Columbia Journalism Review

How the Media Fail to Explain the Basic Science That Proves Climate Change

Two weeks ago, the New York Times published an article detailing the results of an investigation into Wei-Hock “Willie” Soon, an aerospace engineer who’s published several papers questioning the link between human emissions of greenhouse gases and global warming. Soon, it was revealed, has received more than $1.2 million from the fossil fuel industry over the course of the last decade.

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'Never Read The Comments': Why Some Sites Are Ditching Them Altogether

When millennial-targeted media company Mic ditched its comments section in mid-December, it was the latest in a string of similar announcements. The day before, The Week announced that it would forego comments in the new year, while the tech news site Re/code redesigned without comments in November. Slightly earlier, Pacific Standard and The Huffington Post both eliminated comments.

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Wikileaks Info Cherry-Picked by Corporate Media to Bolster Case Against Iran

A source provides details to the American government about the nefarious activities of a Middle Eastern country. That information ends up in scores of secret U.S. government documents. Subsequently, the information winds up on the front pages of major newspapers, and is heralded by war hawks in Washington as a casus belli.

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Non-Profit Investigative Journalism to the Rescue?

At a story meeting for California Watch, the nonprofit investigative news startup, employees sit around a conference table as Robert Salladay, the organization’s senior editor, begins to describe the findings of a six-month investigation by one of his state capital reporters. “It gives me chills,” Salladay tells the group. “Each paragraph could be its own story.” Robert Rosenthal, the founder of California Watch, peers over his glasses at an open laptop, then nods in agreement. “The reporting is so amazing,” he says.

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What Journalists Get Wrong About Gaza

Few stories are as complex and cumbersome as the continuing friction in the Middle East. Modern history mixes with ancient history; boundaries are drawn and redrawn. There is no shortage of opinion or misinformation. Accusations of media bias abound. Yesterday’s elections in Israel promise yet another dose of upheaval in the region, and additional uncertainty for Israel’s neighbors.

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How Our Gutless Media Helped Trigger the Credit Crisis

Last year, New York's state legislature, which has historically led the nation in passing pro-consumer credit legislation, approved a pair of bills aimed at protecting residents from questionable lending practices, the kind that have come back to haunt the economy. One of them would have put the brakes on the "universal default" provision, which lenders use to jack up the rates on credit cards if a cardholder misses a payment on a card issued by another lender. This practice has caused credit-card rates for some people to soar into the 20 or even the 30 percent range, far surpassing what once was considered criminal usury and helping to pile on debt that has contributed to mortgage foreclosures. But then-Governor Eliot Spitzer vetoed the bill, arguing that it would force lenders to increase interest rates or fees for all credit-card holders, even those with good credit records. Spitzer also claimed that the law wouldn't do any good anyway because federal law would preempt state law, and federal law allows banks to bypass state usury laws by setting up shop in states with lax regulation.

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Can the Media Deal With Michelle Obama?

She hates pantyhose! She loves her girls! She shops at Target … and pronounces it Tar-get, not Tar-jay! She loved Sex and the City! She eats bacon for breakfast (no halal food here, folks)! She's not above talking with her mouth full … of granola!

As they've been reporting this week in the mainstream (read: non-US Weekly) media, the details of Michelle Obama's famed "reintroduction tour" (see Liz's breakdown of those details here) have often been framed as Lofty Philosophical Questions About the Role of the Presidential Spouse: In this instance, to what extent is it fair to analyze the statements, beliefs and overall character of that spouse? To what extent is -- and should -- a Life Partner be a Political Partner?

On Wednesday night the Huffington Post ran a homepage-published story about Obama's "reintroduction," the story's banner headline begging the Spousal Role question. The New York Times' Alessandra Stanley, through the lens of Obama's and Cindy McCain's appearances on The View, gave us a breakdown of The Press Treatment of the Campaign-Trail Spouse Through History. We got blogged analysis of that tour here and here and here and here and here and here and here and here. On the cable news channels last night and this morning, we got the regurgitations of Michelle-O's appearance on The View, with segment guests -- political strategists, historians, etc. -- arguing about whether and how political spouses should exercise their membership in the Heard Wives Club.

The role of the political spouse is a fair subject of debate, to be sure, one that deserves discussion and dissection in the media. And those media, in this case, deserve some credit for couching a story whose main reportorial details involve pantyhose and cured pork products in terms of Profound Political Discourse. Conversations can always be elevated. So, you know, kudos. But loftiness can't exist on its own (pesky gravity!): News stories can truly be elevated only when the press provides enough substance to bolster them. And in this case, generally, it did not.

The "philosophical" questions about the Role of the Candidate's Counterpart have been grounded, instead, in the triviality of the answers offered to them: We were promised Rhetorical Loft; we got instead microscopic analyses of fist-bumping and cat-fighting. We got a lot about Cindy McCain's latest response to Michelle Obama's months-old "for the first time in my adult life, I'm proud of my country" comment (the peg being that said comment was mentioned during the View appearance); we got the campaigns' Official Responses to the she-said/she-said back-and-forth, with little further commentary. We got, in short, the same regurgitated, reiterated squabbles -- spiced with assorted inanity (Pantyhose? Really?) -- that we've come to expect, though not accept, in our campaign coverage.

None of which is terribly surprising. The "reintroduction tour" coverage was a matter of M.O. in every sense. But that's particularly unfortunate, in this case, because the question in the discussion we were promised is a good one: What is the role of the presidential spouse these days, both on the campaign trail and in the White House? Will our first ladies continue to populate the political ghetto of "women's causes" -- literacy (Laura Bush), children's issues (Barbara Bush), mental health (Betty Ford) -- or will they, as a rule rather than an exception, begin to take a more active role in their husbands' administrations, a la Eleanor Roosevelt or Edith Wilson or Hillary Clinton?

Here's the Times' Stanley, assessing Obama's view appearance this morning:

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Wall Street Journal on Brink of Becoming Journalistic Disaster

The abrupt resignation of Marcus Brauchli as managing editor of The Wall Street Journal is surprising even to those of us who saw News Corp.'s takeover of the Journal's parent as a journalistic disaster in the making.

The best account, as Ryan Chittum points out in our Opening Bell, is by Richard Perez-Pena in today's New York Times.

There will be some who say the resignation of an editor doesn't matter or that it is a good thing since we live in the best of all possible worlds. In fact, Brauchli's resignation is a billboard-sized sign that the world's leading financial publication is abandoning the qualities that made it great in the first place.

If Murdoch's bid for Dow Jones & Co. was the beginning of the end of the Journal as we knew it, as I wrote when the bid was unveiled a year ago, Brauchli's exit is the end of the beginning of the end.

It is true that, for the last few months, and even before Rupert Murdoch's company closed on the deal in December, the Journal had zigged and zagged but ultimately lurched toward changes that I didn't see as being particularly good:

-a tilt toward general news, especially politics, which sounds good but pulls resources away from the Journal's core business and economics coverage and into areas well-covered elsewhere;

-an attempt to make the Journal newsier, which also sounds good, but in fact tends to elevate more run-of-the-mill business stories to prominence, leaving less time and resources for fully developed features and investigations that are off the news.

-an abandonment of anecdotal ledes on page one, which seems like inside baseball but in fact is like taking a chisel from a carpenter's toolbox, leaving only the hammer and power drill.

Again, none of those changes are good from a journalism point of view because they all tend to tilt the Journal toward more commodity-type offerings -- things you can get anywhere.

After all, any business outlet can report that Texas Instruments shares fell, or that Royal Bank of Scotland is looking for capital.

On the other hand, one could at least see potential value in any or all of the changes -- I'm mean, long-winded anecdotal ledes on newspaper stories had become the subject of parody for a reason. Sometimes you had to turn page A17 just to find out that the guy you had just spent six paragraphs getting to know was dead -- hit by a train at a crossing where the signals were broken because federal railway regulators had curtailed inspections because of budget cuts needed to fund an alternative-energy boondoggle involving some prominent campaign contributor. I mean, I understand the problem.

And news is good. I like news, even political news.

And no one should argue that the Journal didn't need a change. Murdoch had shrewdly caught the Journal at a low ebb, journalistically as well as financially. The bid came just after Paul Steiger, the managing editor since 1991, had announced that Brauchli would be his successor and just before Brauchli had actually taken over.

I wrote at the time that under Steiger, and his deputy, Dan Hertzberg, both former bosses of mine, the Journal's editorial focus had narrowed, the page-one editor's job had been downgraded, and the paper had grown more bureaucratic. The culture was comically Byzantine; dissent was virtually nonexistent; page one had fallen sharply, in my view, from heights achieved under James B. Stewart and John Brecher.

(Stewart now teaches here, writes a column for SmartMoney, and writes great nonfiction. Brecher and his wife, Dorothy Gaiter, write a popular wine column for the Journal.)

And so over the past few months, it was hard to argue against change, and I didn't particularly want to. It was also difficult to know which changes were imposed by Murdoch and the publisher he appointed, Robert Thomson, and which were initiatives by Brauchli or his page-one editor, Mike Williams.

Brauchli, a former Beijing bureau chief and Journal staffer for twenty-four years, was a popular choice to succeed Steiger. His appointment alone raised morale. Some staffers had reported a new energy coursing through the paper, even as they bridled at some of the editing on page one.

I certainly didn't like some of it. I thought the writing lately has been flat as a pancake, especially the ledes, the stories' beginnings, even on stories that turned out to be good.

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The Future of Medicare Is the Future of Health Care

Of the millions of words written and spoken about U.S. health care, only a tiny percentage have been about Medicare. So far, stump speeches and media coverage boil down, on the Democratic side, to whose health proposal covers more people, and, for GOP candidates, who will not embrace that American bugaboo, "socialized medicine." Medicare, which covers more than forty million seniors and people with disabilities, seems to be off limits, even though there's plenty to talk about. The scant coverage of Medicare that does exist is cryptic, code-like, and assumes that the public knows the ins and outs of one of the government's most complicated programs.

This is unfortunate because the future of Medicare may well tell us what kind of health care all of America will eventually have. Will we conquer budget challenges and find a way to continue Medicare as a successful social insurance program? Or will we privatize the program to mirror the rest of the U.S. health insurance system, with its holes and shortcomings?

A New York Times CBS News poll in December found that less than one percent of respondents thought Medicare and Medicaid were the most important problems facing the country, a stat which raises a chicken and egg question. Do candidates think that people don't care about Medicare, justifying their silence, or do voters not yet care because the media (and the candidates) aren't telling them what's at stake?

Back in August, Hillary Clinton gave a speech in Iowa and briefly discussed Medicare, which she said faced significant financial challenges driven by the spiraling cost of health care. True enough. She told the gathering that the current president had not called for a national commitment to save Social Security and Medicare and that it was time "we talked about and confronted a lot of these issues." She described them as "invisible." True again. But neither Clinton, the other candidates, nor the media have done much to make them visible.

Mike Huckabee's words are puzzling. Right before Christmas, Huckabee talked to an Iowa woman who is dying from a progressive lung disease. When she asked him what he would do to change the national health care system, he responded that change must start with federal programs like Medicare and Medicaid. "If we don't set the model, then the rest of the industry doesn't move that way." But if Huckabee explained what model he had in mind, The Associated Press didn't tell us.

On the trail, Huckabee notes that Medicare obligations, if not "fixed," will lead to financial ruin, and quips, "Wait till all these aging hippies find out they'll get free drugs for the rest of their lives." Does he mean free LSD or free Lipitor? Medicare provides neither, but aging hippies might indeed want to know what kind of program Medicare will be five years from now -- one where everyone is entitled to a standard set of benefits or one where people must fish in the pond controlled by private insurance companies. The Medicare drug benefits, now sold by commerical insurers, moved in the latter direction.

Fred Thompson said he would cut Medicare for wealthy people like Warren Buffet. Does he really mean billionaires, or merely those with incomes higher than $80,000? (Right now single people with incomes greater than that pay higher premiums -- another step in the direction of privatization.) Does Thompson aim to destroy the universality of Medicare, which most experts believe contributes to the program's popularity and success? A Miami Herald story into this for readers, many of whom are already on Medicare and would presumbly want to know if they will lose benefits under a Thompson plan.

John Edwards started to talk about how the drug companies wrote the Medicare prescription drug law. "Why do we have that mess of a Medicare prescription drug law? The thing was written by drug company lobbyists. I was there..." A New York Times story cut off the rest of his remarks so we don't know, if he said anything, about how he would fight drug company opposition to negotiating prices with Medicare, a position he supports.

The media and the candidates are ignoring other serious issues:

Overpayments to insurance companies selling private-fee-for-service plans to Medicare beneficiaries. Seniors can choose one of these plans instead of traditional Medicare benefits. But independent experts like the Medicare Payment Advisory Commission say the government pays these insurers 19 percent more than it costs to provide the same benefits under traditional Medicare. Medicare's own actuaries predict that overpayments hasten the depletion of the system's trust funds, resulting in benefit cuts unless new revenues flow in. When President Bush vowed to veto any legislation that cut the excess payments, Congress didn't push for cuts during its end-of-the-year session. The media missed a golden opportunity to press the candidates. For the record: Both Obama and Clinton supported cutting the overpayments, important positions that have gotten no attention or traction so far.

How Medicare will cope with the rising cost of health care, and who will pay those costs. Medicare like other segments of the health care system has been unable to control the mounting costs of new technology and treatments. To continue benefits, tax increases might be necessary. Yet the snippets of Medicare policy we have heard come mostly from Republicans promoting market solutions -- like shifting future costs to beneficiaries -- instead of revenue solutions that will retain Medicare's fundamental structure. Clinton said almost a year ago that the president's attempt to make higher-income beneficiaries pay surcharges for their Medicare drug benefits was "exactly the wrong approach." But as the year unfolded, squabbles over whose health care plan forced more people to buy insurance drowned out this crucial policy difference.

A recent retirement column posted on questioned the silence about Medicare and other retirement issues. The writer, Ellen Hoffman, scanned position papers, statements, and tried, sometimes without success, to get more information from campaign staffs. It's a hopeful sign that she tried. Maybe other reporters will start delving in to the effects of government overpayments and rising health care costs on Medicare, and whether Medicare will continue to cover all of the elderly. Here's a case where the press needs to lead rather than wait for the spinmeisters to decide what gets covered.

The Limits of Newsprint

When I left a reporting job at The Washington Post several years ago, I lost an institution I loved -- not to mention free LexisNexis and an affiliation that pretty much guaranteed that my phone calls were returned right away. But I gained the opportunity to immerse myself in a project that I'm sure could never have been created for the newspaper.

From the time I started writing about education for the Post in 1998 until I quit in 2004, I was given a lot of freedom to delve into issues I thought important, and a lot of inches, too. In addition to my daily duties covering school systems, I wrote 3,000-word magazine pieces; I wrote A1 trend stories; I wrote a four-part series about life in middle school, a topic I pursued further in book form, on leave from the Post. But neither I nor even the paper's greatest stars would ever have been able to write for the Post what I thought the country really needed at the time: an honest, sweeping, in-depth criticism of how elementary education has changed in the era of standardization and testing.

The simplest reason that project wouldn't have happened at the Post is, ironically, the paper's influence. In 2004, I approached two major school systems with my idea for Tested, and both quickly agreed to participate. Tina McKnight, the principal of Tyler Heights Elementary in Annapolis, Maryland, the school I ultimately chose, later told me she never would have done so if my work was intended for the Post instead of a book. The Tyler Heights Elementary School teachers said the same thing: We trusted you, but still ...

Still what? Well, there's the time factor. Books are usually published years after first contact with the people you're writing about, which somehow eases the nerves. Then there's the intimidation factor of a name like The Washington Post. People have had more opportunities to feel crossed by a paper rather than by a book. They assume, as one teacher told me, that newspaper reporters have hidden agendas. Books, it seems, have a better reputation than papers, not that I think it's deserved: nobler, more responsible, more exciting, more forever.

"And there's the chance of your friends seeing it," Alia Johnson, one of the teachers I write about, told me. "With a book, you have to know about it, go into a bookstore and look for it, buy it. Everyone reads the newspaper. It's more in your face."

Anyone who has done immersion journalism, for a paper, book, or magazine, knows that when your subjects are more relaxed, they are less likely to put on a show. To me, Tina McKnight expressed skepticism and anxiety -- about the superintendent's promise to close the achievement gap in less than two years, the scripted curriculum the county handed down, the subjects the students didn't get much of -- and was honest about her school's warts. It's not the same approach she would have taken with a reporter who was going to put this stuff in the newspaper she knows her bosses read every day. Her bosses will read Tested, too, it's certain. But it was easier for her to forget that.

In the long run, I think it would behoove educators to be utterly honest about the difficulties they face: "Here's our toughest group of third graders. As you see, they come to us with so few social skills that just getting them to sit and listen is a time-consuming chore every day, a chore that cuts far into the time we have to teach. That, combined with the poor skills they arrive with, means that these kids miss out on a lot." But principals and elementary school teachers, not a rebellious bunch by nature -- middle managers and line workers of a big bureaucracy, after all -- can't afford to be that forthcoming with reporters they barely know. That's especially true with a prominent newspaper like The Washington Post, where a glowing mention can buoy a school community for months.

And so in articles in the Post, as well as the Baltimore Sun and the Annapolis Capital, Tyler Heights Elementary is portrayed simply as a model of school reform done right, headed by a cheerleading, effortlessly optimistic principal. The stories don't delve into the heavy costs of the success; they rely heavily on interviews with the principal, and why would she have wanted to discuss the messy stuff?

Even if the school had given a newspaper access for a year, the reporter still would lack many of the advantages that a book author enjoys.

You get more space. In Tested, I wanted to explain how outside influences, from federal education policy to county directives to family life, affected the school days of children and teachers and transformed the ecology of a school. There are a few newspapers that devote massive resources and space to education projects, but more do not. Even a huge newspaper project is a fraction of the length of a typical narrative nonfiction book, limiting the scope of an effort like this.

Freed from the strictures of space, I was able to focus on issues I felt were crucial to understanding the inner workings of a school, which are the types of topics a newspaper editor is likely to consider inside baseball and the first things that get cut from an overlong newspaper article. Too often, education is covered as a consumer issue, with stories geared only to what editors think readers want to know about how their own children spend their time. Kids losing recess because of test prep and art: yes! Teachers told they need to pass a test or else their students will receive letters that they're not qualified: meh. A "news you can use" approach to stories is fine in many cases, but not when it crowds out the comprehension that can come from seemingly wonky stuff. Teachers' battles with bureaucracy, after all, are news a reader can use when the reader wants to understand the climate of schools and why teachers are losing enthusiasm for their profession. A book allows you to show consultant visits, curriculum decision-making, meetings where teachers discuss the mundane details of each special-education student or struggling reader or chronic misbehaver. These situations may be administrative in origin, but the impact on real lives is compelling -- if you get to really know the characters involved.

You get more time. A paper like the Post spends a lot of resources on education, with at least 10 reporters devoted to the topic. But those reporters almost all cover local school systems, and when they do tackle projects, they usually must tend simultaneously to their regular beats. For a project of the depth and breadth I was setting out on, the Post would have had to allow me a massive, impractical amount of time away from my daily beat. Two years elapsed from my first contact with the Tyler Heights principal to the completion of the editing process, including 10 months when I spent nearly every school day at Tyler Heights and the remainder of the afternoon and evening at home transcribing notes, reading, and interviewing.

Why so much time? Powerful newspaper pieces, after all, are composed in months, or weeks, or days, or hours. But for what I wanted to accomplish, I needed to paint pictures that could only be created through the kind of direct, rote observation that allowed every tiny piece to be put into perspective, and I needed to see enough to be convinced of my own judgments. To know anything, I have always thought, I must see everything -- the same approach I took when I spent the year with five children for my first book, which explored the lives of middle schoolers. I had to watch kindergartners take a certain literacy test 30 times before I felt comfortable drawing conclusions about the assessment and before picking one scene that both represented the students' experiences and illustrated my concerns. I sat through dozens of practice sessions for the state exam the students would face in March; I attended nearly every staff meeting; I ate lunch with children or teachers every day -- in all, the kind of attention that can only be paid when you are truly focusing on nothing else. (My husband can attest to that.)

You can express your opinion, flat-out. It's better to show than to tell, yes, but sometimes the strongest thing you can do is both. Instead of using the reporting trick of finding someone to give a quote that expresses what the writer really wants to say, the book author gets to just say it. So I state that it is inane to make teachers write the day's objectives on the board, especially in the jargon that is encouraged; that educators should not blame No Child Left Behind for their own stupid policy decisions; that it is educationally unsound to expect every child in a grade to reach the same level of achievement in the same amount of time; that the basic readers assigned to kindergartners make Dick and Jane look plot-thick; that it is bad science to pay teachers based on their children's test scores; that Tyler Heights students should learn more facts; that the math curriculum seemed to have been designed by someone with attention deficit disorder; that it is crazy that the same people who call the principal a hero for getting test scores up don't seem to want her input on developing the curriculum.

And so on.

You benefit from a loosening of attribution. My work is by all means informed by data and the research of experts, but I don't have to be as explicit about showing it, or I can tuck it away in footnotes. You can also get away with not attributing to anyone, basing your authority instead on your own accumulated expertise and a decade of immersion. You are allowed to say, "It's hard to get parents to school in a poor community," rather than, "Experts say it's hard to get parents to school in a poor community." With myself as the expert, I get to make some broad statements: that parents at Back to School night in low-income schools often speak mainly with each other, while at middle-class schools, parents interact with teachers; that those things most middle-class parents do as a rule to make sure their children learn often went neglected at Tyler Heights; that disadvantaged children need more than anyone to learn problem-solving and interpretation skills in their classrooms but are most often deprived of such instruction (while receiving the most test prep).

I make my own analyses, of how limited the Maryland state test is, of what I call the "imagination gap" between well-off students and poor ones and how that impacts their ability to learn; of how middle-class students have an exposure to the world that fuels motivation. I don't know if there is a sociologist somewhere who explains that more convincingly and more scientifically than I do, but I'm glad I got to say it without having to find him.

Nearly every scene I paint in the book I witnessed myself, and with those I didn't, I filled in the gaps by speaking to others involved, as anyone at a newspaper would. But in general, I get to be my own arbiter about whom to trust, about distinguishing gossip from reality. This is a weighty burden, but it becomes manageable when you get to know people well over a year. I did not ask Autumn's aunt if the girl was enrolled in school after she had been pulled out of Tyler Heights; I was not there when Reggie's aunt told the principal that his father accused him of "acting white" when he started improving in school; I did not confirm with the police that one mother instructed her youngsters how to steal diapers from Rite Aid; and I didn't actually see Cairo choke his pre-K classmate. These are all mentioned in Tested, and I had no qualms about passing them on, because I was around when staff members discussed how to handle those events, and I calculated that they had no reason to make them up. Newspaper editors would be more cautious about passing on secondhand information, which makes sense. They have hundreds of reporters whose judgments they rely on. I have only myself.

You can use first person. The writer doesn't have to rejigger or omit an anecdote just because he (and not "a reporter") was involved in it. Some things are too awkward to put into third person but worth mentioning, like the warnings the black children gave me about visiting their housing project, or which of my long-ago teachers (some bad, some great) would have had trouble making it in today's standardized classrooms. When I speak around the country about my first book, I am always asked why I chose the school I did. In Tested, I decided to explain directly why I wrote about Tyler Heights, because people always wanted to know. Newspapers sometimes include sidebars with this kind of explanation, but not always.

You don't have to use the typical journalistic shortcuts in your field. When writing in the popular media about testing, a certain trope applies, in which phrases like "improving student learning," "raising achievement," and "closing the gap" are all merely synonyms for scores on state standardized tests. If I were still at the Post, I suspect that refusing to use those phrases as synonyms for test scores and introducing caveats to the numbers might have been seen as some sort of political statement on my part. In Tested, I avoid phrases like "test scores rose" when the truth is "the percentage of children who passed the test rose, though because the test changes every year, you can't really draw a strong comparison." In a book, I can choose to say "test scores rose" only when I mean test scores rose, and I can show how "gaps" and "achievement" have many more meanings than can be expressed numerically.

You don't have to give equal (or any) time to arguments you think are baseless. Newspaper journalists don't have that luxury, which is why articles about global warming usually include quotes from the rare scientist who doesn't believe it exists.

You can change names. Both of the schools that allowed me to write my books conditioned permission on changing children's names -- a practice not allowed at the Post and many other papers yet often encouraged by the lawyers at publishing houses. Newspapers want to be considered the ultimate record of fact, and they gain more credibility as institutions by being able to insist that no matter what section, no matter what reporter, we have made nothing up. I always liked this about the Post. I would rather not change names. But the book reader and I both know there are truths that can be had only at this cost, and I'm glad I have the freedom to pay it. I stand only for myself, and people can judge my credibility as they wish; newspapers, collective endeavors after all, must be more careful.

You can risk offending people. The third graders featured in Tested were a particularly nasty bunch. Quite often they didn't seem to want to learn, and they carried a lot of anger with them from home; it was hard to imagine children so consistently mean to each other holding a job one day, no matter how well they did on their math tests. So I said that. I also explained, in ways I knew never would be allowed into the Post, where their parents fell short. When I reported long ago for the Post about the growing behavior problems of elementary schoolchildren, everyone I interviewed, from the teachers to the administrators to the social scientists, implicated parents in some way, a point of view I passed along in the story. My editors let me know that I was being "too hard on parents," and that part of the story was excised considerably.

You can be sarcastic. "You're not going to be a scientist if you can't read," I quote a superintendent as saying, in defense of a pared-down curriculum. Well, I respond, you can't be a scientist if you never learn science either; you can't be a lawyer if you don't learn critical-thinking skills; you can't be a politician if you never get to speak in front of a group. When the principal went to a conference and heard about one way to build enthusiasm among her staff, I wrote, "I couldn't wait to see the look on Miss Johnson's face when she would be told to 'clap fireworks' when a colleague presented a good idea." About the Bush administration's inclination to call anyone who criticizes No Child Left Behind a racist, I wrote, "One suspects that if you suggested 90 percent might be a more reasonable proficiency goal than one hundred, you'd be asked why you hate 10 percent of America's children."

At a newspaper I probably would have had the benefit of an editor who would know a lot about education issues, who would talk deeply with me about content and language, who would challenge me in ways that surely would have improved my thinking. I would have had hundreds of thousands of potential readers, the barrier to entry being thirty-five cents and not twenty-five dollars. But I would have had to omit all those snarky cracks, which I imagine would have made it a far less engaging read, and far less fun to write.

I suppose newspapers could permit reporters to engage in more sarcasm, be looser with the rules, take up more space. Then fewer reporters would feel the need to leave, temporarily or permanently, to write books. I don't think that's the right way to go, though. The standards that would have made it impossible to write Tested at the Post, the dignity that comes with the territory, are a huge reason journalists are proud to work there, and why they can be trusted in the looser world of book publishing. They don't leave that discipline behind in the newsroom. Carried away, blended with some freedom, it can make for some pretty good books.


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