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31 March 1999

Our current howler (part II): Sticking to the story

Synopsis: The New York Times learned Gore had been misquoted. They buried it deep in their story.

Author of ‘Love Story’ Disputes Gore Story (Hint: Tipper Wasn’t Jenny)
Melinda Henneberger, The New York Times, 12/14/97

It must have been a slow news month, back in December ’97, because the New York Times told one of its scribes to research the Love Story matter. In fairness, Monica Lewinsky wouldn’t surface for another whole month. So the press corps was hurting for topics.

At any rate, on December 14 the Times published a lengthy piece, written by Melinda Henneberger. The story took up half of a page, with a headline that ran from sea to sea. It featured pictures of Al and Tipper, and of course, of Ryan and Ali.

And down in paragraphs 21 and 22, about three-quarters of the way through the piece, Henneberger finally got around to telling her readers what Gore had actually said. She had talked to Time magazine’s Karen Tumulty, who had penned the original reference to Gore’s remark. It was Tumulty’s brief reference, you will recall, that had Maureen Dowd all in a lather (see THE DAILY HOWLER, 3/30/99):

HENNEBERGER: Ms. Tumulty said that on the plane, Mr. Gore had been talking about how ironic it was that his old roommate, [Tommy Lee] Jones, got his acting break in the movie “Love Story.” “He said Segal had told some reporters in Tennessee that it was based on him and Tipper,” Ms. Tumulty said. “He said all I know is that’s what he told reporters in Tennessee.”
Henneberger checked with her colleague Rick Berke, the other reporter on the Gore plane. Berke agreed that Gore, in telling the story, “attribut[ed] it to reporters in Tennessee.”

Which sort of took some of the fun away, because everyone agreed there had been such a story, published in the Nashville Tennessean during the Segal book tour. In fact, Henneberger had already quoted Segal, right there in paragraph 15:

HENNEBERGER: In their phone conversation a few days ago, Mr. Gore reminded Mr. Segal that while Mr. Segal was on his book tour for “Love Story,” a reporter for the Nashville Tennessean who knew that Mr. Gore and the author were friends had asked if there was not a little bit of Al Gore in Oliver Barrett. Mr. Segal said yes, there was, but the reporter “just exaggerated,” Mr. Segal said. “He made it to be the local-hero angle.”
Let’s see if we have this straight. Gore said that he read it in a newspaper quoting Segal (Tumulty: “He said all I know is that’s what he told reporters”). Everyone agreed there had been such a story (although Henneberger didn’t seem to have researched it).

One would think this news, in a rational world, would have been the end of this whole silly story. And a familiar story it would have been, given the morés of our celebrity press. A reporter in Tennessee had exaggerated a bit, misquoting Erich Segal. Then a reporter from Time slightly misquoted Gore in reporting something he had said. Then Maureen Dowd, a thousand miles away, somehow knew that she’d spotted Gore’s motive. You know--the motive he had in saying the thing that it turned out he hadn’t quite said?

All just a part of the bumbling way CelebCorps assembles its stories. We’ve shown it to you again and again, in our own unassailable way. But we’ve told you something else, dear friends: the press corps never gives up a good story. When facts emerge that damage good tales, the facts will give way every time.

As so it was with Melinda Henneberger, as she assembled her story. She had learned what Gore had actually said--and she’d learned that his statement was true. One would think that that might have gone in her lead, to let people know that there was no real story. The whole point of the flap was the claim Gore had lied. One would think that she’d lead with the facts.

But no, she buried them deep in her story, in paragraphs 21 and 22. And what did she put at the top of her story? What else, readers? Scandal and conflict! The headline, which faithfully reflected her piece, announced that Segal “disputed” Gore’s story (see above). In fact, if one persisted to the end of her story, one saw that Segal explicitly agreed with what the VP turned out to have said.

But that wouldn’t make an exciting headline. And it wouldn’t make for a hot, thrilling lead. So the Times made their story a bit more engaging, in the way we so often lament.

The Times ran a headline that was patently false, and it filled its lead paragraphs with minor disputes--disputes that occurred before Segal learned what the VP had actually said. Even then, by the way, Segal had said that the Oliver character had partly been Gore. One only can marvel that such silly disputes can be the stuff of our national discourse.

But anyone who bothered to read this story would have seen what we have shown you today--that both reporters who actually heard Gore’s remarks agreed that he said something true. And as we mentioned yesterday, neither Tumulty nor Berke had made a big deal of what Gore had said; neither scribe had seemed to think they were being spun by the VP’s remark. But December, alas, was a slow news month; some of the pundits had little to do. So the Times had simply gimmicked a story--a story the press corps soon loved.

Tomorrow: A full week after Henneberger’s story, Sam and Cokie just ignored what she’d said.