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17 March 2000

Our current howler (part II): Slipped his mind

Synopsis: A tabloid talker ranted and raved. In the process, he left out one fact.

Gore ally found guilty on 5 counts
Jerry Seper, The Washington Times, 3/3/00

Commentary by Chris Matthews, Rep. Dan Burton (R, IN), Alan Simpson
Hardball, MSNBC, 3/2/00

Commentary by Chris Matthews
Hardball, MSNBC, 3/6/00

Bush Rebuffs Bid To Embrace Views Pushed By McCain
Richard Berke and Frank Bruni, The New York Times, 3/16/00

Commentary by Mara Liasson
Special Report, Fox News Channel, 3/16/00

Bush Again Reaches Out To Irked McCain Camp
Howard Kurtz, The Washington Post, 3/17/00

How Al Came Back To Life
Eric Pooley, Time, 3/13/00

We'll say it again—you can't fairly report the Maria Hsia conviction without mentioning that one important fact. Hsia's prosecutor, Eric Yaffe, said Gore didn't know about Hsia's round-up of illegal "straw donors" (see THE DAILY HOWLER, 3/16/00). Jerry Seper stressed this point in the Washington Times when Hsia's trial began; but on March 3, reporting the verdict, Seper was a bit less fastidious. In fact, Seper never really told his (page-one) readers what the prosecutors had said about Gore; it was only inside the paper, when Dan Burton was quoted, that a reader might have gotten the word:

SEPER: Rep. Dan Burton, Indiana Republican and chairman of the House Government Reform Committee, which also investigated campaign abuses, said he was "disturbed" that the Justice Department sought to portray Mr. Gore and the Democratic National Committee "as victims in the Hsi Lai fiasco."

Only when Seper quoted Burton did readers learn what the prosecution had said.

But by the time Seper's article appeared in the Times, the massaging of this story was well underway; the prosecution's statement that Gore didn't know was on its way down the memory hole. The previous night, a very excited tabloid talker had opened his program with the Hsia verdict. Speaking to the same Rep. Burton, he excitedly opened with this:

MATTHEWS: Let's go to this ferociously bad news story today for Al Gore...Chairman Burton, I have to ask you, this is a huge story. For months and years now Republicans and the critics in the media have been going after Al Gore for holding a fund-raiser in a Buddhist temple in 1996, in April of that year, in which he raised over $100,000 from nuns writing checks of up to five thousand bucks. Now it's clear and on the record—those nuns weren't writing checks with their own money, they were being funded with money, they were pass-throughs, they were laundry operations. Al Gore was collecting all this money from rich Asian-Americans, and from the temple itself. What are you guys going to do about it politically, legally and legislatively?

Even Burton must have been stunned by Matthews' characteristic lack of information. "Now it's clear and on the record?" It had been clear and on the record for several years that the nuns had used temple money. The nuns had appeared before Fred Thompson's Senate committee on September 4, 1997, testifying in open session about the way the temple had financed their donations. Temple leaders had said so, also. Hsia's trial had never been about resolving that point; the trial was held to determine if Hsia was the agent behind the transactions. Yes, she had been, the jury said—and the prosecution said that Gore and DNC leaders didn't know about Hsia's solicitations. (The jury's verdict is under appeal.)

Was the prosecution right about that? At THE HOWLER, we have no way of knowing. But you can hardly tell this story fairly without mentioning that seminal fact. In his first exchange with Rep. Burton, our excited talker didn't say it. His second question only made matters worse:

MATTHEWS: What about the illegality? I mean, here's a woman [Hsia] who's got five counts, they're worth five years apiece, that's 25 years of imprisonment, why does she get jail for working on a campaign which is overseen by Al Gore, and Al Gore doesn't get any hit for it?

The answer to that question will be obvious to readers, but it would never be explained to viewers this night. A talker ranted into the night without ever mentioning the prosecution's assertion that Gore hadn't known about what Hsia had done. Here, for example, was another question the talker threw at Burton:

MATTHEWS: How does this woman get hung out to dry, and Al Gore is out campaigning without a scratch on him? It just seems odd. If they're in a partnership to raise money for his re-election, doesn't the partnership contain sort of a limited liability. Or is it an unlimited relationship?

Burton never mentioned what Yaffe had said, that there had been no such "partnership" in the illegal donations. So when McCain supporter Rep. Peter King (R-NY) came on, the talker gave Hsia a promotion:

MATTHEWS: Has John McCain told you today, or have you read any wire stories or any press releases that suggest he's about to exploit this incredible haul of a 25-year conviction of a person who's Al Gore's bag person—I have to say it politically correct.

And the talker excitedly referred to "this fact of corruption made clear to the American people in a criminal conviction, that it's a criminal enterprise the Clintons were involved in in 1996."

William Kristol was the next guest. A talker kept inflating his rhetoric:

MATTHEWS: Let's talk about this bonanza today, this incredible incursion of politics into religion. Why does Al Gore face what I look to be a favorite status in this race to be president, given the fact that he was at the center of a huge fund-raising effort to raise 100 thousand bucks, and now the chief agent in the scam, Maria Hsia, has been convicted of five counts, felony counts, she faces 25 years in jail, and he's out there dancing and doing the Gore dance as if he's not even involved, when it was his fund-raising event where those nuns were writing, whipping off those checks for five thousand apiece and he was the beneficiary—there he is [responding to tape of Gore at Hsi Lai temple], there you see it—and he's not had a scratch on him today by your Republican Party.

The nuns, of course, had "whipped off" the checks the day after Gore was at the temple, as anyone even lightly briefed on this three-year-old matter would know. But why expect any level of factual integrity from a spinner and dissembler like Matthews? All his guests this night knew enough not to mention what the prosecution had said—that Hsia had deceived the DNC and Gore about the source of the donations. Burton didn't say it; King didn't say it; Kristol didn't say it; Robert Reich didn't say it. That permitted an unlovely exchange, with sardonic Al Simpson as guest:

SIMPSON: They're going to sling the anchor around his neck and they're going to pull him down as far as they can, and he is going to be connected with that, and he can do all the dancin' and the alpha and beta-ing and all the stuff he wants to do, but he is part of this, he is part of this, this, this internal chicanery and skullduggery and Lincoln Bedroom and Buddhist temple, this is Al, Big Al, Prime Time Al. Do we have to call him?

In response to the talker's next question, Simpson sardonically said this:

SIMPSON: Michael Dukakis, a remarkable man, ought to know how the slings and arrows that come from Al Gore because Al Gore is the one who brought up Willie Horton with regard to Michael Dukakis.

This, of course, isn't true either, as Dukakis himself makes perfectly clear to anyone who bothers to ask him (see THE DAILY HOWLER, 12/22/99).

Over the course of the next few days, the talker's presentation continued unchecked; Hardball's viewers never were told what the prosecution had so clearly said. By the following Monday night, the talker was saying this, as he spoke with Dem pollster Doug Schoen:

MATTHEWS (3/6): You know I have to ask, this is my point of view—I want to ask you about this Buddhist temple embarrassment, where the vice president of the United States was out there, you know, dancing for money, and he was taking money from nuns, they were whipping off $5000 checks, it was ludicrous, it was obviously a pass-through of some kind, there was money-laundering going on. This woman, Maria Hsia, long-time Bush [sic] associate, 25 years in felony charges against her, all convictions, five times five, five year penalty, what in the world do Republicans have, why haven't they brought this issue up?

Schoen said campaign finance doesn't work as an issue; we have no view about that. But we do have a view about the fact-presentation the talker had given his viewers. There was no "dancing" at the Hsi Lai temple; Gore himself received no funds; the $5000 checks the nuns were "whipping off" were written the day after the Gore luncheon. What might an honest examination of the temple event show? We have no way of answering that question (we do note, there are aspects of the Hsi Lai matter not involved in the Maria Hsia trial). But one thing is abundantly clear. Viewers of the inventive show Hardball don't have to worry about honest examinations. That NBC News leaves this mess on the air is a tribute to our corrupted press culture.


Monday: Did Gore know the temple event was a fund-raiser? Jeff Birnbaum presented new evidence.

Sob sisters: We rarely comment on articles the day they appear, but we made an exception just yesterday morning, rushing you our incomparable reaction to the Times page-one interview with George Bush (see THE DAILY HOWLER, 3/16/00). An apprehensive pair of Times reporters had timorously entered the Austin Governor's Mansion, and then had run back out of the building, sobbing out what The Bad Man had said. In fact, they were so upset by Bush's "ferocious" remarks, they decided to make them a little bit better. Sure enough, by yesterday evening, their report had produced a big flap.

Yesterday, we focused on the Timid Two's concern about the "aggressive" man's lack of good manners. But the first thing our analysts had circled yesterday morning was paragraph two of the page-one lead story:

BERKE AND BRUNI (paragraph 2): Mr. Bush passed up several opportunities to embrace Mr. McCain's remedy for overhauling the campaign finance system, the Senator's signature issue. Mr. Bush said he had learned nothing new about reform from Mr. McCain, although he conceded that his challenger had forced him to be a more spirited competitor...

Before we get to the highlighted remark, get a load of that opening sentence. Why in the world should Governor Bush "embrace" McCain's campaign finance plan? Presumably, Bush disagrees with McCain's plan; he said so repeatedly, all through the primaries. It is simply bizarre that the Timorous Two think it's news that Bush still holds this view.

But it was the highlighted passage that first caught the eye of our team of trained analysts. They thought it unlikely that Bush had said that he "learned nothing new" from McCain. Their eyes raced ahead to the end of the article, where the Times gave an edited transcript of Bush's remarks. And sure enough, here were the exchanges that were paraphrased in that remark:

TIMES: Has John McCain elevated your consciousness about reform? Has he changed your views?

BUSH: No, he didn't change my views. He made me a better candidate. He forced me to play to my strengths better. I needed to make it more clear that I not only believe in reform, I've got the record as a chief executive of getting reform done...

TIMES: Is there anything McCain brought to light for you or changed your opinion on in any way?

BUSH: No, not really. We agreed more than we disagreed. That's the greatest irony. You know, primaries are struggles, arguments over shades of gray. And that's what makes primaries difficult. In my case, I've known John a long time. And battling with John wasn't all that pleasant, because I've known John a long time...

For us, it's a bit hard to find the insulting tone that the press corps debated last evening. In his answers, Bush said the two hopefuls "agreed more than they disagreed," and said he didn't like battling McCain because he has known him for a long time. But most precisely, nowhere did the Bad Man say that he had "learned nothing new" from McCain. In using that paraphrase, the scribes had done what they seem to do best—they had made a dull story a bit more exciting.

We've told you this for some time, dear readers—the power to paraphrase is the power to spin. Bush said he hadn't changed his mind about campaign finance; the scribes massaged that into something insulting. And the comedy began last night on Special Report, when the panel of pundits debated the issue. Brit Hume and Fred Barnes took shots at the Times. Mara Liasson responded with this:

LIASSON: Well, if the standard is that George Bush has to adopt John McCain's campaign finance proposal, of course he's not going to do that and the story made clear that he wasn't. But I thought there was something else that was extraordinary in that interview. Even if you just read the direct quotes from Bush, I thought that he almost went out of his way to not to be gracious, to say, No, I really didn't learn anything from the McCain campaign; No, he didn't raise any issues for me—he sounded almost dismissive.

Our analysts came right out of their chairs; our chambers rang out with their calls. Liasson—specifying that she was going to refer to Bush's "direct quotes"—proceeded to recite the Times' paraphrase!! And then, on the basis of that improved "quote," she said that Bush had gone out of his way not to be gracious to McCain. Actually, it was Bruni and Berke who went out of their way to invent the remark which Liasson quoted. And then, this morning, in the Washington Post, Howard Kurtz bought the improved product, too:

KURTZ (paragraph 1): Texas Gov. George W. Bush made a concerted effort to mend fences with Arizona Sen. John McCain yesterday, a day after granting an interview in which he said he learned nothing from his former rival for the Republican presidential nomination and blamed him for the campaign's negative tone.

Later in his article, Kurtz at least reported the Bush camp's complaints about the article's editing. But in paragraph one, there it was again, the lesson that we have long told you. The press corps loves to improve the news—loves to make dull stories better. And the power to paraphrase is the power to spin—especially when a paraphrased comment is quickly accepted as the thing that was actually said.

Sorry folks: There was nothing newsworthy in the fact that Bush disagrees with McCain on campaign finance. The rest of this story was simple invention by a sulking celebrity press corps.

Homework: Homework assignment for Lexis-Nexis subscribers: See how many times the press corps has said that Gore called Bradley a "quitter." Then see if you can find any place at all where that naughty word ever was said. The new, improved word made the story much better—especially if you don't care for Gore.

Recent example:

POOLEY: Two weeks later, when the rivals met again at the Jefferson-Jackson Day Dinner in Iowa, a gathering of 3,000 Democrats, Gore was even more aggressive. Again Bradley spoke first, lamenting the state of politics...When it was Gore's turn, he called Bradley a quitter—Bradley left the Senate while Gore "stayed and fought"—and then neatly turned the tables on his reform-minded rival...

The word "quitter" isn't in quotes, of course, because it's a word which Gore never said. But the word made Gore's remarks more insulting—and quickly became a standard part of the press corps' Official Narration.