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24 January 2000

Smile-a-while: Let’s play curveball!

Synopsis: Once again, Katharine Seelye—Spinner One—has been improving the news for Times readers.

Stumping as a Knowing Ally of Farmers
Katharine Seelye, The New York Times, 1/22/00

Commentary by Al Gore at Perry, Iowa
C-SPAN, 1/22/00

Campaign Briefing
Katharine Seelye, The New York Times, 1/19/00

Spinner One was up to old tricks in the Times this Saturday morning. In paraphrase mode, she told her readers something Prince Albert had said:

KATHARINE SEELYE (1/22) (paragraph 1): Vice President Al Gore stumped across farm country in central Iowa today, recalling his days in the 4-H Club, his Angus cattle and how his father had taught him to stop gullies.

(2) "I learned from my Dad the respect for the environment that all farmers who farm their own land have," Mr. Gore told a barnful of farmers and their families at Perry, noting that he grew up in a Washington hotel but spent his summers on the family farm in Tennessee.

"Noting that he grew up in a Washington hotel?" Somehow we doubted that Gore had "noted" any such thing in his comments. The notion that Gore grew up in a fancy hotel has been a principal point of RNC spin since Jim Nicholson began pushing the concept in March. (The facts of the case are not all that clear, by the way, if you think this sort of thing makes a difference.) At any rate, it struck us as odd to think that Gore would be reciting this blatant piece of spin. But there it was, clear as day, in this dispatch by the Times' ace reporter.

Dear readers, this is the kind of thing that used to fool us, reading Seelye's dispatches. Over time, we've grown wiser—and wary. When we see these spin-points in her stories, our analysts now emit mordant chuckles. Reading on in her Saturday piece, we got a hint of what Gore may have said:

SEELYE (1/22) (6): But Mr. Gore's message of the day was that he would fight for farmers. "I may have been raised most of my life in Washington, D.C., but I spent every summer on a farm," he told an audience at the Elks lodge here, adding, "I know one end of the pitchfork from the other."

Somehow, by the time Gore got to the Elks lodge (in Boone), his statement didn't mention hotels. In Perry, had Gore actually said he grew up in "a hotel?" Or was that just a spin-point thrown in by Seelye—a point of spin the inventive scribe wanted to lodge in the minds of her readers? Since the millennium began, as we've told you, Seelye has been the press corps' leading spinner. She makes it a point to improve on the news, adding flavor to the events of real life. So no, when we read a Katharine Seelye report, we don't assume that her statements are truthful. Anyone willing to trust what she says simply hasn't been reading her closely.

And then, our questions were answered! You know how those folks at C-SPAN are—they're committed to life in the raw. C-SPAN shows us events as they happen—we're not left to the mercy of spinners. And on Saturday afternoon—wouldn't you know it—they played the tape of Gore in that barn. In the course of recounting his personal background, here's what Prince Al really said. He had already described his parents' background, and his father's career in the congress:

GORE (Perry, Iowa): My wife and I, when we started our family, we borrowed some money and went out and bought a small farm in our home county, Smith County. We still call it home. I grew up most of my childhood in Washington, D.C., where my dad worked. But every summer we went back to the farm. I was in the 4-H club...

At no point did Gore make any comment about growing up in a hotel. That was good, old-fashioned Seelye spin—not truthful, a simple invention. "Gore not[ed] that he grew up in a Washington, D.C. hotel?" That statement by Seelye was utterly false. And sorry—we've passed the point where we think it makes sense to pretend this is all some big error.

No, nothing much turns on Seelye's attempt to lodge this spin with her readers. We don't suppose an election will turn on this one little bit of deceit. But just as she did in the Times last month when she misquoted Gore and spun the Love Canal flap, Seelye simply lied to her readers when she misstated what Gore really said. Does it matter when reporters just make things up? Only if our discourse matters. And because we think our discourse does matter, we can't imagine why this utter nonsense is allowed to go on at the Times.


Visit our incomparable archives: Since our exciting new millennium dawned, Seelye has been the press corps' top spinner. See THE DAILY HOWLER, 1/20/00.

Last month, Seelye reworded what Gore told some kids. It produced the exciting Love Canal flap. See THE DAILY HOWLER, 12/3/99, 12/6/99.

The daily spinner: How's your eye for RNC spin? Here's the full text of a "Campaign Briefing" Seelye filed on January 19:

SEELYE (1/19): Vice President Al Gore may have questioned the effects of the internal combustion engine, but not when it comes to transportation to the polls. Today he exhorted a union audience in Knoxville, Tenn., to pile into vans—not cars, but gas-guzzling vans—and haul friends to the Iowa caucuses on Jan. 24. "I need your willingness to take people with you to the caucuses," he said. Got a car and a van? "Take the van," Mr. Gore said. "And remember, take people with you in the van."

What's the purpose of this otherwise pointless (and inane) dispatch? The dispatch dusts off another favorite RNC spin-point: Gore has weird ideas on internal combustion. In fact, Gore's statement on the subject in Earth in the Balance—that it should be possible to phase out the internal combustion engine—is now the position of all world car companies (see links below). But Jim Nicholson, ever dim, keeps spinning the point, and compliant journalists are often pleased to repeat the headman's dim chatter. Here, Seelye gets this spin-point in play, as she did days later with the Gore "hotel." At least here, she doesn't say that Gore brought up the point. This is an example of propaganda and spin; 1/22 is an example of lying.

By the way, does this report make any sense as written? Why would Gore tell union member in Knoxville, Tennessee to "take friends to the Iowa caucuses?" Even in the small space allotted, Seelye could have explained this obvious point if she had simply left out her pointless spin. But that would have defeated the purpose of this report. This report was designed to state spin.

For past reports on internal combustion, see THE DAILY HOWLER 4/29/99, 5/24/99, and 7/2/99. All car companies now agree: internal combustion is on the way out. But you won't likely hear it from Seelye.