Sunday, September 27, 2009

What next for the Marxist power grab?

If you read a lot of journalism, you know more or less exactly what the evening's No. 3 story at the Fair 'n' Balanced Network means, and you can probably identify many of the signals that allow you to assemble that meaning. What's fun is that almost none of the underpinnings that make the journalism machine work -- to (mis)appropriate a phrase from the cousins in the linguistics department, the "correctness conditions" of the assertion in the frontpage tease -- are actually present in the story. Shall we have a look?

The frontpage position teases to this story inside:

Obama Proposes Longer School Day, Shorter Summer Vacation
President says American kids spend too little time in school, putting them at a disadvantage with other students around the globe

... which you, as a regular consumer of news, understand to be a "news" story, right? (As well you should; Fox is putting its own name on an actual story from the AP, which is generally called "plagiarism.") Well, sure. The present tense signals what we think of as the immediate past -- it's the news that happened between the previous publication and the one you're reading now. "Quake kills thousands" isn't about something that happened in 1995 or 1908; it's about something that happened since the last time you checked in. The heds are straightforward signals that Obama has "proposed" and "said" something, and as a news consumer you expect those things to be expressed in the past tense in the story itself. The teaser just pushes the news cycle ahead one spin: the president "risks" something as a result of having done something in the immediate past.

Well, did he? Let's ask Fox -- well, OK, let's ask Fox claiming credit for the AP's original work:

Students beware: The summer vacation you just enjoyed could be sharply curtailed if President Barack Obama gets his way.

Obama says American kids spend too little time in school, putting them at a disadvantage with other students around the globe.

"Now, I know longer school days and school years are not wildly popular ideas," the president said earlier this year. "Not with Malia and Sasha, not in my family, and probably not in yours. But the challenges of a new century demand more time in the classroom."

"Earlier this year?" Yeah, technically -- Fox and the AP might have ignored it, but this seems a whole lot like the comment that CNN and McClatchy both reported back on March 10, or nearly seven months ago. So to justify the present tense in the text ("Obama says American kids spend too little time in schools"), the rules of news call for us to have an ongoing condition: Obama not only said it then, it's what he has thought more or less steadily before and since. And the text will provide some publicly available evidence in support. Ready?

The president, who has a sixth-grader and a third-grader, wants schools to add time to classes, to stay open late and to let kids in on weekends so they have a safe place to go. [Present tense again! You can tell there's something good coming, right?]

"Our school calendar is based upon the agrarian economy and not too many of our kids are working the fields today," Education Secretary Arne Duncan said in a recent interview with The Associated Press. [That's cheating. When you go from a paragraph about someone into a direct quote, you're signaling that the quote is from the person you're talking about. When you shift to another person -- a Cabinet secretary, rather than the president -- you have to show that before the quote. Grrr.]

Then we quote a few whingeing elementary school students to show that we've been paying attention and have the human touch. So surely there will be some evidentiary support?

Her school is part of a 3-year-old state initiative to add 300 hours of school time in nearly two dozen schools. Early results are positive.

"3-year-old" meaning it began in, eh -- that'd be 2006? OK, just trying to be sure why we're writing this story today.

Does Obama want every kid to do these things? School until dinnertime? Summer school? And what about the idea that kids today are overscheduled and need more time to play?

I have no idea. Perhaps some journalist could ask the evil commie rat, you think?

Obama and Duncan say kids in the United States need more school because kids in other nations have more school.

"Young people in other countries are going to school 25, 30 percent longer than our students here," Duncan told the AP. "I want to just level the playing field."

All right, to spare you the trouble, Obama isn't quoted again in the story, anywhere -- meaning we have no indication (beyond the March speech) that he says or wants or thinks anything about this issue that warrants a news peg for this collection of random observations.

The AP, even by its own hit-and-miss standards, has done an execrable job on this tale. But more to the point, it's allowed the trolls at Fox to throw another log on their favorite fire: The centralized Marxist government in Washington is coming to seize more control from your family and everything you hold dear. RUN FOR THE HILLS!!!!

What's striking about this one, I think, is not just the AP's sheer journalistic ineptitude, or even Fox's raw ideological dishonesty.* It's the ease with which the routines of "news" can be subverted by people who lack brains, souls or both. When people talk about the importance of teaching media literacy, this is the sort of thing they ought to have in mind.

* Plagiarism is a different thing; Fox is generally rather scrupulous about crediting the AP's work, so this particular case looks a lot more like an individual blunder than part of a larger pattern of intellectual theft. If Fox takes down the offending creditline and sends the AP a nice note apologizing for the error, I'd be happy to take this one out of the plagiarism category.

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Blogger The Ridger, FCD said...

We just studied an article from a Russian press agency (original here, in Russian natch). One of the points made was how the "news" was shaped by the anonymous writer by selected quotes and words with specific affect.

Fox is SO like that.

2:59 PM, September 28, 2009  
Blogger The Ridger, FCD said...

Dang. I meant to give you the headline, which is Выборы мэра Сочи превращаются в фарс и ярмарку тщеславия - эксперты (Experts: Sochi mayoral race turns into a farce and a vanity fair)

3:00 PM, September 28, 2009  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

So how do your school holidays really compare to the holidays I had when I was at school? I'm curious.

In Australia, naturally, "summer holidays" and "Christmas holidays" are one and the same thing. Approximating, let us say that the Christmas holidays begin around December 1st and proceed for six weeks until mid January.

The school year then begins. There are ten weeks of school, two of holiday (mid-semester break), ten of school, two of holiday (mid-year break), ten of school, two of holiday (the other mid-semester break), ten of school, and then it's December again.

In summary, that's forty weeks of school, six weeks of summer holiday, and two weeks for each of the other holidays, which is more or less what I got throughout most of my years at school. Students nearing matriculation get longer holidays because of the public examination system; I haven't taken this into account.

On the basis of holiday distribution, does either of us have cause to be jealous of the other?

3:05 AM, October 07, 2009  

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