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20 July 2000

Our current howler (part III): One that didmatter

Synopsis: Jacoby’s May 11 column concerned things that domatter. It shouldn’t have run in the Globe.

Journalistic jaywalking
Editorial, The Washington Times, 7/14/00

Boston columnist: Suspension was 'overreaction' to 'oversight'
Unsigned, The Washington Times, 7/18/00

Al Gore's lies—about me
Jeff Jacoby, The Boston Globe, 5/11/00

Can Gore stay in campaign mode?
Roger Simon, U.S. News & World Report, 3/13/00

The Washington Times was boo-hoo-hooing about poor Jeff Jacoby's suspension:

THE WASHINGTON TIMES: Mr. Jacoby's crime, at worst, was the most minor infraction...Instead, the newspaper labels it "serious journalistic misconduct." But is it? Consider Mr. Jacoby's defense: "Since I was relating lore that has been related over and over, and since all of the sources that I relied on had relied on even earlier recitations, I assumed that all the material in my column was in the public domain."

Jeez! Legalistic hair-splitting is suddenly "in" when certain scribes get in hot water. The fact that Jacoby's material had been "related over and over" is exactly what's wrong with his column; the "lore" was "related" again the next day, in the same paper, this time by Ann Landers! Does the Globe pay columnists to rehash tired lore? The fact that "all the material was in the public domain" was precisely the problem with this work.

We don't think the republic is going to fall because of Jacoby's column. Is his four-month suspension appropriate? On that, we have no informed view. But it's hardly surprising if the Washington Times doesn't see a problem with the column. We think the Times provides its readers a valuable service with the three daily op-ed pages it runs. But on those pages, the Time routinely runs tired, same-old-same-old writing; writers rehash the same stale old stuff, day after day, without end. We often marvel at the way these writers simply repeat each other's worn themes. It's no surprise when the Times sees Jacoby's rehashing as "the most minor journalistic offense."

At any rate, Jacoby's July 3 column doesn't really matter too much. It concerned safe old patriotic themes; no one could be hurt by its errors. But to see a piece that really does matter, see Jacoby's May 11 Globe piece (see THE DAILY HOWLER, 7/19/00). The offering was called "Al Gore's lies—about me," and it recycles and rehashes standard old fare about what a Big Liar Gore is. This is stuff that makes a difference. Here's how Jacoby starts off:

JACOBY (paragraph 1): As you have no doubt heard, Al Gore lies like a rug. The old punch line about how you know when a politician is lying is no joke when it comes to the vice president: If his lips are moving, you know.

Pretty tough stuff, but completely familiar from today's big rough-and-tough press corps. You've read this stuff a thousand times, slightly rearranged to give the air of original thought. Why have you "no doubt heard" that Gore "lies like a rug?" Because a hundred other scribes have typed it—just as Jacoby typed away July 3, recycling some standard old "lore."

Of course, if a public figure "lies like a rug," it's important that readers should know it. Jacoby's recycling wouldn't matter—if what he said was actually true. But when a writer makes so dramatic a charge, he ought to be careful to get his facts straight. It's odd that Jacoby is so worked up at Gore, when he takes such liberties with the truth here himself.

For a minor example, look at the way Jacoby closes his column. Here are his final two paragraphs:

JACOBY (18): In March, for instance, Roger Simon of US News asked "a Gore adviser" to describe "the general tenor of the campaign" being planned against Bush. We're going to call Bush "a far-right-wing lunatic," Gore's man answered, and the campaign we run "is going to be brutal, incredibly nasty, dirty, slimy, sleazy, and one of the worst in history."

(19) Now that has the ring of truth. (Jacoby's emphasis)

Phew! Readers got an ugly look inside the Gore campaign. Unfortunately, Jacoby misrepresents what Simon said. Here is the passage in question:

SIMON: Contrary to pre-primary predictions that George W. Bush would have an easy time staying in the center while Gore would be forced to the left by Bradley, it is Gore who now finds himself almost exactly where he wants to be, while Bush scrambles madly to assure people he barely knows Bob Jones. "That trip to Bob Jones University may force him to pick a running mate who is Catholic just to prove he is not a bigot," a Gore adviser predicts. The Gore camp is already war-gaming the general election for both sides. "Bush will say Gore is crazy, a lunatic, and a far left-winger," a Gore adviser says. "He will make the classic mistake of trying to define and frighten people about Al Gore." And what will you say about Bush? the adviser was asked. "That he is a far right-wing lunatic," he replies. And the general tenor of the campaign? "The election campaign is going to be brutal, incredibly negative, nasty, dirty, slimy, sleazy, and one of the worst in history," the adviser says. Bush, too, will have material to work with, such as last week's conviction of Gore fundraiser Maria Hsia for her role in the Buddhist temple scandal.

The unnamed "Gore adviser" did not say that the campaign "we run" is going to be "brutal and nasty." He said that about the campaign in general, having predicted that Bush and Gore would call each other "far left" and "far right." And the Gore adviser was not asked to describe "the general tenor of the campaign being planned about Bush," as Jacoby says. He is asked about "the general tenor of the campaign"—and that is the end of the question. Twice, Jacoby explicitly tells his readers that this adviser was describing the campaign Gore would run. That is not what Simon's article says. Jacoby twice misstates what the article says. Jacoby spun the Globe's readers.

A writer making aggressive accusations should not take these liberties with texts. Especially when attacking a public figure's character, a writer ought to be very careful to report what has actually been said. At THE HOWLER, we don't generally favor pieces like Simon's, in which unnamed advisers are quoted this way. Was the unnamed adviser joking with Simon? Did he really mean that Bush and Gore would call each other "lunatics," for example? Exactly because writers like Jacoby will take every liberty with comments like this, we're no big fans of this kind of writing, which Jacoby then spins up a notch.

But you don't have to read to the end of Jacoby's column to see its lack of standards. In his second paragraph, he lists the "bare-faced lies" which he says Gore has uttered (see THE DAILY HOWLER, 7/19/00). As we noted yesterday, he offers a list of misleading, craftily paraphrased statements—paraphrases which spin the things Gore has actually said. The Spin Machine is working hard as Jacoby gives one massaged account after another.

We aren't going to waste our readers' time by going back over these groaners; we've discussed them many times in the past. But, as you may recall, Jacoby listed one "bare-faced lie" which we thought was especially striking. What was one of Gore's "bare-faced lies?" According to Jacoby, Gore has said this: "His father, the late Senator Albert Gore Sr., was a brave civil rights crusader."

Jacoby doesn't quote any words which Gore ever actually said. But Gore has in fact frequently praised his father's civil rights record. But so, of course, have an endless array of observers, from all points on the political spectrum. When Gore praises his father on civil rights, he makes a completely standard assessment. That's a fact which Globe readers weren't told. In the Globe, it's not a standard assessment. In the Globe, it's a "bare-faced lie!"

Amazing! We discussed this matter in some detail in earlier DAILY HOWLERS (links below). When Jacoby says that Gore's assessment is "hogwash" and a "bare-faced lie," he helps to show us just how far our public discourse has fallen. Jacoby has recently boo-hooed around, telling one and all about his fantastic, high standards. Tomorrow we'll review a 1998 column which represented modern journalism at its reckless worst.

Next: What Tucker Carlson wrote had long been corrected. Jacoby typed it up all the same.

Visit our incomparable archives: Snore—for what's it worth, Gore Senior has been widely praised for his civil rights record. When Gore praises his father on this score, he makes an extremely standard assessment. Is Gore's assessment a "bare-faced lie?" See THE DAILY HOWLER, 5/12/00, 5/16/00. And see our "Big Picture Report," filed at 7/11/00.