Monthly Archives: December 2019

Without consequences, there are no lessons learned: How the news media rationalizes botched reporting

By Kent R. Kroeger (, December 30, 2019)

Once the news media publishes allegations that you are the ‘Centennial Olympic Park bomber’ or ‘a Russian agent/stooge/tool,’ regardless of your innocence, the scar is permanent.

But that is exactly what happened to security guard Richard Jewell after the 1996 bombing at the Atlanta Olympics and to a host of individuals in the aftermath of the 2016 election. These two independent events illustrate how the U.S. news media can fail at covering important events and how they rationalize their botched reporting by assigning blame to their sources, not reporting standards.

Worse yet, there is no consistent mechanism holding journalists accountable for their botched reporting. To the contrary, if their reporting feeds a compelling and profitable narrative (i.e., attracts audiences), it is handsomely rewarded.

Rachel Maddow today makes around $7 million-a-year for MSNBC and, in covering the Russia-Trump collusion (Russiagate) story, was directly responsible for promoting many of the most baseless rumors about Donald Trump and his campaign.

In a scathing indictment of Maddow’s journalistic integrity, Washington Post media critic Erik Wemple recently laid out this example of her deceptive technique:

When small bits of news arose in favor of the dossier, the franchise MSNBC host pumped air into them. At least some of her many fans surely came away from her broadcasts thinking the dossier was a serious piece of investigative research, not the flimflam, quick-twitch game of telephone outlined in the Horowitz report. She seemed to be rooting for the document.

“Seemed to be rooting for the document”? More like cheerleading for its authenticity, I would say.

When Michael Isikoff of Yahoo News, one of the first journalists to report on the infamous Steele Dossier and, to my knowledge, the only major reporter to retrospectively apologize for his mistakes in covering Russiagate, tried to confront Maddow on her reporting errors during the three-year media frenzy, she promptly brushed him aside. In effect, telling him she always said the Steele Dossier was unverified and she won’t be held accountable for failing to prove or disprove the Dossier’s accuracy.

When the Robert Mueller investigation thoroughly destroyed the entire Russiagate narrative along with the Steele Dossier, Maddow could barely find the energy to devote even one full show to Mueller’s final report.


The problem, personified by Maddow but far from exclusive to her, is systemic and rooted in what I call the spot news standard endemic to corporate-controlled news organizations.

Just as Maddow refuses to be held accountable for not substantiating the Steele Dossier, the national news media embraced the same cop out, essentially saying, “What? You expected us to determine the veracity of the Dossier? We just report what our sources tell us.

Hence, the spot news standard: the type of reporting, typically done in the first few hours/days of a news worthy event, which focuses on information provided by official sources (e.g., police, government officials), victims or eyewitnesses. In contrast to spot news reporting, in-depth investigative reporting usually aspires to not only report the ‘facts’ (often as told by sources), but endeavors to independently confirm the quality of such information.

When the Atlanta Journal-Constitution (AJC) first reported that Jewell was the FBI’s prime suspect in the Olympic Park bombing, they were merely repeating what an anonymous FBI source had told one of their journalists. By the spot news standard, the AJC did its job. And a federal court would eventually exonerate AJC for that very reason from a civil lawsuit over its Olympic Park bombing coverage.

But the AJC got the Jewell story wrong, as did most of the national news media in their Russiagate coverage. In both events, the news organizations fed their audiences little truths (e.g., quotes from official sources), but botched the bigger, more important, truths.

And, yet, some people still wring their hands wondering why Americans are increasingly distrustful of the news media.

The answer is obvious. Much of what the news media reports today just isn’t true — and this problem cuts across all news media outlets and ideological points of view.

How did the Fourth Estate regress to this lousy state?

Tennessean columnist Saritha Prabhu lays the blame at the feet of partisanship:

In the Trump era, American national media (CNN, MSNBC, ABC, CBS, Fox News, The Washington Post, The New York Times) have self-divided into openly pro- or anti-Trump factions.

It isn’t covert anymore, and many media outlets wear it as a badge of honor.

But when a media outlet is strongly for or against a leader or party, the first casualties are fairness, honesty and accuracy.

Prabhu further notes that partisan-biased news reporting is profitable, in essence, creating a reinforcing feedback loop.

But the problem with today’s journalism may be more systemic than just the economic incentives behind partisan news coverage.

The privately-controlled media serve a different master than what we are taught in high school civics. They serve the sensational to the extent it is marketable and profitable; they serve social conflict for the same reason; and they serve the interests of political and economic elites because it is from this orbit most journalists and media pundits originate.

And the news media make no apologies for any of this — and why should they? They are rarely held accountable for even their biggest mistakes. If they had to answer for their mischievous disregard for the bigger truths, MSNBC’s Lawrence O’Donnell would have lost his prime time slot after his entirely false report that a Russian oligarch co-signed one of Donald Trump’s business loans with Deutsche Bank.

To his credit, O’Donnell apologized on-air for his amateur-hour mistake. But was his job ever on the line over this incident? I seriously doubt it.


The deep flaws of our national news organizations were exposed during Russiagate, which is one reason the lessons from Clint Eastwood’s newest movie, Richard Jewell, go beyond just reminding us that the AJC (and other news outlets) did a grave disservice to Jewell during their Olympic Park bombing coverage.

The immediate reaction to Eastwood’s movie is particularly revealing. Before Eastwood’s movie had even been released, lawyers were exchanging letters.

On December 9th, the Monday before the movie’s release, the Los Angeles-based law firm Lavely & Singer sent a letter to director Clint Eastwood, screenwriter Billy Ray, Warner Bros. and other parties, on behalf of The (AJC) and Cox Enterprises, its parent corporation. The letter demands Warner Bros. to publicly acknowledge “that some events were imagined for dramatic purposes and artistic license and dramatization were used in the film’s portrayal of events and characters.”

The central issue is the movie’s portrayal of AJC reporter Kathy Scruggs, who broke the new story, sourced from an anonymous FBI informant, that Richard Jewell was the FBI’s prime suspect in the July 1996 deadly bombing at Atlanta’s Centennial Olympic Park.

We know today that Jewell was completely innocent.

It would take the FBI three months before they would publicly acknowledge Jewell was no longer a suspect. Eventually, confessed serial bomber Eric Robert Rudolph would be convicted for the Atlanta bombing and sentenced to life in prison.

In response to the release of Eastwood’s movie, the AJC editorial board published this defense of their original Jewell story:

“Far from acting recklessly, the AJC actually held that story for a day to develop additional independent corroboration of key facts prior to publication,” wrote the AJC editorial board. “Law enforcement sources confirmed to the AJC their focus on Mr. Jewell, and FBI activity had been visible at the Jewells’ apartment. The accuracy of the story had also been confirmed with an FBI spokesperson to whom the entire story was read before publication…

…Within days of the July 1996 bombing, investigators came to focus on Jewell. The AJC was first to report, accurately, that the FBI considered him a suspect. Authorities questioned Jewell, searched his and his mother’s belongings and kept him under round-the-clock surveillance before publicly clearing him about three months later…

…The AJC was among numerous entities sued after Jewell was cleared, and the only one that didn’t settle. The litigation naming the AJC was dismissed in 2011, with the Court of Appeals concluding that the coverage was substantially true at the time of publication.”

The AJC defense that their coverage was “substantially true at the time of publication” disregards the damage their reporting did to an innocent man (i.e., based on the spot news accuracy standard, the AJC did their job).

Yet, Jewell saved hundreds of lives by his quick response to an imminent threat and the initial thanks for his effort was a three-month horsewhipping by the national media as a law enforcement wannabe that lived with his mother. AJC, as much as any other news outlet, built and cultivated that narrative through the use of anonymous FBI sources.

[In AJC’s defense, they were the first news outlet to report timeline evidence that Jewell did not have time to both plant the bomb and reach a pay phone used by the bomber to make a warning call.]

AJC’s apparent insensitivity to Jewell’s interests must be understood in the context of journalism’s fundamental reliance on the spot news standard: If the facts are mostly correct at the time of publication, journalists have nothing for which to apologize.

This low test for journalists is predicated on our shared First Amendment speech rights which protect American journalists from legal prosecution for their reporting, even if it is later proven to be substantively flawed. Absent malice or the ire of the American security state, U.S. journalists do not face legal jeopardy for inaccurate reporting. And that is as it should be. It never should be easy to jail journalists and news publishers.


The low-bar threshold for our Constitution-backed press freedoms is sufficient to protect MSNBC, CNN, the Washington Post, the New York Times, and other news outlets from any legal consequences for their three-year crusade of careless reporting on the Russiagate myth — a story propelled almost entirely in the mainstream media by anonymous, often government, sources.

We can draw parallels from the Jewell case to the more recent Russiagate coverage. As in the Jewell story, Russiagate coverage was constructed around faulty, uncorroborated intelligence passed on by anonymous government sources to the press. Whether the anonymous sources knew they were passing along flawed or irrelevant information may never be known, as we are unlikely to ever know the identities of those sources (again, as it should be).

But we know from both the Robert Mueller report and the Department of Justice Inspector General report that there is no compelling evidence to suggest the Trump’s presidential campaign conspired with the Russians to defeat Hillary Clinton. This narrative was a complete fiction from the very beginning, first promulgated by Clinton’s bitter minions, spread by her equally bitter collaborators in the national news media and *verified* by a vast, nameless infantry of government bureaucrats and intelligence officers.

Russiagate mirrored a standard intelligence community disinformation campaign, its true origins still largely unknown as the national news media has purposefully avoided seeking such answers.

A baseless conspiracy theory is how Rachel Maddow describes the question of whether Trump campaign operative George Papadopoulos’ chance meeting with Malta professor Joseph Mifsud and subsequent bean-spilling conversation with Australian diplomat Alexander Downer were, in fact, a U.S. intelligence community attempt to frame and perhaps turn the former low-level Trump flunky into a government informant.

Or, as still reported in the mainstream news media, was Mifsud a Russian agent tasked with compromising the Trump campaign through Papadopoulos?

Both theories are unproven (though most of the hard evidence resides with the former) and likely will be addressed in Connecticut U.S. Attorney John Durham’s special investigation into the origins of Russiagate.

Either way, the answers are not coming from the anti-Trump press corps because these answers could undermine the media’s ongoing narrative that the FBI and U.S. intelligence community were objective, upright actors in the Russiagate drama.

Which only further reinforces the bigger question: will the national news media ever be forced to answer for their botched Russiagate reporting.

Just as Kathy Scruggs did in the Jewell story, the national news media did the minimum in covering Russiagate (sans a few adversarial journalists like The Intercept’s Glenn Greenwald and The Nation’s Aaron Maté who base their careers on challenging official sources, regardless of partisan affiliation).

The problem is the minimum too often means getting the bigger story wrong (and never needing to say you are sorry).

But if news organizations aren’t going to hold themselves accountable for botching the big stories, who will? It most certainly can’t be the government or an “independent” ombudsman. Putting so much power in so few hands feels like an invitation to unintended consequences.

There is only one irrefutable way to hold news organizations and news entertainers like Rachel Maddow accountable: educated, discerning news consumers empowered to think critically and objectively (to the best extent possible) when consuming news. More importantly, consumers’ judgments will result in palpable carrot-and-stick economic consequences for news organizations.

We, in fact, may be seeing evidence of this dynamic already with the most recent year-to-year decline in TV audiences for both CNN and MSNBC (the most prominent cable news curators of the Russiagate myth).

For the sake of our Fourth Estate, we can hope accountability is making a comeback.

  • K.R.K.

Postscript: Clint Eastwood’s movie about Richard Jewell and the 1996 Olympic Park bombing is trying to serve the truthUnfortunately, he should have first gotten his own truthiness house in order.

Why Eastwood and screenwriter Billy Ray decided to imply Atlanta Journal-Constitution reporter Kathy Scruggs slept with an FBI source in order to extract crucial information is incomprehensible. The specific scene in dispute — featuring Scruggs (played by Olivia Wilde) and Tom Shaw (an FBI agent played by Jon Hamm) — could have easily been replaced with something less sexually overt and the movie would have lost nothing.

It just confirms that Hollywood, like corporate news organizations, are not dependable guardians of the truth.

If all you see are hijabs, you are missing the fast rise of Jordan’s women

By Kent R. Kroeger (, December 20, 2019)


This essay documents my challenges and observations during my family’s recent travels through Oman and Jordan.

This is the fourth essay in a series. The previous essays can be found herehere and here.


“Zach, you know what a hijab is, right?” I asked my teenage son, Zach, a few days prior to a recent family trip to Oman and Jordan.

“Yes, Dad. I do.” he responded in a reflexive, annoyed-teenager tone. “We have girls in school that wear them. I see them all the time.”

“Yes, but, especially in Oman, some will cover their entire face,” I said. “I don’t want it to…”

“Dad, I know. I’ve seen that before too,” Zach interrupted me mid-sentence.

“It will be more common.”

“Dad. Stop it. I don’t care.”

For some reason, I always find Zach’s thorough indifference about everything refreshing. I’m even a little jealous. He doesn’t waste a lot of energy worrying about the future or other people’s lives. Greta Thunberg he is not.

And after thinking about my non-conversation with Zach, I realized the problem was more mine than his.

Prior to this most recent trip, I had been to Middle Eastern countries where the burka (a common hijab in Afghanistan) or the niqaab (a usually black hijab that covers the entire face except for the eyes) were common. I found those particular versions of the hijab unsettling and I just wanted to prepare my son. Is that so wrong?

My wife, Christa, and I try to take advantage of any opportunity we can to engage our son in conversations about politics and current issues — in this case, the status of women in the Islamic world (and the world, in general). It is obviously not a subject self-absorbed, 13-year-old boys want to talk about, but it is precisely at that age where, as parents, my wife and I feel we can have the most lasting impact. [We admit we may be deceiving ourselves on that one; but, as progressive Democrats and regular-attending Unitarians, self-delusion is one of our most highly-developed skills.]

We just didn’t want our son to judge the women we’d be meeting on our trip based on their clothing attire. We believe what a person wears (and other daily practices) can only be understood through a deep knowledge of that person’s culture. In theory, we try not to use American cultural norms and values as criteria for judging other people and cultures. In other words, we are the people Rush Limbaugh started warning everyone about thirty years ago: We are practicing cultural relativists.

Poorly executed, cultural relativism in practice often comes across as condescending. Employed with the proper balance between humility and objective judgment, however, and cultural relativism opens up doors and understanding to other places on a level you can never attain when you restrict your analytic lens to the one provided by your own culture.

I tried to explain ‘cultural relativism’ to Zach and wasn’t sure if it really sank in.

“Dad, don’t worry. I won’t say or do anything to embarrass you and Mom on the trip,” was his curt reaction.

He can be charmless sometimes, but he knows how to cut to the chase.


I’m a political scientist and statistician by training and to me, Islam, as with any cultural attribute, is but one variable in a larger explanatory model. In the aggregate, all else equal, does it explain anything substantive in the corporeal world?

Western academics and thought leaders periodically trot out research and essays broadly condemning Islam and the Qur’an for the mistreatment of Muslim women.

One of the most provocative denunciations of Islam’s view on women has come from Mona Eltahawy, the renowned Egyptian writer and journalist who now lives in Cairo and New York. In her 2015 book, Headscarves and Hymens: Why the Middle East Needs a Sexual Revolution, she repeatedly whomps Muslim men by referring them merely as ‘they’ as she summarizes what life was like for her living in Egypt and Saudi Arabia:

“They hate us because they need us, they fear us, they understand how much control it takes to keep us in line, to keep us good girls with our hymens intact until it’s time for them to fuck us into mothers who raise future generations of misogynists to forever fuel their patriarchy. They hate us because we are at once their temptation and their salvation from that patriarchy, which they must sooner or later realize hurts them, too. They hate us because they know that once we rid ourselves of the alliance of State and Street that works in tandem to control us, we will demand a reckoning.”

Eltahawy’s has an uncompromising view of the inveterate misogyny that is prevalent in most Muslim-majority countries today. And backing her perspective are objective data that overwhelming and unforgiving categorize Muslim-majority countries as brutal towards women (see Appendix B for the Freedom House scoring of selected countries on gender-related freedoms).

Few disagree on the problem. In most Muslim-majority countries the oppression of women is pervasive, persistent, codified and institutionalized. Gender bias runs deep in a country like Saudi Arabia where women only recently have been granted the right to drive and to travel outside the country without a male guardian’s permission.

Yet, there is significant variation in gender equality within Muslim-majority countries that should give us pause before accepting any reductive explanation ascribing the oppression of women almost solely to Islam and the Qur’an. If Muslim-majority countries like Tunisia and Senegal can be ranked similarly to the United Kingdom, Israel, Denmark and France in terms of gender-related freedoms, perhaps Islam and gender equality are compatible under the right conditions. If how Islam is practiced can adapt in some countries to the liberation of women, why not in all countries?


Eltahawy puts ‘headscarves’ front and center among the symbols of women’s suffering in the Islamic countries. But there is so much variation in hijab styles, it seems unnecessary to lump the overt symbolism of the burka or the niqaab — which cover a woman’s face — with the more common shayla or al-amira styles which do not cover the face.

Two Iranian women wearing an al-amira hijab (Photo by by Gabriel White, distributed under a CC-BY 2.0 license.)

Is the hijab really a visible sign of oppression or is it merely an article of clothing motivated by social norms, personal preferences, and/or a desire to demonstrate one’s faith?

“Sometimes a hijab is just a hijab,” a Muslim (Malaysian) friend once explained to us — a group of her graduate school colleagues — when someone suggested her hijab symbolized oppression.

At the same time, stories today of Muslim women and girls being forced to wear the hijab or enter into arranged marriages are real and include examples from Western countries. In her book, Unveiled: How Western Liberals Empower Radical Islam, Yasmine Mohamed, an author and civil rights activist, recounts her own experience growing up in Canada in a household where the rules closely resembled Sharia law and where the hijab was mandatory starting at age nine.


While I prepared for our family trip, I reacquainted myself with the often contentious debate between religious scholar, Reza Aslan, and neuroscientist, Sam Harris, over the roles of reason (science) and religion in explaining various issues in modern society. Inevitably, their discussion miscarries into a dispute over Islam and terrorism.

Where Aslan argues Islam and its guiding text, the Qur’an, is not the cause of terrorist violence, but rather a product of long-standing social conditions and cultural norms (which can change), Harris views the Qur’an itself as a contributing factor to violence against apostates to Islam and to the oppression of women in Islamic societies. “On almost every page, the Qur’an instructs observant Muslims to despise non-believers,” HBO’s Real Time host Bill Maher once said in defending Harris.

While Harris dismisses as false equivalencies any comparisons of the Qur’an to Judeo-Christianity’s Old Testament — which is comparably soaked in violence and misogyny — more disappointing is his resistance to consider the organized violence perpetrated by Western societies against Islamic populations in distant and recent history.

Still, Harris is right when he says ‘the words matter’ and I do consider elements of his thesis as useful, particularly when considering the status of women in Islamic societies. The words we write are important. Major religions codify their rules for a reason — to maintain religious discipline and rules of engagement among their followers.

Nonetheless, my overall impulse is to side with Aslan’s multiculturalist perspective which emphasizes the central role of evolving cultural norms and social conditions in explaining current society.

The hijab is a visible manifestation of the Aslan-Harris debate. Is it the reflection of culture and, therefore, subject to change as cultural norms and rules change? Or, has the garment’s centuries-old existence through the present further evidence that the Koran’s text reinforces and preserves the oppression of women.

In a 2014 Huffington Post article by psychologist Valerie Tarico, Faisal Saeed Al Mutar, a Washington D.C.-based writer and the founder of Global Secular Humanist Movement, tells her why he rejects multiculturalism’s instinct to not judge the hijab:

“I understand the liberal impulse to respect multiculturalism, but aren’t human rights more important than cultures? Humans have rights, cultures don’t, cultures evolve and reform. Liberal friends and allies ask churches and pastors to accept gay rights and women’s rights. It is disrespectful and even racist to ask any less of mosques and Muslim leaders.”

Yet, other Muslim women say the hijab is a symbol of faith, not oppression, and resent the assumption that their personal decision to wear it is forced on them by the men in their lives.

There are no right or wrong answers here. Just a lot of opinions.


Like many of the world’s older cities Amman, Jordan is very walkable. Every daily need is within a short distance from where you might be standing, as self-contained neighborhoods are one of Amman’s defining features.

Leveraging this aspect of Amman, Zach and I decided to make our last day in Amman as simple as possible: walk to a nearby restaurant; wander through a few shops for last minute mementos and gifts; before using the Lyft taxi service to take us to the University of Jordan where my wife and her colleagues were wrapping up their business trip.

After picking us up at our hotel, the Lyft driver snaked at varied, erratic speeds through Amman’s near constant heavy traffic. On the approach to the University of Jordan’s (UJ) campus, my son spotted a McDonald’s near our drop off point — the UJ’s main gate along Queen Rania Street. Annoying our driver with a u-turn request that put us in front of McDonald’s, we stumbled out the Hyundai sedan (which appeared to be every other car in Amman) and texted my wife to announce our arrival.

As we waited for my wife and her colleagues, we felt like pinballs as the high volume of foot traffic passing near the UJ main gate bounced us around. At 31,000 students, UJ is Jordan’s largest university. It is also the oldest and most prestigious.

The University of Jordan’s Main Library ( Photo courtesy of the Univ. of Jordan Library)

While being absorbed into this crowd, I was immediately struck by the high percentage of woman compared to men heading in and out of the UJ campus. It wasn’t even close. Doing a quick headcount (as best I could), I estimated three females for every male student. Just a guesstimate. And, as it turns out, not too far off the actual gender ratio reported by the UJ’s statistical office: Female students at UJ outnumber male students two-to-one. In comparison, females represent 49 percent of Harvard University’s undergraduate population.


Based on their student populations, Jordan’s most elite university is more female-dominated than Harvard. Such is the world we live in today.

More importantly, we are seeing this trend throughout the Middle East and North Africa, not just with respect to tertiary institutions (i.e., higher education), but also with primary and secondary education (grades K-through-12).

UNESCO has created indexes monitoring the status of women in the world’s education system. Since 1995, the evidence is overwhelming: Women in Islamic countries are increasingly being educated at rates comparable to women in economically advanced countries (e.g., the U.S. and Europe).

This fact will fundamentally change the Middle East.

One UNESCO measure is particularly informative: The Gender Parity Index for School Life Expectancy (GPI-SLE). The SLE component is defined as the number of years of schooling from primary to tertiary levels of education. Subsequently, the GPI-SLE is calculated as the ratio of female of school life expectancy to male school life expectancy.

A GPI-SLE equal to 1 indicates parity between females and males. In general, a value less than 1 indicates disparity in favor of males and a value greater than 1 indicates disparity in favor of females.

On this UNESCO measure, women in the Middle East may have already equaled their sisters in the advanced economic world (see table below). For 82 countries with consistent data from 1995 to 2018, each was categorized into one of three categories: Middle East/North Africa, Advanced Economies, Rest of World (see Appendix A for the list of countries and categorization).

The Middle East/North Africa (MENA) countries with reliable data include: Tunisia, Morocco, Palestine, Turkey, Kuwait, Oman, Iran, Jordan and Bahrain.

According to the most recent GPI-SLE, MENA countries have an average GPI-SLE of 1.05, indicating a slight bias in favor of females. This MENA index score is the same as for the advanced economies and slightly higher than all remaining countries (GPI-SLE = 1.02).

It may surprise some that the education systems of Kuwait, Palestine, Tunisia and Oman are more gender biased in favor of females than the United States, Norway, Israel, Denmark, and Finland (see Appendix A). The educational advancement of women in MENA countries defies an arrogant and common assumption about the West’s advantage over Islamic countries in terms of gender equity.

And while the GPI-SLE is just one measure of gender equality in education, other UN-monitored gender equity measures show a similar worldwide pattern to the GPI-SLE (e.g., gross enrollment ratiosadjusted net enrollment ratesadjusted net intake rate to Grade 1Percentage of female graduates by level of tertiary education).

In terms of education, women living in MENA are rapidly catching up to their counterparts in the advanced economies. And its happened relatively fast. In the above table (2nd column) we see that, since 1995, the increase in the GPI-SLE (i.e., the education system has become less biased towards females) has been greater among MENA countries (Δ GPI-SLE = +0.11), than the advanced economics (Δ GPI-SLE = +0.03)or the remaining countries (Δ GPI-SLE = +0.08). The higher magnitude improvements in MENA countries are due, in part, to those countries having started their gender equity efforts with females significantly more disadvantaged at the beginning of the process.

It should be noted that the educational rise of women in MENA countries mirrors similar increases in other parts of the world. It is not an Islamic-thing, it is a world-thing. And this trend is particularly evident in higher education.

“Despite what history across the globe has told us, women now outnumber men at universities — and it is a trend which is accelerating year upon year in the majority of countries,” Isabelle Bilton wrote last year for Study International News, an independent news service monitoring education trends for international students.

Many theories have emerged explaining this worldwide, systemic shift in education attendance and outcomes favoring females. In summarizing the research on this question, Bilton offered this: “There is no answer to why the gender shift occurred but many researchers have speculated problems occur when students are in school. Boys tend to be less interested and less focused on schoolwork, leading to lower grades at all levels of study. As a result, fewer of them choose — or are able — to enroll in universities.”

But something deeper is going on in Jordan and the Middle East more generally. As girls are rising, boys are falling precipitously. As noted by education researcher and author Amanda Ripley in a September 2017 article for The Atlantic, “In school, Jordanian girls are crushing their male peers. The nation’s girls outperform its boys in just about every subject and at every age level. At the University of Jordan, the country’s largest university, women outnumber men by a ratio of two to one — and earn higher grades in math, engineering, computer-information systems, and a range of other subjects.”

This relative trend between males and females in Jordan is not entirely dissimilar from trends in the U.S. where girls do better than boys on standard tests, are more likely to take Advanced Placement tests, more likely to go to college, and will spend more than a year longer in school over their lifetimes compared to their male counterparts.

But, as Ripley’s research shows, something more pernicious may be happening in the Middle East that is (literally) hitting boys hard. In her article, Ripley shared an interview she conducted with a group of teenage girls at an elite Jordanian secondary school. When the girls were asked why they thought girls do better than boys in school, one 16-year-old student, Nawar Mousa, was quick with an answer: “I do my homework, and I read books. My brother, what does he do? He goes with his friends. He plays PlayStation.”

During her research, Ripley also interviewed a Jordanian family with a 15-year-old son attending an all-boys high school. In the course of the interview, the son acknowledged that is common in his boys-only school for teachers to hit students (boys). The boy’s mother added: “Girls’ schools are better,” she said, “less dangerous.”

Whether we can generalize from Ripley’s research to the Jordanian education system writ large is debatable, but her work does conform to other research in Jordan showing academic achievement is affected by violence in the learning environment. Students don’t learn in threatening environments and gender-segregated schools may amplify those threats for boys.

Half of Jordanian primary and secondary public schools are gender-segregated. While there has long been evidence in the U.S. that girls learn better in all-female environments, boys clearly don’t flourish in all-male environments. Quite the opposite. Boys achieve more academically when more girls are in the environment, according to recent research.

In practice, educational strategies that work for girls also work for boys, and vice versa. The research is unequivocal on this point: What drives academic performance is expectations placed on the individual student, regardless if it is a boy or girl.

“Our research shows that boys will compete for good grades and often achieve them in schools where academic effort is expected and valued,” says Claudia Buchmann, a sociology professor at Ohio State University and co-author (with Thomas A. DiPrete) of the book, The Rise of Women: The Growing Gender Gap in Education and What It Means for American Schools.


The progress Jordan has made in the past two decades in building its higher education infrastructure can be seen in the chart below. Where in 2000 few Jordanians aged 25 years or more had a higher education degree, in just 10 years 19 percent of men and 13 percent of women had higher education degrees. While these rates are significantly lower than those observed in the U.S., they are comparable to other Middle Eastern countries. Compared to other Middle Eastern countries, over the past two decades Jordan has among the highest increases in educational attainment for women.

Some observers express caution about the educational advancements of Jordanian women given this fact: women may be getting higher education degrees, but it is not translating into comparable employment opportunities.

In Jordan, nearly 27 percent of unemployed university graduates are male, while almost 68 percent are female. In 2013, the World Bank reported a 35 percent unemployment rate among college-educated women, considerably higher than the rate for college-educated men. In fact, the unemployment rate for men goes down with higher levels of education, but for women the exact opposite is true: As women become more educated, the unemployment rate goes up.

In Jordan’s highly patriarchal society where job opportunities for women have been historically limited, the employment rate disparity between men and women is not surprising. However, as more Jordanian women earn college degrees, many will choose to leave Jordan for other countries, such as the United Arab Emirates, where more jobs (and higher paying ones) exist for women.

This brain drain is a critical issue in Jordan today.


Our last activity in Jordan before flying home was to visit with the Chair of UJ’s Political Science department, Dr. Amir Salameh Al-Qaralleh, an imposing figure when standing, but reclined in his office chair with a cigarette in his hand, he was disarming.

Over the course of an hour long conversation, much of it about Syria and the U.S. withdrawal from the Turkish-Syrian border, a number of Dr. Al-Qaralleh’s students popped their heads into his office. One student forgot her notebook for a class and asked if Dr. Al-Qaralleh had paper he could spare. Another asked about a class assignment. And still another asked about an exam.

“Students today,” he said, slightly shaking his head. “They are not self-sufficient.”

But I had a different reaction, first noticing the obvious comfort these students had walking into Dr. Al-Qaralleh’s office, even as he was in a conversation. Where I went to school (University of Iowa, Columbia University), it is unimaginable that I would have walked in on a Department Chair in such a circumstance.

I also noticed that all of the students that asked to speak to Dr. Al-Qaralleh during our meeting were women. That was not random chance, as I’ve seen this pattern before as a college instructor. Of the students that would visit me during office hours, easily three-quarters were women.

When I shared this observation with Dr. Qaralleh, he paused, choosing his words wisely. “Women aren’t afraid to ask for help,” he replied.

Apparently, the reluctance of men to ask for help is a universal phenomenon.

But this anecdotal evidence may also reflect a higher level of engagement found among female students pursuing a higher education in Jordan.

Dr. Al-Qaralleh seemed to agree with this broad generalization.

Apparent is that Jordanian women are getting educated at increasingly higher rates and it is not a transitory phenomenon. Instead, it is proving to be broad-based and sustained, despite the strains put on the Jordanian education system by the influx of over 600,000 registered Syrian refugees into Jordan since the start of the Syrian Civil War.

The rise of women in Jordanian education mirrors similar changes around the globe, but as I’ve documented here, this trend has been more pronounced in MENA countries than in other regions.

In a patriarchal society like Jordan’s, don’t be surprised if in the next decade the question asked among policymakers is less focused on helping Jordanian women achieve educational and economic parity with Jordanian men, but on how to help men keep up with their female counterparts.


Computer engineering graduates Arwa Tarawneh (left) and Suha Habashneh are learning how to work with Intel Galileo (Photo provided by Intel Free Press)

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Appendix B: