Commentary Magazine


Topic: Department of Education

Yale Should Stand Up to Feds and Stop Babying Students

Yale University and its sister universities have grown increasingly paternalistic over time, infantilizing their student body and saddling them with increasing regulation. Litigiousness has led the university to take the concept of in loco parentis to an extreme. Few universities any more allow the faculty to create policies. Just as university presidents have become fundraisers rather than intellectual leaders, university policies are now crafted in rapidly expanding general counsel shops. Lost is both a culture of accountability that allows students to fail or that hold students responsible for their own stupidity and also a culture that prizes individual freedom and liberty.

A little encouragement from the federal government can be a dangerous thing: A bit over a year ago, some fraternity pledges shouted silly things in front of Yale’s Women’s Center. Their words were stupid, but so too was the Yale Women’s Center’s response which, in effect, sought to criminalize speech—a truly noxious concept at any university. The Women’s Center’s response surprised no one: For decades, the group has marginalized itself by conflating women’s issues with leftism and then staking out positions which even many progressives would find extreme.

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Yale University and its sister universities have grown increasingly paternalistic over time, infantilizing their student body and saddling them with increasing regulation. Litigiousness has led the university to take the concept of in loco parentis to an extreme. Few universities any more allow the faculty to create policies. Just as university presidents have become fundraisers rather than intellectual leaders, university policies are now crafted in rapidly expanding general counsel shops. Lost is both a culture of accountability that allows students to fail or that hold students responsible for their own stupidity and also a culture that prizes individual freedom and liberty.

A little encouragement from the federal government can be a dangerous thing: A bit over a year ago, some fraternity pledges shouted silly things in front of Yale’s Women’s Center. Their words were stupid, but so too was the Yale Women’s Center’s response which, in effect, sought to criminalize speech—a truly noxious concept at any university. The Women’s Center’s response surprised no one: For decades, the group has marginalized itself by conflating women’s issues with leftism and then staking out positions which even many progressives would find extreme.

The University sought to take a middle line—reprimanding the students but also reminding everyone that “the results of free expression are to the general benefit in the long run, however unpleasant they may appear at the time.”

Enter the U.S. Department of Education, which a year ago announced that it would investigate the University for creating a “hostile sexual environment” based on the university’s “inadequate” response to the frat pledges’ chants. In response, Yale University panicked. It has since doubled down on its infantilization of students, instituting ever more workshops about consent and communicating with people of the other sex. Mind you, the target audience for these workshops is adults. The university also sought to increase its control of campus culture by more strictly regulating student groups. To register, group leaders would have to submit themselves to further workshops. Now, Yale is going from the sublime to the ridiculous, as the administration considers a policy which would forbid freshmen from attending off-campus fraternity-sponsored events during their first semester.

Now, when I was an undergraduate at Yale back in the early 1990s, fraternities were not my thing, although I did go to a few fraternity parties here and there. Many friends, however, were in fraternities, and despite university administrators’ Animal House, Revenge of the Nerds, or Old School fantasies, they focused more on mentoring, community service, and networking. Yale prided itself on attracting students with varied interests, and if some wanted to make fraternities an outlet of their extracurricular time, so be it.

It’s bad enough that Yale administrators seek to so closely regulate student speech and activities on campus, but the idea that they would now try to regulate what students can and cannot do off-campus is deeply troubling: Simply put, it is not the university’s job and it certainly is not the U.S. Department of Education’s job. That a federal department which at most, should administer grants and at least, should not even exist, can bully universities in pursuit of its own social engineering goals is deeply troubling. That university administrators refuse to stand up and fight back is even more so.

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The Peter Panization of a Generation

The Department of Education, one of the nation’s leading student loan lenders, is getting serious about collecting on $67 billion in defaulted loans. Yesterday, Bloomberg News reported the mob-like lengths the government agency is going to in order to cash in:

The debt collector on the other end of the phone gave Oswaldo Campos an ultimatum:

Pay $219 a month toward his more than $20,000 in defaulted student loans, or Pioneer Credit Recovery, a contractor with the U.S. Education Department, would confiscate his pay. Campos, disabled from liver disease, makes about $20,000 a year.

“We’re not playing here,” Campos recalled the collector telling him in December. “You’re dealing with the federal government. You have no other options.”

Campos agreed to have the money deducted each month from his bank account, even though federal student-loan rules would let him pay less and become eligible for a plan — approved by Congress and touted by President Barack Obama — requiring him to lay out about $50 a month. To satisfy Pioneer, Campos borrowed from friends, cut meat from his diet and stopped buying gas to drive his 82-year-old mother to doctor’s visits for her Parkinson’s Disease.

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The Department of Education, one of the nation’s leading student loan lenders, is getting serious about collecting on $67 billion in defaulted loans. Yesterday, Bloomberg News reported the mob-like lengths the government agency is going to in order to cash in:

The debt collector on the other end of the phone gave Oswaldo Campos an ultimatum:

Pay $219 a month toward his more than $20,000 in defaulted student loans, or Pioneer Credit Recovery, a contractor with the U.S. Education Department, would confiscate his pay. Campos, disabled from liver disease, makes about $20,000 a year.

“We’re not playing here,” Campos recalled the collector telling him in December. “You’re dealing with the federal government. You have no other options.”

Campos agreed to have the money deducted each month from his bank account, even though federal student-loan rules would let him pay less and become eligible for a plan — approved by Congress and touted by President Barack Obama — requiring him to lay out about $50 a month. To satisfy Pioneer, Campos borrowed from friends, cut meat from his diet and stopped buying gas to drive his 82-year-old mother to doctor’s visits for her Parkinson’s Disease.

The average student graduating with a bachelor’s degree comes away with over $25,000 in loans, which would require a monthly repayment of more than $200 for at least ten years. If the average is more than $25,000 — however — there is a large group of students who are walking away with significantly more, especially if they have then gone on to complete a post-graduate degree.

I’ve heard it argued that the student loan bubble burst will be bigger than the housing burst — the debt is held by a large proportion of one age bracket of the population, unlike a home cannot be sold (even at a loss), and unlike other debt is virtually impossible to be rid of, even after filing for bankruptcy. This year, the amount of debt held by America’s students will surpass the debt held by all of America’s credit card holders, while the rate of borrowing continues to increase for student loans at a faster rate than for any other kind of debt.

Instead of putting a stop to the extension of credit, the Obama administration has continued to allow the Department of Education to blindly loan tens of thousands of dollars to America’s students without so much as a notice informing borrowers how much their monthly payments will be upon graduation. After they are unable to pay it back, the Department of Education farms out the collection to private agencies who will stop at nothing to collect. Another solution, limiting the amount of debt offered to 18-year-olds, has seemingly never been considered as an option.

A new Pew Research Center survey found that almost 30 percent of people between 25 and 34 are living at home — and they are actually okay with the arrangement. The Pew study also showed the numbers of multigenerational households in the United States is at its highest level since the 1950s.

An entire generation of Americans is now reliant on their parents much later in life than any previous generation. Under ObamaCare, Americans can expect to be on their parents’ insurance plans until the age of 26, and they can also expect to be still living at home, putting off marriage until the average age of 27.

President Obama has fought to keep adults on their parents’ healthcare plans long after they should have moved out, gotten married, and started independent lives. He is trapping a generation (which he has narcissistically dubbed Gen44 after his presidency) in a cycle of personal debt, preventing them from being able to survive when the weight of the national debt comes crashing down. When the bell does start to toll on our historic debt burden, turning Washington, D.C., into Athens, don’t expect Gen44 to do anything but lead riots from their parents’ basements.

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RE: Krugman in High Dudgeon

John, one of the biggest problems with federal pay scales is that there is no differentiation in pay between federal departments. A GS 15 with a B.A. in education at the Department of Education will make the same pay as a GS 15 supervisory aerospace engineer at NASA. In the private sector, we realize that people in some fields make more — much more — than those in others. But not so in government. Instead, we underpay government employees in highly technical, sought-after fields and overpay them in others.

But the real problem with the federal workforce is job security. It is nearly impossible to fire someone after his probationary period is over. Most federal managers deal with problem employees by moving them into jobs where they can do little harm — even if it means promoting them. When I was the director of the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights during the Reagan era, I managed to fire one employee (he had been accused of stealing money from the agency, repeatedly). And I had to go through a lengthy formal appeals and arbitration process that took nearly a year. Until federal workers can be fired for poor performance, we will continue to have a bloated federal workforce.

John, one of the biggest problems with federal pay scales is that there is no differentiation in pay between federal departments. A GS 15 with a B.A. in education at the Department of Education will make the same pay as a GS 15 supervisory aerospace engineer at NASA. In the private sector, we realize that people in some fields make more — much more — than those in others. But not so in government. Instead, we underpay government employees in highly technical, sought-after fields and overpay them in others.

But the real problem with the federal workforce is job security. It is nearly impossible to fire someone after his probationary period is over. Most federal managers deal with problem employees by moving them into jobs where they can do little harm — even if it means promoting them. When I was the director of the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights during the Reagan era, I managed to fire one employee (he had been accused of stealing money from the agency, repeatedly). And I had to go through a lengthy formal appeals and arbitration process that took nearly a year. Until federal workers can be fired for poor performance, we will continue to have a bloated federal workforce.

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Anti-Semitism Can Be a Civil Rights Violation After All

In the September 2010 issue of COMMENTARY, Kenneth Marcus documented the rise of anti-Semitic incidents on school campuses and found that the federal government had adopted a hands-off policy:

[I]t has finally become clear that the current policy of the office charged with enforcing civil rights at American universities involves treating anti-Jewish bias as being unworthy of attention—a state of affairs in stark contrast to the agency’s quite justified alacrity in responding to virtually every other possible case of discrimination. While one cannot identify the motive for this astonishing double standard with complete certainty, the justification for it involves an unwillingness to treat Jews as a distinct group beyond considerations of  religious adherence.

That situation, thanks to Ken and other advocates, including the Zionist Organization of America, has now been remedied. In an October 26 letter, Russlynn Ali, assistant secretary for civil rights in the U.S. Department of Education, set forth detailed guidelines on school harassment. In this section, the government reverses itself on its previous indifference to anti-Semitic incidents. Ali provides a hypothetical situation in which  a “junior high school received reports of several incidents of anti-Semitic conduct at the school. Anti-Semitic graffiti, including swastikas, was scrawled on the stalls of the school bathroom.” The conduct included “two ninth-graders trying to force two seventh-graders to give them money. The ninth-graders told the seventh-graders, ‘You Jews have all of the money, give us some.’ … At the same school, a group of eighth-grade students repeatedly called a Jewish student ‘Drew the dirty Jew.'”

The Education Department analyzed the case this way:

The school administrators failed to recognize that anti-Semitic harassment can trigger responsibilities under Title VI. …

Because the school failed to recognize that the incidents created a hostile environment, it addressed each only in isolation, and therefore failed to take prompt and effective steps reasonably calculated to end the harassment and prevent its recurrence. In addition to disciplining the perpetrators, remedial steps could have included counseling the perpetrators about the hurtful effect of their conduct, publicly labeling the incidents as anti-Semitic, reaffirming the school’s policy against discrimination, and publicizing the means by which students may report harassment. …

The problem of anti-Semitism on campuses is growing. Perhaps this development will spur school administrators to re-examine their curious double standard when it comes to anti-Jewish incidents.

In the September 2010 issue of COMMENTARY, Kenneth Marcus documented the rise of anti-Semitic incidents on school campuses and found that the federal government had adopted a hands-off policy:

[I]t has finally become clear that the current policy of the office charged with enforcing civil rights at American universities involves treating anti-Jewish bias as being unworthy of attention—a state of affairs in stark contrast to the agency’s quite justified alacrity in responding to virtually every other possible case of discrimination. While one cannot identify the motive for this astonishing double standard with complete certainty, the justification for it involves an unwillingness to treat Jews as a distinct group beyond considerations of  religious adherence.

That situation, thanks to Ken and other advocates, including the Zionist Organization of America, has now been remedied. In an October 26 letter, Russlynn Ali, assistant secretary for civil rights in the U.S. Department of Education, set forth detailed guidelines on school harassment. In this section, the government reverses itself on its previous indifference to anti-Semitic incidents. Ali provides a hypothetical situation in which  a “junior high school received reports of several incidents of anti-Semitic conduct at the school. Anti-Semitic graffiti, including swastikas, was scrawled on the stalls of the school bathroom.” The conduct included “two ninth-graders trying to force two seventh-graders to give them money. The ninth-graders told the seventh-graders, ‘You Jews have all of the money, give us some.’ … At the same school, a group of eighth-grade students repeatedly called a Jewish student ‘Drew the dirty Jew.'”

The Education Department analyzed the case this way:

The school administrators failed to recognize that anti-Semitic harassment can trigger responsibilities under Title VI. …

Because the school failed to recognize that the incidents created a hostile environment, it addressed each only in isolation, and therefore failed to take prompt and effective steps reasonably calculated to end the harassment and prevent its recurrence. In addition to disciplining the perpetrators, remedial steps could have included counseling the perpetrators about the hurtful effect of their conduct, publicly labeling the incidents as anti-Semitic, reaffirming the school’s policy against discrimination, and publicizing the means by which students may report harassment. …

The problem of anti-Semitism on campuses is growing. Perhaps this development will spur school administrators to re-examine their curious double standard when it comes to anti-Jewish incidents.

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The Tea Party’s Challenge

There is a lot of chatter these days about the effect of the Tea Party movement on American politics. In the short term, the answer is blindingly obvious: It’s a huge boost for Republicans. The energy and enthusiasm the Tea Party movement is generating will work for GOP candidates and against Democratic candidates in almost every race in the country. Democrats are on course to be administered an epic defeat, one that will exceed, perhaps by a sizeable margin, even the one they experienced in 1994.

What the longer-term effects of the Tea Party will be on the GOP and the country is harder to know. The Tea Party is, at this stage in its development, much more of a protest movement than a governing philosophy. There is plenty of talk about “constitutional conservatism” — an encouraging impulse that seeks to ground political efforts in the American tradition — but what that means in practice isn’t always clear. To the extent that we can discern what the fuel is behind the Tea Party movement, it has to do with bringing the deficit and debt under control and checking the size, role, and reach of the federal government.

That is, I think, all for the better. But the Tea Party’s passions need to be channeled in constructive ways, beyond simply electoral politics. It eventually needs to become a force in how we govern the nation. And in this respect, work still remains to be done.

Candidates will tell you that at town-hall meetings Tea Party activists aim their fire against the Department of Education, earmarks, bailouts, and congressional salaries. That’s fine as far as it goes; President Obama increased nondefense discretionary spending by 10 percent for the last half of fiscal year 2009 and another 12 percent for fiscal year 2010. That certainly can be trimmed back. But we all know that the solution to our fiscal crisis can only be found in reforming and cutting entitlements. And here the picture begins to blur a bit.

Take as an example Christine O’Donnell, who is now the toast of many Tea Party supporters and conservatives from coast to coast. Much of her support is based on understandable unhappiness with the man she defeated, Mike Castle. But what do we really know about O’Donnell’s governing philosophy? Well, one thing we do know is that she ran an ad late in the campaign against Castle claiming this: “Keeping ObamaCare and cuts in Medicare: Castle for it, O’Donnell against it.”

The first part of that equation is fine; it’s the second part — the one about cuts in Medicare — that troubles me.

Today an estimated 47.4 million people are enrolled in Medicare, up by 38 percent from 1990. And by 2030, the number is projected to be 80.4 million. And as Representative Paul Ryan points out in “A Roadmap for America ’s Future,” Medicare has an unfunded liability — the excess of projected spending in its programs over the amount of revenue currently estimated to be available for them — of $38 trillion over the next 75 years. In just the next 5 years, by 2014, Medicare’s unfunded liability is projected to grow to $52 trillion. And when Social Security and Medicare are taken together, the total unfunded liability in the next five years will grow to $57 trillion.

Yet when asked in a poll question, “Overall, do you think the benefits from government programs such as Social Security and Medicare are worth the costs of those programs for taxpayers, or are they not worth the costs?” 62 percent of Tea Party respondents answered “worth it” while only 33 percent answered “not worth it.” This won’t do.

Authentic political leadership means confronting the facts as they are, explaining to people the magnitude of the fiscal problems we face, and showing the wisdom and skill to build a political coalition that will begin the hard work of going after weak claims and not just weak clients, to use David Stockman’s formulation.

It won’t be easy. Cutting the deficit and the debt is undemanding and effortless in the abstract; it gets a good deal harder when you begin to talk about raising the retirement age, progressive indexing (meaning linking the initial Social Security benefits of high- and middle-income earners to prices rather than to wages, as is currently the case), and gradually and thoughtfully transitioning toward a means-tested system of benefits in place of the current Social Security and Medicare systems.

Yet this is what the times demand of our political class — and, frankly, it is what the times demand of the citizenry itself. The American people cannot will the end without willing the means to the end. The Tea Party can play a useful and constructive role in all this, I think; but that means it has to be serious about governing, not just spouting vague slogans embracing easy cuts, “constitutional conservatism,” and reciting the failures and evils of “big government.”

In that sense, my concern isn’t that the Tea Party is too conservative; it is that it’s not conservative enough.

There is a lot of chatter these days about the effect of the Tea Party movement on American politics. In the short term, the answer is blindingly obvious: It’s a huge boost for Republicans. The energy and enthusiasm the Tea Party movement is generating will work for GOP candidates and against Democratic candidates in almost every race in the country. Democrats are on course to be administered an epic defeat, one that will exceed, perhaps by a sizeable margin, even the one they experienced in 1994.

What the longer-term effects of the Tea Party will be on the GOP and the country is harder to know. The Tea Party is, at this stage in its development, much more of a protest movement than a governing philosophy. There is plenty of talk about “constitutional conservatism” — an encouraging impulse that seeks to ground political efforts in the American tradition — but what that means in practice isn’t always clear. To the extent that we can discern what the fuel is behind the Tea Party movement, it has to do with bringing the deficit and debt under control and checking the size, role, and reach of the federal government.

That is, I think, all for the better. But the Tea Party’s passions need to be channeled in constructive ways, beyond simply electoral politics. It eventually needs to become a force in how we govern the nation. And in this respect, work still remains to be done.

Candidates will tell you that at town-hall meetings Tea Party activists aim their fire against the Department of Education, earmarks, bailouts, and congressional salaries. That’s fine as far as it goes; President Obama increased nondefense discretionary spending by 10 percent for the last half of fiscal year 2009 and another 12 percent for fiscal year 2010. That certainly can be trimmed back. But we all know that the solution to our fiscal crisis can only be found in reforming and cutting entitlements. And here the picture begins to blur a bit.

Take as an example Christine O’Donnell, who is now the toast of many Tea Party supporters and conservatives from coast to coast. Much of her support is based on understandable unhappiness with the man she defeated, Mike Castle. But what do we really know about O’Donnell’s governing philosophy? Well, one thing we do know is that she ran an ad late in the campaign against Castle claiming this: “Keeping ObamaCare and cuts in Medicare: Castle for it, O’Donnell against it.”

The first part of that equation is fine; it’s the second part — the one about cuts in Medicare — that troubles me.

Today an estimated 47.4 million people are enrolled in Medicare, up by 38 percent from 1990. And by 2030, the number is projected to be 80.4 million. And as Representative Paul Ryan points out in “A Roadmap for America ’s Future,” Medicare has an unfunded liability — the excess of projected spending in its programs over the amount of revenue currently estimated to be available for them — of $38 trillion over the next 75 years. In just the next 5 years, by 2014, Medicare’s unfunded liability is projected to grow to $52 trillion. And when Social Security and Medicare are taken together, the total unfunded liability in the next five years will grow to $57 trillion.

Yet when asked in a poll question, “Overall, do you think the benefits from government programs such as Social Security and Medicare are worth the costs of those programs for taxpayers, or are they not worth the costs?” 62 percent of Tea Party respondents answered “worth it” while only 33 percent answered “not worth it.” This won’t do.

Authentic political leadership means confronting the facts as they are, explaining to people the magnitude of the fiscal problems we face, and showing the wisdom and skill to build a political coalition that will begin the hard work of going after weak claims and not just weak clients, to use David Stockman’s formulation.

It won’t be easy. Cutting the deficit and the debt is undemanding and effortless in the abstract; it gets a good deal harder when you begin to talk about raising the retirement age, progressive indexing (meaning linking the initial Social Security benefits of high- and middle-income earners to prices rather than to wages, as is currently the case), and gradually and thoughtfully transitioning toward a means-tested system of benefits in place of the current Social Security and Medicare systems.

Yet this is what the times demand of our political class — and, frankly, it is what the times demand of the citizenry itself. The American people cannot will the end without willing the means to the end. The Tea Party can play a useful and constructive role in all this, I think; but that means it has to be serious about governing, not just spouting vague slogans embracing easy cuts, “constitutional conservatism,” and reciting the failures and evils of “big government.”

In that sense, my concern isn’t that the Tea Party is too conservative; it is that it’s not conservative enough.

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RE: Jumping When Unions Holler

A keen-eyed reader sounds the day’s irony alert: while the administration and the Democratic congressional leaders are undermining scholarship opportunities for poor, minority D.C. schoolkids, the administration is out touting its commitment to “civil rights” in education. No, really:

U.S. Education Secretary Arne Duncan will call today for stepped up enforcement of civil rights laws in America’s schools and colleges, as the Obama administration pushes to overhaul the nation’s education system and improve opportunities for minorities. … The Education Department will send out a series of letters to all U.S. schools and colleges, giving guidance on 17 topics related to equal access to education for minorities, women and students with disabilities, said Russlynn Ali, assistant secretary for civil rights. The department also plans to review one school district’s treatment of students who speak English as a second language, she said. She declined to name the school.

For this crew, “civil rights” apparently doesn’t include promoting opportunities to go to a decent school. For the Obami, the civil rights bogey men are still white bigots and sometimes hapless bureaucrats. The solution is lawyers — lots of them, filing all sorts of lawsuits for any perceived racial slight and ready to pounce on school officials who have not complied with the myriad of “equal access” rules. And perish the thought that we should insist on children learning English!

But aren’t teachers unions the ones blocking the school doors that D.C. kids want to enter (e.g., the Sidwell Friends School, where Obama’s kids go and which is accessible only by scholarship for these children)? Really, the Obami’s is a cramped view of civil rights, indeed — one that neatly spares the Democrats the difficulty of telling their most generous campaign donors to back off. It is intensely self-serving and ultimately harmful to the minority kids the administration claims to care so much about.

A keen-eyed reader sounds the day’s irony alert: while the administration and the Democratic congressional leaders are undermining scholarship opportunities for poor, minority D.C. schoolkids, the administration is out touting its commitment to “civil rights” in education. No, really:

U.S. Education Secretary Arne Duncan will call today for stepped up enforcement of civil rights laws in America’s schools and colleges, as the Obama administration pushes to overhaul the nation’s education system and improve opportunities for minorities. … The Education Department will send out a series of letters to all U.S. schools and colleges, giving guidance on 17 topics related to equal access to education for minorities, women and students with disabilities, said Russlynn Ali, assistant secretary for civil rights. The department also plans to review one school district’s treatment of students who speak English as a second language, she said. She declined to name the school.

For this crew, “civil rights” apparently doesn’t include promoting opportunities to go to a decent school. For the Obami, the civil rights bogey men are still white bigots and sometimes hapless bureaucrats. The solution is lawyers — lots of them, filing all sorts of lawsuits for any perceived racial slight and ready to pounce on school officials who have not complied with the myriad of “equal access” rules. And perish the thought that we should insist on children learning English!

But aren’t teachers unions the ones blocking the school doors that D.C. kids want to enter (e.g., the Sidwell Friends School, where Obama’s kids go and which is accessible only by scholarship for these children)? Really, the Obami’s is a cramped view of civil rights, indeed — one that neatly spares the Democrats the difficulty of telling their most generous campaign donors to back off. It is intensely self-serving and ultimately harmful to the minority kids the administration claims to care so much about.

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What The Times Was Up To

Max Boot’s post earlier today about the preposterous New York Times story on the relationship between the Pentagon and former-military men-turned-war-pundits was spot on. I think, based on many years of experience working at various newspapers, that there is an explanation for the extreme length — 7800 words — of the story and the fact that it manages to find nothing more than an effort by the Pentagon to get good coverage. The Times thought it was on to something very big, ended up with something very small, and then took what little they had and tried to make a silk purse from the sow’s ear that was reporter David Barstow’s investigation.

I intuit  that this story, which features extensive use of Freedom of Information requests, was originally conceived as an investigation of potentially criminal activity — specifically, whether the Pentagon bribed these men to say things and write things both the Pentagon and the pundits themselves knew to be false. If there were such payments, it would be a requirement in law that the payments would be made on the basis of contracts — like the contracts that Armstrong Williams and Maggie Gallagher, two conservative pundits, received from the Department of Education and the Department of Health and Human Services respectively to promote legislation.

In the end, however, The story reads like a work of investigative journalism that came up entirely dry.  Perhaps  Barstow was tipped off to something seriously rotten and saw a Pulitzer dangling before him if he could only get chapter and verse. Perhaps someone else at the Times was, and threw the assignment to Barstow. Whatever is the case, there proved to be no there there, and Barstow was left with a huge amount of information with no clear act of wrongdoing.

So he did what is called a “notebook dump,” with the approval and even encouragement of his editors, revealing every single bit of information he uncovered. What began as a possible major scoop ended up as a “thumbsucker,” one of those “this is a cautionary tale about the way the Bush administration tried to spin the public.” Barstow’s endless tale reveals nothing more than that the Pentagon treated former military personnel like VIPs, courted them and served them extremely well, in hopes of getting the kind of coverage that would counteract the nastier stuff written about the Defense Department in the media. The fact that they were treated no better, if I have my guess right, than Thomas Friedman is treated any time his assistant places a phone call informing the pooh-bahs of Washington that the Great Man is deigning to give them an audience goes unremarked.

The honest thing to do in these circumstances is to kill the piece because you didn’t get the goods. That’s the problem with investigative journalism — often, the scandal is too confusing to be described in an exciting way, or it isn’t a scandal at all. But newspapers never kill the piece, because they spent too much money, too much time, and had too much hope to say, “You know what? This just didn’t pan out.”

Max Boot’s post earlier today about the preposterous New York Times story on the relationship between the Pentagon and former-military men-turned-war-pundits was spot on. I think, based on many years of experience working at various newspapers, that there is an explanation for the extreme length — 7800 words — of the story and the fact that it manages to find nothing more than an effort by the Pentagon to get good coverage. The Times thought it was on to something very big, ended up with something very small, and then took what little they had and tried to make a silk purse from the sow’s ear that was reporter David Barstow’s investigation.

I intuit  that this story, which features extensive use of Freedom of Information requests, was originally conceived as an investigation of potentially criminal activity — specifically, whether the Pentagon bribed these men to say things and write things both the Pentagon and the pundits themselves knew to be false. If there were such payments, it would be a requirement in law that the payments would be made on the basis of contracts — like the contracts that Armstrong Williams and Maggie Gallagher, two conservative pundits, received from the Department of Education and the Department of Health and Human Services respectively to promote legislation.

In the end, however, The story reads like a work of investigative journalism that came up entirely dry.  Perhaps  Barstow was tipped off to something seriously rotten and saw a Pulitzer dangling before him if he could only get chapter and verse. Perhaps someone else at the Times was, and threw the assignment to Barstow. Whatever is the case, there proved to be no there there, and Barstow was left with a huge amount of information with no clear act of wrongdoing.

So he did what is called a “notebook dump,” with the approval and even encouragement of his editors, revealing every single bit of information he uncovered. What began as a possible major scoop ended up as a “thumbsucker,” one of those “this is a cautionary tale about the way the Bush administration tried to spin the public.” Barstow’s endless tale reveals nothing more than that the Pentagon treated former military personnel like VIPs, courted them and served them extremely well, in hopes of getting the kind of coverage that would counteract the nastier stuff written about the Defense Department in the media. The fact that they were treated no better, if I have my guess right, than Thomas Friedman is treated any time his assistant places a phone call informing the pooh-bahs of Washington that the Great Man is deigning to give them an audience goes unremarked.

The honest thing to do in these circumstances is to kill the piece because you didn’t get the goods. That’s the problem with investigative journalism — often, the scandal is too confusing to be described in an exciting way, or it isn’t a scandal at all. But newspapers never kill the piece, because they spent too much money, too much time, and had too much hope to say, “You know what? This just didn’t pan out.”

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Bloomberg’s PR Problems

Michael Bloomberg has been a PR genius as New York’s chief executive. The press, as in a Time magazine story, has been known to swoon over the grandeur of his ideas and give him credit for promises alone. But the press-savvy mayor has had a monkey wrench thrown into his undeclared presidential campaign.

While he was running Bloomberg L.P., the mayor was accused of sexual harassment by a female employee. The matter was settled out of court, and it never became a serious issue when Bloomberg first ran for office in 2001. While the New York Times reports that “Bloomberg’s aides have collected data on the requirements for getting on the ballot in all 50 states,” the mayor has been slapped with a lawsuit from the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission in Washington on behalf of three women who argue they were discriminated against when they asked for maternity leave. “The EEOC said the women’s claims of discrimination due to gender and pregnancy “were echoed by a number of other female current and former employees who have taken maternity leave.”

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Michael Bloomberg has been a PR genius as New York’s chief executive. The press, as in a Time magazine story, has been known to swoon over the grandeur of his ideas and give him credit for promises alone. But the press-savvy mayor has had a monkey wrench thrown into his undeclared presidential campaign.

While he was running Bloomberg L.P., the mayor was accused of sexual harassment by a female employee. The matter was settled out of court, and it never became a serious issue when Bloomberg first ran for office in 2001. While the New York Times reports that “Bloomberg’s aides have collected data on the requirements for getting on the ballot in all 50 states,” the mayor has been slapped with a lawsuit from the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission in Washington on behalf of three women who argue they were discriminated against when they asked for maternity leave. “The EEOC said the women’s claims of discrimination due to gender and pregnancy “were echoed by a number of other female current and former employees who have taken maternity leave.”

The irony here is that, as two recent New York developments make clear, Bloomberg masterfully has used public relations to obscure his less than impressive managerial record. In 2003, with cameras rolling, Bloomberg opened the City Hall Academy in the Tweed Courthouse, which houses the department of education. “The opening,” declared the mayor, after alighting from a school bus carrying the school’s first group of children, “demonstrates our commitment to excellence, achievement, and innovation in the public school system.” City Hall Academy was to be a model of the kind of innovation the administration wanted to bring to the schools. Yet, last year the school was moved to Harlem, and recently, without fanfare, it was closed. “It was,” says Sol Stern, who writes on education for City Journal, “just another little gimmick…one of those ideas that was rolled out with press releases for them to prove that they are shaking things up.” “Others,” noted the usually Bloomberg-friendly Times, “say it is, in a way, a parable for the educational experiments of the Bloomberg years, with yesterday’s enthusiasms making way for new imperatives. At several critical junctures the academy had to bow to the next programs in vogue.”

Similarly, when Bloomberg began ramping up his presidential campaign, he unveiled a new plan to reduce traffic and pollution in New York through congestion pricing. It was designed to show that he was the sort of bold, problem-solving leader the country needs. Under the plan, motorists who came into Manhattan during business hours would be charged a fee electronically. Leaving aside the virtues or vices of such a proposal, it is a plan that requires extensive planning to accommodate the increased number of people who use mass transit. But the buses and the subways are already overcrowded, and no such planning was in place. The Metropolitan Transit Authority has been put into hurry-up mode to establish a plan for upgrades in time for Bloomberg to jump into the race next October if he so chooses. But the New York Sun reports that the MTA “is warning in a new report that Mayor Bloomberg’s congestion pricing proposal would cost the agency hundreds of millions of dollars more than the city has estimated.” “There’s no explanation of where they’re going to get that money,” said Assemblyman Richard Brodsky, a Democrat of Westchester. The congestion pricing plan “is in complete disarray. We’re at a point now where the transition from concept to plan has not been made.”

It was perhaps Bloomberg’s bad luck that the EEOC suit came out just after a jury found against New York Knicks coach and general manager Isaiah Thomas in a civil case also involving sexual harassment. But with a bit of good fortune, the sexual harassment case against Bloomberg could be settled before he has to decide whether openly to campaign for the presidency as an independent. If that time comes, it would be nice if the national press began to connect all the dots outlining the discrepancies between Bloomberg’s rhetoric and his substantive record.

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