy” in those reviews. (The word appears less than once in every million words of text.)

He didn’t tell you that male professors seem to be described as “blowhards” substantially more often than that. (Tthough still not especially often.)

This part of Kristof’s most recent column should go straight to the Smithsonian. It’s one of the best examples we’ve ever seen of the way a certain type of “journalist” will pick and choose the facts you are allowed to encounter.

This doesn’t mean that female professors don’t confront punishing stereotypes which could even harm their careers. Consider where Kristof’s column went next, after he finished pretending to discuss the words These Kids Today use.

Are female professors damaged by stereotypes? In our view, it’s certainly possible. Kristof continued his typing:
KRISTOF (2/22/15): Consider a huge interactive exploration of 14 million reviews on that recently suggested that male professors are disproportionately likely to be described as a “star” or “genius.” Female professors are disproportionately described as “nasty,” “ugly,” “bossy” or “disorganized.”

One reaction from men was: Well, maybe women professors are more disorganized!

But researchers at North Carolina State conducted an experiment in which they asked students to rate teachers of an online course (the students never saw the teachers). To some of the students, a male teacher claimed to be female and vice versa.

When students were taking the class from someone they believed to be male, they rated the teacher more highly. The very same teacher, when believed to be female, was rated significantly lower.

In the highlighted passages, Kristof describes a troubling situation. Students were asked to rate teachers of an on-line course. Ratings for the very same teachers were higher or lower depending on whether the students thought the unobserved teacher in question was actually female or male.

Is that really the way the world works? We don’t doubt the possibility!

On the other hand, we clicked the link from Kristof’s column to that experiment at North Carolina State. When we did, we found it was based on a very small “N” and seemed to have other possible methodological problems.

Can we trust the findings derived from The Raleigh 43? Especially given that very small N, no serious person would regard this “experiment” as settled science. When an account of the experiment was posted at the official “NC State News” site to which Kristof linked, commenters responded as shown below.

There weren’t a lot of comments. We can’t vouch for the apparent gender of the commenters:
Jill says: December 9, 2014 at 1:37 pm
Oh please.

Jane says: December 9, 2014 at 5:58 pm
How on earth did this get published? The methodological errors in this are dreadful! Sample sizes of 8-12 students and 2 professors are woefully small, for starters...Then, why weren’t the professors blinded to the gender they were presenting to the students? How do we know they didn’t (even subconsciously) bias the results in their interactions? It’s poor science like this that lets the rest of us in sociology down, and makes us look like poor scientists when compared with our colleagues…

Dan says: December 27, 2014 at 5:57 pm
So true, Jane. Ridiculous that the professors were fully aware of their “perceived gender” in each scenario.

Rebecca says: December 9, 2014 at 6:02 pm
Do you have something substantive to say, Jill?

NAG says: February 23, 2015 at 1:06 am
It’s been said above by Jane. This is a terrible example of “scholarly” work.

James Driscoll says: December 10, 2014 at 9:33 am
Serious scientists at respectable institutions would be embarrassed if they published conclusions based on such a small sample size. Do your homework. Readers must feel that you got the result that you wanted, so you stopped. We try to teach students to wait and publish only what is statistically meaningful, and there are mathematical rules that define meaningful.

Real Scientist says: December 18, 2014 at 7:18 pm
Yikes if I have an N of less than 1000 for this kind of loosy goosy study, I would be embarrassed to talk about it. Woah!

Morgan Leigh says: December 10, 2014 at 5:36 pm
I agree that this study is way too small a sample size to be useful on its own. However it does raise the important issue of teaching assessment in universities. In my institution, student feedback is the only measure of teaching performance. Hiring and firing decisions are based on it...
We agree with the view expressed by one additional commenter. She said the troubling outcome of this experiment suggests a strong need for further study.

That said, further study will rarely be sought when high-minded scribes of a certain type assemble their ten-minute columns. Their research assistants span the globe, looking for studies which seem to support pre-selected conclusions. The pundits jam these studies and “experiments” into their piece, thus providing their target audience with a pleasurable reading experience.

No concern will be expressed about an N which many be strikingly small. Although many small studies can’t be replicated, no questions will be raised about this well-known problem.

Quite routinely, Nicholas Kristof stitches his columns together in these ways. He then appends a haughty headline, fleshed out with a condescending framework which has been designed to flatter his tribal readers while driving wedges everywhere else.

Liberal commenters rush to thank him for his high ideals and his magnificent work. In these and similar ways, bogus facts become known by all and international brands get established.

There’s a great deal more a person can say about The Columns of Kristof County. We often think back on the pandering columns he wrote about the role of great teachers in our public schools—columns in which he pandered to conservative experts about a set of concerns he seems to know nothing about.

In recent months, Kristof seems to be flipping on a range of issues—although even now, he can’t bring himself to stop sliming public school teachers through his comments about their infernal unions.

As he flips, he talks down to us, his liberal readers. And we his readers love it:

(Last week, he told us that he has just realized, at age 55, that corporate tycoons can be greedy too. We liberals are so eager to accept tribal flattery that we rushed into comments to praise him for this obvious pap.)

In our view, Kristof’s columns in recent months have bordered on the journalistically obscene. In fairness, Sunday’s column did provide a wonderful study on where our “facts” may come from.

That said, we’ve been trying to move ahead to a discussion of Kristof’s recent PBS series, A Path Appears. We were puzzled by various things we saw in the segment from Port-au-Prince.

On a purely journalistic basis, how in the world can PBS get away with the story it told?

Tomorrow: Puzzled, but also disgusted, by various things we saw

Where do “facts” come from: If you click the link Kristof provided, you’ll find the comments we posted above about that NC State “experiment.”

Sadly, you’ll also see this recent Pingback amid the comments:
Pingback: Students See Male Professors As Brilliant Geniuses, Female Professors As Bossy And Annoying—
Students see female professors as bossy! Thanks to the efforts of people like Kristof, this is becoming a “fact.”

Does reality “have a well-known liberal bias?” Steven Colbert offered that as a comment about phony pseudo-conservative claims.

Thanks to the efforts of people like Kristof, Brother Colbert’s comical world seems to be fading out fast.

WHO IS NICHOLAS KRISTOF: The Nike of pseudo-liberal journalism?


Part 2—Enabler and consort of hacks:
First question:

Do female professors sometimes confront unhelpful gender-based stereotypes?

Although we can’t really say that we know, we would assume that they do. We further assume that it’s the job of a serious journalist to clarify such matters.

Second question:

Do college students describe their female professors as “bossy” in their reviews at

Basically, no—they do not! Unless you’re reading Nicholas Kristof, who seems less and less like a serious journalist, more and more like a self-serving international brand.

In our view, Kristof is rapidly becoming the Nike of pseudo-liberal pseudo-journalism. We’ll guess that this process is good for Kristof, bad for everyone else.

More on that as the week proceeds. For now, let's return to that question:

Do college students describe their female professors as “bossy?” As we noted in yesterday’s report, that’s an impression Kristof peddled in his most recent column.

Rather plainly, he seemed to be cutting-and-pasting this pleasing impression—copying off the papers of other pseudo-journalists, including those who are many years younger than he is.

To read Kristof's column, click here.

Yesterday, we were happy to give you the news—college students almost never describe their female professors as “bossy!” According to the (problematic) research tool Kristof cited, the term appears less than once in every million words of text when students review their female professors.

Whatever they think about these professors, they don’t seem to think they’re “bossy!” Unless you’re reading Our Own Billy Sunday, or the many other hacks who have been pushing this pleasing new line.

As is becoming the norm, Kristof’s column this Sunday was full of poorly-examined claims and impressions. Tomorrow, we'll note another example. For today, let’s treat ourselves to a third question:

How bad can the hackistry get in the rapidly growing world of pseudo-liberal pseudo-journalism?

The hackistry can get very bad! Consider what happened when Professor Bartlett, a female professor, beat Kristof to the recent foolishness about

As we noted yesterday, the current foolishness got its start on or about February 6, with a hapless post on a New York Times blog. The copycats were soon out in force. By February 10, Professor Bartlett was checking in, at the new/improved site of the new New Republic.

Professor Bartlett is an associate professor in gender studies at the University of Western Australia. She too had been fiddling around with the (problematic) new research tool. This is part of what she had found:
BARTLETT (2/10/15): So we know what’s coming next. As this is a gender mapping, women professors are consistently more likely to be described as feisty, bossy, aggressive, shrill, condescending, rude. You get the picture. We are also ahead on that vanilla descriptor, nice.
Do female professors sometimes suffer from gender-based stereotypes? We would assume they do, although we can’t say we know.

In this instance, Professor Bartlett had been fiddling with the new research tool, and she had made some discoveries. Like the others who had preceded her, she said that female professors are “more likely to be described as bossy.”

Technically, that is accurate. Female professors are almost never described that way in the student reviews in question. But male professors seem to be described that way a tiny bit less often.

That said, Professor Bartlett forgot to tell you that this term is used in reviews of female professors less than one time in every million words of text. She also forgot to tell you this:

Male professors are much more likely than female professors to be described as “arrogant.” And this term is used about seventy times more often than “bossy” is!

Whatever! Reporting in from way down under, Professor Bartlett was on a roll. She seems to have tested a set of words which she finds stereotypically demeaning to women. She strung them out for us in that passage.

“You get the picture,” she said, and a lot of adepts presumably did. For ourselves, we got the picture of a pseudo-liberal hack who was making the liberal world dumber.

It’s true! The terms “feisty” and “shrill” are applied more often to female professors in the RateMyProfessor reviews. But the terms are almost never used in those student reviews.

Each term is used one time in roughly two million words of text! Female professors are almost never described in these ways.

Is the term “aggressive” disproportionately used in student reviews of women? Yes, it is. But the term is used almost as often in student reviews of male professors, and it appears less than five times in each million words of text.

(By the way, are “aggressive” and “feisty” necessarily terms of denigration? Not necessarily, no.)

The term “condescending” appears disproportionately in reviews of female professors; the margin is roughly 45 uses to 35 uses per million words of text. That said, the words “understanding” and “helpful” also appear more often in reviews of female professors, and those words are used many times more often than “condescending.”

Crackers, can we talk? The term “helpful” appears disproportionately in reviews of female professors. In those reviews, the flattering term appears about 1500 times per million words of text.

Although these data are problematic, college students seem to regard their female professors as helpful. But so what? Hacks like Bartlett prefer to zero in on terms which are almost never used by these students—words which help them paint a troubling, preconceived portrait.

It’s hard to avoid a basic conclusion here. Perhaps due to an unconscious bias, Professor Bartlett seemed to have her thumb on the scale as she penned her piece in the New Republic. She seemed to have hunted around, looking for words which would produce a preferred preconceived conclusion.

Was the professor picking and choosing her terms? This seems especially clear in her treatment of the dueling words “rude” and “nice.”

It’s true! The term “rude” is used more often in reviews of female professors. The term appears about 200 times per million words of text in reviews of female professors, only about 150 times per million words in reviews of their male counterparts.

Professor Bartlett wanted us to be upset about that. She then derided the fact that the word “nice” appears more often in students' reviews of their female professors.

The word “nice” appears roughly 1400 times per million words in reviews of female professors. The word “helpful” appears roughly 1500 times.

In each case, the words are used much more often than the word “rude.” In each case, the flattering terms appear more often in reviews of the female professors.

Professor Bartlett offers a derisive reaction to that fact. We’re supposed to get upset when female professors are described as “rude.” But when they’re disproportionately described as “helpful” or “nice,” we are supposed to roll our eyes.

“Nice” is such a tapioca term! A wag might even call it Vanilla Nice!

Can we talk? This research tool is highly problematic. It can tell us which words appear in the student reviews. It can provide rough ratios concerning the frequency with which the words are used in reviews of female professors, as opposed to the review of their male counterparts.

It can’t provide the contexts in which these words are used. The word “nice” can be used this way, for instance:

“Professor Jane Smith isn’t very nice to her students.”

Here’s an extremely significant point—this research tool is completely useless if partisans like Bartlett and Kristof completely ignore the frequency with which various words appear.

As the research tool makes clear, the term “bossy” is almost never used when students review their professors! But Bartlett blew right past this fact, as did the copy-cat Kristof.

In fact, we’ve seen no one make use of this type of information as a parade of pseudo-liberals have spread the latest gospel around. Here’s what happened instead:

Our tribunes created the latest horror story for pseudo-liberal consumption. They shrieked and yelled and tore their hair about the disproportionate use of words like “bossy” and “feisty.”

They failed to say that these words are almost never used in these student reviews. Meanwhile, they ignored an array of flattering terms which are disproportionately used in reviews of women—words which, in some cases, are used hundreds of times more often than the terms which have our tribunes upset.

In this way, we pseudo-liberals get even dumber and even more pseudo than we were before. Eventually, along comes Kristof! Rather plainly, he copied the work of his predecessors in this latest pseudo parade.

Increasingly, we think Kristof is an anti-journalistic joke. We see him as an international brand, as the founder of Kristof Inc.

Whatever he’s doing, it doesn’t much seem to be journalism. We’ll guess what he’s doing is good for him, bad for everyone else.

Tomorrow: Sipping drinks with a star on a sun-splashed terrace, Kristof does Port-au-Prince

WHO IS NICHOLAS KRISTOF: Lazy and possibly not super-honest?


Part 1—The latest cut-and-paste:
Consider it the latest chance to learn more about Nicholas Kristof—possibly to broaden our sense of who Nicholas Kristof is.

In yesterday’s New York Times,
the former Rhodes scholar was reciting some of the liberal world’s most familiar scripts.

We assume his basic claims are basically valid. That said, people like Kristof remind us of the need to demand evidence and proof, even for claims which may seem tribally obvious.

As often seems to be the case, Kristof’s column took maybe ten minutes to write. As usual, it sat beneath a headline which, through its exquisite condescension, was guaranteed to drive tribal wedges across the land.

Increasingly, Kristof is Our Own Mr. Collins. Midway through yesterday’s exercise in condescension, he offered this passage to show the way unconscious bias works against female professors:
KRISTOF (2/22/15): White men sometimes feel besieged and baffled by these suggestions of systematic advantage. When I wrote a series last year, “When Whites Just Don’t Get It,” the reaction from white men was often indignant: It’s an equal playing field now! Get off our case!

Yet the evidence is overwhelming that unconscious bias remains widespread in ways that systematically benefit both whites and men. So white men get a double dividend, a payoff from both racial and gender biases.

Consider a huge interactive exploration of 14 million reviews on that recently suggested that male professors are disproportionately likely to be described as a “star” or “genius.” Female professors are disproportionately described as “nasty,” “ugly,” “bossy” or “disorganized.”
Gack! When college students rate their professors, are female professors “disproportionately described” as “nasty,” as “ugly,” as “bossy?”

It seems that this may be the case. We’d exercise some caution, though, in part because of the limits of the investigative tool to which Kristof links in his column.

The interactive site to which Kristof links is able to tell us what words students used in their reviews of their professors. It isn’t able to provide or evaluate the context in which those words were used, a point which should be kept in mind when using the site.

Still and all, Kristof was telling us pseudo-liberals one of our favorite stories. Female professors are disproportionately described as “bossy?” Within our pseudo-liberal tents, we love it when that happens!

Here are a couple of things Kristof didn’t tell you:

First, the term “bossy” is almost never used in these student reviews. As you can see for yourself at the interactive site in question, the term was used in the student reviews of female professors about two times per million words of text!

We liberals are thrilled to hear that students are calling their female professors “bossy.” In fact, that very rarely happened in these student reviews.

(As best one can tell from the site, the term “bossy” was used in reviews of male professors about one time per million words of text. In fact, neither male nor female professors are being wisely denounced as “bossy.” The term is almost never used in the student reviews.)

Why would Kristof cite a term which was so rarely used? We’ll answer that question before we’re done. For now, let’s consider other unflattering terms which students used much more often.

Let’s consider these unflattering terms: Arrogant, pompous, conceited.

Good grief! According to the interactive tool, students used the term “arrogant” about one hundred times more often than Kristof’s featured term, “bossy.” And uh-oh! This unflattering term was disproportionately used in their reviews of their male professors.

“Arrogant” was used in reviews of male professors about two hundred times per million words of text. It was used in reviews of female professors about one-fourth as often.

“Pompous” and “conceited” seem to have been disproportionately applied to male professors too. “Pompous” was used in reviews of male professors about fifty times per million words. The term was used in reviews of female professors about one-fifth as often.

The students’ use of “arrogant” and “pompous” dwarfs their use of “bossy.” Why did Kristof speak about the one term but not about the others?

Presumably, the answer is clear to anyone breathing air. But in closing for today, let’s add a note about the way our lazier “journalists” copy off each other’s papers.

This new interactive tool hit the scene a few weeks ago. On February 6, Claire Cain Miller of the New York Times offered a ham-handed, sometimes mistaken summary under this headline:
“Is the Professor Bossy or Brilliant? Much Depends on Gender
Miller headlined the claim that students are calling their female professors “bossy.” She didn't note that the term is almost never used in the student reviews in question.

Miller was showcasing her own “unconscious biases” as much as those of the students in question. But she seemed to set the framework for subsequent, copycat pseudo-liberal discussion of this useful new site.

On February 9, ThinkProgress offered a copycat post under this headline while linking to Miller:
“Students See Male Professors As Brilliant Geniuses, Female Professors As Bossy And Annoying
The story was starting to spread. On February 9, Feministing went there too:
The kids are calling their female professors “bossy!” Before long, even Kristof, the mighty wind, was cutting and pasting the treasured new theme, pleasuring readers who praised his work in comments.

If you want to know what you’re talking about, that new interactive tool must be used with great caution. If you want to write a quickie column, you’ll use it as Kristof did.

Tomorrow, we’ll resume at this point. We’ll look at other parts of Kristof’s new column, whose basic premises may well be perfectly right.

But all this week, we will suggest that you might want to apply certain terms to this vaunted New York Times columnist. “Lazy” would be one such term. “Possibly a tad dishonest” would perhaps be another.

Who is Nicholas Kristof? Increasingly, we think he’s a bit of “a creep.” We're more than eager to explain our reasons.

But if Nicholas Kristof is a creep, he increasingly seems to be a creep of the One Percent. That's a point we’ll discuss all week.

Who the heck is Nicholas Kristof? If we want to understand our world, the time has come to ask.

Tomorrow: Back to “ugly,” looking ahead to “uncaring” and “cruel”

LESSONS UNLEARNED: The one misstatement a scribe can’t make!


Part 4—Even Brian can’t lie about war:
Was Pope John Paul II lucky enough to bless the young Brian Williams?

In last Sunday’s front-page report, the Washington Post included a rundown of Williams’ shifting stories about the Pope’s 1979 visit to Catholic University, where Williams was a student.

In its hard-copy editions, the Post provided this account of Williams’ shifting stories. On line, the material can all be found here:
Oct. 7, 1979: Pope John Paul II visits Catholic University

May 15, 2004: Williams tells graduates of Catholic University in a commencement speech that he recalls shaking Pope John Paul II's hand in front of the National Shrine of the Immaculate Conception.

April 6, 2005: After Pope John Paul II's death, Williams says in an NBC Q&A that he "chatted up a Secret Service agent" who told Williams where the Pope would be during his visit to Catholic University. Williams said he used that knowledge to position himself for a handshake, which led to the Pope blessing him.

Jan. 29, 2007: Williams tells Esquire that he met Pope John Paul II at Catholic University by positioning himself where he "just figured that's where [the Pope would] be stopping." He continues: "For me, it's like some force intervenes. Go forward. Meet that person. To this day, that force guides me. It's an emotional intelligence."
When he first told this story (in 2002), Williams didn’t mention actually meeting the Pope at all. As the years went by, his story expanded and deepened.

A handshake appeared, then became a papal blessing. Eventually, Williams marveled at the “emotional intelligence” he himself puts on display in creating such magical moments.

Is Brian Williams “a little bit nutty?” The weirdness of his many stories suggests that possibility. Apparently, though, these peculiar stories were A-OK at NBC News. The Post says these stories were written off as “Brian being Brian.”

According to the Post report, Williams’ colleagues knew that he tended to tell tall tales, but no one ever stopped him. Why didn’t the rest of the mainstream press corps ever speak up?

Why didn’t the press corps speak? For starters, consider the reporting skills the Post displayed in another part of its report.

In the following passage, the Post discusses Williams’ claims about his desperate search for food during Hurricane Katrina. Ten reporters worked on this Post’s report. Their performance here is weak:
ROIG-FRANZIA (2/15/15): In Williams’s telling, the pathos of the scene extended to his crew’s access to food. “We were desperate for food and drink. But not like the people we were seeing in the streets,” he said in the documentary “In His Own Words: Brian Williams on Hurricane Katrina.”

“I remember seeing a box of Slim Jims and thinking, ‘That’s better than any restaurant meal right now. That’s the greatest thing I’ve ever seen,’ ” he said.

However, there was abundant food at the Ritz-Carlton, according to [hotel manager Myra] DeGersdorff. The hotel was stocked for a fully booked weekend, and it set out buffet breakfasts, lunches and dinners each day.

Later, after the NBC crew left the hotel, the network set up a compound with about two dozen RVs and had “food being trucked in from Houston,” said a producer who worked with Williams during the storm.
That passage makes it sound like Williams always had plenty of food. That said, the Post’s chronology seems to be weak and uncertain.

DeGersdorff seems to be talking about the weekend before the storm, which hit on a Sunday night/Monday morning. We aren’t told if the Ritz-Carlton had adequate food after that.

We also aren’t told when NBC News left the Ritz-Carlton. Let’s assume that producer is right—that food was trucked in from Houston at some point.

Might there still have been some days when Williams faced a shortage of food? Despite the efforts of ten reporters, the chronology is unclear.

The skills displayed by our mainstream press are often less than impressive. This problem is put on display at the very start of the Post report, when the Post repeats one of Williams’ oldest tales, then vouches for the story as “real” in the absence of any real evidence.

Other basic problems appear in other parts of the Post report. And the Post completely skipped some apparent whoppers by Williams, most strikingly his peculiar claims about ridin’ with Seal Team Six and then receiving their gratitude and their gifts.

The Washington Post’s skill level was less than perfect here. That said, it’s the moral laziness of the press which most stands out in this remarkable tale. Let’s consider a striking part of the Post report, where we learn about the one type of misstatement a newsman, even a famous newsman, isn’t allowed to make.

Williams had told a lot of tall tales down through the years:

He had told tall tales about himself, many of which were highly peculiar.

Earlier on, during Campaign 2000, he had offered a wide array of bizarre reports about the loathsome Candidate Gore. In fairness, the entire “press corps” was playing that game, so his conduct didn’t stand out.

Within the mainstream press corps, it was A-OK when Williams “embellished” about the vile Candidate Gore. It was A-OK when he and Russert staged history’s strangest presidential debate in October 2007, directing a remarkable tandem assault at Candidate Clinton.

It was fine when Williams “embellished,” often crazily, about his own life and career.

That said, there was one type of lie even Williams wasn’t permitted tell. In this passage, an unnamed “NBC journalist” defines that one type of misstatement:
ROIG-FRANZIA: “That’s Brian being Brian” became the newsroom shorthand.

“Brian’s not a liar,” said an “NBC Nightly News” journalist, who spoke on the condition of anonymity because network management has strongly discouraged staffers from speaking publicly about Williams. “He’s a guy who gets caught up in the story. He’s a great storyteller. But sometimes storytellers embellish. But you don’t embellish about getting hit by an RPG.”
You can embellish about a White House campaign. You can talk ridiculous smack about a major candidate.

You can embellish about the Pope. You can tell a crazy story about Vienna sausages.

You can embellish about your own life and career just as much as you want. But according to this NBC colleague, you simply aren’t allowed to embellish about events in a war zone!

It’s the one lie a newsman can’t tell! The late David Carr described the same disgraceful ethical standard in this, his final column for the New York Times:
CARR (2/9/15): [I]f you are going to tell a war story that sprints past the truth, it best not be about war. Those of us who worked the Hurricane Katrina coverage rolled our eyes at some of the stories Mr. Williams told of the mayhem there, but it was a dark, confusing place and a lot of bad stuff happened, so who were we to judge? But armed service and its perils are seen as sacred and must not be trifled with. The soldiers who ended up in harm’s way and survived that day are calling him out because their moral code requires it.
In that remarkable passage, Carr seemed to say what the Post later seemed to say:

Many people inside the press corps knew that Williams was telling tall tales. He just couldn’t lie about war, David Carr seemed to say.

We’ll say this for Carr and for that NBC journalist—they were describing the world of the press corps as it really exists.

Williams and major NBC colleagues dissembled, embellished and misstated at will all through the years which led to that war. In Williams’ case, they endlessly broadcast absurd complaints about one candidate’s clothes.

But once they got us into that war, their guild’s one ethical rule obtained—a journalist isn’t allowed to lie in a way which steals the glory of war. When Brian Williams was seen to do that, his house of cards came down.

On this basis, these hideous people proceed along with our “national discourse.” That discourse is almost wholly faux. It tends to be narrative all the way down.

There’s little they say that’s actually true. Williams, who seems to be basically nuts, finally broke their one rule.

Supplemental: Will the real Kristof please stand up!


Like Brian Williams, a brand:
Once again, we find ourselves puzzled by Nicholas Kristof’s latest column.

It appears in this morning’s New York Times. The column starts like this:
KRISTOF (2/19/15): Like many Americans, I’ve been wary of labor unions.

Full-time union stagehands at Carnegie Hall earning more than $400,000 a year? A union hailing its defense of a New York teacher who smelled of alcohol and passed out in class, with even the principal unable to rouse her? A police union in New York City that has a tantrum and goes on virtual strike?

More broadly, I disdained unions as bringing corruption, nepotism and rigid work rules to the labor market, impeding the economic growth that ultimately makes a country strong.

I was wrong.
All through the column, Kristof says he’s been wrong, oh so wrong, about unions—at least about private sector unions.

What a guy! Here’s how the column ends:
KRISTOF: Lawrence F. Katz, a Harvard labor economist, raises concerns about some aspects of public-sector unions, but he says that in the private sector (where only 7 percent of workers are now unionized): “I think we’ve gone too far in de-unionization.”

He’s right. This isn’t something you often hear a columnist say, but I’ll say it again: I was wrong. At least in the private sector, we should strengthen unions, not try to eviscerate them.
In comments, the usual suspects rushed to praise his honesty and his courage. We had a different reaction to the puzzling fellow’s latest puzzling column.

Kristof is 55 years old. He went to Harvard, then to Oxford as a Rhodes Scholar. For all those reasons, we think this part of his column is rather hard to believe:
KRISTOF: I’ve also changed my mind because, in recent years, the worst abuses by far haven’t been in the union shop but in the corporate suite. One of the things you learn as a journalist is that when there’s no accountability, we humans are capable of tremendous avarice and venality. That’s true of union bosses—and of corporate tycoons. Unions, even flawed ones, can provide checks and balances for flawed corporations.
Really? Until he was 55, Nicholas Kristof hadn’t learned that “we humans are capable of tremendous avarice and venality”—and that that was even true of corporate tycoons?

We’re sorry, but we don’t believe that. It’s hard for us to avoid the suspicion that Kristof is semi-dissembling a tad.

In recent weeks, we’ve been repulsed by some of Kristof’s work. We’re still trying to decipher the Haiti segment from his PBS program, A Path Appears—a segment which seems to have been journalistically false and rather cruel to boot.

As we’ve watched this puzzling man seem to reinvent himself, we’ve often thought of Brian Williams. This is why we say that:

Williams was always more than an anchor. He was also a major brand—in effect, a corporation.

It seems he did a lot of embellishing in support of that brand. We’ve been getting a similar sense from Kristof’s recent work.

Kristof is a major international brand. In theory, he and his wife, Sheryl WuDunn, support everything good and decent. But his work is getting sloppy and strange.

Quite often, his work doesn’t quite seem to make sense. We don’t trust Nicholas Kristof.

We’ll plan to return to this topic next week. That said, is Nicholas Kristof a journalist? Or is he a Williams-type brand?

Typical recent Kristof: As Kristof starts his latest column, he offers a jibe about “union stagehands at Carnegie Hall earning more than $400,000 a year.”

That’s a lot of money. That said, we wonder if Kristof understood that he wasn’t discussing salary alone—that the figure he cited included all compensation for those employees, including retirement and benefits.

According to NPR, the five stagehands he was discussing did not earn $400,000 per year, not in the way Kristof’s readers probably thought he meant. Beyond that, they averaged 60 hours of work per week, according to the New York Times.

Increasingly, Kristof’s work seems sloppy and strange. Maybe he’s simply over-extended. Do you believe he recently learned that corporate tycoons can be greedy?

We don’t believe that. Increasingly, we get a strange vibe from the work of this major brand.

LESSONS UNLEARNED: Your Vienna sausages or your life!


Interlude—Stenographers to the stars:
Jack Benny’s trademark joke is one of the greatest in show business history.

The joke was performed in 1948, on Benny's radio program. To hear it performed, click here.

“Your money or your life,” a mugger says.

The famous old skin-flight fails to respond—and the audience laughs for the first time.

The mugger makes his demand again. Exasperated, Benny says this:

“I’m thinking it over!”

That famous joke shows how much humor can be derived from comic persona alone. We thought of that joke when we read one part of Howard Kurtz’s 2007 book, Reality Show: Inside the Last Great Television News War.

Kurtz described the process by which the three networks changed their long-standing news anchors over the course of a couple of years—the period when Brokaw, Rather and Jennings gave way to Williams, Couric and Sawyer.

By 2007, Brian Williams was the top-rated of these new anchors. Possibly for that reason, Kurtz fluffed him the most.

Kurtz panders and fawns about Williams right from page one of his book. As we’ll show you below, he repeats an endless series of stories designed to demonstrate Williams’ astonishing everydayness—the stories Williams himself loved to tell, presumably to market himself to the middle-American viewers who had made him number one.

Throughout this truly ridiculous book, Williams is cleaning sump pumps, doing laundry, draining the pasta and shopping at Target. He loves NASCAR as no one has ever done.

He’s “a former volunteer fireman,” we’re told in the book’s second paragraph—and quite a few times after that.

Kurtz was still at the Washington Post when he wrote Reality Show. The undisguised foolishness of this book helps us see the way major journalists were willing to fluff the guild’s biggest stars by this point in time.

A great deal of nonsense resides in this book; much of it involves Williams. We thought of Jack Benny’s trademark joke when Kurtz described the hard times this everyday man encountered during Hurricane Katrina.

In the past few weeks, many questions have been raised about the stories Williams has told about his experiences in New Orleans during that epic disaster. In this passage, Kurtz was willing to include at least one truly ridiculous tale:
KURTZ (page 171): He had spent that first night in the Superdome, with no power and no air flow, when it had turned into a squalid and dangerous hellhole for the thousands of hungry and desperate people who sought refuge inside. He had slipped and hit his head on the Astroturf and seen that the roof was starting to leak. He had gotten out the next day and then watched the city drown as the levees broke. He had seen the dead bodies and the women clutching their babies and the people scrounging to stay alive. He had watched the unbelievable scenes of looting. He had asked the state troopers to cover him and his crew ad they left in a car, carrying can of Vienna sausage that he planned to offer in exchange for his life if someone tried to steal the car.
Let’s avert our gaze from the highly implausible claim that Williams “slipped and hit his head on the Astroturf,” thereby “see[ing] that the roof was starting to leak.”

Let’s avert our gaze from that. Instead, let’s focus on the claim that the anchor was planning to trade his sausages for his life.

Can anyone discern the logic in the highlighted tale Kurtz typed? According to Kurtz, Williams feared that some roving gang might steal his car and kill him during the widespread post-Katrina disorder.

Result? Skillfully, he brought along some Vienna sausages which he would trade for life!

What exactly are we missing in this improbable story? If hoodlums were willing to shoot Williams dead in order to steal his car, isn’t it likely that they would be willing to steal the sausages too? This story, though comical, makes little sense. But Howard Kurtz, a very bright man, apparently typed it as told.

Brian William was going to trade his sausages for his life! The story seems absurd on its face, but Williams was a huge star at this time. Therein resided a problem.

Alas! As the Washington Post reported this Sunday, Williams’ colleagues at NBC News knew that he tended to make stories up—but they played along with his tales.

“That’s Brian being Brian,” the Post says they said. All through Reality Show, Kurtz seems to play the same game.

Your Vienna sausages or your life! That story just strikes us as funny. But in other major passages, Kurtz was willing to help this very rich man construct an image of vast everydayness, following an NBC tradition established by the late Tim Russert.

How vast was Williams’ vast everydayness? In the treatment offered by Kurtz, it was extremely vast. Example:

It’s December 2, 2004 as the following passage takes place. Williams has just taken over for Tom Brokaw in the NBC News anchor chair. Kurtz is playing the role of full-blown celebrity courtier:
KURTZ (pages 38-39): Williams brought a very different background and sensibility to the job. He was forty-five years old with a wife, two teenage children, a dog and a rabbit. He lived in the Connecticut farmhouse in New Canaan where [his wife] had grown up. He was a big NASCAR racin
g buff who took his son to the Speedway on Saturday nights and drove on a dirt track during vacations in Montana, where he owned a half-interest in a local team. Williams had asked to meet Dale Earnhardt at one NASCAR event, and they started lunching together at 21 and traveling together to races across the South. Earnhardt left a voice-mail message for Williams in early 2001, shortly before he was killed in a car crash…

Williams was determined to infuse the broadcast with the values that reflected his life experience. As a guy who went shopping with his family at Target, he wanted more coverage of small-town America and the problems facing parents in everyday life.
Except as an act of PR, that’s a somewhat peculiar passage. It paints Williams as an average-guy father of two, a man of vast everydayness.

According to Kurtz, Williams loved NASCAR and shopped at Target. He was living in the same farmhouse where his wife grew up!

Williams wanted his nightly news show to provide “more coverage of small-town America and the problems facing parents in everyday life.” He was “determined to infuse the broadcast with the values that reflected his life experience.”

Kurtz was being a bit selective in his description of that life experience. In the course of his book’s many portraits of Williams, he omitted some basic facts about the life of the Target shopper whose children had that pet rabbit.

As of December 2004, was Williams living in “small-town America?” Not exactly, no.

Kurtz didn’t note that New Canaan, where Williams lived, was the nation’s eighth-wealthiest community. He didn’t say that the farmhouse in which the anchor was living had been handed down from in-laws who were well-connected in the TV industry, in a way Williams had once described (for details, see postscript).

As of December 2004, Williams was reportedly being paid $8 million per year. Kurtz omitted this fact as he fashioned this portrait of his small-town Target shopper.

During the age of Russert, NBC News worked hard to build this type of image around its major stars. Later in Reality Show, Kurtz went to work with the image again, telling us how Williams felt about Katie Couric, his newly-appointed wealthy celebrity rival:
KURTZ (page 265): It wasn’t that Williams was jealous of her fame, her huge salary, of the enormous wave of publicity surrounding her ascension. But Williams and others at NBC believed that Katie was in something of a bubble, living a wealthy celebrity lifestyle that set her apart from her viewers.

What was central to Williams’ conception of himself was that he was the down-to-earth journalist, the NASCAR fan, the onetime volunteer fireman, the guy who shopped at Price Club and watched American Idol. One recent Sunday his in-laws’ basement in Connecticut flooded and he spent four hours cleaning the gunk out of their sump pump. He was not above grunt work, either at home or in the news room, where he insisted on writing every word of his own copy.
Poor guy! Once he returned from his day at Price Club, he had to write all his own copy!

Once again, Williams’ salary went unmentioned here. We were only told that the Price Club shopper didn’t resent Couric’s huge salary—although it seemed he did disapprove of her “wealthy celebrity lifestyle.”

Reality Show is comical throughout. The story of the Vienna sausages provides perhaps its most ludicrous moment. But especially in its profiles of Williams, Kurtz’s book rewards the reader again and again.

Jack Benny posed as a skinflint; it was all done in fun. For many years, Williams has posed as an everyday man—as “a college dropout who had spent years knocking around local television,” to cite the thumbnail Kurtz offers on the fourth page of his book, and many times thereafter.

Benny was joking; Williams was not. At NBC News, they knew he was lying, but they eschewed that rough term.

Tomorrow: The one kind of lie you can’t tell

Inside the Connecticut farmhouse: There’s nothing “wrong” with having in-laws who are well connected. There’s nothing wrong with getting career help from an industry titan.

It seems to us that there was something wrong in Kurtz’s treatment of the humble Connecticut farmhouse where Brian Williams was living. Way back when, a much younger Williams had described a fuller truth in an interview with Ellen Edwards of the Washington Post.

NBC News had just hired Williams away from WCBS-TV in New York. As part of his first major national profile, Williams described some help he said he got:
EDWARDS (8/18/93): [Williams’ wife] had grown up in New Canaan, Conn., where the two now live with their two children. And her family was friendly with the Salants, as in Richard Salant, former head of CBS News.

"He adopted me as a science project," says Williams. He grew close to Salant, having occasional talks at his house, and he credits him with building his journalistic foundation.
At Salant's memorial service in February, among all the famous-name CBS eulogizers was Williams.

CBS anchor Connie Chung, an admirer and friend, says Williams developed a measured approach because of his exposure to Salant "by osmosis. ... I've always thought he would go right to the top," she says.

"I have a real, I think, good internal ethics meter regarding things," he says. "I should preface that by saying CBS was a good place to be brought up because the teaching there, the standards manuals there are extraordinary, much of that the work of Richard Salant."
Williams’ father-in-law, Hudson Stoddard, was a major figure at New York PBS. Richard Salant was head of CBS News for almost twenty years, extending through 1979. After being forced to retire by CBS company rules, he served as vice chairman at NBC News through 1983.

When Williams married the farmer’s daughter, did Richard Salant really adopt him as a science project? We don’t have the slightest idea. Through the work of courtiers like Kurtz, this departure from everydayness has disappeared from Williams’ “life experience.”

This is the way your “press corps” works. Once they return from lunching with Earnhardt, it’s narrative all the way down!

Supplemental: What we the liberals turned out to be like!


Belief in evolution, the number of children in poverty:
Starting in the 1980s, talk radio became a way for conservatives to show the world that they may not always be exceptionally sharp.

Alas! We liberals now make the same demonstration through our comment threads. And at our fiery liberal sites—and through the pronouncements of our liberal leaders.

Two current examples:

At the fiery new Salon, this headline appears above a new piece by Digby:
“GOP still party of stupid: Scott Walker, Fox News and why 2016 hopefuls must appease wing-nut base on evolution”
Is the GOP “still the party of stupid” thanks to its “wing-nut base?” In fairness to Digby, she didn’t write the headline.

That said, we the liberals love to batter the GOP base for being so freaking stupid. As a general matter, we think that’s a dumb way to do politics. But quite often, we liberals are too dumb to see the problem with using belief in evolution as one of our measuring sticks.

It’s true! Among major demographic groups, white Evangelical Protestants seem to have the lowest rate of belief in evolution. See this survey by Pew.

White Evangelical Protestants seem to have the lowest rate of belief in evolution. This is the white-bread/redneck gang we love to deride as dumb.

That said, do you know which group comes next in the “don’t believe in evolution” race? That’s right—black Protestants! And they aren’t super far behind the group we white pseudo-liberals love to deride for being such stupid wing-nuts.

If you’re hoping for a liberal resurgence, the new Salon will crush your soul from morning to late at night. Also, letters to the editor from some of our liberal leaders.

Yesterday, the New York Times printed several letters about the merits and demerits of standardized testing. In her letter, Randi Weingarten, head of the AFT, actually offered this:
WEINGARTEN (2/17/15): Half of public school students live in poverty. More than 30 states fund public education below pre-recession levels. We need to level the playing field and ensure that all kids have equal access to things like computers, smaller class sizes, nurses and counselors—even when their communities can’t afford them.
“Half of public school students live in poverty?” According to the Census Bureau, the official number of children in poverty is more like twenty percent. Simply put, Weingarten’s claim is dumb. You can’t get there from here.

(Although we liberals are increasingly willing to try.)

At one time, the ginning up of silly statistics was a hallmark of the pseudo-right. In recent years, we the liberals have found ourselves walking that same silly road.

We’re building a set of silly statistics which 1) our intellectual leaders know to be bogus and 2) average people won’t be inclined to believe. But we seem to love to throw them around. Our sad songs make us feel good!

It’s depressing to see someone like Weingarten playing a game as foolish as this. For years, we liberals were asleep in the woods. More and more, it’s come to seem like those were the good old days.

Providing a second opinion: For an overview from The National Center for Children in Poverty (Columbia University), just click here.

Children and public school students are two different groups, or course. But here's their statement as of 2013:

“More than 16 million children in the United States—22% of all children—live in families with incomes below the federal poverty level.”

Twenty-two percent seems like a daunting number to us! What’s wrong with our pseudo-liberal souls that has us longing for the chance to say it’s fifty percent?