Perdido 03

Perdido 03

Sunday, September 12, 2010

Bash The Teachers: Jonathan Alter Edition

In a new series entitled BASH THE TEACHERS, I will take a look at various anti-union, teacher-bashing corporate journalists and pundits (e.g., Jonathan Alter, Tom "Mustache of Understanding" Friedman, Evan Thomas, Nicholas Kristof, David "Bobo" Brooks, Joe Klein, David Broder et al.), examine their journalism and /or punditry records using the same rigorous performance-based standards they call for using on unionized teachers, see just how much "added value" they are giving their readers and decide whether they need to be swept out of journalism by Michelle Rhee's broom.

This series starts today with Newsweek's Jonathan Alter.

At Common Dreams, Peter Hart has written a good overview on why the elite corporate-owned media - both conservatives and "liberals" - scapegoat unionized teachers and push unproven or disproven reforms like merit pay and charter schools in order to improve the public education system.

If the article doesn't want to make you pull what little hair Jonathan Alter still has in his head out of it, good for you.

As for me, I couldn't help but want to do just that after I read quotes like these:

When someone like Fox News host Bill O’Reilly (7/13/10) declares that liberals oppose school vouchers “because they are protecting the teachers’ unions,” the only surprise might be his uncharacteristic restraint. Nominally liberal pundits like Newsweek’s Jonathan Alter, who wrote (2/12/07) that Democrats are “wrong to kiss up to teachers unions,” are hard to distinguish from O’Reilly on this issue.


Six years later (7/21/08), Alter had removed the gloves, pounding the “Paleolithic teachers unions” and predicting that middle-of-the-road voters would rally behind “a Democratic candidate willing to show he can slip the ideological stranglehold of a retrograde liberal interest group.” As if the point weren’t clear enough, Alter advised then-candidate Barack Obama to lay out his demands to teachers and tell them “they must change their focus from job security and the protection of ineffective teachers to higher pay and true accountability for performance—or face extinction.”

Alter, btw, works for a news magazine that has gone from losing $5 million a year in 2007 to $30 million a year in 2009, was sold by its owner, Kaplan University, for $1, and has over one million readers in the last nine years.

Under the value-added system corporate journalists like Alter push, teachers must add value to their students test scores every year or be fired.

Yet somehow Alter, who works at a news magazine that has increased its dollar losses six-fold in just three years, has seen its revenue drop 30% during that same time period and has lost over one million readers over the last nine years, doesn't think the same "high performance" standards that he applies to schools and teachers should be applied to news magazines or journalists like himself.

So much for true accountability for performance.

But that's just the free-market values that Alter himself professes need to be used on the public education system in order to improve it. It points to Alter's hypocrisy on the issue, but doesn't show just how WRONG he has been on many issues.

So let's take a look at the quality of Alter's punditry and see if he is "adding value" (i.e., getting stuff right) there.

First, Jonathan Alter supported the Iraq war beforehand, saying

I now support military action for four basic reasons:

1. Collective Security: Under U.N. Resolution 1441, which has been clearly violated by Saddam Hussein, military action would be in the context of nearly 90 years of collective security—an essential prerequisite for intervention in today's world.

2. Nuclear Security: The national security policy of the United States should be encapsulated in four words: "The club is closed." While little can be done about those countries that already have nuclear weapons, we should focus great energy and attention on limiting entrance to the nuclear club, especially among rogue states. Colin Powell was not convincing on al-Qaida/Iraq connections, but he was persuasive on Iraq's efforts to obtain nuclear weapons. We cannot afford to wait until Iraq obtains such weapons and blackmails the region—as North Korea is doing now.

3. September 11: While war against Iraq may increase terrorism in the short run, it is, on balance, more likely to decrease it in the long run. Even if al-Qaida is not operating in Iraq right now, Iraq has been friendly with terrorists. Generally speaking, the fewer rogue states, the fewer places for terrorists to hide. Until 9/11, stability was preferable to upheaval in the Middle East. Now, change is the best option. War is always a leap in the dark, but even the chance of greater regional democracy—and thus less of the displaced anger that fuels terrorism—makes the risks worth taking.

4. Credibility: If Saddam disarms now, war should be avoided. But if he continues to cheat and retreat in the next few weeks, a decision by the United States to back off and delay would be interpreted as weakness in the Middle East. Osama Bin Laden hit us on 9/11 because he thought we were soft and would not respond. Weakness now would further embolden Saddam Hussein.

The war did NONE of those things that Alter claimed it would - the Iraq war did NOT keep other countries from entering the nuclear weapons country club. In fact, while the U.S. and its allies were bogged down in Iraq, Iran got much closer to getting nuclear weapons.

Nor did the Iraq war DECREASE terrorism in the long run as Alter claimed it would. There have been two attempted domestic terrorism attacks in the last year alone (the Detroit plane bombing, the Times Square bombing) and it is very likely that both of those terrorists were radicalized in part by the U.S. war in Iraq.

Nor did our macho sword-waving against Saddam make Bin Laden and Al Qaida less emboldened. Rather, it gave them the opportunity to gain more followers by using the bloodbath in Iraq as proof-positive that the United States as a country and Americans as a people were anti-Muslim and anti-Arab, it diverted resources from our actual attempts to find Bin Laden, and further put a tremendous financial burden on this country as we fight two simultaneous wars on credit whilewe cannot even keep our freaking roads paved anymore.

Yet somehow Alter, who was wrong on ALL the reasons he gave for going to war with Saddam, still has his job even after it is clear that he didn't "add value" to his readers by reciting Judy Milleresque nonsense in the pages of Newsweek about the war.

Let us also not forget that Alter promoted the use of torture in a November 2001 Newsweek column entitled "Time To Think About Torture," saying that the United States is now a fundamentally different place and that anybody who isn't in favor of torturing terror suspects was hopelessly pre-September 11th:

In this autumn of anger, even a liberal can find his thoughts turning to... torture. OK, not cattle prods or rubber hoses, at least not here in the United States, but something to jump-start the stalled investigation of the greatest crime in American history. Right now, four key hijacking suspects aren't talking at all.

Couldn't we at least subject them to psychological torture, like tapes of dying rabbits or high-decibel rap? (The military has done that in Panama and elsewhere.) How about truth serum, administered with a mandatory IV? Or deportation to Saudi Arabia, land of beheadings? (As the frustrated FBI has been threatening.) Some people still argue that we needn't rethink any of our old assumptions about law enforcement, but they're hopelessly "Sept. 10"--living in a country that no longer exists.


We can't legalize physical torture; it's contrary to American values. But even as we continue to speak out against human-rights abuses around the world, we need to keep an open mind about certain measures to fight terrorism, like court-sanctioned psychological interrogation. And we'll have to think about transferring some suspects to our less squeamish allies, even if that's hypocritical. Nobody said this was going to be pretty.

Notice how Alter, who no doubt sees himself as a "good guy," won't go so far as to sanction physical torture here in the U.S., but has has no problem turning terror suspects over to "our less squeamish allies" to do the torturing for us. He acknowledges this is "hypocritical," but seems to work under the preconceived notion that we have to use "whatever works," law and ethics be damned. He doesn't know if it actually works (he uses Abu Nidal and the Philippine police as examples of instances when torture works, but doesn't explain exactly how), but for Alter that's not the point. As he said in his pro-Iraq war piece, even when we don't know what the effects of a particular action are going to be, "change is the best option."

In fact, that is often Alter's take on policy.

Something's not working - change it!

Which brings me to the education issue.

Alter has some ideas - make the entire public education system into KIPP.

More test prep.

Standardized tests in every grade and every subject.

9.5 hour school days and shortened summer vacations to get ready for those tests.

"Thin" teacher contracts and no work protections.

Fire teachers based on test scores from all the tests added to the school day.

Never mind that the "change" Alter wants to bring may be short-sighted and bring all kinds if unintended consequences upon us (as the Iraq war did - emboldening Iran and giving them a better opportunity to pursue nuclear arms because the U.S. was bogged down in two other wars) or worse -may be antithetical to our nature (as either torturing suspects or turning them over to countries to our dirty work ought to be) and lead to all kinds of very easily predicted consequences (i.e., the United States was vilified across the world as a nation of torture.)

For Alter, the system has completely failed and only complete "change" undo the damage.

Never mind that he doesn't really know if the system has completely failed because he is only regurgitating Gates Foundation/pro-privatization talking points in his columns on reform.

As Diane Ravitch has noted here, the system is not in the crisis that the Obama administration or the corporate journalists claim it is, that many traditional public schools across this nation actually work and work better than charter schools, that doesn't stop Alter from saying things like

supporting accountability with teeth and more charter schools should be a litmus test for anyone serious about proving he or she is not just another hack.

You see, Alter has a pre-conceived Elite Washington Village notion that OF COURSE teacher accountability and pay tied to test scores and thousands of addtional charter schools across this nation are just the "change" needed to bring the system out of crisis, even though the CREDO study has already proven that on average most charter schools are no better than traditional schools while 37% actually perform worse and the additional standardized tests that have to be added to every grade in every subject to hold teachers "accountable" will ensure a very regimented, test prep-based education system that will actually undercut the development of creative, free-thinking, innovative students.

For Alter, facts don't matter. Being wrong in the past about stuff doesn't matter. Pushing behavior antithetical to moral human character doesn't matter. Working for a news magazine that has clearly outlived its usefulness and is millions of dollars in debt doesn't matter (I guess only schools are supposed to be survive by the free market principles Alter so magazines get a pass.)

What matters is pushing his Gates Foundation talking points about "accountability" while bashing teachers unions and any politician who doesn't automatically roll over for the charter school and accountability movements.

What matters is supporting the conventional wisdom of the Washington Village Elite on education (and so many other issues, as well) and disparaging anybody else who dares to break from that view.

Yet in ten years, when it becomes clear that adding additional standardized tests in every grade/subject at least twice a year and forcing teachers to "add value" to their students scores or be fired has made the education system worse, and when it becomes clear that blowing up the public education system and replacing it with non-unionized charters as has been done in New Orleans isn't the "magic bullet" reformers claim it is, will Alter take responsibility for all the crap he has written about education reform and teachers over the years?

I'm sure he will - just as he has acknowledged being wrong about advocating torture or how beautiful invading Iraq would turn out to be.

Oh, right, He didn't take responsibility for that stuff.

Okay, I guess we'll just have to sweep Jonathan Alter out the door with Michelle Rhee's broom - stick side up.

Next in the series: Tom Friedman.


  1. Sounds like a good gig--be wrong about everything, work for a company that loses inordinate amounts of money, demand that others produce results or "face extinction," and get paid many times my salary.

    He may be right that the ultimate goal is for teachers to face extinction. Let's just get those 6-year-olds working for Bill Gates and dispense with the niceties altogether. Certainly seems like where folks like Alter and Obama want to move the country.

  2. I was chatting with my sister today about the horrible elitism that has gripped our nation and she commented that when massive numbers of people are oppressed while a only a few are enriched, those few may wind up with their heads cut off...

    The question is, when?

  3. Thanks for that! Heard Ariana Huff on DN last week saying how tenure protections need to be relaxed. Yeah...she's a real expert, isn't she?