Late in November, as the first snowflakes fell,John McCain moved ahead of George Bush in New Hampshire’s Republican polling.
A set of headlines describe McCain's rapid advance in the state which would hold the nation’s first primary.
NEW HAMPSHIRE: MCCAIN TWO POINTS UP, the Hotline announced on November 29, citing a new Time/CNN poll.
For the first time, McCain was ahead in New Hampshire. On December 9, another headline extended his margin. NEW HAMPSHIRE: MCCAIN UP 7, the Hotline declared, reporting a new statewide poll.
One day later, another new poll: NEW HAMPSHIRE: MCCAIN UP 15.
In a truly stunning reversal, McCain was pulling away in New Hampshire. In mid-September, Bush had been leading McCain in the state by a walloping 31 points.
No one doubted a basic point about McCain’s advance. His remarkable rise had been aided, in part, by remarkably friendly press coverage. By late November, no one denied that a “swoon” for McCain had taken hold in the national press. That very term was in wide use, sporting a capital S.
For the record, the press corps’ swoon for John McCain had begun in the campaign’s prehistory. The Weekly Standard’s Andrew Ferguson had given the love affair its name. This had occurred in July 1998, midway through the year of Bill Clinton's impeachment.
“It is widely acknowledged that [McCain] wants to run for president in 2000,” Ferguson wrote at that time, “and already national political reporters are lost in love.”
McCain “gets the best press coverage of any politician in the country,” the conservative writer continued. “The McCain Swoon is now so conspicuous that NBC News, the Washington Post and other news outlets have assigned reporters to do favorable stories explaining why the stories about John McCain are so favorable.”
More than two years before the election, “The Swoon” had received its name.
Ferguson was plainly right on one score. By the summer of 1998, reporters were writing glowing reports explaining McCain’s glowing coverage. On June 8, to cite one example, Howard Kurtz of the Washington Post examined the potential candidate’s relationship with the press. Kurtz expressed a striking judgment: “The plain truth is that a growing number of journalists want John McCain to run for president.”
It was hard to dispute this assessment. Kurtz quoted a number of major press figures expressing unvarnished admiration for the Arizona Republican. Liberal columnist Al Hunt had called McCain “the most courageous and one of the most admirable men I’ve ever known in American politics.” Mark Shields, another liberal columnist, had praised McCain for his “against-the-grain leadership coupled with his riveting personal history.” And a Mike Wallace statement was simply stunning, coming from an iconic symbol of a supposedly skeptical press corps.
“I’m thinking I may quit my job if he gets the nomination,” Wallace had said, implying that he'd go to work for McCain in a general election.
In Esquire, Charles Pierce had offered a mordant assessment of the press corps’ outlook. “If John McCain doesn’t run,” Pierce had written, “the mandarins of the chattering class may throw [an] ensemble hissy fit.”
Pierce’s piece appeared in May 1998. Its headline: “John McCain Walks on Water.”
What explained the swoon for McCain? Over time, a string of profiles agreed on the basics. First, McCain had what journalists called “The Story”–his personal history in Vietnam, where he endured more than five years as a POW. And McCain had The Issue, reporters agreed; campaign finance reform, his trademark, was also a press corps favorite. Pundits agreed on another key point; The Story proved that McCain had character. This was the press corps’ basic requirement for the post-Clinton era.
Reporters agreed on one last point; McCain scored major points as a “maverick.” Because his trademark issues often put him at odds with his party’s leadership, he “has become the conservative that liberals love to love,” Ferguson wrote as he profiled The Swoon.
One year later, in the fall of 1999, McCain was still low in the national polls. But profiles and columns reflecting The Swoon were appearing all over the press corps. More strikingly, major journalists routinely acknowledged that they and their colleagues were locked in this love affair.
“So far, McCain has gotten terrific press,” Roger Simon wrote in U.S. News in September. “The praise has been so lavish, it has been dubbed the ‘McCain Swoon.’ ”
Two weeks later, Geneva Overholser said the same thing in the Washington Post. She cited McCain’s “adoring press. The McCain Swoon, it's called.” Jonathan Alter said it in Newsweek: “It's swoon season on John McCain's bus, the Straight Talk Express.”
In October, Kurtz authored a mocking headline: “Stop Me Before I Swoon.” He quoted several writers describing the way they had fallen. “Journalists go weak in the knees around the guy,” Jacob Weisberg had written in Slate—and he then described his own fall. “When I set out to spend a few days with McCain last week, I promised my editor that I wouldn't join in this collective swoon. That proved impossible.”
By late November, the swooning was general. No one seemed embarrassed to say so, even though this open affair violated normal standards of journalistic deportment. But a very different pattern emerged as the press corps continued its war against Gore, which was completing its ugliest month. Journalists acknowledged, if they were asked, that Gore was getting horrible coverage. But in this case, no one was willing to state the obvious: The press was at war with Al Gore.
It was OK to cop to The Swoon. Not so with this undeclared war. Indeed, no one even seemed able to say why the coverage of Gore was so brutal. Late in November, this code of silence became semi-comically clear.
Candidate Gore was nearing the end of the press corps’ punishing month of Wolf. On CNN’s Reliable Sources, Howard Kurtz asked a panel of journalists why this firestorm was occurring. In raising this widely-avoided question, Kurtz returned to the general topic he first explored in the Washington Post in late June.
Kurtz was willing to ask the question. His guests provided few answers.
“It’s no surprise that Al Gore's campaign has gotten some rough treatment from the press for some months now,” Kurtz said, specifically citing “the controversy over one of his advisers, the feminist author Naomi Wolf.” A bit later, he described the hostile coverage of Gore in a question to the National Review’s Rich Lowry:
Rich, why do you think there has been so much focus for so long now on Gore's—you know, the internal strife, should he separate himself from Clinton, what is he wearing, does he like earth tones? I mean it seems to be a steady drumbeat in the press of focusing on these kinds of questions.In another exchange, Time’s Matt Cooper criticized the “pack mentality” of the Gore coverage—and he noted a change in the weather. “During most of the Clinton administration,” Gore “got a lot of very favorable press,” Cooper said. “Now he's sort of being portrayed as basically an idiot, as a sort of robotic, stiff, consultant-driven empty suit.”
Kurtz and his co-host, Marvin Kalb, spoke with three major reporters this day. No one disputed the notion that Gore was getting horrible press—though even on this unusual program, the severity of this “virtual wilding” was greatly understated. But the journalists fumbled for explanations: Why was Gore getting hammered so hard, even as Bradley was getting puffed and the swoon for McCain was so clear?
Eventually, Lowry suggested that Bradley might be getting good coverage as “a reaction to the era of Clinton.” But for the most part, these journalists struggled to explain the harsh treatment of Gore, even though the coverage was coming from their own colleagues and news orgs.
The month of Wolf was nearing its end as the journalists tried to explain their own cohort’s behavior. But even as they struggled and strained, an entirely new “Month That Was” was about to take hold in the press.
During this new month, the press corps would reinstate the most consequential theme of its ongoing war against Gore—the claim that Candidate Gore was a LIAR. Once revived, the theme would harden, then turn to stone. Right through the November 2000 election, this theme would play a central role in the way the press covered this race.
For this reason, December 1999 may have been the most critical month in the twenty-month White House campaign.
A bit of background:
The claim that Candidate Gore was a LIAR had started in March 1999, fueled by the press corps’ recitation of three alleged LIES. Allegedly, Gore had made three ridiculous statements:
Al Gore said he inspired Love Story!Supposedly, those were Candidate Gore’s three LIES. But by the end of November, this theme was dying on the vine, starved for a lack of examples.
Al Gore said he invented the Internet!
Al Gore said he worked hard on the Tennessee farm, even though he grew up here in Washington!
By now, Gore had campaigned for eight solid months, but he'd produced no more LIES. Meanwhile, one of the press corps’ foundational claims—the claim that he lied about his farm chores—had proven to be so bogus that even the press corps had dropped it.
By the fall, biographical profiles were making it plain that Gore’s remarks about his youthful chores had in fact been perfectly accurate. The RNC was still pushing the claim that Gore had lied about this matter. But by the fall of 1999, the mainstream press corps had walked away from this bogus claim—a claim long lists of major reporter had always known to be false.
No one explained why Gore had been trashed as a LIAR on this score in the first place. But by the fall of 1999, the press corps had abandoned the claim that Gore’s “farm chores” remarks were a LIE. This meant that the corps had been reduced to only two alleged LIES by the candidate. By the traditional rule of three, another LIE would have to be found for the GORE LIAR theme to endure.
In December, that third LIE was concocted, although it required a remarkable series of misquotations of something the candidate said.
It started on December 1. That morning, two major reporters misquoted something Gore had said to a group of New Hampshire students. This created the latest storm around Gore—a furious, month-long frenzy which restored the claim that he was a LIAR. From this point forward, the GORE LIAR theme would never die as a central mainstream narrative. The press corps would revisit the theme, again and again, right through the November 2000 election. At critical junctures throughout the campaign, this theme would be dredged up again.
November had been the ugliest month. December was most consequential.
Gore’s misquoted statement concerned Love Canal, a toxic waste site in upstate New York which had once been famous. On December 1, Gore was misquoted about the congressional hearings he had held, twenty years earlier, concerning the toxic waste problems at this iconic site.
Candidate Gore was flatly misquoted, in three or four different ways. Each misquotation was widely repeated, with profoundly consequential results. For the next eleven months, Candidate Gore would be trashed as a LIAR. George Bush would end up in the White House.
December would be the pivotal month, the month when a powerful narrative hardened. Were journalists “going weak in the knees” for McCain?
Plainly, this was not the case when it came to the treatment of Gore.
On November 30, 1999, Gore spoke to a class atConcord High School, a common part of New Hampshire campaigning. At the end of the session, he took questions from the students.
“How do you get students more involved in politics?” he was asked at one point.
Gore gave a varied reply to this question. He told the students they were “so privileged to live in this country.” (“If that sounds corny to you, you should examine that attitude. Seriously,” the candidate said.)
“A lot of people feel like they cannot make an individual difference. But you can,” he told the students.
“Let me tell you a quick story,” Gore eventually said.
Gore's story concerned a well-known part of his early career. “Twenty years ago, I got a letter from a high school student in West Tennessee,” he said. This student had written Gore, then a first-term congressman, about a problem which was afflicting her family’s farm.
“She wrote me how her grandfather had a mysterious ailment that paralyzed part of his body,” Gore told the Concord High students. “Then her father also became mysteriously ill.” The girl suspected that these ailments were being caused by polluted water in her family’s well.
“We investigated,” Gore told the students. It turned out the girl had been right.
The letter from that Tennessee girl led to “the first congressional hearings on toxic waste,” Gore told the Concord High students. In turn, the hearings led to “a major national law to clean up hazardous dump sites.”
“We’ve still got work to do,” he said as he finished his story. “But we made a huge difference. And it all happened because one high school girl got involved."
In a normal political environment, Gore’s story would have been seen as a sensible effort to encourage wider student involvement. During the course of Campaign 2000, other candidates made sensible statements to various student groups too.
But by November 1999, Candidate Gore wasn't campaigning in a normal environment. Near the end of October, reporters had hissed and jeered him for the full hour during his first debate with Bill Bradley. The corps then spent the month of November inventing strange claims about Naomi Wolf, the “sexpot counselor” he had supposedly hired “to teach him how to be a man.” They pounded away at the candidate’s clothing—at his boots, his suits, his polo shirts, at the number of buttons he wore on his suits. Smutty claims were directed at Wolf—and through her, at Gore himself.
To all appearances, the press corps was making Gore “jump through the hoops,” the project a major reporter described to the Washington Post back in June. Less euphemistically, the mainstream press corps almost seemed to be at war with this candidate. And so, with great speed, it came to pass: Gore’s sensible statement at Concord High touched off the campaign’s next major frenzy, with the press corps proclaiming that Candidate Gore had told his latest strange LIE.
As noted, Gore’s sensible story concerned a well-known part of his early career, the role he played in the two-year process which produced the federal “Superfund” program. Gore had described the events in question in his 1992 best-selling book, Earth in the Balance. Because his later statement at Concord High would be so aggressively denounced, it’s worth reviewing what he had said in his earlier, widely-read book.
In Earth in the Balance, Gore described receiving a letter from a family in Toone concerning “the sickness they felt was caused by pesticide waste dumped next to their land. It turned out they were right,” he continued. A company from Memphis “had bought up the neighboring farm and dumped several million gallons of hazardous waste into trenches that leaked into the water for miles around.”
In his book, Gore described what he did after confirming the toxic waste problem at Toone. Seven years later, he would discuss these same events with the students at Concord High:
Al Gore, Earth in the Balance, 1992:Three pages later, Gore described the passage of the Superfund legislation in December 1980.
As a result, I organized the first congressional hearings on toxic waste and focused on two sites, the small rural community of Toone, Tennessee, and one other recently discovered waste dump at a little place in upstate New York, Love Canal. Subsequently, of course, Love Canal became synonymous with the problem of hazardous chemical waste. Toone didn’t, but the family received one of the biggest judgments ever handed down in a lawsuit over damages from toxic waste.
Did Gore’s hearings lead to the Superfund, as suggested in Earth in the Balance? No one had ever said different. Bob Zelnick described those congressional hearings in his 1999 biography of Gore, the book he wrote for Regnery, the aggressive conservative publisher. In his book, Zelnick called Gore “the prime mover behind the so-called Superfund, a trust fund administered by the Environmental Protection Agency to clean up the most urgent toxic waste problems.” Zelnick wasn’t a fan of the Superfund program, but he described the central role Gore played in its creation. “Gore’s committee held fifteen hearings on the [toxic waste] problem,” he wrote, “rallying public support for action with such high-visibility cases as the disposal of chemical pollutants near New York State’s Love Canal.”
Was Gore “the prime mover” behind the Superfund? Almost surely, Zelnick overstated that point; a number of players helped drive the legislation through the House and the Senate. But as Campaign 2000 started, Representative Gore’s central role in this process had long been a matter of record. Major newspapers had routinely described this part of his early career.
When he ran for president in 1988, the Washington Post described Gore as “a principal sponsor of the legislation that created the Superfund for toxic-waste cleanup.” During that same campaign, the Christian Science Monitor called him “the chief congressional investigator in bringing the Love Canal toxic dumping scandal to light.” (Gore “eventually co-authored the Superfund law,” the Monitor added.)
Gore “was a prime mover in creating the Superfund,” the New York Times reported in 1992, when the Tennessee senator was picked to run for vice president. The Associated Press profiled the new nominee the same way: “As a congressman, Gore was an early proponent of tougher laws to control toxic waste, and he held some of the first hearings that eventually led to the Superfund law for cleaning up such waste sites.”
Right through the start of Campaign 2000, these well-known events had always been part of the press corps’ standard profile of Gore. No one had challenged the basic account he offered in Earth in the Balance. Now, Gore told the same story at Concord High, encouraging students to get involved. But a war was now underway, and reaction was massively different.
Within days, Gore’s sensible statement at Concord High became a cause celebre. His sensible story was soon being treated as his latest troubling LIE; the soundness of his mental state was even widely questioned. Instantly, Gore’s remarks were linked to his earlier comments about Love Story and the Internet, trivial comments the press had transformed into troubling LIES. In the process, a punishing theme returned to life within the mainstream press.
From this point on in Campaign 2000, this punishing theme—the GORE LIAR theme—would never die.
Within days, Gore’s sensible statement at Concord High was being flogged as his latest lie. That said, an unfortunate fact must be noted: This campaign was initiated, then extended, by a wide array of remarkable errors—inexcusable, serial errors committed by major American journalists over the next several months.
The press corps’ performance was stunning. Gore’s remarks to the Concord High students were quickly misquoted in three or four different ways. The first misquotation was quickly spotted—but the two newspapers which committed the error refused to issue corrections, and major journalists kept repeating the misquotation over the next several months. (The second, third and fourth misquotations were also widely repeated.) Meanwhile, the press corps adopted a standard paraphrase of Gore’s remarks to the Concord High students.
This paraphrase was openly mocking—and it had come from the RNC, on a word-for-word basis.
Gore’s sensible statement at Concord High thus came to play a major role in the coverage of Campaign 2000. Remarkably, the sensible story he told to the students might be viewed as the pivotal event of this entire campaign. Routinely misquoted, mockingly paraphrased, Gore’s sensible statement at Concord High replaced his earlier "farm chores" remarks as his third alleged LIE. This restored the GORE LIAR theme to its central role in the coverage.
By normal standards, the press corps’ conduct was hard to fathom. From this point forward, it becomes hard to believe that the national press corps, on the whole, was behaving in good faith with respect to this candidate.
That said, a small saving grace was quickly supplied by the students of Concord High School.
The students fought back for the next several months against the press corps’ conduct. As the press corps’ misstatements mounted, the Concord High students got involved, just as Gore had urged. In the weeks which followed their session with Gore, many of these 11th grade students challenged the way his visit to their high school was being reported. The students’ complaints—and their videotape—helped debunk the first misquotation, but journalists kept repeating the misquotation even after it was corrected. And so, despite the students’ efforts, this widely misreported session became a disaster for Gore.
“How can we trust the media now?” one student asked the Boston Globe in a news report in late December. According to this same report, their teacher was “concerned that her students—now savvier than many people of voting age—don't become too cynical.”
"I'm discouraged that they're disillusioned,” the editor of the Concord Monitor was quoted saying in the Globe.
“Faith in the press corps is a casualty.” So said the headline atop the report recounting the students’ efforts.
What did Gore say to the Concord High students?Compared to Zelnick’s account of the Superfund process, his comments were really quite modest.
Responding to the question about student involvement, he described the letter he once received from that girl in Toone, Tennessee. In the passage which follows, he described what he did after confirming that her family’s well was contaminated.
This passage contains all the remarks for which Gore would be assailed as a LIAR. This story, told to a few dozen students, actually played a critical role in the outcome of Campaign 2000:
Al Gore, Concord High School, November 30, 1999:For the record, Teague is a small community located next to Toone.
I called for a congressional investigation and a hearing. 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-Teague, Tennessee–that was the one you didn’t hear of. But that was the one that started it all! 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, 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.
Was Gore hogging the glory in these remarks, exaggerating his own accomplishments? Repeatedly, he used the collective term “we,” sharing credit for the famous legislation (whose impressive name he didn't mention). “We” passed a new law and “we” made a difference, he told the Concord High students. Meanwhile, Gore plainly focused on the role played by that one Tennessee high school girl. “It all happened because one high school student got involved,” he said at the end of his sensible story. Those early hearings had come to pass because of one teenager’s efforts.
No matter! By the next day, Gore’s sensible statement was being flogged as his latest grandiose lie. The GORE LIAR theme roared back to life, never again to die. But before we examine the major news organs which gave this punishing theme its prominence, it’s important to note the reaction of other major news organs present at Concord High.
For the record, most news orgs at Concord High found no fault with Gore’s remarks. That evening, CNN played a brief piece of tape from his appearance—but the network didn’t report that anything newsworthy had occurred. In fact, CNN never seemed to find any fault with any of Gore’s remarks at the high school. According to the Nexis archives, the network never reported on any news show that Gore misspoke to the students.
The Boston Globe was also present when Gore spoke at Concord High. Like CNN, the paper never reported or claimed that he made any misstatements. But then, CNN and the Boston Globe didn’t mishear or misunderstand Gore’s remarks to the students. Surprise! Gore’s sensible story was turned into a major scandal by the same influential newspapers which misquoted what he had said.
Unfortunately, two reporters at Concord High apparently misheard one part of Gore's remarks to the students. They misquoted him the next morning, touching off the new frenzy. Their misquotation was quickly spotted, but their newspapers refused to correct their mistake.
Insults would rain on Gore’s head for a year. George Bush would end up in the White House.
How did Al Gore's sensible story become sucha major issue? It all began with a misquotation in two of the nation's biggest newspapers.
In the December 1 Washington Post, Ceci Connolly reported Gore’s campaign events from the previous day in New Hampshire. She began by describing his breakfast meeting with a Manchester business group. Then she turned to his mid-day session with the Concord students.
At the high school, Gore “boasted about his efforts in Congress 20 years ago to publicize the dangers of toxic waste,” Connolly wrote, immediately casting his remarks in an unflattering light. At that point, she quoted something the candidate said—or rather, she mis-quoted Gore.
In Connolly’s rendition, it sounded like Gore had made a strangely grandiose statement, showering praise upon himself for a great act of leadership. In this passage from the Washington Post, a punishing theme from the previous spring had suddenly reappeared:
Gore said he first became aware of the problem when a young girl in Tennessee wrote to him about a mysterious illness that had befallen her father and grandfather. Although few remember his hearings on that site in Toone, Tenn., Gore said his efforts made a lasting impact. “I was the one that started it all,” he said."I was the one that started it all!” This ungrammatical statement would be quoted for months, although Gore never said it. In fact, Gore’s statement, and his apparent meaning, had been dramatically different. He actually said (see transcript above), “That was the one you didn’t hear of. But that was the one that started it all,” referring to the little-remembered toxic waste site near that Tennessee farm.
“That was the one that started it all!” Because this fleeting remark would play a key role in this pivotal episode, we need to get clear on its actual meaning. Ignoring the subsequent misquotation, what exactly did Gore mean when he made this remark?
Gore’s apparent meaning would have been clear to anyone familiar with the history of these well-known events. In the late 1970s, Love Canal became an iconic symbol of the nation’s toxic waste problems. By contrast, the toxic waste site at Toone, Tennessee–the problem which first drew Gore to the issue–never achieved such fame.
This point had been rendered with perfect clarity in Gore’s 1992 book (see text above). His off-the-cuff statement at Concord High was a bit less precise, as off-the-cuff statements frequently are. But to those familiar with the history, his apparent meaning should have been clear. When Gore said, “That was the one you didn’t hear of. But that was the one that started it all,” he was, to all appearances, referring to the toxic waste problem at Toone–the problem the high school girl wrote him about, the problem which didn’t “become synonymous with the problem of hazardous waste,” in the language of his book.
And no—as videotape would plainly show, Gore didn’t say, “I was the one that started it all,” the boastful claim which was put in his mouth.
“I was the one that started it all?” Candidate Gore never said it.
Without question, Connolly had misquoted Gore; within a matter of hours, that fact would be apparent. But Gore’s general message was also quite different from the “boasting” described in the Post. Speaking to the Concord High students, Gore stressed that it was the high school girl in Toone, Tennessee who had, in effect, started it all. “It all happened because one high school student got involved,” he said at the end of his story.
But in the next day’s Washington Post, Connolly placed Gore’s remarks inside a different frame. According to Connolly, Gore had been “boasting” about his own work on the toxic waste problem; he had even gone so far as to claim that he himself was “the one that started it all!” In the process, the basic point of Gore’s sensible story disappeared. “It all happened because one high school student got involved?” This was the obvious point of Gore’s tale—unless you read the Washington Post, where the moral to his story didn’t get mentioned at all.
Connolly had misquoted Gore; she had also recast the main point of his story. And now, as her report continued, she drew an argumentative link from his (misquoted) remarks to the journalistic wars of the previous spring. Gore’s “shorthand description of Love Canal” was “reminiscent of earlier attempts to embellish his role in major events,” Connolly wrote, describing the thoughts that had entered her head on the basis of a statement she seems to have heard incorrectly. “He has been ridiculed for claiming to have been the inspiration for the movie ‘Love Story’ and today even he poked fun at his earlier assertion that he invented the Internet.”
This last statement referred to a joke Gore told at the breakfast event.
In this passage, Connolly revived a pair of mocking claims from the previous spring—tendentious claims the RNC had still been advancing, in press releases, all through the summer and fall. According to Connolly’s news report, this wasn’t the first time Gore had “attempted to embellish his role in major events;” he had done the same thing on at least two other occasions! He had claimed, at some earlier point, “to have been the inspiration for the movie ‘Love Story.’ ” According to Connolly, Gore had also made the “earlier assertion that he invented the Internet.”
As Connolly made these tendentious assertions, she began to revive a dying narrative. Beyond that, she advanced the RNC’s favorite claims against Gore, although there was little journalistic evidence supporting these assertions.
Was it true? Had Gore once claimed that he inspired Love Story? On a journalistic basis, this claim had always been arrant nonsense, from its invention in 1997 on. Only two reporters had heard Gore's unrecorded remarks on this utterly pointless topic. Each reporter rejected the claim that Gore had misspoken in any significant way. No one else had any way of knowing what Gore had actually said.
Was it true? Had Gore once claimed that he invented the Internet? Only if you accepted the RNC’s mocking account of a slightly jumbled remark.
The assertion that Gore had made these claims did make for a wonderful partisan rant. But as Connolly brought these claims back to life, there was little journalistic justification for the revival.
A major irony thus surrounds Connolly’s news report in the Post. Even as she misquoted Gore and recast what he said to the students, she complained about his alleged “attempts to embellish" the facts about major events. And Connolly wasn’t alone in the linkage she drew from Gore’s (misquoted) remarks. In that same day’s New York Times, Katharine Seelye misquoted Gore in the same way Connolly did. She too drew a link from the misquoted statement to Gore’s earlier comment concerning the Internet. Beyond that, Seelye noted, as Connolly did, that President Carter had ordered an investigation of Love Canal two months before Gore’s hearings began in the fall of 1978.
How could Gore be “the one that started it all,” the two reporters were clearly asking, if Carter knew about Love Canal two months before his hearings began?
The question might have made some sense—if Gore had made the grandiose statement the two reporters had put in his mouth. But as videotape would clearly show, Candidate Gore hadn’t said it.
Plainly, Gore had been misquoted. But a war was underway, so that isn’t where this tale ends.
That evening, a basic fact became clear. CeciConnolly and Katharine Seelye had misquoted Candidate Gore.
What explains their joint error? The question is hard to answer. That evening, the videotape of Gore’s remarks was played on the cable show, Hardball. The words he spoke were clear as a bell. He was speaking in a high school classroom, not at a political rally; there was no ambient noise whatever as Gore told his sensible tale. On the videotape, it was perfectly clear that he had not said, “I was the one that started it all,” the grandiose, ungrammatical statement the two reporters had put in his mouth.
“I was the one that started it all?” Candidate Gore hadn’t said it.
There is no way to know how this misquotation occurred. But one point was abundantly clear as this flap began picking up steam: If someone had wanted to picture Gore as a grandly delusional LIAR, this unfortunate misquotation provided the perfect way to do it. By whatever process, Connolly and Seelye had created a “perfect misquotation”–the perfect complement to the script Gore’s critics had created in March. Whatever might explain their error, the two reporters’ misquotation represented the perfect third LIE—a wonderfully grandiose, flagrant misstatement which restored a dying narrative concerning a much-despised candidate.
Within days, major journalists were widely repeating the new misquotation, linking it to the mocking claims they had bruited about in the spring. And as they did, a deeply punishing journalistic narrative came roaring back to life. Gore’s (misquoted) remark about Love Canal was linked to Love Story and the Internet. Again, Gore stood charged with three absurd remarks. Gore’s critics had three LIES again!
At this point, we reach one of the truly remarkable junctures in this story. Even after it became clear that the Post and the Times had misquoted Gore, the famous newspapers refused to issue corrections—and major journalists just kept repeating the misquotation. And even as this conduct occurred, the press corps misquoted Gore’s sensible story in several new and different ways, adding to the mountain of journalistic errors which characterize this story. A second misquotation occurred—then a third and even a fourth, depending on how you wanted to score an accurate, out-of-context quotation. At the same time, a mocking paraphrase of Gore’s remarks began to spread all through the land. These errors kept the frenzy alive even after reporters stopped repeating the original perfect misquotation.
That first misquotation had started a trend. Many more "errors" would follow.
The fact that Gore had been misquoted came to lightwithin hours.
As noted, the news reports with the misquotation appeared on December 1. That evening, the error was flagged for all to see in a high-visibility forum. Chris Matthews would go on to flog Gore’s remarks in a deeply unfortunate set of programs. But during the December 1 Hardball, Matthews played videotape of Gore’s remarks–and he showed, for all to see, that Gore had been misquoted. For unknown reasons, Matthews scolded the Times for the misquotation but failed to mention the Post:
But of course, the Times–of course, this always happens. The Times went further than they should have, and they quoted, misquoted him–this is the paper of record, misquoting. And said, quote, “But I was the one that started it all,” when, in fact, he said, “That was the one that started it all.”On tape, the candidate’s words were clear as a bell. There was nothing complex or confusing about it. By the afternoon of December 1, Matthews knew Gore had been misquoted. Once Hardball aired at 8 P. M. Eastern, the entire political world should have known this important fact too.
But somehow, Ceci Connolly still didn’t know, or she and her editors were simply prepared to plow ahead with their story. Remarkably, Connolly repeated the perfect misquotation in the next morning’s Washington Post, in a scolding December 2 report which put this punishing incident onto the map for good. In this, her follow-up report, Connolly said Gore had “bragged” to the Concord High students. Then, she misquoted the hopeful again:
“I was the one that started it all,” she once again quoted him saying.
More significantly, Connolly pushed her larger theme hard in this, her second report. “Add Love Canal to the list of verbal missteps by Vice President Gore,” she wrote in her opening sentence, closely tracking the opening line of a December 1 RNC press release. She then restated her punishing linkage, describing Gore as “the man who mistakenly claimed to have inspired the movie ‘Love Story’ and to have invented the Internet.”
The headline on this report said it all: “First Love Story, Now Love Canal.” Right from its comical headline on down, this second report had only one point: Candidate Gore has done it again! Love Canal had reached the headlines, joined at the hip to the Love Story nonsense. The amusing word-play helped paint Gore as a comical, clownish dissembler.
And so, on the morning of December 2, an obvious misquotation of Gore began turning into a fact. Ten hours after the newspaper's error had been corrected on Hardball, the Washington Post was landing on doorsteps, delivering Connolly’s misquotation for the second consecutive day. And when the Post was asked to correct its mistake, the newspaper did a remarkable thing; it stiffened its spine and refused, absurdly insisting that its mistake hadn’t changed the meaning of Gore’s remarks. The New York Times also refused to correct, though both papers relented in the end–in part because students from Concord High were now conducting an aggressive campaign to make the newspapers tell the truth about what had occurred in their classroom.
Grumbling every step of the way, the Post ran a correction on December 7; the Times held out till December 10. All too typically, each correction contained at least one new mistake about what Gore had said to the students. Incredibly, the Times included a second misquotation of Gore even as it corrected the first (see Appendix 1).
In Shakespeare, one error leads to another. So too with this perfect mistake.
One mistake was seldom enough when the mainstreampress corps put Gore through the hoops during Campaign 2000.
The pattern would hold in this instance. Many more mistakes would follow as Connolly’s perfect misquotation re-launched the GORE LIAR narrative. Indeed, a second misquotation appeared within hours, courtesy of an AP report about the burgeoning flap.
Before the new misquotation appeared, the RNC got in the act.
The Connolly/Seelye news reports appeared on December 1. Within hours, the RNC issued a pair of press releases attacking Gore for “inflating his record again.”
“I was the one that started it all!” The RNC spread the misquotation further through these press releases. Beyond that, the dispatches vented about the re-emergence of Gore’s troubling character problem. “Al Gore is simply unbelievable—in the most literal sense of that term,” the RNC roared in its second release. “He just keeps doing it—he keeps inflating and embellishing his resume.”
“It’s a pattern of phoniness,” the second press release thundered. “And it would be funny if it weren't also a little scary.”
Needless to say, each press release compared Gore’s (misquoted) statement to the earlier alleged misstatements about the Internet and Love Story. The RNC even included a set of additional ludicrous statements Gore was likely to make. "Next, he'll be telling us how he discovered Niagara Falls," RNC chairman Jim Nicholson was quoted saying.
The RNC was in a state of in high dudgeon.
As the RNC bellowed and roared, the AP swung into action. That morning, a young reporter named Hadley Pawlak was assigned to write a news report about the emerging flap. Four years later, Pawlak told researchers at Harvard’s Kennedy School of Government that the news report she submitted that day was “reworked by her editor,” massively changing her story-line about the Concord High incident.
At any rate, a news report went out on the wire bearing the young reporter’s name. It was now the afternoon of December 1.
This AP report got one thing right; it didn’t repeat the misquotation from the Post and the Times. At the same time, the AP didn’t report the fact that Gore had been misquoted; this seems to have been a deliberate choice on the part of Pawlak’s editor. And alas! In the course of reporting his Concord High comments, the AP report somehow managed to misquote Gore in a new, different way. Without any mark or sign of deletion, the AP removed an eleven-word chunk from one key part of Gore’s remarks (see Appendix 1). This unmarked deletion created the sense that Gore had been referring to his own August 1978 congressional hearing when he told the students, “That was the one that started it all.”
Almost surely, that wasn’t the reference Gore had intended. But because of the AP’s unmarked deletion, the apparent meaning of Gore’s remarks had been altered again. And as with Connolly’s misquotation, so too with this second mistake: The new misquotation made it seem that Gore had been boasting, perhaps grandiosely—that he had said that his own congressional hearing was “the one that started it all.”
Because the AP serves so many subscribers, this new misquotation began to appear in a long list of newspapers. Often, it appeared in editorials which criticized Gore for overstating the historical role played by his own hearings.
Only the misquotation had changed. The scolding of Gore continued.
That said, there was a much larger problem with this December 1 AP report. Yes, Gore had been misquoted again, in a new and different way. But much more significantly, the AP doubled down very hard on Connolly’s interpretation of Gore’s remarks—an interpretation which was now being pushed by those RNC press releases. Starting right in its headline, the AP simply asserted, as a matter of fact, that Gore had exaggerated (again) when he spoke to the Concord High students. And it rushed to compare “his latest hyperbole” to his two-year-old, unrecorded remarks about Love Story.
This was the start of the AP report, including its argumentative headline:
Gore moves quickly to explain latest exaggerationFor the record, the AP’s account of that telephone call was apparently false or misleading. According to Pawlak’s later account, she called the Gore campaign twice this day to inquire about the Concord High comments. On each occasion, a campaign spokesman called her back, telling her Gore had been misquoted. During the second such conversation, Gore himself came on the line.
Vice President Al Gore moved quickly Wednesday to stop Love Canal from turning into "Love Story."
The vice president telephoned an upstate New York reporter to explain his latest hyperbole—a suggestion the previous day that it was his 1978 investigation of toxic waste sites that uncovered the chemical contamination of Love Canal.
The claim that Gore had telephoned Pawlak served to heighten the drama. But had the candidate actually tried “to explain his latest hyperbole?” According to Pawlak’s later account, the Gore campaign had called her back to say that Gore had been misquoted! But the AP’s readers weren’t given those facts. Nor were they told that Gore had been misquoted at all.
Indeed, the real drama here concerns the way the AP described Gore’s remarks to the students. Right at the start of this news report, his remarks were flatly described as “his latest hyperbole;" the AP headline flatly referred to his “latest exaggeration.” Beneath that headline, in its opening sentence, the AP compared Gore’s (misquoted) remarks about Love Canal to his two-year-old, unrecorded comments about Love Story. The RNC had pushed this amusing comparison in its press releases.
The AP’s line only hardened as its report continued. One stinging passage incorporated every part of the RNC’s ongoing script. “Gore's comments in New Hampshire rang of earlier exaggerations dropped along the campaign to his subsequent humiliation,” the AP dramatically reported. What were those earlier exaggerations? His claims “that he invented the Internet and was the inspiration for the movie Love Story.”
All the standard claims were present, augmented by that eye-catching claim about Gore’s “humiliation.”
It was the afternoon of December 1 when this AP report hit the wire. By any standard, it had been quite a day for the Democratic front-runner. He had now been misquoted, in two different ways, by three of the nation’s most important news organs. All three had reported, or plainly implied, that he had done it again—that he had been caught in “his latest exaggeration” when he spoke to the Concord High students. All three had linked his (misquoted) remarks to a mocking claim from the previous spring—the claim that he once said he invented the Internet. The AP and the Washington Post had also cited Love Story, thus advancing the RNC’s long-standing focus on that absurd non-event.
Given the AP’s role in the national press, this report helped make it official. From this point forward, the bulk of reporting about this incident would follow a standard template: Candidate Gore did it again when he spoke to the Concord High students! He exaggerated about Love Canal! It was like when he said he invented the Internet! It was like when he said he inspired Love Story!
As noted, this December 1 AP report appeared under Pawlak’s name. Because this report would be so influential, it’s worth reviewing what the young reporter said about news report she attempted to publish that day.
In 2003, Pawlak spoke to researchers from the Kennedy School about the Concord High incident. She described a day of discovery on her part—a day in which she managed to learn, through careful reporting, that Candidate Gore had been misquoted by the Post and the Times.
“I was the one that started it all!” By mid-afternoon, Pawlak had established the fact that Candidate Gore hadn't said it. But according to Pawlak, her attempt to report this fact hit a wall of opposition within the AP itself.
“I very quickly realized I had an awesome story,” Pawlak told the team from the Kennedy School. But at this point, this journalistic saga takes another remarkable turn. In its report, the Kennedy School recorded Pawlak’s account of what happened when she spoke with her editor:
The story Pawlak now envisioned was not about Gore’s propensity to exaggerate, but the fact that the nation’s two leading newspapers had quoted him incorrectly and, consequently, misrepresented his meaning...Her editor, however, thought otherwise, and told her, as Pawlak recalls it, "the AP is not in the business of correcting the Times and the Post."Remarkable! Through careful reporting, Pawlak had established the fact that Gore had been misquoted. Beyond that, she correctly saw that the Post and the Times had misrepresented the meaning of his remarks to the students. She also said she believed, again correctly, that the flap about Gore’s misquoted story had begun "to get out of control."
But at this point, the Kennedy School describes a striking piece of editorial judgment. Her editor “still wanted an exaggeration story,” the Kennedy School quotes Pawlak saying. And not only that! The Associated Press was “not in the business of correcting the Times and the Post,” the young reporter said she was told.
“For Pawlak, the article bearing her byline was a profound disappointment,” the Kennedy School report says.
In many ways, this incident captures a basic part of press corps behavior during Campaign 2000. All through this long, misreported campaign, the mainstream press corps behaved like a guild—not like a group of competing journalistic entities. Repeatedly, major news orgs declined to challenge, correct or even report the bungled work of other news organs, even when such bungled work was changing the tenor of the campaign. Under this strangely permissive system, a journalist could err as much as she pleased, secure in the knowledge that none of her colleagues would report or challenge her mistakes, no matter how badly she'd bungled.
In the case of the Love Canal frenzy, it’s clear that at least three or four major news orgs did not believe that Gore had misspoken to the Concord High students. But these major news orgs kept this assessment to themselves. They didn’t even report the fact that Candidate Gore had been misquoted. Nor did they report the fact that the misquotation kept being repeated by major journalists for weeks and then months after that. Beyond that, they never rose to challenge the standard interpretation of Gore’s (misquoted) remarks—the tendentious account which was soon being bruited all across the land.
Why were news orgs so deferential to their colleagues’ repeated misstatements? This would be a basic question all through Campaign 2000. In this particular episode, as will be clear, the nation's journalists overlooked an onslaught of misstatements. But at this point, a more limited question arises about the spread of the Love Canal narrative. This question involves the possible influence of the RNC.
Question: By the afternoon of December 1, had those RNC press releases perhaps begun shaping the press corps narrative? There’s no real way to answer that question. But plainly, the RNC narrative carried the day in the AP report which bore Pawlak’s name. One day later, this same pattern plainly obtained in Connolly’s second-day effort.
Perhaps it was all just a giant coincidence. But in her December 2 report, Connolly almost seemed to be cutting-and-pasting from those December 1 RNC press releases. The helping hand of the RNC seemed to be moving again:
"Add Love Canal to the List of Gore Discoveries," said the headline on the second RNC press release.
“Add Love Canal to the list of verbal missteps by Vice President Gore,” said the first sentence in Connolly’s report the next day.
“The Inspiration for Love Story Now Claims Credit for Love Canal,” said another headline on that press release.
“First Love Story, Now Love Canal," said the Connolly headline.
It may have been a giant coincidence. But the helping hand of the RNC seemed to be guiding the press corps again as reports by the AP and the Washington Post linked Love Canal to Love Story. Indeed, it was those RNC press releases which first employed the mocking language which would put a lasting stamp on this remarkable incident.
For those who wanted to ridicule Gore, a mocking paraphrase of his remarks would of course be very helpful.
The RNC had authored such a burlesque. The press corps began to recite it.
Quick review: On December 1, the Washington Postand the New York Times misquoted Candidate Gore. When their error was revealed, each paper refused to correct.
Later that day, an AP report charged Gore with committing “his latest hyperbole.” In the process, the AP created a new misquotation, even as it failed to report the fact of the first misquotation.
When our biggest news organs do business this way, their conduct is not without consequence. How did the pundit corps deal with this mess? William Kristol’s serial blundering might be a good place to start.
On Sunday morning, December 5, Kristol made his regular weekly appearance on ABC’s This Week. Four days had passed since Matthews played tape which showed that Gore had been misquoted. In even a slightly professional press corps, everyone would have known about this error by now.
But on this major network news program, no one showed the slightest sign of knowing about any error. During the program’s panel discussion, moderator George Stephanopoulos began discussing the Love Canal flap. As many other pundits were doing, he linked Gore’s sensible story about Love Canal to his earlier, widely-flogged statements about the Internet and Love Story. He said Gore’s remarks at Concord High “again revealed his Pinocchio problem.”
On this major network news program, Candidate Gore was a LIAR again. At this point, Kristol took the floor. Four days after the correction on Hardball, Gore was again misquoted:
Yeah. “I found a little place in upstate New York called Love Canal. I was the one that started it all.” Two months after 250 people evacuated, and President Carter declares it a national emergency area.“I was the one that started it all!” Dramatically, Kristol drew out the words, seeming to savor their meaning. And in a typical press corps performance, no other panelist challenged his statement; four major pundits sat silently by as Gore was misquoted again. (Joining the silence of Stephanopoulos: Cokie Roberts, George Will and Sam Donaldson.) But this was fast becoming the norm within the upper-end press corps. One day earlier, Kristol had repeated the misquotation on the CNBC program, Russert. His error went unchallenged there too, this time by two major pundits (Tim Russert, Mark Shields).
“I was the one that started it all!” Around the country, voters were being served generous helpings of the perfect misquotation. That same Sunday morning, for instance, columnist Steve Chapman misquoted Gore in the Chicago Tribune, one of the nation’s largest newspapers. Chapman’s account of the Concord High incident followed Kristol’s account to a T. But this was already a standard account. It would be widely repeated.
On Monday evening, December 6, Brian Williams extended the reign of error on his nightly, hour-long cable news program. Mocking Gore as “inventor of the Internet,” he repeated the perfect misquotation five days after it was corrected right on his own cable channel. In part, Williams worked from a report in U.S. News, which had repeated the misquotation in its new edition.
Having repeated a five-day-old error, Williams went into detail concerning Gore's “penchant for embellishing the facts.”
Williams would hardly be the last scribe repeating this misquotation. Within the next week, the Post and the Times would publish grumbling corrections, making their new mistakes as they did. Two weeks later, U.S. News ran a thoughtful note correcting its own use of the perfect misquotation. But endless blundering lay ahead as Candidate Gore got bashed for his grandiose third LIE—for something he hadn’t said. Through sheer incompetence or outright dishonesty, scribes kept repeating the perfect misquotation over the course of the next several months. Journalists kept calling Gore a liar, as they repeated a misquotation which had been corrected months earlier:
As late as January 30, 2000, the misquotation appeared in a punishing column in the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette. (Headline: “BIG MAN OF TALL TALES.”)
Two days later, the cross-state Lancaster Daily Era repeated the misquotation in a stinging editorial. (Headline: “Will Gore try to lie his way right through the primaries?”)
Eventually, use of this misquotation ceased, though not before the Washington Times apparently chose to start using it. Having used accurate quotations in its early reporting of the Concord High session, the Times first used the perfect misquotation in a December 7 editorial. As the editors made this remarkable switch, they of course complained about Gore's “increasingly bizarre utterings.”
Eventually, journalists stopped repeating the perfect misquotation. But did the attacks on Gore cease at this point? Not at all! By now, the corps had adopted a standard paraphrase of Gore’s formerly sensible story: Al Gore said he discovered Love Canal! As will be seen in later chapters, this mocking paraphrase would re-emerge at critical parts of the coming campaign, putting the GORE LIAR theme center stage right through the November 2000 election. Supposedly, this paraphrase was justified by one small part of Gore’s remarks to the Concord High students.
A misquotation had started this mess. A paraphrase kept it alive.
Al Gore said he discovered Love Canal! Thisparaphrase would soon be standard all through the mainstream press.
This mocking account of the hopeful’s remarks hadn’t emerged from thin air. It made its debut on December 1, in each of the instant press releases dispatched by the RNC. Each press release cited the Post news report, repeating Connolly’s misquotation. But these bulletins offered something new–a mocking, eye-rolling, shorthand account of Gore’s remarks to the students.
“Now Al Gore is claiming to have discovered Love Canal!” So the second press release excitedly told the world. (Headline: ADD LOVE CANAL TO THE LIST OF GORE DISCOVERIES.) But then, a headline on the first release had featured that same construction:
“From Inventor of the Internet, To Inspiration for Love Story, To Discoverer of Love Canal.”
Al Gore said he discovered Love Canal! The colorful, easy-to-memorize claim got its start right here, in these press releases. And sure enough: As with the RNC’s mocking claims from the spring, this paraphrase was quickly adopted all over the mainstream press.
Chris Matthews was first to adopt the new language. "I found a little place in upstate New York. I discovered the Love Canal issue,” he sneered on the December 1 Hardball.
“I discovered the Love Canal issue?” It sounded like Matthews was quoting Gore, although of course he wasn’t. But Matthews continued to work from this template as his program proceeded. Later that evening, he pointedly introduced a guest as “the woman who really did discover that problem.”
Al Gore “hardly discovered this baby,” he said as the program continued.
On December 2, Matthews extended his use of the RNC framework. Al Gore “is now the guy who discovered Love Canal,” the Hardball host mockingly said.
Al Gore said he discovered Love Canal! In the next few days, this paraphrase of Gore’s remarks would become standard usage. On December 4, Kristol used the formulation on Russert’s cable program. (“This week, what did Gore say? That he discovered Love Canal, a little place in upstate New York.”) Fred Barnes followed suit on Fox that same night. (“On Tuesday, Gore said he discovered Love Canal.”) The next day, George Stephanopoulos and Cokie Roberts each used the construct on This Week. (Roberts: “Isn’t he saying that he really discovered Love Canal?”) But then, on the December 2 Special Report, guest anchor Tony Snow had referred to Gore’s “claim to, quote, discovering Love Canal.”
As with Matthews, so with Snow: The anchorman gave the plain impression that he was quoting a statement by Gore. Snow conveyed the same false impression as he anchored this show the next night.
Al Gore said he discovered Love Canal! This mocking claim would be widely repeated right through the next year's election, linked to the two pre-existing claims: Al Gore said he invented the Internet! He said he inspired Love Story! And as with the phrase “invented the Internet,” so too with this new formulation: The key word “discovered,” which Gore never said, began appearing inside quotes, turning a tendentious paraphrase into a third misquotation. On December 12, to cite one example, Peter Bronson offered a standard account of Gore's latest howler in the Cincinnati Enquirer. Bronson was the editor of the paper’s editorial page:
[Gore is] so confused about who he is, he tells whoppers like his boss but can't quite pull it off. He recently claimed he “discovered” the Love Canal—then had to retract it.The standard themes were all present this day, but Bronson took things one step further. Improving his stew of RNC scripts, he put “discovered” inside quotes, even though Gore never used the word when he spoke with the Concord High students. Elsewhere, this pattern of misquotation appeared from December 2 on.
Al Gore said he discovered Love Canal! By December 12, Bob Schieffer was using the formulation in a scolding commentary on Face the Nation. Gloria Borger followed suit in her U.S. News column that week. The claim was becoming sacred writ, routinely linked to the earlier claims: Al Gore said he inspired Love Story! He said he invented the Internet!
The RNC kept prompting the press as its updated trio of claims gained purchase. On December 9, the organization issued its latest press release about Gore’s alleged trio of lies. “Gore can't take credit for inventing the Internet, inspiring Love Story or discovering Love Canal,” the press release reminded reporters. In a December 19 press release, the RNC offered the same tripartite reminder: “Remember, too, that this is the same guy who says he invented the Internet, inspired Love Story and discovered Love Canal!”
The press corps needed little reminding, but the RNC was working this framework hard as Christmas approached. On December 17, a news report in the Denver Post described a range of holiday items being sold at the group’s on-line store. These suggested yuletide gifts included “business cards that list the vice president’s occupations as...book inspirer (Love Story), Love Canal discoverer and Internet inventor.” Also: “Computer mouse-pads that picture the vice president and carry his claim to have helped invent the Internet."
Al Gore said he discovered Love Canal! Quite literally, the RNC was selling this story for Christmas—and the mainstream press corps was buying.
The Associated Press kept advancing the new trio of claims as the new framework took hold. On December 14 and December 16, the agency filed updated news reports concerning Gore’s alleged misstatements. Each report advanced the new three-headed script. This excerpt appeared in the December 16 report:
Hyperbole has gotten Gore into trouble recently. He has had to backtrack away from his claims that he invented the Internet, discovered Love Canal and that his romance with wife Tipper was the inspiration for the book “Love Story.”By now, the “farm chores” attack was dead and buried. But once again, reporters and pundits had three mocking claims to advance against Candidate Gore. Even in Washington’s insider journals, the RNC’s three-headed script was gaining purchase. On December 18, legal analyst Stuart Taylor battered Gore in the National Journal, mocked him as “self-described inspiration for the novel Love Story, discoverer of Love Canal, co-creator of the Internet.”
A theme which had virtually withered away was alive and well once again.
So how about it? Did Gore say he discovered Love Canal? Was that a sensible shorthand account of his remarks to the students? Was that a reasonable paraphrase—a paraphrase a responsible journalist might want to advance?
What did Gore mean when he said, “I found a little place in upstate New York?” Did he want the students to think that the problem at Love Canal was unknown until he himself (somehow) unearthed it?
Plainly, Gore hadn’t made such a claim when he wrote Earth in the Balance. In his 1992 book, he described Love Canal as a "recently discovered waste dump at a little place in upstate New York." Rather plainly, this discovery hadn't been made by the author himself. No one thought Gore was making that claim when he wrote Earth in the Balance.
Seven years later, was he trying to make that claim to a group of Concord High students? It made for a wonderful partisan rant. But on a journalistic basis, did this claim have merit?
Did Al Gore say he discovered Love Canal? Literally, no, he didn’t say it, though any statement can be rendered absurd if journalists are willing to paraphrase freely—and journalists paraphrased very freely all through Campaign 2000. After all, Gore didn’t literally “say he was the one who had first drawn attention to the toxic contamination of Love Canal,” the incriminating paraphrase offered by Seelye in her New York Times report. (If Gore had actually said such a thing, his claim would of course have been false.) Nor did the candidate literally say “that it was his 1978 investigation of toxic waste sites that uncovered the chemical contamination of Love Canal,” though the AP report bearing Pawlak’s name said that was what he “suggest[ed].”
Obviously, Gore never “suggested that he personally uncovered the nuclear waste site at Love Canal near Niagara Falls, N.Y.,” the bungled account which appeared in the New Orleans Times-Picayune. (Love Canal wasn’t a nuclear site. “I started it all,” the hapless newspaper quoted Gore saying, thus misquoting the perfect misquotation.) Nor did Gore ever say that “Love Canal, the horror story, was based upon his investigative reporting,” the absurd account advanced by Matthews on the December 1 Hardball.
Whatever! Reporters kept churning florid accounts of what Gore had supposedly said (or “suggested”). And as they engaged in this careless behavior, they urged the public to be disturbed by Gore’s loose approach to the facts. Within days, they began to agree on a standard account: Al Gore said he discovered Love Canal! And when they tried to support this emerging group claim, they routinely quoted that one lonely sentence, stripped of all surrounding context:
“I found a little place in upstate New York called Love Canal.”
Routinely, that single sentence was quoted alone, used to support the emerging account of what Gore supposedly said. Al Gore said he discovered Love Canal! That one lonely sentence, stripped of all context, proved this was what he had meant.
So how about it? Did Gore say he discovered Love Canal? Did he intend for the students to think that he himself had somehow unearthed the toxic waste problem at that site?
There is no formula which can determine when a paraphrase is reasonable, judicious or fair. Adoption of a paraphrase will always involve matters of judgment. That said, several approaches to this question are worth considering.
First, we can feel certain of one thing: When the RNC crafted this colorful paraphrase, its main objective was ridicule—not fairness, precision or accuracy. The RNC's claim was designed to make the Democratic front-runner look foolish. This isn’t the loftiest part of our politics. But spokesmen for the two major parties behave this way all the time.
The RNC wanted to make Gore look foolish. But within a matter of hours, a familiar pattern re-emerged, recalling events of the previous spring. On a word-for-word basis, major journalists simply adopted the RNC’s mocking account of Gore’s remarks. Within the press corps, an account designed for partisan use was quickly accepted as "fact."
A second pattern re-emerged from the spring as the frenzy picked up steam; Gore’s explanation of what he had meant was almost completely ignored. A tape of Gore explaining his statement was played on two different Fox News programs. But according to the Nexis archives, this explanation was never quoted, cited or broadcast by any other news org.
Repeatedly, voters heard one account of what Gore had said. That mocking account of Gore's remarks had come from the RNC.
This brings us to the issue of context. Repeatedly, journalists quoted that one lonely sentence: “I found a little place in upstate New York called Love Canal.” But this sentence had been pulled from a much longer story—a story about a high school girl which ran some 241 words. Few journalists ever quoted the remarks which preceded that one lonely sentence—the remarks which created its context.
When Gore made the quoted remark, did he intend for the students to think that he himself had somehow uncovered Love Canal's toxic waste problem? This interpretation seems less likely if you consider his fuller story, within which that one lonely sentence passes by in a flash. In the part of the story which follows, Gore explained what he did after confirming the toxic waste problem at Toone:
“I called for a congressional investigation and a hearing. 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-Teague, Tennessee—that was the one you didn’t hear of. But that was the one that started it all!”
Having confirmed the problem at Toone, Gore wanted his hearing to include other toxic waste sites. When he said he “looked around the country for other sites like that,” were the students supposed to think that he searched the country in some unexplained way, eventually ferreting out the site in upstate New York? Had Gore used a telescope as he "looked around the country?” Did satellite cameras peer down from space? Was a witching stick involved in his unexplained search?
Did Gore intend for the students to think some such thing? Voters had little chance to decide if the press corps’ interpretation made sense. Few journalists ever reported the fact that Gore had denied that he meant such a thing. Fewer voters heard the text of Gore's longer story, or his explanation of what he actually meant.
Finally, an observer might want to consider what Gore’s audience thought they had heard—what the students at Concord High thought their guest had told them.
Did Candidate Gore want the students to think that he had “discovered Love Canal?” The students themselves didn’t think so. They were physically present with Gore when he spoke. They could hear his voice as he told them his story; they were able to judge his intent. And in the weeks which followed the Concord High session, the students complained in various forums about the way the press had recast his meaning and his intention. In a series of venues, these impressive young people disputed the press corps’ standard account of what their visitor said.
Two newspapers and the Associated Press published reports on the students’ attempts to correct the record. Beyond that, three students were interviewed during a segment of an NPR program, This American Life. Nine different students were quoted or broadcast in one of these venues.
All nine said that Gore’s intention had been miscast by the press.
None of these students seemed to think that Gore had been boasting about his own achievements. None seemed to think that he had been trying to deceive them about Love Canal. In January 2000, on the NPR program, Concord High student Ashley Pettingill offered her view of the matter:
The actual quote itself was, I think, completely innocent. It wasn't, “Look how great I am, look what I did in Love Canal.” It was, “Look how great you can be.” That's what his message was. And that's what the papers overlooked.“They totally missed the point of the entire story that he told,” student Lucas Gallo said on this same program. “He was trying to make it a clear point for us that we need to get involved and that we should and that we can do something to help. And the media just—they didn't even mention the message that he was trying to explain.”
In a news report in the Boston Globe, Erin Mullaney expressed the same general outlook. Gore's “entire message got lost,” she told the newspaper. “The whole point was power to the people—you live in a democracy.”
The audiotape of Gore’s sensible story can still be heard on-line (see Appendix 3). Would a reasonable person think he was claiming that he himself had somehow uncovered the toxic waste problem at Love Canal? It’s always possible that someone might have thought such a thing—especially someone with a pre-existing animus toward Candidate Gore. That said, any such person would have had to listen to Gore's remarks quite closely, then seize on a very small point.
On a journalistic basis, the traditional way to deal with such a concern would be to ask the candidate what he had meant by his statement. This would have produced an obvious reaction; of course Gore wasn't trying to say that he had "discovered" the Love Canal site. But in all honesty, Gore’s fleeting remark about “finding a little place called Love Canal” went by extremely quickly as part of a much longer story. In all likelihood, few people would even have noticed the comment, absent a strong pre-conception about Gore's many LIES.
Al Gore said he discovered Love Canal! Would a sensible person really have thought that Gore was trying to convey this impression? Let’s put it this way: The two news orgs which advanced this idea were the same news orgs which misquoted Gore; quite literally, their reporters apparently misheard one part of what Gore said. Judging from the published record, no reporter who heard Gore's words correctly came away from Concord High with the idea that he had advanved this claim—and the students pushed back against this notion for the next several months. But then, the students had heard Gore’s words correctly, just as he said them. Right from the start, they didn’t think he had made the statement the two scribes put in his mouth.
Did Al Gore say he discovered Love Canal? On a journalistic basis, it’s hard to know why a competent person would have wanted to say that. In response to an unexpected question, Gore’s overall story was perfectly accurate—and he focused on the contribution a high school student had made. In the course of his story, his remark about “finding a little place called Love Canal” was so fleeting as to be barely noticeable.
Nor did the press corps’ interpretation make a great deal of sense. Would Gore really claim he “discovered Love Canal” to impress a handful of high school juniors, none of whom were able to vote, many of whom had never heard of Love Canal in the first place? Quite literally, the site had reached the height of its fame before these students were born.
Was Gore trying to impress these students? He didn't even mention the name of the Superfund, the impressive-sounding federal program in which he had played a key role.
No, you almost had to be searching for a perfect misstatement to tease a LIE from Gore’s remarks—to generate months of misquotations; to stand around in shameful silence as your colleagues kept repeating those misquotations; to adopt, as a group, the RNC's mocking account of the candidate's statement; to refuse to correct your error after it was spotted. Consciously or otherwise, you almost had to be looking for new examples with which you might support a narrative—a narrative from the previous spring in which Gore had been cast as a LIAR.
You almost had to be looking for ways to revive or advance the GORE LIAR theme. And that’s what the mainstream press corps was doing, a major reporter now said.
As in March, so again in December. Within days ofhis Concord High appearance, Gore was being assailed as a liar.
“Yep. Another bold-faced Gore lie,” the New York Post declared in a December 3 editorial. The editorial was littered with factual errors. Headline: GORE’S LOVE WHOPPER.
On the same day, an op-ed column in the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette asked this question: “What are the chances of getting Jon Lovitz back to Saturday Night Live to portray Al ‘The Liar’ Gore?” (Headline: “Al’s Latest Whopper.”)
In U.S. News, Gloria Borger’s December 13 column carried this headline: “Liar, liar, Dems on fire.” By December 31, the Washington Times had a simpler headline: “Liar, Liar.” (The column repeated the perfect misquotation, thirty days after it was corrected.) On Fox, Sean Hannity repeatedly called Gore a liar. “He lied about Love Story, he lied about the Internet and lied about Love Canal,” Hannity said on December 3. Hannity repeated this assessment during the next several weeks.
Gore was a LIAR—and he might be a nut. A few more headlines capture the flavor of the discourse as the candidate’s mental soundness was routinely called into question.
“AL GORE IN FANTASYLAND.” So said the headline on a December 6 Buffalo News editorial. The editors expressed their grave concern about Gore’s mental state. “All of this would be funny if it weren’t so disturbing,” they said, seeming to taking their dictation straight from the RNC. (“It would be funny if it weren't also a little scary,” one of the RNC press releases said on December 1.)
The Buffalo paper was hardly alone in this heartfelt concern. Gore’s mental state was widely questioned as journalists flogged the new story. Gore was putting “serious mental issues on display,” wrote David Reinhardt of the Portland Oregonian, lamenting the candidate’s “seeming inability to separate fact from fiction.” The headline asked if Candidate Gore might be “ANOTHER CHRONIC LIAR.”
Gore may have “a pathological problem,” the Florida Times Union opined in an editorial. Headline: “Fantasia 2000.”
Meredith Oakley fretted about Gore’s mental state in the Democrat-Gazette: “As Mama used to say, I'm beginning to think that the boy isn't wrapped up too tight.”
In a December 28 editorial larded with standard factual errors, the Providence Journal talked about the “crackpot assertions” which “almost pathologically, [Gore] persists in.” “Perhaps it is time to wonder what it is that impels Vice President Al Gore to make such preposterous claims,” the same newspaper had opined in a December 21 editorial. In that earlier piece, the Journal repeated the perfect misquotation, twenty days after it was corrected. Having repeated the bogus quotation, the worried editors asked why Gore kept making such strange misstatements.
From this point forward, questions about Gore’s mental state would be remarkably common. That said, the Washington Times set the industry standard as this theme took form. In their December 7 editorial, the worried editors wrung their hands about Gore’s “very questionable psychological fitness.” His “repeated claims to accomplishments he has had nothing to do with are disturbing,” they said; “Mr. Gore really seems to believe these crazy things,” the editors further noted. The editors even consulted their Webster’s for the meaning of “delusional.” They quoted several remarks from the venerable source about “nervous or mental disorders.”
In the same piece, the editors began to use the perfect misquotation, six days after it was corrected. They sourced it to the December 1 AP report, where it hadn’t appeared.
Gore was a LIAR—and he might be a nut. From this point forward, the theme of Gore as delusional LIAR would never leave the stage. That said, Hardball had played a leading role in the initial trashing of Gore. The misconduct of NBC’s cable arm was once again put on display.
How bad was the performance on Hardball? OnDecember 1 and 2, Gore was battered on the influential program, even after Matthews corrected the perfect misquotation.
On December 1, Matthews described Gore’s remarks at Concord High as “delusionary,” even as he made absurd misstatements about what Gore actually said. On December 2, the Concord High comments were said to reflect “Gore’s latest delusion of grandeur.”
“We’ll have to start wondering about the psychological tendencies that make a man jump so far out on the edge,” Matthews announced on December 1. The next night, he began to share his own assessment of Gore’s psychological problems.
“He's not happy with being Al Gore,” Matthews mused. “He wants to be these other guys.”
Meanwhile, Matthews kept linking Gore’s statements at Concord High to his earlier alleged misstatements. Repeatedly, he claimed that Gore had said he invented the Internet and inspired Love Story; he frequently seemed to be quoting Gore as he made these assertions. “He reminds me of Snoopy thinking he’s the Red Baron,” the irate pundit groused. He likened Gore to the fictional characters Zelig and Forrest Gump.
“He’s almost like Ben Franklin,” Matthews complained. “He invented everything.”
Even as he made these assessments, Matthews displayed remarkable ignorance of what Gore had actually said. Plainly, Gore hadn’t told the Concord High students that he encountered the Love Canal problem during his early career as a journalist, the absurd account Matthews advanced several times on December 1. But no matter! According to Matthews, this was “the amazing assertion by the vice president of the United States, Al Gore, that...Love Canal, the horror story, was based upon his investigative reporting.”
Baldly misstating the simplest facts, Matthews trashed Gore for making delusional statements. And instant ridicule instantly followed. Gore was “sort of a Jimmy Olson turned wild,” the Hardball host mockingly said.
That said, Hardball’s most remarkable performance came from Alan Simpson, a recently-retired Republican senator whose fact-deprived attacks on Gore would extend all through the campaign. Simpson was the perfect Hardball guest–colorful, homespun and baldly dishonest. He appeared as a guest on December 2, the second night of the Love Canal wallow. By now, Hardball’s Gore-trashing host was pushing his themes very hard.
“From Love Story to Love Canal,” Matthews thundered, promoting his upcoming segment with Simpson. “We'll talk about Al Gore's latest delusions of grandeur.”
Soon, Matthews was teasing the segment again: “Coming up next: From Love Story to Love Canal. We'll talk to Al Simpson about Al Gore's latest bragging and backtracking.”
The stage was set for Simpson’s performance, one of the most unfortunate outings of the entire campaign.
Was Simpson suffering memory lapses? If not, his performance was grossly dishonest. “It makes no sense,” he quickly said, speaking of Gore’s misquoted story. “It’s like–it’s fantasyland! I was on the Environment and Public Works Committee,” Simpson said, referring to his time in the Senate. “I came along and we did the Clean Air Act and the Superfund. And I don’t remember Al ever, you know, doing any heavy lifting.
“He wasn’t lifting timbers,” Simpson convincingly said.
“I came along and we did the Clean Air Act?” Simpson flirted with the type of grandiosity with which Gore stood widely charged. But there was something more striking in Simpson’s performance than his world-class bombast and his high self-regard. Hardball viewers had no way of knowing, because no one ever corrected the record. But Simpson was struggling to recall his own history with the Superfund program, let alone that of Gore.
The former senator made it seem that he had done the “heavy lifting”—that Gore was somehow the pitiful fabulist. It did make for a wonderful rant. But what were the actual facts?
In fact, way back in June 1980, Simpson had been the sole opponent to the Superfund bill in the Senate committee he named. In the 10-1 committee vote which sent the Superfund bill to the floor, the Wyoming senator had cast the lone “no” vote.
Why had Simpson opposed the bill? “It preempts state common law,” he told the Washington Post that day. “It gives me the creeps.” A few months later, Simpson appeared on a “Who’s Who of opponents to the Superfund bill,” a press release from Congress Watch, a Nader organization.
That’s right: Although he supported the much-reduced bill which finally emerged from the Senate, Simpson had opposed the measure in mid-year, when, despite that committee vote, it seemed unlikely to pass. And, as Congress Watch reported, he was a leading recipient of contributions from industry groups which opposed the legislation.
Nineteen years later, Simpson appeared on Hardball and seemed to say that Gore had been reinventing this history. Gore seemed to be in “fantasyland,” the solon convincingly said.
Simpson didn’t recall “any heavy lifting” by Gore in that Senate committee? There was an obvious reason for that: As Simpson must have understood, Gore’s famous hearings were held in the House, from 1978 through 1980, during the lengthy process which led to the Superfund’s passage. In May 1980, the bill was giving Simpson “the creeps,” but Gore was writing a New York Times op-ed piece urging the measure's passage. The second-term congressman was already known as one of the Superfund’s leading proponents. Gore chaired his fifteenth hearing on the Love Canal problem that very month.
Had Simpson forgotten these basic facts as he blustered and bellowed on Hardball? There’s no way to know, but one thing is clear: Viewers had been grossly misled by the time the solon was finished. But no one questioned or challenged Simpson as he made his absurd presentations; instead, Matthews and a second guest, Robert Reich, kept affirming his ludicrous statements. Matthews kept saying that Gore was the one who was weirdly making things up. “Well, you know the beauty of digital movie making,” he said at one point, responding to one of Simpson’s misstatements. “You can now take a guy like [Gore] and make him Forrest Gump and put him in that scene with you!”
Reich had served in the Clinton cabinet. Did he correct the factual record? That would have meant challenging Simpson, his long-time partner in a public broadcasting venture. And Reich had just endorsed Bill Bradley, a fact Matthews mentioned in passing.
This led to a classic Hardball moment. “I don’t know why [Gore] feels that he has to exaggerate and make some of this stuff up,” Reich said, seconding Simpson’s absurd misstatements. The history of the Superfund bill had at last been turned on its head.
Did Matthews and Reich actually know that Simpson was speaking from “fantasyland?” There’s no way to answer that question. But Simpson’s phantasmagoric performance went uncorrected on future programs; Hardball viewers were never told how grossly they’d been misled. But so it would go as a punishing narrative re-emerged, then turned to stone. Gore was becoming a LIAR again—and this time, the portrait would hold.
This leaves a basic question unanswered: Why were so many major journalists trashing Gore’s Love Canal comments so hard? Why were his critics given such license while his own remarks were paraphrased wildly and otherwise grossly burlesqued? Why did journalists keep repeating that perfect misquotation, long after it had been corrected? Why did no major journalist ever stand to complain about this misconduct?
Within days, a major reporter would speak to this question. On December 6, Bill Turque offered an insider’s take on his colleagues’ ongoing behavior.
Bill Turque's biography of Gore would appear inMarch 2000. In late November, Newsweek had already published a 3600-word excerpt. As his book’s publication date drew near, Turque was already being viewed as a bit of an expert on Gore.
In Newsweek’s December 6 issue, Turque discussed the growing flap about the Love Canal comments. In the process, he seemed to explain his colleagues’ behavior toward Gore, the candidate they had hissed and jeered only six weeks earlier.
One fact was clear from Turque’s report; the biographer wasn’t a shill for the candidate. In the course of discussing the Concord High matter, Turque advanced a set of the standard complaints which had long been advanced against Gore. He aimed a jibe at “the new Al Gore,” the candidate with the “much-hyped makeover.” He called Gore a “slash and burn type of campaigner,” contrasting the candidate’s “shrill attacks” with Bradley’s “avuncular style.”
He noted that Bradley had “all but accused Gore of lying” about several issues, without making any attempt to assess the truth of Bradley’s claims. He even played one of the Clinton cards which had been put to wide use against Gore.
Principally, though, Turque’s report concerned the burgeoning Love Canal frenzy. Here too, his account was highly familiar—and highly unfriendly to Gore. The candidate had “a penchant for embellishing the facts,” Turque wrote, a “tendency to stretch the truth.” He referred to Gore’s “past misstatements–like claiming to have created the Internet.” He even suggested that Gore had once claimed to be “the father of the Internet.”
Gore’s repeated misstatements were “mystifying,” Turque said, debuting a psychiatric critique he advance for several months. And Gore’s remarks at Concord High had included his latest misstatement. According to Turque, Gore’s story included a “Love Canal stretch,” an “easy-to-spot untruth.”
What was supposed to be untrue about Gore’s remarks to the students? As many of his colleagues were doing, Turque quoted that one lonely sentence: “I found a little place in upstate New York called Love Canal.” Turque implied that this statement was contradicted by the fact that “Love Canal had been declared a disaster area two months before [Gore’s] hearings.”
Love Canal had been so declared—but Turque didn’t explain how that fact contradicted Gore’s quoted statement. And he quoted just that one lonely sentence, offering no wider context from Gore’s longer presentation.
How fair was Turque’s account of this matter? Let us count a few of the ways he tilted the scales against Gore:
He didn’t include Gore’s explanation of what he meant by the quoted remark. He offered no innocent account of what Gore might have meant.
He didn’t note that the Love Canal frenzy began with a misquotation in the Washington Post and the New York Times. He didn’t note that the Associated Press had also misquoted Gore.
He didn’t note that major reporters were still repeating the first misquotation, five days after it was corrected. He didn’t note that the Post and the Times were refusing to issue corrections. He didn’t note that Concord High students were now fighting the famous newspapers, trying to force them to tell the truth about what had occurred in their classroom.
He didn’t note that reporters had adopted a mocking paraphrase of Gore’s remarks—a paraphrase which seemed to come from the RNC. He didn’t note that some journalists were now putting this paraphrase inside quotes, creating a third misquotation.
Was Gore’s “untruth” really “easy-to-spot?” Several news orgs at Concord High didn’t seem to think that Gore had misstated the facts there at all; these were the same news orgs which hadn’t misquoted his comments. Turque didn’t mention these facts. He didn’t explain why these major news orgs had failed to report on Gore’s untruth, which was so easy-to-spot.
Like the Associated Press before him, Turque didn’t seem to be in the business of correcting the Post and the Times! (One possible explanation: The Washington Post was Newsweek’s corporate owner.) But as Turque neared the end of his report, he seemed to explain the thinking behind the press corps’ treatment of Gore—the conduct which was making a joke of a White House campaign.
Why was the press making such a fuss about Gore’s Concord High story? Why were reporters making so many “errors” as they extended the frenzy? In a brief but highly instructive passage, Turque seemed to explain his colleagues’ puzzling behavior. In the process, he almost seemed to predict more misconduct of this type by the press:
Perhaps most disabling for Gore are episodes like the Love Canal stretch: small but easy-to-spot untruths. Together with past misstatements–like claiming to have created the Internet–they feed the notion that he's a phony. With the campaign press now on full embellishment alert, the slightest deviation from fact, no matter how innocuous, will stick like chewing gum to the heel of his shoe.What a remarkable statement! According to Turque, the press was “on full embellishment alert”—but only with regard to one candidate. Even “the slightest deviation from fact” (by that one candidate) would be aggressively flogged. This would happen “no matter how innocuous” such a statement might be, the emerging Gore expert said.
The press corps would jump on the slightest mistake—on the slightest perceived mistake. But the press would behave this way only with respect to one candidate!
Almost surely, Turque’s account of the press corps’ outlook was perfectly accurate. Indeed, it seems clear that the mindset he described had produced this new flap in the first place. But should the press corps take this approach to a White House candidate? To state the obvious, Turque was describing a classic “double standard,” in which one candidate is judged by a different metric than all the rest. With Gore, the slightest (perceived) “deviation from fact” was going to cause a major uproar. “No matter how innocuous” such a statement might be, Gore would be hit for it—hard.
Turque didn’t express his own view about the ethics of such a "full alert.” But almost surely, he did understand his colleagues’ outlook. Indeed, other candidates were already gaining from the approach he described.
During this same first week in December, a TV ad by Candidate Bradley turned out to involve a misstatement about an alleged heroic achievement. And this was a written TV commercial, not an offhand remark in a story about about an unexpected topic. But on Hardball, Matthews and a regular guest, Howard Fineman, reached quick agreement about this “deviation from fact.” The misstatement said nothing about Bradley’s character, the two pundits quickly agreed.
The pair had been puffing Bill Bradley for months. Now they applied the double standard implied by Turque’s remarks.
“By the way,” Fineman said on the December 1 Hardball. “Bill Bradley told a big whopper in his ad about how he rescued this kid. But Bradley doesn't seem to have the pattern that pre-exists with Gore.” And with that, the discussion of Bradley ended! The pundits went back to trashing Gore for his Love Canal comments, with Matthews offering absurd accounts of what Gore had actually said.
It was just as Turque would later describe. With Bradley, a pre-written “big whopper” meant nothing. With Gore, a wildly paraphrased, misquoted comment became the next major thing.
Candidate Gore was a LIAR again. This punishing narrative would shape press coverage all through the coming year.
By now, the truth was rather clear. There was littlethe press wouldn't say or do to advance its key themes against Gore.
On December 6, Turque said his colleagues were on “full alert.” Two days later, they started to prove it.
On December 8, Katharine Seelye reported a new press release from the Bradley campaign. According to her report in the Times, the campaign was charging Gore with making “false statements about Mr. Bradley's health care plan and position on school vouchers.” And Bradley’s charges didn’t stop there. “The news release also asserted that Mr. Gore has exaggerated or obfuscated his own record during the campaign,” Seelye wrote.
At that point, the Times reporter described Gore’s newest LIE.
“The Bradley campaign also criticized Mr. Gore for having taken credit in a Time magazine article for being author of the earned-income tax credit,” Seelye wrote. “The credit, according to the Bradley campaign, was created in 1975, a year before Mr. Gore was elected to Congress.”
The Bradley campaign was charging Gore with another clownish misstatement. Gore had claimed that he was the author of the Earned Income Tax Credit! But the program had been created before Gore entered the Congress!
Seelye didn’t tell her readers, but the Bradley campaign had treated itself to an easy-to-spot deviation. In the published Q-and-A to which its press release referred, Gore had actually discussed “the expansion of the Earned Income Tax Credit,” not its creation (author’s emphasis).
“That is something for which I have been the principal proponent for a long time,” Gore was quoted saying in Time. Rather plainly, he seemed to be talking about the proposed expansion of the EITC. But by now, it was just as Turque had predicted: When it came to statements by Gore, the press corps stood on full alert; any deviation, real or concocted, was going to call down their wrath. And sure enough! The notion that Gore had done it again was soon being bruited about by some of the corps’ ranking members.
On December 13, Gloria Borger advanced the latest charge in her “Liar, liar” column. (“If you did not invent the Internet, discover Love Canal, or author the earned income tax credit, don't say you did,” she advised.) Jodie Allen, a former Washington Post editor, pushed the new claim at Slate. (“Among the many things Al Gore has claimed credit for introducing to the world is apparently the Earned Income Tax Credit.”) In his December 18 National Journal column, Stuart Taylor described Gore as “self-described inspiration for the novel Love Story, discoverer of Love Canal, co-creator of the Internet, and author of the earned income tax credit.”
Al Gore said he invented the EITC! The new claim spread through the land.
On New Year’s Eve, the new claim spread to the Washington Times’ “Liar, Liar” column. From there, it jumped to columns in other newspapers; soon, the claim began to appear in newspaper letters columns. As late as October 2000, this charge against Gore would be repeated in a high-visibility forum. On the influential McLaughlin Group program, it was repeated by one of the “liberal” pundits—cited as one of Candidate Gore’s “most ridiculous and most relevant untruths.”
Candidate Gore was a LIAR again. Right through November 2000, the mainstream press corps would be on alert for embellishments—for embellishments real and imagined.
Turque's prediction was quickly fulfilled. As noted,so was Gore’s exhortation to the Concord High students.
The students chose to get involved. Their story deserves to be told in slightly fuller fashion.
At first, some students later said, they were puzzled by the news report in the December 1 New York Times. “I was the one that started it all?” They didn’t think Gore had said it.
“We were like, No, he was talking about the girl,” one of the students later recalled. “That event started it all.”
They didn’t think that he had said it. They reviewed their videotape of Gore’s remarks—and saw that he’d been misquoted.
All praise the clarity of youth! “We definitely said, ‘We have to do something about this,’” Alyssa Spellman, a Concord High junior, later recalled. “And we were definitely, I think, shocked that, Wow! That one little word, one little word, totally changed the context and totally changed what everyone thought about it.”
Spellman was right about that one word—and the students did try to do something. On December 26, a news report in the Boston Globe described some of the steps they had taken. They had issued a press release listing “the top ten reasons why many Concord High students feel betrayed by some of the media coverage of Al Gore's visit to their school.” They had asked the Post and the Times, and some other news orgs, to issue corrections of the first misquotation. They approached the host of a PBS media program in Boston with the mistakes they had found.
The Globe produced a sympathetic report about the students’ efforts. The Associated Press took a different approach. Therein lies a tale.
On December 14, the AP filed a news report about the students’ actions. The report was riddled with errors, and it was openly condescending toward the students themselves. Why had the students “played media watchdogs?” They were “miffed” that Gore’s visit to their school “got no more than just a few quotes in newspaper stories,” the AP’s Holly Ramer disgracefully wrote.
What did the students find when they “scoured the media coverage?” (Translation: When they read the New York Times.) They discovered that Gore had been “slightly misquoted,” Ramer wrote (author’s emphasis).
The AP was underplaying what had occurred. Beyond that, Ramer pushed the GORE LIAR theme very hard as her report continued. Ramer was writing a news report, not an opinion column. But she kept stating the RNC line as established fact, in virtually every particular.
Gore had “embellished his role in the Love Canal pollution” [sic], Ramer flatly stated. Extending the AP’s earlier line, she described his remarks to the Concord High students as a case of “hyperbole.” She listed Gore’s “earlier exaggerations: that he invented the Internet and was the inspiration for the movie 'Love Story.”
As she closed, she referred to “Gore’s exaggerations” again—and she quoted Ceci Connolly advancing a very tough judgment. “This continues to be something of a habit” for Gore, the Post reporter had said.
Connolly’s bungling started this mess. At the AP, she got the last word!
To all appearances, the AP still “wasn’t in the business of correcting the Post and the Times.” Indeed, Ramer advanced a set of absurd defenses of the two newspapers’ errors. At one point, she paraphrased Connolly and Seelye as they downplayed the significance of their mistake. “They noted that the [Love Canal] incident was not featured prominently in either of their stories, which recounted several of Gore’s campaign events that day,” Ramer wrote.
That was fair enough—about Seelye. After December 1, she didn’t write about the Love Canal matter again. Indeed, the New York Times never mentioned the topic again, implicitly acknowledging that Seelye's interpretation had been wrong, not just her bungled quotation (see Appendix 4). But Connolly wrote the December 2, follow-up news report which focused exclusively on Love Canal, repeating the perfect misquotation and pushing the incident into the headlines.
Ramer ignored this second report. In this way, she managed to hide the extent of Connolly’s error.
Ramer shilled for the Post and the Times in several other ways. At one point, she quoted Seelye making a truly absurd declaration. “The Gore campaign never disputed the meaning of the quote,” the Times reporter was quoted saying. In fact, Gore and his aides had “disputed the meaning of the quote” in several forums, starting with their conversations with Pawlak on December 1. It’s hard to know what Seelye could have meant by this claim, which she repeated to several news orgs. But Ramer reported the claim without comment, misleading readers again.
Ramer also quoted Seelye making the strangest defense of all. "I really do think the whole thing has been blown out of proportion. It was one word,” the reporter had said. Seelye repeated this point to several news orgs, displaying the frail analytical skills of this era’s press corps.
The reporters had only bungled one word! Please note: If a jury foreman says “guilty” instead of “not guilty,” he has bungled only one word. According to Seelye’s analysis, it shouldn’t matter that much! By way of contrast, Alyssa Spellman, 16 years old, had been impressed by the way “one little word, that one little word, totally changed the context and totally changed what everyone thought about it.”
Despite her tender years, Spellman read that matter correctly. In repeated statements to major news orgs, Seelye kept acting like one little word couldn’t possibly matter.
Simple story: The students’ efforts hadn’t changed the AP’s view of this incident. In her report, Ramer even repeated the AP’s own misquotation of Gore; without any mark or sign of deletion, she omitted that eleven-word chunk of his remarks, altering his apparent meaning. And needless to say, she failed to report an astonishing fact: Major journalists were still repeating the first misquotation, thirteen days after it was corrected! Truth to tell, the AP "didn’t seem to be in the business" of correcting the press corps at all.
Alas! In this error-strewn AP report, we see an important part of press corps culture during this error-strewn era. During this era, major journalists refused to correct their colleagues’ mistakes, no matter how repetitive or significant those journalistic misstatements might be. All through this history-changing campaign, press corps culture was built around a rather obvious code of silence. Major news orgs were not in the business of correcting each other’s mistakes.
Everybody played by these rules. The public, and Gore, paid the price.
In January 2000, the teacher of those Concord High students expressed her view of the Love Canal incident. She too was interviewed on the NPR program, An American Life.
Joanne McGlynn was the type of teacher American public schools die for. She had persuaded four White House candidates to speak with her high school juniors. She encouraged her students to pursue the mistakes they found in the wake of Gore’s visit.
During the course of her students’ efforts, McGlynn had spoken with the reporters involved in the incident. She told correspondent Sarah Vowell that one part of the episode shocked her.
“I think what shocks me, though, is that there seems, on some parts of the media that we've talked to, very little remorse,” she said. She specifically cited Seelye’s remark: “It was just a word.”
McGlynn had seen the reporters up close. What shocked her was their lack of remorse. In the judgment of this superlative teacher, the journalists didn’t seem to care that they had misquoted Al Gore.
If it hadn't transformed a White House campaign,the stunningly bungled Love Canal episode might just seem weirdly amusing.
Just consider the sheer absurdity of the press corps’ behavior.
Candidate Gore told an impromptu story to a group of high school students. In the process, he made a fleeting remark—a secondary comment which was ever-so-slightly unclear. Absent the press corps’ subsequent conduct, there’s no sign that anyone would have been misled by what he said.
In response to this slim imperfection of speech, the mainstream press corps staged its latest virtual wilding. They misquoted Gore three or four different ways, repeating their bogus quotations for months. They adopted a mocking paraphrase of his remarks—an account that had come from the RNC. They revived a pair of tortured claims, linking them to his new “misstatement.” And they revived a punishing theme, tagging Gore a LIAR.
Their first misquotation was quickly spotted—but reporters just kept repeating the error, and none of their colleagues told them to stop. And as they engaged in this clownish behavior, these journalists howled, raged and roared about the deeply troubling way Candidate Gore had mishandled a fact!
This strange behavior might seem amusing, if it hadn’t greatly transformed an ongoing White House campaign.
How absurd was the press corps’ behavior? Let’s review the building-blocks of its punishing GORE LIAR narrative. According to the mainstream press, these were Gore’s four major LIES:
Al Gore said he inspired Love Story!As of December 1999, those were Candidate Gore’s four LIES. Let’s review these claims on the merits:
Al Gore said he invented the Internet!
He said he worked hard on his family’s farm, when he really grew up here in Washington!
Al Gore said he discovered Love Canal!
*As of December 1999, the “farm chores” claim had been abandoned. This ridiculous charge had been so absurd that even the press corps couldn’t sustain it. No one explained why Gore’s remarks had ever been flagged as a LIE in the first place. But without this early charge, there’s little chance that the GORE LIAR theme could ever have gotten started.
*In December, the original Love Story charge was revived. It was still world-class nonsense. Only two reporters had heard Gore’s remarks on this utterly pointless topic. Each reporter rejected the notion that there was a problem with his remarks; no one else had any way of knowing what he had said. Despite these rather basic problems, the press corps continued to list this unrecorded, two-year-old statement as one of Gore’s troubling LIES.
*In December 1999, Gore’s Love Canal LIE was invented, reviving a powerful narrative. To create and sustain this helpful new charge, the press corps repeatedly misquoted Gore, as described above.
What explains the disgraceful behavior which defined this latest wilding? At best, you might say that the press was involved in a witch trial, a modern-day tulip craze. You might say that their loathing for Clinton, now transferred to Gore, had swamped their professional judgment. But one point is abundantly clear; whatever was happening here wasn’t journalism. And the aforementioned code of silence was being strictly observed. To wit:
As the GORE LIAR theme took hold, where was Time magazine?
In November 1997, Karen Tumulty was one of only two scribes who heard Gore’s Love Story comments. As part of a lengthy report in Time, she briefly cited something he said, though it seems he was slightly misquoted. To Tumulty’s credit, she challenged her colleagues’ reactions when a flap blew up in response to her piece (see chapter 2). She would do so again in September 2000. “I was sort of appalled to see the way it played in the media,” she would say at that time. “The degree to which it became a symbol of the man’s integrity I thought was very unfair.”
Question: Where was Time magazine down through the years as the GORE LIAR theme took control of the coverage? The Love Story charge had always been one of the building blocks in this powerful narrative. Why didn’t the magazine have its reporter do a first-person, “I was there” report, stating her view of this widely-flogged incident?
By normal journalistic standards, Time had a scoop on its hands. The Love Story matter was getting huge play—and Tumulty was one of only two people who had actually heard what Gore said. But alas! Time didn’t assign that first-person report—not in March 1999, not in December, not at any point in this twenty-month onslaught.
By now, the code of silence was strong. To all appearances, Time magazine was not in the business of telling the public the truth.
As noted in Chapter 2, Candidate Bush had made several misstatements about his own personal history. His misstatements weren't the end of the world—but they were real, not invented. But no “full alert” had been declared; these actual deviations from fact passed with almost no comment. The LIAR theme was reserved for Gore. It was tied to the Bill Clinton narrative.
The mainstream "press corps" was out in the streets, conducting a bit of a Salem witch trial. And alas! Before Gore won the nation's first primary, one more major theme would be nailed into place as the press corps extended its war.
As the first snowflakes flew in New Hampshire,a swoon was on for John McCain.
Candidate Bradley was still being puffed. The nickname-dispensing Candidate Bush was still a favorite with many reporters, although their ardor would cool for a time, now that McCain was alive in the polls.
And a war was underway in the case of Candidate Gore.
In March 2000, the ombudsman at the Washington Post would describe the press corps’ ongoing conduct in a short but brilliant column—a column the press would completely ignore. In the meantime, this war was transforming a White House campaign. It was also producing some conduct with was merely pathetic.
For a bit of comic relief, consider the column Al Kamen wrote on December 24—Christmas Eve.
Kamen wrote his "In the Loop" column four times a week for the Washington Post. On December 24, he penned a rather unusual piece. His column featured a mocking review of the Gore family’s Christmas card.
In Kamen’s judgment, the family photograph on the card had an unusual air. On this, the morning of Christmas Eve, Candidate Gore made political history. Almost surely, he became the first White House candidate to be identified as a phony because of his Christmas card.
Was Kamen making Gore jump through the hoops? The pundit described a predictable problem with the candidate’s troubling card:
[W]hen colleagues here received their personal cards from Vice President Gore, each one individually machine signed, they were delighted. But there was something odd about the picture on the front. Gore and family seemed to have been pasted on to the pasture background. Something like those presidential cardboard cutouts for tourist snapshots on Pennsylvania Avenue.“A phony Christmas card?” Kamen mused. “From the candidate who's trying so hard to be real?” Kamen checked with the Washington Post’s photo editor. “It looks totally fake,” he was quoted saying, "but it’s quite real.”
Kamen continued his review of the card. Given the press corps’ prevailing narratives, his punch line must has written itself. “Alas,” the columnist wrote. “Even when he’s real, he looks phony. Must be a campaign metaphor in this somewhere.”
Even Gore’s Christmas card made him look phony! But Kamen’s remarkable bit of fun was part of an ongoing war.
In the year to come, the guild would find a great many ways to portray Gore as a phony. More consequentially, they would routinely call him a LIAR, inventing new lies as they did.
A swoon was on for John McCain—and the GORE LIAR script was firmly in place. Again and again, this card would be played.
George Bush would end up in the White House.