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20 April 2000

Our current howler (part II): And Ceci makes two

Synopsis: Katharine Seelye came up with a slick formulation. And guess who was using it first?

Boy's Case Could Sway Bush-Gore Contest
Katharine Seelye, The New York Times, 3/30/00

Gore's Puzzling Move To Take Boy's Unextended Hand
Katharine Seelye, The New York Times, 4/16/00

Gore Intent on Contesting Florida
Ceci Connolly, The Washington Post, 4/8/00

Gore Says He's Been Consistent On Elian
Ceci Connolly, The Washington Post, 4/13/00

McCain Reverses Flag Stance
Terry Neal, The Washington Post, 4/20/00

By all indications, it doesn't take much to get Katharine Seelye mixed up. In her March 30 article—she wrote the piece on March 29, the day before Gore's "puzzling move"—the scribe offered this formulation:

SEELYE (3/30): Mr. Gore has repeatedly declined to specify what he thinks should happen to Elian, saying last week: "This is a custody matter for the courts to decide based on due process, with a full hearing in which all parties are heard."

In her April 16 article, Seelye's paragraph 4 contradicted her paragraph 3 (see THE DAILY HOWLER, 4/19/00). But here she managed to contradict herself in the space of a single confused sentence. First, she says Gore will not specify what should happen to Elian; then she quotes Gore, and he's doing just that. Elian's case should be decided as a custody matter in the (family) courts, Gore says—a statement he had made at various junctures at least since January 6.

In this passage, Seelye is flummoxed by an unremarkable fact—Gore, suggesting the case should go into court, wouldn't say how the court should decide. As we've mentioned before, it's hardly surprising that a major official will "decline" to tell a court how to act; officials observe that practice so routinely that school kids nod off at its mention. But in this passage, Seelye is obeying a newly-emerging pundit law—any information about Gore must be coveyed in the most negative way possible. Seelye could have said, "Gore has said the case should be decided in family court, and has declined to specify how the court should rule." But what would be wrong with that, Dear Readers? It would sound sensible, and completely unperplexing. And so, in her articles of April 16 and March 30, Seelye tortured simple facts to produce a much more pleasing construction: Gore just refuses to say what should happen! It's impossible to figure out what he thinks!!

So it goes when today's hardy scribe tortures news in obedience to a script. Indeed, Seelye's April 16 piece was a masterwork of current spin—a masterpiece in which simple facts were rearranged to sound capricious and "puzzling." Seelye was baffled by Gore's "puzzling move"—his support of permanent residency status for Elian. The March 30 decision had been "prompted by no one," and had "seemed so unnecessary," she said. And not only that—Gore had "spoken earlier in such code that it was hard to discern what he believed" on the matter. Gore hadn't actually "contradict[ed] himself," Seelye said, somewhat unclearly. You just couldn't tell what he thought.

But as we saw yesterday, this was all utter cant—all revision of earlier clarity. In a lengthy, page-one article on March 31, Seelye had clearly explained all the matters by which she was now so bewildered. What had "prompted" Gore to act? New legislation had been offered in the Senate, she had written; the legislation was offered on March 29, and Gore had endorsed it the next day. And why had the legislation been proposed? It was the only way that Elian's case could be heard in family court, sponsors said. Gore said the same thing in her article. And had Gore actually "spoken in such code" that you couldn't "discern what he believed" on the case? Hardly. Seelye quoted Gore, saying—quite clearly—that the case should be heard in a family court. The day before, on March 30, she had quoted Gore saying the very same thing (he'd said it one week before). In fact, on April 16, March 31, and March 30, Seelye quoted Gore speaking quite plainly; the case should go to the family courts, to be dealt with as a custody matter.

But so it goes when today's hardy scribe tortures news in obedience to spin. Gore's proposal—right or wrong—had been clearly explained. But now, in Seelye's capable hands, the whole episode was rearranged to be "puzzling." But there was one particular part of Seelye's 4/16 piece which our analysts especially noted. It was the flip-flop Seelye seemed to describe, right there in an early passage:

SEELYE (4/16) (paragraph 3): But on March 30, prompted by no one, Gore had thrust himself into one of the most emotionally and politically charged cases in the country. After months of saying that the fate of 6-year-old Elian should be decided in family court, Mr. Gore said the boy should be granted permanent residency status.

It sounded like a flip-flop to us—after months of saying one thing, Gore was now saying another. Seelye quickly said it was no such thing, in another one of her many statements this day that seemed to make no special sense.

And why had we noticed this formulation? Partly, because it was slick! It totally dropped the explanation given by Gore and the sponsors of the legislation (Senators Graham, Mack, and Smith). The purpose of permanent residency status was to get the case into family court, they'd all said. Seelye, dropping all mention of that, made the two ideas seem completely disconnected.

But we also noticed the formulation because we knew we had seen it before. We were certain that someone else had offered the construction—had put the two ideas together, but dropped the connection between them. We sent the analysts on a thorough search, trying to recall just who it had been. And then, the young scholars rushed in with the news. Who else could it be? Ceci Connolly!!

CONNOLLY (4/8): But as Gore's handling of the Elian Gonzalez case illustrates, the vice president has yet to master the Byzantine politics of this diverse state. After asserting for months that the Cuban boy's fate should be left to the legal process, Gore recently said he now favors permanent legal resident status for Elian.

Not a word to explain what her paper had explained eight days before (see postscript)—that the permanent resident status was intended to get the case into the family courts (which she now vaguely called "the legal process"). Five days later, Connolly made the flim-flam more clear—she was peddling this jive as a flip-flop. She described Gore's appearance at the convention of the American Society of Newspaper Editors (see THE DAILY HOWLER, 4/14/00):

CONNOLLY (4/13): In a brief question and answer session with newspaper editors, Gore said he has maintained for several months that the Cuban boy's case should be resolved by a family court. More recently, however, he endorsed legislation granting the boy and family members permanent legal resident status...

"However" makes it pretty clear. Legal resident status is clearly presented as a change in position. Readers are nowhere told what Seelye explained so clearly back on March 31—that the purpose of granting the resident status was to get the case into the family court, and away from the INS.

Yep. It was great to see our two favorite spinners, working together again. On December 1, the two had misquoted Gore together, and the story had gone 'round the world. The Trouble Twins thus created the Love Canal flap, through their wholly accidental misreporting. (Connolly wrote a big Day Two story even after the error was corrected on Hardball. That's why we call her "Stone Cold.") And now the Totally Tinpot Tandem were spinning little Elian together. Ceci had crammed the two ideas together, and "Kit" had taken the concept and run. By April 16, Seelye had managed to write a major article saying that Gore's conduct was thoroughly "puzzling."

In case you had any question about what spin the whole mess was intended to serve, Seelye spelled it out twice in her piece. Here was her nugget formulation:

SEELYE (4/16): But Mr. Gore's move seemed damaging in a fundamental way. It reinforced his biggest weakness—the perception that he is a calculating opportunist, not a man of principle.

Is Al Gore "a calculating opportunist?" As we will discuss, we're not sure how you can tell from this issue. But it's the script we told you about two weeks ago. And Seelye and Connolly have been pushing scripts hard.


Tomorrow: Ceci Connolly is flummoxed herself, by Gore's remarks at the ASNE.

Just as it's ever been: Why do we urge scribes to be careful with motive? Read this morning's page-one Washington Post:

TERRY NEAL (paragraph 1): Senator John McCain (R-Ariz.) returned to South Carolina today to declare that he had impugned his own integrity by failing to tell the American people during his presidential campaign that he believes the Confederate flag should be removed from atop the statehouse here.

That's a fairly straightforward, and accurate, bit of reporting. That's pretty much what McCain said. But immediately, Neal ascribes motive:

NEAL (2): In an extraordinary act of contrition, McCain said he was afraid at the time that he would lose the Feb. 19 South Carolina primary if he revealed his true feeling. So instead, he joined George W. Bush in saying that it was up to South Carolinians alone to decide whether to do away with the flag...

But how does Neal know that the speech is accurately described as "an extraordinary act of contrition?" How does he know the speech wasn't "an extraordinary attempt to get back on page one of the Post?" An "extraordinary attempt to act out against Governor Bush?" How does he know that the speech wasn't motivated by "a desire to position for the 2004 race?" The answer is, Neal has no apparent way of knowing, and certainly presents no evidence to support his interpretation. In this article, Neal does what journalists constantly do—he simply plugs in a motive he likes, taken from a familiar press script. Ol' Jokes 'n Doughnuts has a noble motive, we're informed at the start of the piece.

Is McCain acting from a noble motive? We don't have the slightest idea, and Neal doesn't seem to know either. We're going to be taking a look next week at ascription of motive in several recent events (Bush meets with gays; Gore on Elian). For purposes of illustration, we'll almost surely return to things in today's papers about Senator McCain's noble speech.

Meanwhile, hats off to Rachel Graves of Reuters. In today's USA Today, Graves accurately describes what McCain said, without trying to guess at his motive for saying it ("McCain wants S.C. flag down"). Less is more in matters like these. The analysts cheered for Graves' disciplined work.

Note: Yes, we occasionally joke a bit ourselves, about the press corps' love for McCain. As we've spelled out in the past, we don't primarily mean this as a comment on McCain; we mean it as a comment on the press corps. McCain didn't author his fawning press coverage (though he helped it along, putting out tasty snacks). Our personal view, which we expressed once before: In terms of candor and accuracy on the primary trail, we didn't see any huge, glaring differences between the four major hopefuls. We did see major, glaring differences in the way hopefuls' conduct was spun.


For the record: Sue Ann Pressly and John Harris reported Gore's announcement in the March 31 Post. This comes from the top of their page-one, lead story ("Gore Backs Bill On Elian Status"):

PRESSLY AND HARRIS (2): Gore declared in a statement that "our immigration laws may not be broad enough" to achieve a just resolution in the Gonzalez case. If Congress were to pass this legislation, it would move the case from the jurisdiction of the Immigration and Naturalization Service to a Florida family court.

According to P & H, Gore further explained the purpose of the bill: The extended family would receive permanent residency status so that Juan Miguel Gonzalez would feel more free to speak in such a court hearing. "If the father prevails in family court, he would have the right to return Elian to Cuba," the scribes wrote.

In real time, everyone understood and explained the connection; residency status was being proposed to get the case into family court. By April 8, Connolly was yoking the two ideas, but had dropped all reference to the connection between them. By April 13, the new proposal was fairly plainly presented as a flip-flop ("however"). By April 16, in Seelye's puzzled mind, the whole episode made no sense at all. It had been "prompted by no one," had "seemed so unnecessary," and Gore had been speaking "in such code" that you couldn't make out what he thought. Pressly and Harris explained just what he thought. But that was before "Kit" and Ceci got spinnin'.