The New Newsroom: why we need Al Jazeera America

A photo of Joie Chen, smiling, with the America Tonight logo on a screen behind her. She's sitting at a anchor desk with a shiny top, brightly light, waiting to deliver the news.

The Complete Works of News: Joie Chen, host of Al Jazeera America’s nightly news program America Tonight. The new cable news channel launched on Tuesday.

Perhaps angling for the small but thoughtful fan base of the HBO series The Newsroom, the new Al Jazeera America nightly news program America Tonight features a series of 15 second commercials profiling  its  producing staff. Each of whom, incidentally, seem like more interesting characters than any of HBO’s fictional Newsnight staff, who for all their biting satirical commentary on recent events sometimes sound about as fresh and relevant as Howard Beale with an Emo haircut.

But while The Newsroom truth is mostly regurgitated Real Time with Bill Maher editorials in Cronkite drag, AJAM is Real Television Journalism and ain’t nothing like the real thing.

In fact, if it were an HBO series, Al Jazeera America would actually be The Wire, unflinching at the bold societal implications sparked by urgent current events, and in hot pursuit of the root causes that make it so. In fact, speaking of Baltimore, David Zurawik agrees in The Baltimore Sun on AJAM’s inchoate urgency.

Al Jazeera America debuted Tuesday 8/20 (find it on your dial), in the place of Al Gore’s ill-fated Current TV, which AJAM purchased for the generous amount of $500,000,000. It promises stories like a week-long series on Chicago’s segregated street violence, pieces on genetically engineered salmon farms, and profiles of successful urban U.S. public schools, plus documentaries, all day and all night.

Wednesday night the America Tonight series Fight for Chicago featured remarkably nuanced reporting on the issue of street violence on the city’s South and West sides. Not just throwing up its hands at the chaos, the report mentioned the several convergent forces, like the Sinaloa cartel, the demolition of the city’s public housing, incarceration of a generation of local gang leadership, proliferation of guns in America, and generalized lack of economic alternatives to drug selling. America Tonight anchor Joie Chen moderated a discussion where local leaders from the communities hardest hit joined via satellite, were respected and given ample time to talk, something that doesn’t even happen on Melissa Harris Perry’s MSNBC show. NPR’s This American Life got the issue of violence in Chicago national attention with its moving Harper High School series, getting Michelle Obama to visit the school. Let’s hope AJAM’s series elicits a proportionate West Wing response.

Attempts are being made to marginalize it. Time Warner Cable per-emptively dropped Current when the planned sale was announced earlier in the year, while AT&T dropped the channel dramatically at 11:59pm on Monday night, just before AJAM’s launch, breaching the broadcast agreement, prompting Al Jazeera to file a lawsuit.

Al Jazeera (literally “the island”) is owned by the oil-rich government of Qatar which decided to become the patron of journalism for the world. Al Jazeera maintains its complete editorial independence. The Guardian reported last year that Al Jazeera editors insisted UN debate on Syria including footage of a speech from the leader of Qatar, despite staff members claims that it was not the most important part of the debate. Frequently, it is praised for insistence to tell all sides of a story, sometimes bringing danger upon itself in the process. With this refreshing platform for news delivery, it is now us, the people of America, who must tune in and operationalize the relevance of this new, nonstop news source.

Earlier in the summer, at the Aspen Ideas Festival, when Ehab Al Shihabi, Al Jazeera’s executive director of international operations, spoke about the launch of the network, and stated that 40- 50 million Americans wanted more original and in-depth news from television broadcasting.

MSNBC’s Lawrence O’Donnell, who recently hinted he might be more of a showbiz man than a journalist, openly scoffed at the idea that the news information needs of the United States people were not being met. “I think if you did a survey of the 300 million Americans, I think something like 50 million would tell you they want to read the complete works of William Shakespeare. They won’t,” blustered O’Donnell. People seeking “real” news, would find it at the PBS NewsHour, he said, interestingly, not defending the originality and in-depth nature of his own network.

In a 24-hour news cycle, the idea that everything needed to inform the American public in a globalized world can be found in a one-hour program shown at 6pm, when most people aren’t even home, is just wrong.

The real answer was that people seek it out online, in “lean forward” time-shifted news-gathering, where myriad  public, global, independent, and authentic news sources are available. But Al Jazeera America is right to go for the “lean back” experience of the cable news watching set, they have the money, and they are really going for it. Because 24 hour news cycle is what dictates the U.S. political conversation. And AJAM has the cash to get the glittering sets, in soothing but vibrant colors, the familiar faces like Chen, Soledad O’Brien, and Ali Velshi, all formerly of CNN, and saying  “America” as many times as it can in its marketing.

Uninformed, xenophobic knee-jerkers will object solely on the basis of the networks’ Arabic name and foreign ownership, but really, this is the journalism that America made famous, being re-claimed by a “mad as hell” real-life cast of U.S. journalists. With no need to play to the corporate seats, or tamp it down so as not to offend, Al Jazeera America swept into our cable news like a steady wind of fresh air, just when, like Toni Braxton, we thought we might never breathe again.

The Most Fearless Man In Hip-Hop: Lupe Fiasco’s Food & Liquor 2, The Great American Rap Album

A picture of the actual cover of Lupe Fiasco's new album - which is completely black.

The Cover of Lupe Fiasco’s new album Food & Liquor 2: The Great American Rap Album

“A swindled generation with no patience, full of swag/

Man, they so impatient with the stations that they have.”

Lupe Fiasco has done what he set out to do.

The Chicago native’s 2012 album is called Food & Liquor 2: The Great American Rap Album, six years since his debut Food & Liquor in 2006.

Lupe Fiasco is the Most Fearless Man In Hip-Hop, lest one get it twisted. 50 Cent lives in a suburb of New York, near Connecticut.

With more discussion of historical context in one verse than an entire Presidential election cycle, album features tracks like Audobon Ballroom, which uses a very now-sounding smooth chorus to gently remind people – first white, then black, the reasons not to use the n-word that his colleagues Jay-Z and Kanye West put on the lips of the likes of Gwenyth Paltrow when they talked about being in the French capital (because they can’t and aren’t, respectively).

Then, on the very next track, he does the same thing for men, women and the word “bitch.”

Lupe Fiasco is talking to the Iraqi kid and the U.S. soldier at once.  The album comes on like a bucket of cold water that you want to keep pouring on your head.

Got Context? yasiin bey Honors Malcolm X, Reflects on Current Social Movements In New Video

yasiin bey, who came to prominence known as Mos Def, has a new song reinterpreting the Jay-Z/Kanye West’s ubiquitous megahit “N**** in Paris.”

The new video and song “N**** in Poorest,” released on the 47th anniversary of Malcolm X’s passing, finds the landmark rapper, actor and outspoken social commentator repurposing the driving beat for a rather more appropriate use than the original’s “99%er turned 1%er” storyline. In a frantic response to horror-movie beat, bey gets really real, contrasts the growing violence and poverty in the United States with images of power players and war. If the West/Z original is a celebration of the fish-out-of-water, possibly brought to us by McDonalds, yasiin bey has delivered some major socio-historical context in a manner seldom seen in the music video realm.

Jay-Z and Kanye West’s version finds them performing on a stage, presumably in the French capitol, backlit with a constant strobe light. Their images are doubled on either side of the screen to hypnotic effect. (A disclaimer running before the video’s YouTube version warns away those prone to seizures.)

yasiin bey’s video is a stripped-down upset performance, interspersed with clips of economic, cultural and other distress from news, politics, popular movies and television. At the point in West/Z version that samples a scene from a Will Ferrel film, bey features a clip from a rarely seen Malcolm X interview in which the leader speaks about a source of his courage.

The new remix is the first installment of yasiin bey’s Top 40 Underdogs project, in which he will remix 40 popular songs with socially conscious freestyles.

It’s Not Okay, Kanye

Open Letter to Kanye West,

Some people were understanding you when you were getting yourself scanned in the airport security checkpoint and attempting to duet with Lauryn Hill.

We were like OKAY!?! when you got on Live TV and talked about how George Bush doesn’t care about Black People.

And then those people were like ok when you were in that bean sculpture in Chicago with the guy from Coldplay.

When you grabbed the mic from Taylor Swift and talked about Beyonce, those people were like, in the words of RuPaul, Pull It Together, My Dear.

But Now? NOW? Ya basta, Kanye. Step away.


A Chicagoan

Who won the Amazing Race really?

Amazing Race Season 19 finalists from left: Ernie & Cindy, Marcus & Amani, Jeremy & Sandy

Last night’s Amazing Race finale saw Type A (and Type B+) engaged Chicagoans Cindy and Ernie running across the map-shaped finish line first, vowing breathlessly to host Phil Keogan that they would start a non-profit with their $1 million prize money to help the children they had met on their jaunt from Taiwan to Thailand, Indonesia to Malawi, Denmark to Belgium to Panama.

“We want to help inspire them to live a better life and contribute to the global economy,” Cindy said, a loaded statement if there ever was one.

But the question remains: who won the Amazing Race, really?

Here at Contextual Healing, we remember hearing somewhere that it’s the journey, not the destination. So here are the other winning teams of the Amazing Race Season 19 (holy crap there are 19 seasons of the Amazing Race):


Best Social Media Save: The guy at the gas station who took to Twitter after finding Kaylani of Kaylani and Lisa’s passport after it sprang out of their SUV and reunited it with her at LAX… on the very first leg of the race. Almost spelling head-slapping doom for the team of former showgirls.


Stank-est Attitude that Could Have Cost You The Race: Cindy, of Ernie and Cindy, who dropped and lost their train tickets while whining that all the competitors would be taking the same train out of Denmark, erasing the lead they had stressed their way to.  Luckily for them, the tickets were never collected.


Mr. and Mr. Congeniality: Loveable snowboarders Andy and Tommy who did inverted 720s through the race, vocally loving Jesus, winning six episodes and exchanging enthusiastic whooos in multiple languages. Until they reached Panama and the rest of the teams benefitted from the teamwork ingrained in the Panamanian cab driving profession when faced with a flock from the EEUU gritando “Rapido! Rapido! – we’re in a race!”


The Biggest Losers: (Second place finishers) dating couple Jeremy and Sandy, when they spoke to their cab driver in Atlanta the same way they spoke to their cab drivers around the world: “You wait for us.”  (Winners) Ernie and Cindy, again, when they bickered with their cab driver in Thailand when he asked them for more money: “No! That’s more than enough!”


Herbal Essences™ Goodwill Ambassadors: Twins Liz and Marie who gave a group of Indonesian resort employees a good deal of amusement when they failed to stab and shimmy beach umbrellas into the sand. Only to turn right around and give a group of older Thai men hearty belly laughs when they shoveled baby elephant dung, squealing in delight.


Certified 100% Oregon Tilth Organic: Grandparents Bill and Cathi who past the age of 60 would rather build and sail a raft than make waffles given the choice, not to mention climb a cliff face and not even mind oiling up for a bodybuilding competition with good natured aplomb, wise cracking at their difficulties and setting an example for the usually lightly bickering and frequently unsupportive Jeremy and Sandy.


Most Valuable Players: married couple Marcus and Amani, who finished third. After often falling to last place, they gave hints to teammates and got a spontaneous crowd rooting for them as they solved a slide puzzle in Malawi.  All amidst effortlessly solid football metaphors from former pro-baller Marcus. “She’s smarter than any quarterback that I’ve ever played with and tougher than any linebacker than I’ve faced,” he said of his wife and the mother of their four children.


Follow us on Twitter: @contextmessage

Tactile Media Lament Part 2: Kindle Fire: The Temperature at Which Books Burn

Just in time for the holidays Barnes and Noble and, apparently not content with their multibillion dollar dominance of book sale monoculture, nor with the recent collapse of Borders Books & Music, are giving their e-readers the nook and the Kindle a facelift, adding color graphics, touch screens, the ability to stream movies, facebook (verb), play games and more.

Kindle and nook are both a few years old, predating the iPad.  Once matte grayish affairs meant for reading alone, they are now joining their glamorous iPad cousin in the push for a multimedia tableted society, in which one tool replaces notebooks, pens, paperbacks, mp3 players and hand-held video players.  They do seem a little bit bulky to replace digital cameras – I mean you have to leave something for your phone to do.

I know that one of the treasured freedoms of our country is that everyone with money or credit has the right to demand as many digital devices as they can keep up with.  But the tableting of America seems a little like overkill, even for the personal electronics pushermen.  When is enough going to be enough?

In the face of all these social media-enabling media platforms, the question remains whether we are actually more social people in the 21st Century.  Twitter, in its brevity and immediacy, has become the de facto place for breaking news.  But anyone who has taken urban public transportation lately can be made to reflect on the the tension whereby gentrification has put many people in the most “diverse” environs of their lives, only to see them retreat into mobile digital devices that enable us to remain cloistered, even in public places.

(It is rumored that during the next Republican Presidential Debate, the candidates will not only answer questions FROM Twitter, they will answer the questions ON Twitter itself.  [The site’s 140-character limit is not predicted to change the content of the debate substantially.])

In these digital pages I have decried the rise of mp3 culture and its sacrificial victims: album art, local CD/record stores, the excitement you feel when you hear your favorite song on the radio and the Columbia House Music Club.  I was admittedly acting the part of a Luddite.  Since that time I have impulse bought more than three albums with the instant gratification of iTunes, and I have spent endless minutes pouring over the PDFs of album art lovingly on the screen of my MacBook Pro.

But this time I have to put my foot down again.  Did anyone mind using books?  Oh, but this will be saving so much paper!  I guess so, but ways of recycling paper have been pretty well established, and I still have no real idea how electronics get recycled, except that it’s dangerous, expensive and involves open fires without facial protection in China.  And will countries like the Democratic Republic of Congo and Bolivia will generate enough coltan and lithium to keep up with our exponential handheld device demands?

I’m not saying that tablets aren’t valuable in some applications.  A recent 60 Minutes episode showed the effectiveness of using iPads to teach autistic children, and filmmaker Danfung Dennis (Hell and Back Again) invented a camera lens that allows you to view over 300 degrees of a filming area on your tablet for a truly immersive documentary experience.  But I bristle that we’re being peer pressured to rush out and buy yet another digital device that will put another nail in the coffin of face to face culture and all of its unsung benefits.  Enjoy the convenience of poring through the sociology section of your nook color tablet; you probably won’t have an impromptu conversation with someone also looking to learn more about humans.

There are so many books already printed that we have been meaning to read.  And we spend so much time already looking at screens that it’s probably better to give them a rest every once in a while.


Stay Gold, Jo Boy

It's Jo!

Lady Gaga hates the truth. Meanwhile, Jo Calderone came to rock. 
Was it a little awkward? Maybe. But Jo Calderone’s performance at the MTV Video Music Awards on Sunday was nothing if not refreshing.

If only, as Jimmy Fallon pointed out Monday, because so many other pop starlets dressed like they thought Lady Gaga would dress, with layers of plastic, fluff and goth, only to be confronted with the plain white-t, uncouth aggro Jersey male charm of a certain MR. Calderone (actually Lady Gaga in male drag!).

The Lady’s pre-requisite pop star thinness on the male frame of Jo made the lad appear like one of the malnourished greaser waifs from the movie of S.E. Hinton’s The Outsiders, specifically Ralph Macchio, who became a trending topic on Twitter during the VMAs.

Watching as a former acting student myself, and as Maura Johnston pointed out in the Village Voice’s hilarious live-blogging of the VMAs, this NYU acting student could have made a few more interesting character choices – maybe modulating into something more nuanced than a shout, and not making the monologue so graphically sexual would have still worked ok. A little subtlety, eh! Jo!

More like he was backstage answering the inane queries of the press.

Reporter: (don’t disturb the crazy artiste-voice) “And how long will Jo be with us?”
Jo: “I dunno, I’m gonna to be here like 5 more minutes.”

As it was, the opening monologue of the performance came off at first blush like an embarrassing rant about how fantastic Lady Gaga is and about how Jo is jealous and her – and how he wants in – get it, in – to her spotlight at all costs  – you know, a dickish man move.

But then it got a little interesting.

“I tell her, I want her to be real! But she says she ain’t real. She says she’s THEATRE!”

Well, okay then.

Backstage, talking to the press – finally warming into the improv of it all, Jo explained earnestly that Gaga had made him attend the awards in her stead, because “she’s just really freaking pissed at me.”

As The Onion pointed out in it’s live-blogging, Lady Gaga so far has been nothing so much as a Rorschach blot for her throngs of fans, who see in her antics whatever they want to see.

But she’s a Rorschach blot with a dark vision, leaving worrying ellipses after all each incident of her habitual line-stepping.

She and Beyonce poisoned Tyrese (Tyrese!) along with a diner full of patrons in the video for Telephone. The clip inexplicably mines the themes of prison, Kill Bill and Thelma and Louise for some vague stylish avant-comedy ends.

The Telephone video currently has over 119 MILLION views on You Tube. Thematically, it fit her previous video for Paparazzi, in which her character must stylistically kill or be killed by a menacing Swedish boyfriend.

2011’s  Best Video With A Message, Gaga’s Born This Way, for which Jo accepted the moon man – is her most uplifting song yet. But it’s jubilant affirmations of focusing on the determinism of birth is not only one-note, it sounds exactly like Express Yourself (Madonna, in her free-thieving from the Drag Ball Queendom era). And “I’m on the right track, baby?” Now you’re earnest, Gaga? You just poisoned a dinerfull of folks, plus a guy whose only crime was crooning on the bus.

She has showed up at an awards shows in a dress made of meat, which was kind of compelling – as well as in a red feather and lace outfit that made her look like a horror movie come to life. As an admittedly over-sensitive kid, I was not entirely comfortable with the grotesque imagery of the movie Harry and the Hendersons. I shudder to think of myself born 20 years later and somehow toddling up to a People magazine, pages splayed open to a photo of the mask of the red death Gaga posing on the red carpet.
Lady Gaga is a lot of things but life-affirming is not one of them.

I know Gaga has justified all of this by screaming ART and THEATRE at all costs, like Jo seemed he might grow hoarse up onstage doing.

But Jo didn’t grow so hoarse screaming at the madness of Lady Gaga that he didn’t still rock the bleep out and alongside Queen guitarist Brian May, no less. The reaction shot of Dave Grohl upon May’s entrance proved that he and Jo were near-about the only famous real rock guys there, a realization that was not lost on him, in his acceptance speech.

For some reason, Jo let loose vocally in a way Gaga never would have, and still Michael Jackson Beat It-kicked with an entourage of mens in a performance the late Freddie Mercury would have likely lost his mind over.

Welcome Jo. Gaga, to me, was beginning to grate. In the midst of her February show at Madison Square Garden, which aired as a concert special at the beginning of the summer, Lady Gaga, in her stripped-down, monologue-y moment, sat up from her writhing and bellowed “I hate the truth!”

Wow, I thought. What does she mean?

Some truths are hate-able. But, which truth was Lady Gaga talking about?

For example, does she hate the truth of what’s happening in Somalia? The truth that what’s happening in Somalia isn’t even on most people’s radar? The truth that Somalia is far from the only globalized location wracked with urgent, ignored tragedy?

The point is, you can hate the truth, but you have to know it. Hating it doesn’t help you handle it. And let’s face it, no one wants to be the guy who can’t handle the truth, getting yelled at like that – or worse. But Gaga was yelling at us too.

Which is why it was a breath of fresh air to see the aristocratic empty-eyed mind fuck of Gaga put on the shelf, and experience this – THIS freakin’ guy, working class Jo Calderone swing for the bleachers and give us an earnest rock-out performance. It was in the magical tradition of what RuPaul, Jujubee, Tyra Sanchez (the New Tyra), Raven and others do on a daily; witness the superior Logo TV reality talent competition, RuPaul’s Drag Race.  But The Artist Sometimes Known as Gaga was gender transgressing the other way, in a direction more alarming to the establishment.

It was also funny to see the rest of the popperazzi clutch their figurative pearls when confronted with Jo’s challenging mug. Justin Bieber looked concerned. One of the night’s honorees, Britney Spears, wearing a sexily safe frock that honored the color palate of her winning video’s apocalyptic theme, looked at first stunned by Jo and later rebuffed his kiss, uncomfortably laughing “I’ve done that already” (when she kissed Madonna. Back when they were honoring Madonna for some reason).

The departed honoree of the night, the late Amy Winehouse, would likely have delighted in the whole Jo Calderone experience.

Perhaps Jo felt the need to crash the awards ceremony because, well, female pop stars are handled strangely – celebrated after they break (Amy), or are somehow still squeezed together and stomping (Britney, celebrating some milestone?) But not mentioned, seemingly, when they are gone exactly 10 years for sudden accidental reasons (Aaliyah), even if they made classic R&B songs, iconic videos and even starred in a Shakespearian martial arts film during a tragically short career.

Beyonce – in the game nearly as long as Brit – planned her own celebration that didn’t require a light cue or a word – just a proud rearrangement of sequins and “Bam!” baby bump – destiny manifest. Jay-Z cheesing like, no, he can’t believe it either! And Kanye bouncing around with glee like a damn sophomore, even after we all had to listen to teachers’ pet Katy Perry chastise him, dripping with Gaga’s leftover cotton candy, and refer to him as “Boo,” with the nasal pronunciation of the native of Santa Barbara, California that she is.

Katy was of course, reminding everybody of Kanye’s much-derided outburst, in which he got suspended for talking about how dope the now with-child Beyonce, (his boss/friend’s girl’s) video was (a single-shot, silver gelatin-ed Bob Fosse routine remixed by a male choreographers Frank Gaston and JaQuel White, with White also appearing in the video as one of the two female backup dancers) as opposed to the winning video in which Taylor Swift portrays a literal interperation of lyrics contrasting the virtues of sneakers and high heels.
I for one hope we see more of Jo. Sounds like Gaga needs a rest. But let’s see what happens. I guess I’m just a believer that Ralph Macchio-looking waters run deep. If MTV lets THIS Jersey Shore synergy opportunity go by, it will really be saying something. Let’s see if Jo can be his own man and actually call bullshit on his girl before all her freakin’ “theatre” saturates us with images too contextless and bleak to be washing over us 119 million times. Come back when you can handle the truth, Gaga – or at least stop being such a hater.

Bad Teachers?

Eighty teachers in Atlanta Public Schools confess to cheating on standardized tests, while Cameron Diaz lazily besmirches the role of educator at the multiplex. When teachers cheat, what do we learn?

Cameron Diaz in the movie Bad Teacher

On Tuesday, Gov. Nathan Deal of Georgia released a report on a decade-long cheating network for state tests on the part of 178 educators in Atlanta Public School system, including 38 principals, 80 of which have confessed. The culture of cheating is said to have stretched all the way to the top, allegedly implicating former Superintendent Beverly Hall. APS, the report says, manipulated a “data-driven” system in which test-score targets were being set ever higher, and then achieved through falsification. This misleading achievement data led to national accolades and a rush of private funding for APS.

Stretching back to the nascence of the No Child Left Behind Act in 2001, the widespread cheating allegations in Atlanta could draw increased scrutiny of standardized tests, long considered the benchmark of how children are learning, and which schools deserve to stay open.

According to the Atlanta Journal-Constitution, which broke the story:

“The investigators’ report, officials said, depicts a culture that rewarded cheaters, punished whistle-blowers and covered up improprieties. Strongly contradicting denials of cheating and other irregularities by Hall and other top district executives, the report describes organized wrongdoing that robbed tens of thousands of children — many of whom came from disadvantaged backgrounds and struggled in school — of an honest appraisal of their abilities.”

The report recounts instances in which children who could not read not only passed, but scored highest on the state reading tests. Had they been accurately tested, these struggling children would have received the support they needed to improve their skills, the Journal-Constitution reports. But in the school-funding meritocracy that closes schools with too many kids who don’t test well, it appears that the APS scandal is an ugly result of what can happen when financial support is tied to the black-and-white results of state tests in the sociological gray area of education.

State tests or no, teachers should know whether their students are able to read or not, and the practice of “social promotion” has long advanced students to upper grades who are not ready for the work they encounter there.

Next door in Alabama, one of the 10 poorest states in the U.S., the testing system of No Child Left Behind has drawn criticism. “There’s a fallacy in the law and everybody knows it,” said Alabama State Superintendent Joe Morton in August of last year. According to Morton, the whole system is out of order; the NCLB Act states that by 2014 every child is supposed to test on grade level in reading and math. “That can’t happen,” said Morton. “You have too many variables and you have too many scenarios, and everybody knows that would never happen.” In this context, it appears that the teachers and school leaders in Atlanta might have been acting unethically out of duress.

Are the victims in the Atlanta scandal that poor high school graduating class of 2011, who walked across the stage with a false sense of how their scores had measured up against the rest of the eighth graders in the U.S. back in 2006 – on the dubious “level playing field” of state tests?

Former Atlanta Public Schools Superintendent Beverly Hall displays her 2009 Superintendent of the Year award. Hall's lawyers maintain that she did not know of the widespread cheating among APS educators

Or the bureaurocrats, robbed of the veil of accuracy heretofore signified by the miles of Scantron sheets they determine is the best way to allocate resources?

From how the next few months play out in Atlanta, we will see the consequences of messing with the certainty that in education, data equals destiny.

Depressing accounts from the teacher whistleblowers profiled in the Journal-Constitution say they witnessed other teachers giving kids the answers, allowing them to cheat off of fellow students, or flat-out erasing and correcting wrong answers on the sheets. These whistleblowers say their reports were ignored by school leadership, and allege they were retaliated against for reporting the unethical behavior they witnessed.

In a Journal-Constitution story on the cheating scandal, one teacher accused of feeding fourth graders answers defended herself, saying she was merely walking the aisles to wake up sleeping students so they “wouldn’t salivate on their answer sheets.”

Is there any other way to determine whether these kids in Atlanta were learning all these years? Falsifying federal records is punishable by up to 10 years in prison. For this critical mass of cheating teachers, what will the consequences be?

The Journal-Constitution, again:

“State School Superintendent John Barge and Executive Director of the Governor’s Office of Student Achievement Kathleen Mathers said in a statement Tuesday in coming weeks ‘they will be working on a number of key issues, including: 1) student support, 2) accountability, and 3) the financial benefit that some schools may have received as a result of cheating.’”

Will the schools implicated in this cheating scandal (and of the 56 schools investigated, evidence of cheating turned up at 44) be made to pay financially in keeping with the meritocracy of public education policy?

For their part, major private donor the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation this week said in a statement that they continue to support APS and the work they fund. In 2007 Gates gave the Atlanta Public School System $10.5 million to redesign their high schools, and in 2010, another $10 million to overhaul the city’s teacher recruitment efforts. These latter funds will presumably be needed more than ever now, with the new APS leadership vowing that the cheating teachers will not be back in the classroom.

“The vast majority of the district’s educators, administrators and students have all worked hard to overcome great odds and earn stellar results,” Gates Foundation press secretary Christopher Williams told the Atlanta Journal-Constitution.

As a nation, this might be a good time to ask ourselves, should cheating hold the same moral juice on Wall Street (where tens of millions of adults were robbed of an honest appraisal of their credit abilities with very little systemic accountability) as it does in the Teacher’s Lounge?

The implications of this scandal are that educators acted selfishly to secure their own jobs and financial gain at the expense of their students’ learning. But what if it was to keep the doors of their schools open in a system they believed was wrong-headed?

Selfishness is the order of the day in the comedy Bad Teacher, in which Cameron Diaz plays Elizabeth Halsey, a seventh grade English teacher with slacker ways who resorts to ludicrous sexual trickery and extortion to steal the answers to a state test and win a cash incentive. She is nearly caught, but never punished. In the moral code of Hollywood, tellingly, Ms. Halsey steals the answers so she can teach them overtly to her students – and perhaps she gets off Scott free because her kids actually learn.

Ms. Halsey pedagogy involves “really teaching” her kids (through a convenient montage of dubious methods), inter-cut with descending levels of sexual degradation. She needs the incentive money for a breast-enhancement surgery so she can land Justin Timberlake’s fancy watch empire-scion milquetoast not-doing-it-for-the-money substitute teacher.

Diaz delivers probably her most compelling onscreen characterization as a verge-of-burnout beauty cynically snapping on a smile for what feels like one last time, each time. But her keeping-it-realness is not grounded in any social reality other than that of a gold digger fallen from grace, her class populated with stock-character kids fated to be pint-sized echoes of her adult love quadrangle. Ms. Halsey’s story begs the question: not, will her kids learn, but will she learn to live with her own breasts through the love of a humble PE teacher, Jason Segal, a man doing it for the witty repartee, humble state paycheck and, oh yeah, the kids. And after all that, Ms. Halsey’s moment of redemption comes through a small bout of inappropriate, breast-related teacher-student line-stepping during a field trip.

Besides the upper class/middle class tension between Timberlake and Segal, race and class are largely absent from this education satire, with three notable exceptions. Before she becomes an all-business educator, Ms. Halsey screens the teacher-as-savoir movies of the past two generations for her class, from Lean on Me to Dangerous Minds, letting Edward James Olmos and Morgan Freeman to do her inspiring for her mostly Caucasian students. Posing as a Chicago Tribune reporter to lift a copy of the answer key from a hapless Thomas Lennon, the script flips the idea of intrinsic racial bias in the testing material into a queasy punch line referencing “Orientals.” And in the final frames, a middle school named for Malcolm X. gets an unlikely laugh, when it is announced that Ms. Halsey’s painfully corny teacher-nemesis will presumably receive her off-screen come-uppance there.

As for real life, stay tuned for how this all-too-real cheating scandal will play out. The more complicated “selfishness” of Atlanta Public Schools educators has been thrust into the sweat-inducing spotlight, which might release some toxins of what has been left unsaid in our all-important, high profile “national conversation” about education.

What He Could Have Said: Weiner on the Mic

Did I tweet something wrong?

Did anyone else watch the Anthony Weiner emergency press conference?


What He Could (?!) Have Said:

(Welcome to What S(He) Could Have Said, a new feature in which we explore what could have been said at different moments in time)

Last week, Rep. Anthony Weiner admitted to accidentally posting a lewd but clothed photo to Twitter, and then lying about it at an embarrassing press conference. Embarrassing to be sure, but in his abject apology press conference, Weiner perhaps over-compensated, calling it a “terrible” action in a world full of things far more terrible than some suggestive tweeting. He then vowed to focus all his energy on getting right with wife Huma Abedin part of Hilary Clinton’s inner circle, who was not at the press conference.

Weiner, you jerk! But by drawing out this sophomoric story, is the media being jerkier? Here’s what he could have said.

REP ANTHONY WEINER: “Good afternoon. Thank you for coming. I want to take this opportunity to talk about some things that have transpired in the last ten days or so.

Last Friday night, I tweeted a photograph of myself that I intended to send as a direct message as part of a joke to a woman in Seattle. Once I realized I had posted it to Twitter, I panicked, I took it down and said I had been hacked.

Some of you are shaking your head right now. Not out of righteous indignation, but because you don’t know what most of the last few sentences meant.

Yes, I got to know you folks. The elderly. You vote. To you, I am sorry. Really, really sorry.

To my wife, I’m deeply sorry. To my wife’s boss, Hilary Clinton, I hope you will still talk to me. And to my wife’s boss’ husband, Bill Clinton, I would like to apologize for a whole other series of reasons. I would also like to take this opportunity to point out that my sex scandal is Dirty Dancing to your sex scandal’s Deep Throat.

To the rest of you I would like to re-emphasize that yes, that photo is me. (That’s right, Jon Stewart. It’s me, b****)

it was really, really stupid. Naturally, I regret it. A little tequila and a iPhone 4 have never done worse. Anyone who disagrees with that statement should use #THENEWWEINER

It was the media that first literally aired my dirty laundry. Something called the conservative blogosphere to be exact – no, elderly people, I didn’t know that was a phrase either. But addressing the whole media, I would like to take this opportunity of my public humiliation to draw your attention to a series of other current events. Events that you could, later today if you wanted to, turn your attention to instead of this one.

What about Dominique Strauss-Kahn? Isn’t that politician and head of the International Monetary Fund – an International politician – actually accused of raping a woman in New York City? What’s happening with that guy? Don’t you have some more questions for him? No? Okay, then how about explaining to the American people what the International Monetary Fund is?

Leave me alone at the Sheraton to think about what I did, maybe get a refresher course on new media from my intern. Oh my gosh, why did all those flash bulbs just go off… oh, wait. Come on, you guys that’s not a euphemism for anything. My intern’s name is Stanley. Why do those flash bulbs keep going off?

Did you guys forget that a gallon of gas costs $4 and you’re still not sure what’s happening with all the oil they spilled in the Gulf of Mexico, anyway? Where’s the follow-up to what Sanjay Gupta said on CNN about cell phones killing your brain in a totally trackable way?

Do you think that now that we got Osama Bin-Laden, we can bring the troops home? Or maybe the explanation is more complicated than that. Well, you’re reporters! Get to fact-checking, m**********s.

What about why do a lot of people in your government who now have juice seem to want “real sick” to keep translating to “real broke”?

Sarah Palin, I blame you. I don’t know why, but I just do. You were the one who was just around the most when I noticed the U.S. government turning into an US magazine.

Frankly, gang, if accidentally putting a picture of a some bulging shorts up on internet is the worst thing that your government was doing, then you would be in pretty great shape. But I know how you do. You’re going to Kanye me.

[Editor’s note: Technically speaking, you can only Kanye yourself, no one can Kanye you. To be Kanye-d is to be slung with righteous indignation mud from all sides of the culture after an embarrassing event until you wake up sweating at night thinking that after you’re gone, your most referenced words might MIGHT just be a (possibly inebriated) “Beyonce had the best video of all time!” when it was (already distressingly damsel-like) Taylor Swift’s “turn to talk,” instead of when you stunned all of them, including Wayne from Wayne’s World, with “George Bush doesn’t care about Black people.”]

But no matter what you do when we all leave this Sheraton, press corps, I am now going to go out there and redeem myself. I’m not going to focus all my energy on trying to get my personal life back together – frankly, I need to cool it with the ego trips.

No, America, I’m bringing it. I’m talking some Jimmy Stewart, man of color on The West Wing, first 80 minutes of Bulworth, Russ FEINGOLD-type action. I’m going to focus my energy on being the representative you want and need me to be. And guess what, America – New York State in particular: your representative sometimes gets into uncomfortable spots in his personal relationships, accidentally posts inappropriate photos of himself and then tells a quick lie about it. Whoops! Believe me, I am so, SO sorry! That’s something you could never, ever do, right, America? Right, New York?

Weiner out!

Conan Rocks Jeggings!

Watch this instant classic at

WHY was Conan’s wearing of the resurgent jean-looking stretch-pants known as jeggings the funniest thing ever?

When I was eight, I HAD some jeggings. You see, my youthful self found real jeans uncomfortable for some odd reason, and this seemed like a nice compromise.

But even back then, the jeggings didn’t seem ready for the world. I looked at those things through my Sally Jesse Raphael glasses and said to myself, “these’ll never come back.”

I didn’t anticipate our current moment.

Maybe it’s the fact that, at the end of the day, what you’re actually wearing is an artist’s rendering of jeans.

Maybe it’s that jeans were invented for men to work building the freaking railroad back in the day.

Maybe it’s that you look like you’re watching coverage of the first Persian Gulf War on a TV inside a wooden piece of furniture instead of the second Gulf War on a small notebook-sized slabs of metal and minerals. What do we wear when we’re watching this one? Unfortunately, we don’t know.

Maybe it’s the fact that they are like a parody of an iconic pant, American blue jeans took the rest of the world by storm like that syrupy carbonated Kola nut (Africa?) and Cocoa (South America?) drink (the secret ingredient of which isn’t even public knowledge, reports John Pilger):

Maybe its because Conan wore them with a Little Lord Faunteleroy strut like he knew it all.

When Tim Gunn informed Conan that, yes, some men were “out there” who wore jeggings, this prompted total disbelief from Conan.

He was curious about stretch pants like a sociologist. He was going to expose them. And possibly himself.

It brings us to the question: what do stretch pants mean?

If you wanted to get all Harvard semiotics major about it you could also interpret stretch pants as pants that stretch across the globe – as so much of commercial clothing is these days, produced for Americans, by others in countries with lower income, but perhaps in cultural ways, maybe a higher standard of living. And the thing is with figurative and literal stretch jeans, its so hard to hide who you truly are.

Conan said, America: take a good look. At yourself. It’s me in jeggings right now.