Rules for Opinionators

by Martin Harris

With due respect to author/minister Robert Fulghum, his 1988 book “All I Really Need to Know I Learned in Kindergarten” is about as comprehensive as a reader might wish with regard to interpersonal skills, but a bit lacking with regard to technical skills, some of which were taught in the 12 following grades. No, introductory reading and math weren’t taught in Kindergarten in those long-ago school years when (because) all my classmates and I arrived parentally pre-K’d, but they were taught, in steadily increasing detail and complexity, in subsequent grades, and in high school some of us with Fourth Estate ambitions tried out for the school newspaper. Journalism wasn’t a formal course, but an after-school “Activity”, and we had a Faculty Advisor who continued our technical instruction. Back then, the Grey Lady’s 1897 motto “All the News That’s Fit to Print” still meant that NY Times reporters actually reported all the news, not just the parts of the story congruent with a particular political-ideology template, and our Advisor used one of the first September after-school Activity Meetings as a teachable moment on just that subject. She explained in detail that the “All” rule applied not only to News but to Opinion, and that those of us who got to write op-eds would be expected, in constructing an opinion, to present (and critique) opposing points of view while advancing our own. But now it seems like the “All” rule, along with precise grammar and correct verb usage, ain’t universally taught in school nor practiced in ”the communications industry” (newspaper-business label before “media” came along) any more. Case in point: a recent op-ed in the Johnson City Press.

Here in the westerly slopes of the Middle Appalachians, the JCP is one of the newspapers-of-record for the Tri-Cities Area: a recent addition to the small stable of papers owned by the Sandusky Chain, it’s neither as closely controlled as the far larger numbers under the Gannett halter (think Burlington Free Press) nor as independent as The St. Johnsbury Caledonian-Record, and its op-ed rules, self-designed or not, permit its editors to head the lead editorial for 1 September with “It’s Clear: Pre-School Works”. That’s even though a never-mentioned opposing point of view not deemed worthy of either presentation or critique is held by the Federal government itself, within the vast bureaucracies of the Department of Health and Human Services, which is the current headquarters for the maternal ancestor of all governmental pre-K programs, Head Start. HHS concluded, and so reported to Congress in a detailed January 2010 study, that “according to a senior Obama Administration official, pre-school is more a jobs program than an educational or antipoverty one…which provides work for teachers, care-givers, and administrators…” (the quote comes from a detailed commentary in American Thinker) and that “…the positive effects Head Start has on children (which are mild to begin with) simply vanish by the children’s first year of school…HS kids are no better off than those not in the program…” and so on. AT writers Keckler and Cole apply the “All” rule as the JCP doesn’t, in a discussion of the merits (or not) of the mid-60’s Perry Pre-School experiment in Ypsilanti, MI, which provided lots of at-home counseling and child-care, and a far-fewer-hours classroom time, for low-income severely-at-risk “damaged-family” background enrollees, and was called successful because, as the former students got to age 40, those in the experiment displayed less criminality than those not in. Because incarceration and welfare costs to taxpayers were less than predicted, savings were counted and success was claimed. The glowing account of the Perry experiment was in the JCP, courtesy of the Indianapolis Star; any question of its applicability or transferability to more typical HS client families wasn’t. And these questions have been widely raised, not just by the usual suspects, conservative think-tanks Cato and Heritage, but even by such left-leaning publications as Time. Its July 2011 header for a Joe Klein column on HS reads “Time to Ax Programs that Don’t Work.” Why would (and did) the newspaper-of-record here in the eastern Tennessee hills exclude all of that, in violation of the once-taught “All the News” rule? You decide.

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There’s another of the Rules for Opinionators being violated here, and although never sloganized like the “All the News” rule, it’s just as demanding: it’s the “invisible hand” of Adam Smith description, which says that vendors (like the JCP and Time) need readers to keep them in business (The NY Times seems to have found a temporary alternative: loans from a Mexican billionaire) and therefore such media purveyors as the Rutland Herald (with a predominantly-blue readership) might be somewhat excused for tilting their coverage to please readership tastes. But the JCP is facing a demographic going redder; one could describe the Volunteer State shading from blue (on its left border) to red (on its right border) across its 550-mile west-to-east length, and perhaps Sandusky management needs to instruct its newly-acquired executive suite here on both rules. In fairness to the JCP (and a little obeisance to the “All” rule by your Humble Scribe, here) it must be noted that Time Magazine is arguably subscribed/embraced by a fairly left-leaning “Metro” readership which no doubt wasn’t overly pleased with Mr. Klein’s arguably conservative exposition of his conclusions regarding the Head Start experience from 1965 to the present; and yet, he did so anyway. Consider this quote and its probable reception in the living rooms of the NYC Upper West Side (a heavily gentry-Left voting precinct) more glamorous apartments:

“It is now 45 years later. We spend more than $7 billion providing Head Start to nearly 1 million children each year. And finally there is indisputable evidence about the program’s effectiveness, provided by the Department of Health and Human Services: Head Start simply doesn’t work.”

It does “work”, using the newly-invented economic-indicator measure built into the Perry experiment (which is quite removed from the originally-proclaimed purpose of HS, to prepare parentally-unprepared and therefore unready kids for K, which is why (duh) it’s called pre-K) using another newly-invented and functionally irrelevant economic measure: “HS staff salaries stimulate the local retail economy”. To buy into that you have to buy into the whole Keynesian deficit-spending/stimulus-multiplier thesis, for which (a little “All the News” lingo here) there are conflicting sets of data results and arguments, but no room for them in this column.