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13 January 2000

Our current howler (part IV): Very old problem

Synopsis: When Chris Matthews corrects spinning, we’ve really been spun. Once again, he corrects a Post spinner.

New Gore, Old Problem
John Harris, The Washington Post, 1/11/00

Commentary by Chris Matthews
Hardball, CNBC, 1/11/00

Rueful John Harris was shaking his head over the antics of Stiff Old Al Gore. "New Gore, Old Problem," his page-one headline said. Harris' story began in a New Hampshire seniors center where Gore "launched on a story about the film 'Annie Hall' and a cameo appearance in that movie by media philosopher Marshal McLuhan:"

HARRIS (paragraph 2): Sen. Edward M. Kennedy (D-Mass.), standing by Gore's side, tilted his head in a quizzical stare. At the side of the room, anxious aides to the candidate shot each other nervous glances as if to say: Where on earth is he going with this?

(3) So where was Gore going? It's a bit complicated to explain here. But he eventually brought the anecdote back to his point: that his health care plan is superior to Democratic rival Bill Bradley's. Relieved aides breathed a sigh.

In the worry-wart world of the Washington Post, this was another example of how Crazy Old Gore just can't be allowed out in public. But on Tuesday night's Hardball, host Chris Matthews showed the tape of Gore's performance. (Matthews, present at the event, had been Gore's interlocutor.) And where had Gore been "going" with his anecdote? To a big laugh, and a burst of applause! There they were, right on the tape—the audience laughing and applauding Gore's punch line. After playing the tape, Matthews said this about the Post's oddball account:

MATTHEWS: Well, the Washington Post in its true over-serious self today smacked him around for that very moment, saying he had lost his train of thought, he had lost the audience. He knew exactly where he was going. He's trying to connect to a lot of younger people, not just younger, but everybody goes to the movies. I mean Annie Hall won an Oscar for best picture...

Matthews went on to tell guest Jo-Ellan Dimitrius, "There's the Al that I know" about the Gore who told the Annie Hall story. Matthews contrasted the Gore who told the anecdote to the stiff/dishonest/maladroit/robotic/earth-toned/doesn't-know-who-he-really-is Gore he so often invents for daft viewers.

Folks, when a paper's so wrong about Gore that Chris Matthews corrects it, that paper is crazily wrong. But incredibly, this is the second time in recent weeks that Matthew has corrected the Post's Gore coverage (see postscript). Post readers were told that Crazy Old Gore had launched another one of his trademark groaners ("old problem"). But there was the tape on Hardball that night, of an audience applauding and laughing.

Welcome to the world of the Washington Post, in which creative spinners like author Harris tell you the stories they like. "Gore is forever flirting with the next faux pas," Harris writes, "in the tradition of candidates stretching from Ronald Reagan to Dan Quayle." And it's true: if a performance like the one Matthews showed somehow qualifies as a page-one faux pas, then any statement Gore makes, any time, can qualify as a troubling "faux pas." Any statement by Gore can be spun in any way that the Post wants to spin it.

Gore "is still grappling with a rhetorical problem," Harris writes. We enjoyed the grim irony of another example the worried Harris soon showcased:

HARRIS (6): Simply put, according to people who have advised his campaign or analyzed it, candidate Gore seems to have little intuitive sense of when enough is enough. And so he keeps talking even when it might be wiser to stop.

(7) The results can be odd. Gore's answer to a question about his religious beliefs included a peculiar discussion of the respect to which atheists are entitled...

Apparently Harris finds it odd that unbelievers aren't burned in the square. But it is especially ironic that a big smart Post writer would focus on that Gore statement. Readers will recall that the statement was made at a Nightline town meeting before Christmas. And what was most striking about Gore's remark? The fact that Ceci Connolly gave a baldly false account of what Gore said in the Post the next day (see THE DAILY HOWLER, 12/18/99). Baldly false. Connolly and Mike Allen baldly misstated Gore's remarks on the rights of atheists—the second time in the course of two weeks that Connolly invented a comment by Gore. We sent written inquiries about the Post's odd account to Connolly, Allen, and editor Maralee Schwartz. But guess what, folks? We have never received any explanation of the Post's baldly false reporting.

Is it true? Can anything be spun as a page-one faux pas? Let's examine the rest of Harris' paragraph. For clarity, we include numeration of the four statements that concern the troubled scribe:

HARRIS (7): The results can be odd. [1] Gore's answer to a question about his religious beliefs included a peculiar discussion of the respect to which atheists are entitled. [2] An unexpected "town meeting" question about a sexual assault allegation about President Clinton prompted a stammering answer that went on excruciatingly, and to little clear purpose, for a couple of minutes. [3] Campaign policy advisers learned that their candidate has staked out a new position on medical marijuana after the fact, when a traveling political aide interrupted a conference call to report on Gore's surprise utterance. [4] There have been boasts—most famously, over his claim to have invented the Internet—that took laudable aspects of his record and stretched them a bit too far.

Harris lists four "odd results." Gore's remarks on the rights of atheists took up less than a sentence (see THE DAILY HOWLER, 12/18/99). Harris calls this a "discussion." Next, Harris complains about Gore's response to a question about an alleged rape. Gore was speaking to a persistent questioner, who was asking about a deeply serious charge. How many "minutes" is correct in answering so sensitive a question? Does anyone doubt that Gore would have been scalded if he had given a short, rehearsed answer? In his third example, Harris is upset that a candidate for president would dare make a statement without first telling aides. In his final example, Harris complains that Gore, in Harris' view, overstated his role in the Internet "a bit." (Our overall views on this endlessly hyped event have been made clear many times before.)

In other words, Harris runs to page one of his paper because a candidate (in his opinion) overstates something "a bit;" doesn't get permission from aides to speak; thinks atheists should be allowed to take part in democracy; and because he takes several minutes to answer a question about a woman's claim that she's been raped. In a rational world, a page-one story built on "problems" like this would be seen as the work of the addled. But this is not a rational world—this is the world of the Washington press corps. And what kind of world is that, dear readers? A world in which a candidate can tell a story and get a big laugh—and sees the incident right on page one, lamented as a troubling "old problem."

But then, Harris' problem is an old one too, described for us first by the ancients. Democracy won't work, the great Socrates cried, because sophists will create mass confusion. Here in our exciting, much-hyped new millenium, the Great Greek's vision remains crystal-clear. When Matthews corrects spinners, we've really been spun. Twice now, he's corrected Post spinners.


Let's play dodgeball: Readers, maybe you can get the Post to explain its puzzling coverage of Gore. We have despaired of getting answers from editor Schwartz, and we've despaired of trying to interest media critic Howard Kurtz in his own newspaper's antics. Kurtz is a whiz at letting readers know when some columnist in Idaho commits indiscretions. But when quotes and stories are made up at the Post, his curiosity fades like the dew.

Incredibly, that leaves us with Matthews, of all people on earth, keeping an eye on the Post. For the record, Matthews' prior correction of the Post came in early December. He reported on Connolly's first made-up quote (shared with Katharine Seelye of the New York Times). See THE DAILY HOWLER, 12/3/99 and 12/6/99. Other reports followed that week.