Press-dinner proceeds, cat-and-mouse China reporting, testing the testers

By Steven Brill
May 15, 2012

1. The White House Correspondents Dinner: How much for charity?

Two Sundays ago, Tom Brokaw used an appearance on Meet the Press to attack the increasingly over-the-top annual gathering of press, politicians and Hollywood stars and hangers-on known as the White House Correspondents’ Dinner. Brokaw called it “an event that separates the press from the people that they’re supposed to serve. It is time to re-think it.” Incoming correspondents’ association president Ed Henry of Fox News quickly tweeted back that the dinner, which featured among other celebs Kim Kardashian, “raises TON of $ for needy kids who might not get into journalism w/out help.”

Really? The association’s website lists just $78,000 for 15 scholarships in 2012, plus one scholarship whose amount is not listed. Assuming it’s about $6,000 (a bit above the average for the other 15 scholarships), that would be $84,000 in scholarships. Plus, there’s a $30,000 grant listed for a high school mentoring program. Yet this year’s dinner, according to an association board member, sold “nearly” 2,700 seats at $250 each to various media companies. That would raise over $650,000 for the dinner, compared with what, again, looks like $84,000 for scholarships and $30,000 for mentoring. That’s a total of $114,000.

Moreover, on the page where the website lists the scholarships, the correspondents’ association names 18 donors who are thanked for their “generosity.” The donors include Bloomberg, Time Inc and Thomson Reuters, and they seem to have given to the scholarship fund apart from buying dinner tables, or at least the website makes it appear that way. If so, wouldn’t these deep pockets have already come up with some or all of that $114,000 “TON of $” before the dinner was even held? That’s only a donation of about $6,000 each. Which would mean that the revenue from the dinner had little or nothing to do with the scholarships.

There could be lots of explanations for this, such as the possibility that this year’s dinner will pay for an expanded array of scholarships next year. But the numbers suggest that someone ought to look at exactly how much the party actually helps Ed Henry’s “needy kids.”

2. Dateline China

I’ve noticed that stories like this one in the New York Times reporting on the dramatic events surrounding the travails of Chen Guangcheng, the dissident blind lawyer, have multiple bylines as well as multiple names listed at the end of the story of Times people who contributed to the article. Which makes me wonder about the ins and outs of reporting and getting stories like this out of China. Who did which reporting among the 10 people credited with working on this story, and how did they do it? With some working from Beijing, others in Washington and one even in Portsmouth, Virginia, how does this all get put together?

More generally, what are the special challenges of getting news like this out? Assuming Chinese security people follow Western journalists, what do the reporters do to give them the slip? How successful are the authorities at monitoring reporters’ emails and phone conversations, and what steps do journalists take to evade them? Are communications ever blocked completely? What special measures must the reporters take to protect sources? Is anything ever self-censored out of fear for the journalists’ or sources’ safety? Do reporters from competing news organizations cooperate more and develop greater camaraderie under these trying conditions, or do they compete even harder?

Major news organizations have done a great job bringing this story (and that of the scandal around the fall of former Chongqing province mayor Bo Xilai and his wife) to the world. Their work seems far faster and more complete than what emerged in the immediate weeks following Tiananmen Square in 1989. Sure, there’s been a revolution in digital communications since then, but the police state’s own technology apparatus has similarly upped its game. It would be great to see the story behind what is probably the digital age’s most compelling cat-and-mouse contest.

3. Testing the testers

This story last week in the Wall Street Journal recounted how a slew of obvious, even hilarious, errors in the questions posed on English and math tests given to students in the third through eighth grades in New York State has “eroded trust in the statewide exams.” In one case, a now-infamous passage about a pineapple and a hare intended to test reading comprehension was so nonsensical that Gawker posted it and dared readers to answer the questions about it posed to eighth graders. If you want to see a great story begging to be written, click here and read the passage and the questions about it.

The company that wrote this test is Pearson, which is also a major force in text books, as well as the publisher of the Financial Times and co-owner of the Economist. Who at Pearson wrote this gibberish? (I’m assuming they didn’t borrow people from the FT or the Economist.) What’s the overall test creation process? One would have thought it would be quite elaborate given that this was part of a $32 million contract Pearson won from New York State to write the tests. What’s the profit margin on work like this? How many layers of approval did that reading passage go through? Who in the state school system vetted the tests and missed this and so many other screwups? Can the state get its money back? If not, why not? What did Pearson promise to get the testing contract in the first place?

For an ambitious news organization (I’d love to see it on 60 Minutes), all of this, in all its delicious detail, would be a lead-in to a broad-gauge overview of testing quality and the testing industry. At a time when the linchpin of the education reform movement sweeping the country is the push to use student progress on tests as an ingredient in evaluating teacher effectiveness, the quality of the tests – and their cost – has never been more important.

PHOTO: Actress Lindsay Lohan stands on the red carpet as she arrives for the annual White House Correspondents’ Association Dinner at the Washington Hilton in Washington, April 28, 2012. REUTERS/Jonathan Ernst

One comment

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Mr. Brokaw was right. The Whitehouse Correspondence Association only gives $99,000 per year for scholarships. The dinner actually loses money according to the public form 990 year in year out. The dinner lost in excess of $40,000 last year alone. Only, additional contributions allow the Association to provide the scholarhsips, not the dinner itself. The dinner is really the only event that Association conducts. Go the FoundationCenter.Org and look up their form 990, they are public information and are required to be so by law.

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