New College Ratings, Fat Kids, Minutemen and Hugh Hewitt

Washington Monthly, which has long criticized traditional college ranking systems — see the magazine’s takedown of the U.S. News rankings here — has come up with a college ranking system of its own. Here’s why:

All of the existing college rankings have the same aim — to help overwhelmed parents and students sift through the thousands of colleges and universities in this country by giving them some yardstick for judging the “best” schools. Whether the guides actually do measure academic excellence — as opposed to, say, academic reputation (not always the same thing) — is debatable at best. The publishers of these guides argue that they are providing a valuable consumer service. Parents who will shell out tens of thousands of dollars to put their teenagers through college need to know they are spending their money wisely.

How much more important, then, is it for taxpayers to know that their money — in the form of billions of dollars of research grants and student aid — is being put to good use? These are institutions, after all, that produce most of the country’s cutting-edge scientific research and are therefore indirectly responsible for much of our national wealth and prosperity. They are the path to the American dream, the surest route for hard-working poor kids to achieve a better life in a changing economy. And they shape, in profound and subtle ways, students’ ideas about American society and their place in it. It seemed obvious to us that these heavily subsidized institutions ought to be graded on how well they perform in these roles, so we set out to create the first annual Washington Monthly College Rankings. While other guides ask what colleges can do for students, we ask what colleges are doing for the country.

The system the Monthly has come up with is, by its own admission, flawed, and the magazine’s discussion of its rankings is filled with caveats that underscore the difficulty of comparing entities as vast and complex as colleges using something as limiting as a list. But that doesn’t mean the rankings aren’t worth exploring, both for their own sake and to put other ranking systems into perspective. So check ‘em out.

The Nation is ruminating on who, exactly, is to blame for childhood obesity, and, as loyal Nation readers might have guessed, the magazine concludes that it’s … the Democrats.

Just kidding.

“The recent conflict over what America eats, and the way the government promotes food, is a disturbing example of how in Bush’s America corporate interests trump public health, public opinion and plain old common sense,” argue Gary Ruskin and Juliet Schor in the cover story. Here are some of the charges:

Conflict about junk food has intensified since late 2001, when a Surgeon General’s report called obesity an “epidemic.” Since that time, the White House has repeatedly weighed in on the side of Big Food. It worked hard to weaken the World Health Organization’s global anti-obesity strategy and went so far as to question the scientific basis for “the linking of fruit and vegetable consumption to decreased risk of obesity and diabetes.” Former Health and Human Services Secretary Tommy Thompson — then our nation’s top public-health officer — even told members of the Grocery Manufacturers Association to “‘go on the offensive’ against critics blaming the food industry for obesity,” according to a November 12, 2002, GMA news release.

Why the pro-junk food stance? Simple, says the magazine: “It’s large infusions of cash.” Among those who gave at least $200,000 to the Bush/Cheney campaign are Coke and Kraft lobbyists and the president of one of the nation’s major sugar producers.

One of the more entertaining writers out there, Matt Labash of the Weekly Standard, hung with the anti-immigration Minutemen on the Mexican border, an experience he writes about with typical panache. (Incidentally, we like the line about how newspaperman and Minuteman leader Chris Simcox “showily puffs Macanudos as though he’d read about it being protocol in the Newspaper Publisher’s Handbook,” but was it really necessary to dub Canadians “our lethargic neighbors to the north”?) Anyway, here’s why he undertook the quest:

Whatever policing of their ranks they’d done, the Minutemen had been macheted in the press. Every sour-tempered hack and alternative-weekly assassin had turned up to call them extremists and xenophobes and depict them as backwoods mouth-breathers, just as happy to hunt Mexicans as to loll on the redwood decks of their double-wides. They were dismissed as “red-faced pudge-tubs in full camo,” and their campaign disparaged as “Granddad’s Last Stand.” Journalists had it both ways, hinting at impending violence, then being dismissive when it didn’t materialize: “These Minutemen are to real vigilantes … what the Disney Jungle Boat Ride is to Amazon exploration,” sniffed one scribe.

It was a confusing picture. Often portrayed as feckless rather than cautiously law-abiding, the Minutemen still came off in the media as some sort of super-spawn of Bernhard Goetz and the Michigan militia circa 1995.

Labash seems to have come away from the experience generally pro-Minuteman, though, thankfully, he’s mostly content to let the players speak for themselves.

We’ll close with a piece from our own Nick Lemann, dean of Columbia’s journalism school as well as staff writer at the New Yorker (which makes him a man of mixed allegiances, not to be trusted in tonight’s CJR/New Yorker softball game). Lemann’s profile of High Hewitt isn’t online, which is unfortunate, but the gist is that the conservative Hewitt is unapologetically biased and “wants liberals in the media to say they are, too.” We actually met Hewitt, who, among other things, is a blogger and radio host, at the Democratic National Convention, and found him quite likeable — certainly not a fire-breathing righty in the mold of Rush Limbaugh or Michael Savage. Which goes a long way toward explaining why he regularly gets liberal guests like Matthew Yglesias and traditional journalists like ABC News’ Terry Moran for his show. (He even got Moran to say the media is anti-military.) Hewitt only agreed to give Lemann access if Lemann would do the same for him — which means Hewitt will likely soon be here at Columbia’s J-School, investigating what he surely sees as a factory for liberals-masquerading-as-nonpartisan journalists. And Lemann will likely play ball, though he sees the world differently than his subject. Writes Lemann:

If Hewitt does write about me, he will surely ask me to reveal whom I voted for in the last presidential election. I might as well get started with the transparency now. Although I do vote, I’m not going to tell him. Like the house of the Lord, journalism has many mansions, and the one Hewitt inhabits is surely one of them. But in another of the mansions, reportorial journalism, the object is different. One can be curious or not, fair-minded or not, intellectually honest in the use of evidence or not, empathetic or not, imprisoned by perspective or not. For a reportorial journalist to announce his voting record is to undermine his work. It dishonors the struggle to do right.

Brian Montopoli

Brian Montopoli is a writer at CJR Daily.