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22 March 2000

Our current howler (part I): Giving good story

Synopsis: The Philadelphia Inquirer—boasting New Documents!—left out what Richard Sullivan said.

New questions on Gore's account of '96 event
Chris Mondics, The Philadelphia Inquirer, 3/4/00

Testimony of David Strauss
Hearings Before the Committee on Governmental Affairs, U.S. Senate, 9/5/97

After Victories, Bush Must Win Over Those Who See Him as Weakened
Adam Clymer, The New York Times, 3/17/00

It's quite clear—the Buddhist temple will be a significant part of Campaign 2000 press coverage. So we suggest that you be very careful about how the basic story is told. On March 4, Chris Mondics of the Philly Inquirer took a new look at the Hsi Lai luncheon. Here's how his article started:

MONDICS (paragraph 1): For several years, Vice President Gore has maintained that he knew little about the real purpose of a 1996 luncheon in his honor at the Hsi Lai Buddhist temple in a suburb [of Los Angeles].

(2) But a growing body of documents, including new records obtained by the Inquirer, shows that Gore would have had reason to believe the luncheon at a tax-exempt religious institution, which was attended by some of the Democratic Party's top fund-raisers, was for raising political money.

(3) One e-mail written by the vice president shows that at some point weeks before the event, he knew he would be attending a fund-raiser in Southern California on April 29, 1996, though the e-mail does not mention the temple itself.

(4) Even his security staff understood the event to be a money-raising luncheon, according to one memo...

We'll return to that memo a bit later on—let's consider the Gore e-mail first. We are told that the e-mail shows that Gore "knew he would be attending a fund-raiser in Southern California on April 29, 1996." That, of course, turned out to be the date of the Hsi Lai luncheon. In suspiciously clumsy writing later on in his piece, Mondics elaborates on the Gore e-mail:

MONDICS (23): A flurry of memos by Gore's staff members in the weeks just before the event shows his staffers were aware that the Southern California stop was a party fund-raiser.

(24) A March 15, 1996 memo from Gore scheduler Kimberley Tilley to the vice president, contained in a Senate report on the incident, reported he had been invited to an event in Lawrence, N.Y., on April 29.

(25) That was the same day he had been booked for two Democratic National Committee fund-raisers, one in San Jose, Calif., and the other in Los Angeles.

(26) Gore responded with his own e-mail saying he would have to decline if the fund-raisers already had been scheduled. Since the Hsi Lai event turned out to be his only Southern California stop on April 29, he could have had reason to believe he was attending a fund-raiser.

As told, it makes a convincing story. Unfortunately, Mondics' narration leaves out major facts. There is no sign in the documentary record that, as of March 15, Gore had actually been "scheduled" or "booked" for any specific fund-raisers; there was a long-standing plan to hold fund-raisers on April 29, but the actual locations had not been established. There is no sign whatever that the Hsi Lai temple was even proposed as a location until seven days later (see THE DAILY HOWLER, 3/21/00). And of course, completely missing from Mondics' account is the Richard Sullivan testimony we excerpted yesterday. Sullivan testified that, when the Hsi Lai temple was adopted as the event's site in April, the original plan to hold a ticketed fund-raiser was changed. According to Sullivan's sworn testimony, the original plan for the April 29 event was changed roughly three weeks before the luncheon occurred.

Would Gore "have had reason to believe he was attending a fund-raiser" as of April 29, as Mondics seems to say in paragraph 26? Not if you believe Richard Sullivan's sworn testimony—which Mondics' readers don't ever hear mentioned. Sullivan testified that he advised Gore chief of staff David Strauss about the change in the plans for the April 29 event, and Strauss testified that he alone briefed Gore about the event's revised format. Did Sullivan and Strauss testify accurately? At THE HOWLER, we have no way of knowing. But you can't tell the story of the Buddhist temple event without explaining what Strauss and Sullivan said, and their testimony has disappeared without a trace in the story as told by the Inquirer. In paragraph 3 (see above) readers are told that Gore's e-mail shows that, on March 15, Gore "knew he would be attending a fund-raiser." Readers are never told that plans for the luncheon were changed after that, and that Gore was briefed about the retooled procedures.

Would the Hsi Lai luncheon have been OK, had it proceeded as described by Sullivan? That would be a good topic for scribes to discuss, once they've explained the basic facts of the case. But various facts in this much-discussed story routinely drop out of press corps narrations. In the Mondics piece, the failure to mention Sullivan's testimony is only one primo example.

Take, for example, another passage from Mondics, one which follows the material quoted above. In this passage, Mondics still seeks to show that Gore's staffers "were aware that the Southern California stop was a party fund-raiser:"

MONDICS (28): An exchange of e-mails in mid-April 1996 between two White House staffers, concerned that a visit with Yun by the vice president might upset U.S.-China relations, also describes the event as a fund-raiser.

(29) "Hsing Yun has invited the vp to visit the Hsi Lai temple in L.A.," John J. Norris wrote to colleague Robert Suettinger. "Hsing Yun would host a fund-raising luncheon for about 150 people in the vps honor."

This passage creates an obvious impression: Gore's staff knew the event was a fund-raiser. And there is no doubt that some other staff memos referred to this event in those terms. But Norris and Suettinger weren't DNC finance officials; they were part of Gore's national security staff. It is hardly surprising if they weren't informed about day-to-day changes in plans for the luncheon. In fact, Strauss testified directly about this question, though you'll rarely hear that mentioned in press corps accounts:

SEN. SUSAN COLLINS (R-ME): So here we have the vice president's—one of his national security aides [Norris] who is on his staff describing this event as a fund-raising luncheon...Is that accurate?

STRAUSS: It's accurate that it's referred to as a fund-raising luncheon here, but you have people who have no background in how to correctly describe DNC events characterizing events here...[T]he person describing this would have no basis for how to correctly describe a DNC event.

Something else that you'll rarely hear mentioned is Strauss' direct testimony about how Gore was briefed on the luncheon. How exactly would Gore have known about the nature of the April 29 event?

STRAUSS: I know precisely how the vice president knew about this event because he relied on two sources of information. He relied on me and he relied on his briefing book, and that's the significant information. All these e-mails that go back and forth among various people in his office—he is not privy to that.

During Strauss' testimony, the VP's April 29 briefing book was introduced into evidence. The book listed ticket prices and fund-raising goals for the San Jose dinner, but not for the Hsi Lai luncheon. Those facts are not mentioned in Mondics' report, and rarely appear in current accounts of the event.

How much do scribes shape this tale by selectively dropping out info? Consider a bit of information—perfectly accurate in itself—that Mondics mentions twice:

MONDICS (5): Other Gore staff memos refer to a fund-raising luncheon that day; one lists a ticket price of $1,000 to $5,000 per person.

Later, Mondics described the memo in a bit more detail:

MONDICS (27): Another memo, distributed to Gore's staffers on April 11 but apparently not to the vice president himself, says his Southern California fund-raiser had a ticket price of $1,000 to $5,000 per person.

To naïve readers of Mondics piece, this information must seem quite damning. But Mondics never mentions a plainly relevant fact—as it turned out, the actual luncheon didn't have any such ticket price! The people in attendance were not charged a donation, as people were charged at the San Jose event. It is clear that John Huang and Maria Hsiah had solicited contributions from some (small) number of people who attended that day, but the amount they had gathered was rather slight—only $45,000 as of the day of the event. There was not a $1000-$5000 ticket price for the Hsi Lai event, as there was in San Jose that night. This fact Mondics keeps to himself, while twice describing an internal memo whose assertion turned out to be false.

Was there something wrong with the plan for the Hsi Lai event? Readers could judge that for themselves, if they were given a full set of facts. But standard narrations of this event are often quite selective with facts. In the Mondics piece, readers are told that a March 15 e-mail shows that Gore "knew he would be attending a fund-raiser" on April 29. Sworn testimony says the plan changed after that. Mondics didn't burden his readers.


Tomorrow: The exciting leak of a meaningless memo had journalists' hearts all a-flutter.

Now they've even got Clymer!! Our analysts moped on St. Patrick's Day, after reading Adam Clymer that morning. They were surprised to see the scribe get involved in the Times' "silly stuff." Clymer was discussing Governor Bush's "need, in the words of Stuart Spencer, a veteran Republican consultant, to 'get a little more savvy on some of the issues.'" The hotly-contested GOP primaries had been good for Bush, Clymer explained:

CLYMER: [T]he first debate with Mr. Gore would [have been] a poor occasion for Mr. Bush to reveal that he did not know the name of the prime minister of Canada, or that he wanted to "use our technologies to enhance uncertainties abroad." Or, as an advocate of improved education, to observe, "Rarely is the question asked: Is our children learning?"

There they go again, dear readers! Candidates speak extemporaneously all day long. They all make mistakes in syntax and diction (so do broadcasters). Governor Bush is perhaps more inclined to malaprops than others might be. But almost every time you see him speak, his nouns do agree with his verbs. Clymer engages in chump change here. It's the kind of thing we expect from some others in Gotham, not from the more advanced Clymer.

Meanwhile, VP Gore has found a clever approach. He's been quoting McCain on the Bush budget plan, including the statement that Bush doesn't save a penny for Social Security. Good trick! In the press corps, it's against the law to say that Saint McCain ever spins, misleads, misstates or dissembles; that makes this the perfect approach for Gore. As long as he just quotes McCain's exaggerations, the press corps—it's the law—can't correct him.