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21 April 2000

Our current howler (part III): It was a dark and murky night...

Synopsis: Ceci Connolly said Gore had been shifting positions. Her prose made it quite hard to tell.

Gore Challenges Bush Credibility on Policy Speeches
Katharine Seelye, The New York Times, 4/13/00

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

Comments by Tom Koenninger, Vice President Gore
Convention of American Society of Newspaper Editors, 4/12/00

Poor "Kit" Seelye must have felt pretty silly after reading Ceci Connolly's 4/13 piece. The day before, Gore had spoken to the American Society of Newspaper Editors. And somehow, Seelye fell in an old trap. She reported the things that Gore said:

SEELYE (paragraph 1): In his harshest and most comprehensive critique of his Republican rival to date, Vice President Al Gore today questioned Gov. George W. Bush's self-annointment as a "reformer with results" and said that if Texas was Mr. Bush's model for what he would do as president, he had no credibility.

Seelye went on for four solid paragraphs before veering off to start explaining Gore's motives. Then, after all that laborious work, she treated herself to some chestnuts. She marveled that Gore was still raising soft money, after he said that he'd like to ban it. And she managed to work in an irrelevant reference to the fact that Gore "grew up as the son of a senator" in "the same Embassy Row building" that is now "the Westin Fairfax Hotel." Gore had attended a luncheon there, setting up the irrelevant but spin-rich remark

But for all the standard, treasured tomfoolery, Seelye did describe major hunks of Gore's speech in the course of her lengthy article. That's why she must have kicked herself hard to see Connolly's dispatch the same day. Connolly was at the ASNE too. But here is all she had to say about Gore's "comprehensive" remarks:

CONNOLLY (paragraph 9): In his morning address, Gore described what he sees as sharp contrasts with GOP rival George W. Bush. But the newspaper editors were more interested in Cuba, China, Columbine and Clinton.

That was it—just one sentence. The second sentence was a reference to questions eds asked in the veep's Q & A.

So what had Connolly written about? Principally, Gore's position on Elian. And, just three days before Seelye would feign utter confusion over Gore's "puzzling move," Connolly gave an object lesson in the uses of murk and confusion. Like Seelye, Connolly never mentioned Gore's stated reasons for supporting permanent residency status for Elian. In the ensuing muddle, Connolly clearly implied what Seelye hadn't stated: Gore's position keeps shifting around.

The scribe broke fast from the gate. This was the day—you may recall; we've discussed it before—when Gore was said to have stirred up a fuss just by saying that his views hadn't changed (see THE DAILY HOWLER, 4/14/00):

CONNOLLY (1): Vice President Gore reasserted yesterday that his position on the fate of Elian Gonzalez has not changed, prolonging a controversy that has knocked the presumptive Democratic nominee off his campaign agenda.

Hmmm. Gore says again that his views haven't changed. To Connolly, that just "prolongs controversy." But Connolly didn't seem to agree with Gore's statement. Here was her second paragraph:

CONNOLLY (2): 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. Yesterday he added that perhaps the extended Gonzalez family could reach an agreement on whether the child remains here or returns to his native Cuba.

In the context of Connolly's opening paragraph, we'll just say it: This clearly implies that Gore has amended his views two times just in recent weeks. First he wanted family court. Then, however, he endorsed legal residency. Only yesterday, he added something else. Clearly, Connolly thought Gore's remark was news because his position had been moving all around.

And given Connolly's muddled paragraph 2, a reader could hardly dispute it. Remember—as Seelye explained on March 31, the granting of permanent legal resident status (sentence 2) was intended to get the case into family court (sentence 1). Supposedly, the two things went together. It was so described by Gore himself, and by sponsors of the legislation from both parties. Connolly knew this perfectly well, but her readers were never told in this article. No reference to any of that—none at all—ever appeared until the end of her piece. And when it did, it was hopelessly jumbled. Ain't no way you could puzzle this out:

CONNOLLY (11): Nearly two weeks ago, Gore perplexed and infuriated many supporters with his announcement that he supported the federal legislation granting permanent resident status to Elian Gonzalez and his family...

(12) But Gore said his support for the bill is the logical extension of his earlier position to leave the matter up to a family court.

(13) During a debate in January, Gore said he wanted Juan Miguel Gonzalez to come to America and decide Elian's fate and, if that were not possible, he would leave it to "domestic relations courts." [End of article]

But why did Gore say the new bill was the "logical extension of his earlier position?" Connolly never explains that point; a reader had no way of knowing. And are "domestic relations courts" (pgh. 13) the same as "a family court (pgh. 12)?" Or are those two courts supposed to be different? There's no way to know that here, either. If you read all the way to the end of this piece—and were willing to struggle with murky half-stories—you might realize there was some sort of background to this. But there was no way you could figure it out.

Is Connolly just a lousy writer? Or is this the sort of manufactured confusion Katharine Seelye would employ three days later? At THE HOWLER, of course, we can't say. But we think it's worth reviewing the exchange around which the scribe built her piece. In Gore's Q & A with the ASNE, Tom Koenninger, editor of the Vancouver (Washington) Columbian, came to the mike and said this:

KOENNINGER: Let me ask you about Elian Gonzalez and where you stand today and why you have changed your position in terms of reuniting the boy with his father.

At least it's clear what Koenninger's saying. Koenninger clearly seemed to believe that Gore had changed his position. Here is the answer with which the veep somehow "prolonged a controversy:"

GORE: Well, I haven't changed my position. Months ago, four months ago, not in Florida but in Iowa, in a debate in Iowa, I said the solution to this in my opinion is to ask the father and his new wife and baby, to grant them visas to come to the United States, where they can be free of the intimidation that he has to face in Castro's Cuba, and state his preferences as to what is in the best interests of the child. And I believe that this—I have said this from the start, that this should be decided on the basis of this standard: What is in the best interests of the child? I've further said that in this country, when we follow due process, the way we determine the best interests of a child is in a family court that has the expertise, that has the experience, that has the control of the decisions on what is in the best interests of the child. And that's what I've said from the very beginning, and that's what I think should be done.

Gore went on to add the brief comment to which Connolly referred in paragraph two; if the family could settle the dispute on its own, Gore said, there wouldn't be any need for the courts (see THE DAILY HOWLER, 4/14/00). As we've said, this remark couldn't be much more obvious. But Connolly seemed to treat it as another revision of Gore's position; James Dao had explicitly done so two days before, when Gore made the same sort of remark. (Connolly, of course, improves her story, implying that the comment is new.)

The Big Question: Was Gore's statement about his past position accurate? Had he been consistent? This, after all, was the very point on which Connolly had based her whole article. She didn't report Gore's major speech because this point was more important. Surely she went to a lot of trouble to make sure that this issue came clear.

But wouldn't you know it? Doggone it all! She never explained this point, either. What had Gore actually said in the past? Why had Gore come out for legal residency? None of this was explained by Connolly, except in muddled half-accounts. Talk about "perplexing" and "puzzling!" Connolly's report was hopelessly murky and, of course—it being current law—she implied that the veep had been fibbing. The Post's perplexed readers had no way of knowing. We'll try to do better next week.


Monday: Grand finale. We even use quotes.

Ringmaster Johnny: There are circuses operating in the United States on a 52-week, year-round basis. If John Gibson wants to be a barker, an acrobat, a trapeze artist or a clown, he should really just run off and join one. What he shouldn't do is stage another sad act like he did yesterday from 5:30 to 6 PM Eastern. His segment on Feedback was entitled, "Gore, Bush & Lies: The Way to the White House, or the Way They Are?" The segment was inspired by an article from George which we haven't read (there was no particular sign that Gibson had, either), and in the course of the ensuing half-hour debacle, Gibson repeatedly called Bush and Gore liars while displaying a woeful, total and abject ignorance of every issue he and his two guests discussed. He was particularly hopeless on the Bradley health plan, but his grinning ignorance seemed to know no bounds; nor his willingness to impugn the character of both major White House contenders. He offered utterly absurd theories on how our politics works; failed to correct his guests' plain distortions; and showed the analytical skill of a tilt-a-whirl patron in a hopeless exchange with Ollie North. His performance was insulting to both Bush and Gore, but also to the interests of the voters, whose most valuable possession—their public discourse—he used as a stage for his clowning. When the networks began establishing what were described as "news" channels, it was thought they might widen our public discussion. But NBC should be ashamed and embarrassed to have put such a mess on the air.