February 1, 2000
Al Gore v. the Media
By Robert Parry
To read the major newspapers and to watch the TV pundit shows, one can't avoid the impression that many in the national press corps have decided that Vice President Al Gore is unfit to be elected the next president of the United States.
Across the board -- from The Washington Post to The Washington Times, from The New York Times to the New York Post, from NBC's cable networks to the traveling campaign press corps -- journalists don't even bother to disguise their contempt for Gore anymore.
At one early Democratic debate, a gathering of about 300 reporters in a nearby press room hissed and hooted at Gore's answers. Meanwhile, every perceived Gore misstep, including his choice of clothing, is treated as a new excuse to put him on a psychiatrist's couch and find him wanting.
Journalists freely call him "delusional," "a liar" and "Zelig." Yet, to back up these sweeping denunciations, the media has relied on a series of distorted quotes and tendentious interpretations of his words, at times following scripts written by the national Republican leadership.
In December, for instance, the news media generated dozens of stories about Gore's supposed claim that he discovered the Love Canal toxic waste dump. "I was the one that started it all," he was quoted as saying. This "gaffe" then was used to recycle other situations in which Gore allegedly exaggerated his role or, as some writers put it, told "bold-faced lies."
But behind these examples of Gore's "lies" was some very sloppy journalism. The Love Canal flap started when The Washington Post and The New York Times misquoted Gore on a key point and cropped out the context of another sentence to give readers a false impression of what he meant.
The error was then exploited by national Republicans and amplified endlessly by the rest of the news media, even after the Post and Times grudgingly filed corrections.
Almost as remarkable, though, is how the two newspapers finally agreed to run corrections. They were effectively shamed into doing so by high school students in New Hampshire and by an Internet site called The Daily Howler, edited by a stand-up comic named Bob Somerby. [http://www.dailyhowler.com/]
Though the major media often portrays the Internet as a bastion for crazed conspiracy theories, the nation's prestige newspapers appeared to have sunk into their own pattern of reckless journalism.
The Love Canal quote controversy began on Nov. 30 when Gore was speaking to a group of high school students in Concord, N.H. He was exhorting the students to reject cynicism and to recognize that individual citizens can effect important changes.
As an example, he cited a high school girl from Toone, Tenn., a town that had experienced problems with toxic waste. She brought the issue to the attention of Gore's congressional office in the late 1970s.
"I called for a congressional investigation and a hearing," Gore told the students. "I looked around the country for other sites like that. I found a little place in upstate New York called Love Canal. Had the first hearing on that issue, and Toone, Tennessee -- that was the one that you didn't hear of. But that was the one that started it all."
After the hearings, Gore said, "we passed a major national law to clean up hazardous dump sites. And we had new efforts to stop the practices that ended up poisoning water around the country. We've still got work to do. But we made a huge difference. And it all happened because one high school student got involved."
The context of Gore's comment was clear. What sparked his interest in the toxic-waste issue was the situation in Toone -- "that was the one that you didn't hear of. But that was the one that started it all."
After learning about the Toone situation, Gore looked for other examples and "found" a similar case at Love Canal. He was not claiming to have been the first one to discover Love Canal, which already had been evacuated. He simply needed other case studies for the hearings.
The next day, The Washington Post stripped Gore's comments of their context and gave them a negative twist. "Gore boasted about his efforts in Congress 20 years ago to publicize the dangers of toxic waste," the Post reported. "'I found a little place in upstate New York called Love Canal,' he said, referring to the Niagara homes evacuated in August 1978 because of chemical contamination. 'I had the first hearing on this issue.' … Gore said his efforts made a lasting impact. 'I was the one that started it all,' he said." [WP, Dec. 1, 1999]
The New York Times ran a slightly less contentious story with the same false quote: "I was the one that started it all."
The Republican National Committee spotted Gore's alleged boast and was quick to fax around its own take. "Al Gore is simply unbelievable -- in the most literal sense of that term," declared Republican National Committee Chairman Jim Nicholson. "It's a pattern of phoniness -- and it would be funny if it weren't also a little scary."
The GOP release then doctored Gore's quote a bit more. After all, it would be grammatically incorrect to have said, "I was the one that started it all." So, the Republican handout fixed Gore's grammar to say, "I was the one who started it all."
In just one day, the key quote had transformed from "that was the one that started it all" to "I was the one that started it all" to "I was the one who started it all."
Instead of taking the offensive against these misquotes, Gore tried to head off the controversy by clarifying his meaning and apologizing if anyone got the wrong impression. But the fun was just beginning.
The national pundit shows quickly picked up the story of Gore's new exaggeration.
"Let's talk about the 'love' factor here," chortled Chris Matthews of CNBC's Hardball. "Here's the guy who said he was the character Ryan O'Neal was based on in ‘Love Story.’ … It seems to me … he's now the guy who created the Love Canal [case]. I mean, isn't this getting ridiculous? … Isn't it getting to be delusionary?"
Matthews turned to his baffled guest, Lois Gibbs, the Love Canal resident who is widely credited with bringing the issue to public attention. She sounded confused about why Gore would claim credit for discovering Love Canal, but defended Gore's hard work on the issue.
"I actually think he's done a great job," Gibbs said. "I mean, he really did work, when nobody else was working, on trying to define what the hazards were in this country and how to clean it up and helping with the Superfund and other legislation." [CNBC's Hardball, Dec. 1, 1999]
The next morning, Post political writer Ceci Connolly highlighted Gore's boast and placed it in his alleged pattern of falsehoods. "Add Love Canal to the list of verbal missteps by Vice President Gore," she wrote. "The man who mistakenly claimed to have inspired the movie 'Love Story' and to have invented the Internet says he didn't quite mean to say he discovered a toxic waste site." [WP, Dec. 2, 1999]
That night, CNBC's Hardball returned to Gore's Love Canal quote by playing the actual clip but altering the context by starting Gore's comments with the words, "I found a little town…"
"It reminds me of Snoopy thinking he's the Red Baron," laughed Chris Matthews. "I mean how did he get this idea? Now you've seen Al Gore in action. I know you didn't know that he was the prototype for Ryan O'Neal's character in ‘Love Story’ or that he invented the Internet. He now is the guy who discovered Love Canal."
Matthews compared the vice president to "Zelig," the Woody Allen character whose face appeared at an unlikely procession of historic events. "What is it, the Zelig guy who keeps saying, 'I was the main character in ‘Love Story.’ I invented the Internet. I invented Love Canal."
Former secretary of labor Robert Reich, who favors Gore's rival, former Sen. Bill Bradley, added, "I don't know why he feels that he has to exaggerate and make some of this stuff up."
The following day, Rupert Murdoch's New York Post elaborated on Gore's pathology of deception. "Again, Al Gore has told a whopper," the Post wrote. "Again, he's been caught red-handed and again, he has been left sputtering and apologizing. This time, he falsely took credit for breaking the Love Canal story. … Yep, another Al Gore bold-faced lie."
The editorial continued: "Al Gore appears to have as much difficulty telling the truth as his boss, Bill Clinton. But Gore's lies are not just false, they're outrageously, stupidly false. It's so easy to determine that he's lying, you have to wonder if he wants to be found out.
"Does he enjoy the embarrassment? Is he hell-bent on destroying his own campaign? … Of course, if Al Gore is determined to turn himself into a national laughingstock, who are we to stand in his way?"
On ABC's "This Week" pundit show, there was head-shaking amazement about Gore's supposed Love Canal lie.
"Gore, again, revealed his Pinocchio problem," declared former Clinton adviser George Stephanopoulos. "Says he was the model for 'Love Story,' created the Internet. And this time, he sort of discovered Love Canal."
A bemused Cokie Roberts chimed in, "Isn't he saying that he really discovered Love Canal when he had hearings on it after people had been evacuated?"
"Yeah," added Bill Kristol, editor of Murdoch's Weekly Standard. Kristol then read Gore's supposed quote: "I found a little place in upstate New York called Love Canal. I was the one that started it all." [ABC’s This Week, Dec. 5, 1999]
The Love Canal controversy soon moved beyond the Washington-New York power axis.
On Dec. 6, The Buffalo News ran an editorial entitled, "Al Gore in Fantasyland," that echoed the words of RNC chief Nicholson. It stated, "Never mind that he didn't invent the Internet, serve as the model for 'Love Story' or blow the whistle on Love Canal. All of this would be funny if it weren't so disturbing."
The next day, the right-wing Washington Times judged Gore crazy. "The real question is how to react to Mr. Gore's increasingly bizarre utterings," the Times wrote. "Webster's New World Dictionary defines 'delusional' thusly: 'The apparent perception, in a nervous or mental disorder, of some thing external that is actually not present … a belief in something that is contrary to fact or reality, resulting from deception, misconception, or a mental disorder.'"
The editorial denounced Gore as "a politician who not only manufactures gross, obvious lies about himself and his achievements but appears to actually believe these confabulations."
But The Washington Times' own credibility was shaky. For its editorial attack on Gore, the newspaper not only printed the bogus quote, "I was the one that started it all," but attributed the quote to The Associated Press, which had actually quoted Gore correctly, ("That was the one...").
The Washington Times' challenge to Gore's sanity also was reminiscent of its 1988 publication of false rumors that Democratic presidential nominee Michael Dukakis had undergone psychiatric treatment. [As for the Times' insinuations about Gore's "delusional" behavior, it might be noted that the newspaper's founder and financial backer, South Korean theocrat Sun Myung Moon, considers himself the Messiah.]
Yet, while the national media was excoriating Gore, the Concord students were learning more than they had expected about how media and politics work in modern America.
For days, the students pressed for a correction from The Washington Post and The New York Times. But the prestige papers balked, insisting that the error was insignificant.
"The part that bugs me is the way they nit pick," said Tara Baker, a Concord High junior. "[But] they should at least get it right." [AP, Dec. 14, 1999]
When the David Letterman show made Love Canal the jumping off point for a joke list: "Top 10 Achievements Claimed by Al Gore," the students responded with a press release entitled "Top 10 Reasons Why Many Concord High Students Feel Betrayed by Some of the Media Coverage of Al Gore's Visit to Their School." [Boston Globe, Dec. 26, 1999]
The Web site, The Daily Howler, also was hectoring what it termed a "grumbling editor" at the Post to correct the error.
Finally, on Dec. 7, a week after Gore's comment, the Post published a partial correction, tucked away as the last item in a corrections box. But the Post still misled readers about what Gore actually said.
The Post correction read: "In fact, Gore said, 'That was the one that started it all,' referring to the congressional hearings on the subject that he called."
The revision fit with the Post's insistence that the two quotes meant pretty much the same thing, but again, the newspaper was distorting Gore's clear intent by attaching "that" to the wrong antecedent. From the full quote, it's obvious the "that" refers to the Toone toxic waste case, not to Gore's hearings.
Three days later, The New York Times followed suit with a correction of its own, but again without fully explaining Gore's position. "They fixed how they misquoted him, but they didn't tell the whole story," commented Lindsey Roy, another Concord High junior.
While the students voiced disillusionment, the two reporters involved showed no remorse for their mistake. "I really do think that the whole thing has been blown out of proportion," said Katharine Seelye of the Times. "It was one word."
The Post's Ceci Connolly even defended her inaccurate rendition of Gore's quote as something of a journalistic duty. "We have an obligation to our readers to alert them [that] this [Gore's false boasting] continues to be something of a habit," she said. [AP, Dec. 14, 1999]
The half-hearted corrections also did not stop newspapers around the country from continuing to use the bogus quote.
A Dec. 9 editorial in the Lancaster [Pa.] New Era even published the polished misquote that the Republican National Committee had stuck in a press release: "I was the one who started it all."
The New Era then went on to psychoanalyze Gore. "Maybe the lying is a symptom of a more deeply-rooted problem: Al Gore doesn't know who he is," the editorial stated. "The vice president is a serial prevaricator."
In the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel, writer Michael Ruby concluded that "the Gore of '99" was full of lies. He "suddenly discovers elastic properties in the truth," Ruby declared. "He invents the Internet, inspires the fictional hero of 'Love Story,' blows the whistle on Love Canal. Except he didn't really do any of those things." [Dec. 12, 1999]
The National Journal's Stuart Taylor Jr. cited the Love Canal case as proof that President Clinton was a kind of political toxic waste contaminant. The problem was "the Clintonization of Al Gore, who increasingly apes his boss in fictionalizing his life story and mangling the truth for political gain. Gore -- self-described inspiration for the novel Love Story, discoverer of Love Canal, co-creator of the Internet," Taylor wrote. [National Journal, Dec. 18, 1999]
On Dec. 19, GOP chairman Nicholson was back on the offensive. Far from apologizing for the RNC's misquotes, Nicholson was reprising the allegations of Gore's falsehoods that had been repeated so often that they had taken on the color of truth: "Remember, too, that this is the same guy who says he invented the Internet, inspired Love Story and discovered Love Canal."
More than two weeks after the Post correction, the bogus quote was still spreading. The Providence Journal lashed out at Gore in an editorial that reminded readers that Gore had said about Love Canal, "I was the one that started it all." The editorial then turned to the bigger picture:
"This is the third time in the last few months that Mr. Gore has made a categorical assertion that is -- well, untrue. … There is an audacity about Mr. Gore's howlers that is stunning. … Perhaps it is time to wonder what it is that impels Vice President Gore to make such preposterous claims, time and again." [Providence Journal, Dec. 23, 1999]
On New Year's Eve, a column in The Washington Times returned again to the theme of Gore's pathological lies.
Entitled "Liar, Liar; Gore's Pants on Fire," the column by Jackie Mason and Raoul Felder concluded that "when Al Gore lies, it's without any apparent reason. Mr. Gore had already established his credits on environmental issues, for better or worse, and had even been anointed 'Mr. Ozone.' So why did he have to tell students in Concord, New Hampshire, ‘I found a little place in upstate New York called Love Canal. I had the first hearing on the issue. I was the one that started it all.'" [WT, Dec. 31, 1999]
The characterization of Gore as a clumsy liar continued into the new year. Again in The Washington Times, R. Emmett Tyrrell Jr. put Gore's falsehoods in the context of a sinister strategy:
"Deposit so many deceits and falsehoods on the public record that the public and the press simply lose interest in the truth. This, the Democrats thought, was the method behind Mr. Gore's many brilliantly conceived little lies. Except that Mr. Gore's lies are not brilliantly conceived. In fact, they are stupid. He gets caught every time … Just last month, Mr. Gore got caught claiming … to have been the whistle-blower for 'discovering Love Canal.'" [WT, Jan. 7, 2000]
It was unclear where Tyrrell got the quote, "discovering Love Canal," since not even the false quotes had put those words in Gore's mouth. But Tyrrell's description of what he perceived as Gore's strategy of flooding the public debate with "deceits and falsehoods" might fit better with what the news media and the Republicans had been doing to Gore.
Beyond Love Canal, the other prime examples of Gore's "lies" -- inspiring the male lead in Love Story and working to create the Internet -- also stemmed from a quarrelsome reading of his words, followed by exaggeration and ridicule rather than a fair assessment of how his comments and the truth matched up.
The earliest of these Gore "lies," dating back to 1997, was Gore's expressed belief that he and his wife Tipper had served as models for the lead characters in the sentimental bestseller and movie, Love Story.
When the author, Erich Segal, was asked about Gore's impression, he stated that the preppy hockey-playing male lead, Oliver Barrett IV, indeed was modeled after Gore and Gore's Harvard roommate, actor Tommy Lee Jones. But Segal said the female lead, Jenny, was not modeled after Tipper Gore. [NYT, Dec. 14, 1997]
Rather than treating this distinction as a minor point of legitimate confusion, the news media concluded that Gore had willfully lied. The media made the case an indictment against Gore’s honesty.
In doing so, however, the media repeatedly misstated the facts, insisting that Segal had denied that Gore was the model for the lead male character. In reality, Segal had confirmed that Gore was, at least partly, the inspiration for the character, Barrett, played by Ryan O'Neal.
Some journalists seemed to understand the nuance but still could not resist denigrating Gore's honesty.
For instance, in its attack on Gore over the Love Canal quote, the Boston Herald conceded that Gore "did provide material" for Segal's book, but the newspaper added that it was "for a minor character." [Boston Herald, Dec. 5, 1999] That, of course, was untrue, since the Barrett character was one of Love Story's two principal characters
The media's treatment of the Internet comment followed a similar course. Gore's statement may have been poorly phrased, but its intent was clear: he was trying to say that he worked in Congress to help develop the Internet. Gore wasn’t claiming to have "invented" the Internet or to have been the "father of the Internet," as many journalists have asserted.
Gore's actual comment, in an interview with CNN's Wolf Blitzer that aired on March 9, 1999, was as follows: "During my service in the United States Congress, I took the initiative in creating the Internet."
Republicans quickly went to work on Gore's statement. In press releases, they noted that the precursor of the Internet, called ARPANET, existed in 1971, a half dozen years before Gore entered Congress. But ARPANET was a tiny networking of about 30 universities, a far cry from today's "information superhighway," ironically a phrase widely credited to Gore.
As the media clamor arose about Gore's supposed claim that he had invented the Internet, Gore's spokesman Chris Lehane tried to explain. He noted that Gore "was the leader in Congress on the connections between data transmission and computing power, what we call information technology. And those efforts helped to create the Internet that we know today." [AP, March 11, 1999]
There was no disputing Lehane's description of Gore's lead congressional role in developing today's Internet. But the media was off and running.
Routinely, the reporters lopped off the introductory clause "during my service in the United States Congress" or simply jumped to word substitutions, asserting that Gore claimed that he "invented" the Internet which carried the notion of a hands-on computer engineer.
Whatever imprecision may have existed in Gore's original comment, it paled beside the distortions of what Gore clearly meant. While excoriating Gore's phrasing as an exaggeration, the media engaged in its own exaggeration.
Yet, faced with the national media putting a hostile cast on his Internet statement -- that he was willfully lying -- Gore chose again to express his regret at his choice of words.
Now, with the Love Canal controversy, this media pattern of distortion has returned with a vengeance. The national news media has put a false quote into Gore's mouth and then extrapolated from it to the point of questioning his sanity. Even after the quote was acknowledged to be wrong, the words continued to be repeated, again becoming part of Gore's record.
From the media’s hostile tone, one might conclude that reporters have reached a collective decision that Gore should be disqualified from the campaign.
At times, the media has jettisoned any pretext of objectivity. According to various accounts of the first Democratic debate in Hanover, N.H., reporters openly mocked Gore as they sat in a nearby press room and watched the debate on television.
Several journalists later described the incident, but without overt criticism of their colleagues. As The Daily Howler observed, Time's Eric Pooley cited the reporters' reaction only to underscore how Gore was failing in his "frenzied attempt to connect."
"The ache was unmistakable -- and even touching -- but the 300 media types watching in the press room at Dartmouth were, to use the appropriate technical term, totally grossed out by it," Pooley wrote. "Whenever Gore came on too strong, the room erupted in a collective jeer, like a gang of 15-year-old Heathers cutting down some hapless nerd."
Hotline's Howard Mortman described the same behavior as the reporters "groaned, laughed and howled" at Gore's comments.
Later, during an appearance on C-SPAN's Washington Journal, Salon's Jake Tapper cited the Hanover incident, too. "I can tell you that the only media bias I have detected in terms of a group media bias was, at the first debate between Bill Bradley and Al Gore, there was hissing for Gore in the media room up at Dartmouth College. The reporters were hissing Gore, and that's the only time I've ever heard the press room boo or hiss any candidate of any party at any event." [See The Daily Howler, http://www.dailyhowler.com/, Dec. 14, 1999]
Traditionally, journalists pride themselves in maintaining deadpan expressions in such public settings, at most chuckling at a comment or raising an eyebrow, but never demonstrating derision for a public figure.
Reasons for this widespread media contempt for Gore vary. Conservative outlets, such as Rev. Moon's Washington Times and Murdoch's media empire, clearly want to ensure the election of a Republican conservative to the White House. They are always eager to advance that cause.
In the mainstream press, many reporters may feel that savaging Gore protects them from the "liberal" label that can so damage a reporter's career. Others simply might be venting residual anger over President Clinton's survival of the Monica Lewinsky scandal. They might believe that Gore's political destruction would be a fitting end to the Clinton administration.
Reporters apparently sense, too, that there is no career danger in showing open hostility toward Clinton's vice president.
Yet, the national media's prejudice against Gore -- now including fabrication of damaging quotes and misrepresentation of his meaning -- raises a troubling question about this year's election and the future health of American democracy:
How can voters have any hope of expressing an informed judgment when the media intervenes to transform one of the principal candidates -- an individual who, by all accounts, is a well-qualified public official and a decent family man -- into a national laughingstock?
What hope does American democracy have when the media can misrepresent a candidate’s words so thoroughly that they become an argument for his mental instability -- and all the candidate feels he can do about the misquotes is to apologize?
As The Daily Howler's Somerby observes, the concern about deception and its corrosive effect on democracy dates back to the ancient Greeks.
"Democracy won't work, the great Socrates cried, because sophists will create mass confusion," Somerby recalled at his Web site. "Here in our exciting, much-hyped new millennium, the Great Greek's vision remains crystal clear." [The Daily Howler, Jan. 13, 2000]