The Oklahoman

Italicized Shaming

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The Oklahoman recently published a fatuous editorial about the state’s strict third-grade reading test law, arguing with heavy handed italicized emphasis that it and the ensuing fallout has shown thousands of state students can’t read.

Leave aside the editorial's overall sweeping generalization about “thousands” of students, which is hyperbolic. The editorial presents a red-herring argument that minimalizes and distorts the arguments of those people that oppose the law while effectively shaming elementary school students who struggle with reading for a variety of reasons, many of which are not related to instruction.

The law mandates that third-grade students be held back if they can’t pass a high-stakes test showing they read at a first-grade or higher level. State law allows some exemptions and alternative tests, but those other tests or the fallout from the law, according to the editorial, also show too many students can’t read.

Here are the two italicized sentences in the editorial that supposedly make the big point that so many of us have just been too stupid so far to understand: “Those students really can’t read! Thousands of Oklahoma students simply haven’t learned how to read.

Note the exclamation point after the first italicized sentence. It’s as if the editorial writer is reveling in the reading struggles of a group of third-grade students, some of whom undoubtedly have learning disabilities or problematic home lives. Some children live in poverty and go hungry on a regular basis!

The editorial also doesn’t fairly address those who oppose the law. I’m one of them. I definitely oppose the third-grade reading test and other high-stake tests in public schools. I know that some students struggle with reading. I know how important reading is as a foundational lifelong learning tool. I know that some students get to the third grade in Oklahoma and other states and can’t read well. But I also know the educational system—not newspaper editorial writers and politicians—should address the reading issue with individual students and parents, and educators do address the issue, which is a holistic one that involves more than just sitting down with a child and sounding out words and reading sentences aloud.

The third-grade reading law is really just a political weapon intentionally designed to show the failure of schools and to justify the push for the privatization of public education. The law is designed so editorial writers at conservative newspapers can gleefully write, “Thousands of Oklahoma students simply haven’t learned how to read.” Pop open the champagne. Why not also write, “Millions of elementary school students in the country live in poverty and dysfunctional homes!” Then open another bottle.

There’s no argument that some at-risk students struggle at school. Why would The Oklahoman and conservative politicians even need to make this point unless it wasn’t politically motivated? The issue is whether we nurture and help develop the students’ capabilities or if we shame them with italicized language and consequently help label and stigmatize them. The second approach, which The Oklahoman apparently endorses, is abusive and only creates more learning blocks for students.

As I’ve argued over and over, the conservative school “reform” movement is deliberately designed to show failure. First and foremost, the school reformers here starve public education of needed funding. Oklahoma, for example, has cut education by 23.6 percent since the 2008 recession, which is more than any other state in the nation.

The reformers then implement high-stakes testing and individual school evaluations that focus on punishment for individual students and educators. Public shaming of students that get held back and educators at schools with meaningless F grades are a major part of the process. This is followed by criticism of teachers’ unions and a push for charter schools and further privatization of our educational system. It’s a long-term effort to dismantle public education in this country, which, if it happened, would essentially lead to the dismantling of our democracy.

Let’s help the kids that can’t read. No one can argue against that. Give them more teachers, the best textbooks and encouragement. But, as a society, we also need to work to eliminate child poverty and provide kids with adequate health care. The problem of poor school performance of individual students is more often than not a holistic one and multi-layered. Tests and punishments only serve to further a conservative political agenda. It has nothing to do with helping students to read.

Selective Reporting

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It’s hypocritical and telling that The Oklahoman isn’t demanding the release of the divorce trial records of billionaire energy tycoon Harold Hamm, the chief executive officer of Oklahoma City’s Continental Resources.

As you will recall, The Oklahoman several months ago launched a full-fledged legal and political attack on Oklahoma City former mayoral candidate and current Ward 2 Councilor Ed Shadid to get him to release his old divorce records. He eventually capitulated after the newspaper hounded him relentlessly in an act of obvious support for Shadid’s opponent Mick Cornett in the mayoral election. The records essentially revealed information about Shadid’s long ago drug use that he had already discussed publicly. The newspaper then sensationalized the information in order to sway the election in Cornett’s favor.

The Reuters news agency—not The Oklahoman—has filed a motion to unseal the Oklahoma County divorce trial records of Hamm, 68, pictured right, and Sue Ann Hamm, 58. The trial recently ended. Oklahoma County Special Judge Howard Haralson earlier sealed most of the trial records, according to media reports, in a supposed effort to protect the business interests of Continental Resources, an energy company with a major stake in North Dakota’s Bakken Shale formation.

Let’s be clear: Hamm controls a large and important publicly held energy company. The dividing of assets in his divorce could potentially have a deep impact on the Oklahoma economy. He has also served as a top energy advisor for presidential candidate Mitt Romney. He has lobbied openly for tax breaks for oil and gas companies on a state and national level. He is every bit as much of a public figure as Shadid.

For the record, I was opposed to the unsealing of Shadid’s divorce records because I sincerely believed they only contained older salacious personal accusations that have since been retracted. I was correct on the content of the records. I believe in open government records and overall government transparency, but The Oklahoman crusade against Shadid was unethical and unfair. The fact the newspaper won’t demand the release of Hamm’s divorce records as well proves this point further.

According to a Reuters spokesperson:

Continental Resources is one of the most important publicly traded companies in the U.S. oil industry.

The public has a right to know how its chief executive officer explains his role in the company's growth over the past two decades and whether, as a result of the Hamms' divorce, there may be a change in the shareholding structure of the company.

Sue Ann Hamm, an attorney, has worked at Continental. She and Hamm married in 1988. Hamm’s net worth is estimated at $20 billion, according to the Reuters’ motion, which makes him one of the richest people on the planet. It’s obvious that the division of assets in the divorce could affect the company and the local and state economy. The divorce, then, has important public implications. So where’s The Oklahoman?

The Oklahoman, it should be noted, is owned by yet another billionaire energy tycoon, Philip Anschutz.

To its credit, FOI Oklahoma, a state journalist group dedicated to the concept of freedom of information, has applauded Reuters’ action. The organization also supported The Oklahoman in its quest to unseal Shadid’s divorce records. A post on the FOI Oklahoma web site proclaims, “Kudos to Reuters for fighting to protect our right to public trials. Shame on Oklahoma’s news media for not doing so.”

Shame on The Oklahoman, in particular, for its latest act of blatant hypocrisy.

Sarcasm Not Science

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The Oklahoman editorial page continues to describe the growing environmental movement in this country with self-righteous, smirky sarcasm while ignoring the scientific basis for claims about the threats of climate change and fracking.

This means The Oklahoman puts forth arguments like this about the recent People’s Climate Marches across the country on Sept. 21: “. . . marchers aren’t just useful idiots for the millionaires fighting for a cleaner environment from the comfort of their private jets but simplistic as well . . . ” or “ . . .some of the highest-profile participants in the march — movie stars and politicians — claim we’re destroying the planet but notably refuse to give up their private jets, multiple cars and giant houses.”

Note the fixation with the upper class and private jets. Isn’t The Oklahoman, and I say this with absolutely no sarcasm intended, the mouthpiece for the rich? The quotes I used in the above paragraph came from smaller editorial briefs under the newspaper’s Scissor Tales series. These editorials mock and stereotype. What they don’t do is focus on scientific claims about global warming and the damage done to our planet by the hydraulic fracturing, or fracking, process.

The newspaper’s main counter argument to the 400,000 people who marched in New York, and the thousands more who marched in other cities, including Oklahoma City, seems to be this: People who fly around in private jets shouldn’t be able to speak up against the threat of global warming. That’s nonsensical on two levels. First, the vast majority of people who marched on Sept. 21 don’t fly around in private jets. Second, such reductionist arguments—even if you agree with the accusation of hypocrisy—only try to shift attention away from scientific claims.

The internet and our public libraries abound with credible scientific information about the reality of global warming and the environmental dangers of fracking, which include water contamination and earthquakes. Instead of digging through this information and responding to it, the newspaper’s editorial writers deploy sarcastic ad hominem attacks against people through stereotyping and mocking. This, then, is presented as “argumentation” in the wider culture in Oklahoma. That’s a shame.

One of the latest claims emerging from new studies is that trying to reduce our carbon imprint through a carbon tax and developing cleaner renewable energy sources would actually create more jobs and help the world economy. Don’t expect The Oklahoman to weigh in on this issue, in particular, with anything but sarcasm.

Oklahoma’s U.S. Sen. Jim Inhofe, of course, is famous for denying manmade global warming while arguing that a carbon tax or cap-and-trade for certain industries would eliminate millions of jobs. If Republicans take over the Senate, Inhofe, who is expected to win reelection, could become chair of the Environment and Public Works Committee, and then scientific truth won’t matter at all.

Oklahoma is an energy-producing state, and the oil and gas business is important to the economy. There’s also nothing wrong with healthy skepticism. Even allowing room for those two caveats, The Oklahoman, the largest newspaper in the state, doesn’t even begin to deal honestly with the developing science about global warming and fracking. This is not good for the state’s long-term welfare. What happens, for example, when the fracking boom plays out?

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