Integrity-Challenged Journalists Harm Children

The Salt Lake Tribune again provides example of the harm being done to society by shoddy, agenda-ridden journalism.


In November, 2007 The Salt Lake Tribune published two articles by Lisa Schencker and Rebecca Walsh regarding education. Their work  (especially Ms. Walsh’s) displayed such astonishing intellectual dishonesty that I, assuming the customary right to respond granted to those who figure prominently in such coverage, wrote a response. With characteristic integrity, The Salt Lake Tribune refused to publish it. Today, however, they published another article by Lisa Schenker which could have been titled, “Oops! We were wrong about everything we were fighting Byrne about.”


I will first provide easily verifiable data regarding Utah’s test scores by which we may substitute facts for their bromides and impressions. Then I will use this data to address Ms. Schencker’s misrepresentation of a recent education study (which was itself dubious). I will then turn to Ms. Walsh, who, when it comes to sheer intellectual duplicity, never lets us down. Last, I will return to today’s story, which thoroughly vitiates their earlier point of view.


First, the data. The United States and 29 other nations make up the 30 developed countries of the OECD, the set of countries that represent our competition in the global economy. How does the USA within the OECD? The Digest of Education Statistics, Table 399 , gives the answer: when tested in reading, math, science, and problem-solving skills, and where rank #1 = “the best,” our nation’s 15 year-olds rank #15, #24, #19, and #24, respectively, out of 30 countries. With an average rank of 20.5, the USA ranks in the bottom 1/3 of the 30 OECD countires.


How does Utah rank within the United States? The National Assessment of Education Progress (known as “The Nation’s Report Card” ) provides the tool by which one may judge. Here are Utah’s most recent test results in reading, writing, and math, ranked versus other states: #30, #34, and #31 (only in science do we show above-average #19). However, for historical and socio-economic reasons there are disparities in educational achievement by ethnicity, and one must control for that otherwise one ends up measuring ethnic composition more than achievement. When one does so, Utah slips substantially. For example, Utah’s white students rank 38th in math, 39th in writing and 41st in reading when compared with their peers in other states. That is, Utah‘s white kids rank around the lowest 1/5 of their peers in this country, which is in the bottom 1/3 of the OECD. Unfortunately, Utah’s Latino and African-American children fare even worse: according to Utah State Office of Education, 42% drop-out without finishing a basic education.


With such data at hand, let us turn to the Tribune’s work.

Lisa Schencker’s November 18 piece (“Utah in Top 10 in Math and Science”) explored a then-recent American Institutes for Research study comparing the educational achievement of states within the US with the achievement of other countries. The study is flawed in that the set of countries to which it compares the United States omits 17 of 30 OECD countries, all of which score higher than we do. (Arguably it is also flawed in that it looks only to math and science scores, the latter of which is Utah’s one above-average score, but omits reading and writing, subjects in which Utah fares worse, and does nothing to control for ethnicity when ranking US state results.) What is shockingly disingenuous, however, is the Tribune’s claim that Utah is “top 10 in math and science”: it is only top 10 on a list of 46 countries which includes such educational luminaries as Saudi Arabia, Botswana, Tunisia, and Serbia, but which omits essentially all of our true international competition.


That is, yes, Utah is in the top #10, if we don’t count 17 out of 20 OECD countries and don’t count 40 out of 50 states and don’t consider subjects in which Utah has low scores. Ms. Schencker blithely buys this Procrustean Bed, but by this logic, I could claim to be a top 10 skier, as long as I am allowed to eliminate from consideration the tens of millions of people who ski better than I do, and eliminate the events in which I ski slowest.


When it comes to just not getting the joke, however, all honors are due Ms. Rebecca Walsh. She writes: “If Byrne had really put his money where his mouth was – with low-income and minority families frustrated with public schools – he could have paid for thousands of private school scholarships.” If Ms. Walsh were capable of performing that modicum of research one would expect of a sophomore journalism student she would learn that I do, in fact, support precisely such causes, paying for hundreds of scholarships for minority children in Utah as well as building 19 schools educating about 6,000 kids in Africa and Asia (and funded the DC voucher movement, which is now serving thousands of children). Why it is wrong to seek to provide choices for, not hundreds, but hundreds of thousands, Ms. Walsh leaves unaddressed.


Ms. Walsh notes the demands for apology that were spawned by a deceptively-edited statement of mine that appeared on You Tube: she neglects to mention that the demands for apology disappeared as soon as the complete statement was posted. In fact, I received numerous apologies from some who had previously demanded them, again, a fact Ms. Walsh could have discovered had she tried “research.”


Ms. Walsh notes that I feel so let down by our governor that I said I would back an opponent of Huntsman (“even a communist”) while neglecting to note that I also said, “That’s not going to happen. There is not going to be anybody who seriously threatens him… I like the guy, he’s a decent, he’s a lovely intelligent guy, I like him” but I could not support him again myself, given his abdication of what he led me to believe was a core principle.


Most significantly, Ms. Walsh apparently misunderstood my Tribune editorial asserting that Referendum #1 was not an IQ test but a sanity test (following Einstein’s dictum that insanity is doing the same thing over and over while expecting different results, which is what Utah committed itself to do by rejecting Referendum #1). It was not a retraction, it was an escalation. So that Ms. Walsh not waste any more ink on poorly aimed rejoinders, I’ll state it with total clarity: I wish neither to disrespect nor scold my adopted state, but I believe that Utah’s elimination of choice for low-income and minority kids was an utterly shameful act. Utahns who voted against Referendum #1 can save their breath criticisng my bluntness: I think they are the ones who should be ashamed of themselves. In fairness to Ms. Walsh, however, she may have been misled here by the Tribune’s decision to headline my editorial, “What I mistakenly called a statewide IQ test was actually an insanity test”: the insertion of the word “mistake” was a fabrication on the part of the Tribune, one that seems to have confused Ms. Walsh regarding the tone of my piece.


Curiously, Ms. Walsh made no discernible attempt to grapple with my arguments. Her one nod in that direction is her statement that I “gussied up [my] argument with statistics comparing Utah students’ test scores to those in other states, minority graduation rates and surging enrollment (sic).” Beyond its grammatical infelicities, it is hard to know what to make of this complaint. If including data in argument bothers Ms. Walsh perhaps she should have suggested an approach which avoids the minimal commitments to rational discourse and intellectual integrity she and the Salt Lake Tribune clearly find distasteful.


That was the set-up. Here is the punchline. Today, January 9, 2008, The Salt Lake Tribune ran a story whose headline read, Utah’s overall school quality grades put it near bottom nationally. The story accurately describes precisely what Ms. Schenker could have herself ascertained months ago.


What damage is done to society by journalists so supercilious they can rationalize distorting the news as heavily as these folks did in November? Do they simply think that they they can obfuscate the public discourse to steer the polity to decisions about which they, the anointed, know best? What damage did it do when they misled a state that “ranks among the bottom eight states in the nation when it comes to education” (in a nation that ranks near the bottom of industrial countries) into thinking that it was “Top 10 in Math and Science”?


I am given to understand that many Utah got angry at me for my comments about “a statewide IQ/insanity test.” I am indifferent to it, but I do think their anger is misplaced.


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