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1 June 2000

Our current howler (part III): Black gets it right

Synopsis: Doing the unthinkable—critiquing the Globe—the StarTrib’s Eric Black got it right.

Does Gore-or the media-exaggerate truth?
Eric Black, The Minneapolis Star Tribune, 4/20/00

We think the Star Tribune made a mistake. On April 20, the Minneapolis paper reprinted the Boston Globe's April 11 piece; in it, Walter Robinson and Michael Crowley scrutinized VP Gore's alleged habit of "embroidering" and "embellishing" truth. The article was littered with error from start to finish, and was a methodological nightmare to boot; its authors scoured "more than 20 years" of speeches and campaign ads by the VP, praying the gods might reward them with errors, while making no effort to subject other pols to anything resembling similar scrutiny. We put it in the form of an algebra question: If you examine 20 years worth of speeches and ads from one hopeful; and if you examine no years worth of speeches and campaign ads from other hopefuls; which hopeful will turn out to have made more misstatements? The problem with method seems clear. But then, can you really expect a sensible method from scribes prepared to do what the Globe pair did? Among other gruesome bits of theater, the scribes pretended they don't understand why Gore claims "seven years of journalistic experience" (see THE DAILY HOWLER, 5/9/00), and they spent large chunks of their article assailing Gore's statements about his father's Senate career (see THE DAILY HOWLER, 5/12/00). What was wrong with Gore's conduct there? As it turns out, when Gore made his official kick-off speech last June, he praised his father's (widely-praised) civil rights record without specifically mentioning one particular vote. On matters so utterly foolish and addled, scribes now denounce a pol's character.

We think the Star Tribune made a mistake when it chose to reprint the Globe article. But the StarTrib's readers were well served by an accompanying bit of commentary. In the article, the StarTrib's Eric Black discussed the Globe piece, and two other treatments of Gore as well. He brought our analysts out of their chairs with this sensible discourse on method:

BLACK: Does Gore lie more than the average politician? Neither the Globe reporters, who imply that he does, nor Robert Parry, who implies the opposite, really knows, nor does anyone else, since the frequency of lies by the average politician has never been established.

We would have said "fibs;" the Globe never uses the l-word. At any rate, Black raised another good question. This sort of thing is simply unheard of:

BLACK: When does an exaggeration or embellishment stray so far from the unvarnished truth that it can be called a lie, or merits national attention, or is worthy of being factored into the citizen's deliberations during an election year?

In other words: Is there anything about Gore's actual history that justified singling him out in this way? When the Globe rummages back through twenty years and still has to gimmick up hopeless examples, we'd have to say that the answer is clear.

About Black, we want to offer two comments. The first may not seem all that flattering: You would think that anyone would have thought of the critiques Black brought forth in his piece. You'd think the problems with the Globe team's method would occur to any thoughtful observer. Who wouldn't notice a bit of imbalance when one pol is subjected to a twenty-year audit, while no one else is examined at all? Have you ever wondered Where Truth Comes From? If so, you'd almost have to be a bit uneasy with major aspects of the Globe's aggressive piece.

But the answer to our question is simple: No one would notice that obvious problem, at least no one in our modern press corps. And more important: No one would ever express the concern, even if it did come to mind. We are now served by a press corps with a fundamental group ethic: Pundits do not critique other pundits. In raising questions about the Globe's method, Eric Black breaks away from the pack.

And how committed are modern pundits to giving their colleagues complete, total license? How thoroughly will the press corps reject the public interest and defer to the needs of the group? This thoroughly: For three solid months, in 1999, the entire press corps stood silently by while a major pol was called a liar (about chores). The press corps knew the charges were false; the corps had reported the chores many times. But no one said a word about it. Was there ever a case where it became more clear that our modern press corps is sunk in dysfunction? If any scribe can explain this three-month debacle, we invite them to write us and do so.

Our press corps is sunk in a troubling pathology. We've taken a look at its outlines. But on April 20, defying the norms, Eric Black raised some obvious questions. It's really sad how rarely it happens. But the StarTrib's Eric Black got it right.


Tomorrow: A brief summation.

He too served: In one quote above, Black refers to Robert Parry, whose cover piece in the Washington Monthly examined press coverage of Gore. Alas—we think Parry misstated the facts on Love Story. And we don't think that Parry tore 'em up quite enough, though that is a matter of judgment. But the Monthly and Parry should be commended for raising questions long unraised. Except, of course, in the incomparable HOWLER, where the press corps' remarkable coverage of Gore has been under review since last March.

Weisberg respondent: Yesterday we critiqued Jacob Weisberg's 4/25 Slate piece; Weisberg replied in an e-mail. He suggested we look at other work; in it, he says he does the kind of analysis we had said was absent from his 4/25 piece. His first four examples:

  1. Slander Patrol: A Gore Miscellany. Slate, 5/10/00
  2. Policy Corner: Gore Abroad. Slate, 5/3/00
  3. Policy Corner: Gore's Social Security Pander. Slate, 4/5/00
  4. Policy Corner: Gore's Campaign-Finance Reform Plan. Slate, 3/28/00

For the record, we read the two links in Weisberg's 4/25 piece, which were intended to support the claims in that article. We'll read the pieces Weisberg suggests, though they don't specifically address the charges made on 4/25. For the record, we do think one part of Weisberg's invitation is a bit odd; several of the articles cited were written after the 4/25 piece. We think it's odd to be told that, in critiquing a piece, one should not just read back, one should read ahead too. Again for the record, Weisberg says that his point on 4/25 was this: The Gore criticisms of Bush were coming so fast that Slate wasn't able to keep up with them all. Fine. There's a solution to that. Just ignore them. People don't have to talk slowly enough so Slate (or you and I) can keep up.

More immediately, though, because we think that "slander" is another tough word, we'll offer a quick reaction to the 5/10 piece. The "miscellany" includes three examples of Gore statements; Weisberg says the third statement is accurate (OK, "defensible"). So now we're down to two "slanders." At first glance, we'd have a hard time calling the other two "slanders" (or "assaults," another term used right up front); in fact, we wouldn't swear that either claim is even wrong, although we'll consider them further.

At first glance, this article exhibits the very tendencies we have talked about in the past few days. Wildly hyperbolic language is used about one hopeful, and other hopefuls don't seem to be examined at all. Weisberg called Bradley "decent and honorable" in his 4/25 piece, for example. (We don't dispute that characterization, by the way.) But Bradley's claim that Gore introduced race into the 1988 campaign struck us as the oddest criticism made in the primaries, since Bradley had explicitly said the opposite in his 1997 book. Did Weisberg examine that example of "slander?" Meanwhile, Bush has made a string of recent minor misstatements about Gore; have they occasioned a "Slander patrol" too? More generally, we think the word "slander" should be used to refer to slanders. Every minor flap does not involve "slander." The English language contains lots of words so we can refer to things as what they are.

We'll read the suggested pieces. As we said yesterday, what was striking to us in the Weisberg piece is the fact that Weisberg is (obviously) knowledgeable and smart. When bright writers call minor dust-ups "assaults" and "slanders," that's a part of the puzzling press corps "dysfunction" which we have been trying to describe.

By the way, keep in mind the basic claim. The basic claim is that Gore overstates!