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29 July 1999

Our current howler (part I): Post toasted

Synopsis: As the Washington Post cranked out RNC spin, the mighty Rutland Herald got workin’.

Gore, Bradley and the Soft-Money Shootout (“Politics” column)
Dan Balz, The Washington Post, 7/25/99

GOP Goofs In Attack On Gore Dam Opening
John Dillon, The Sunday Rutland (Vt.) Herald, 7/25/99

To its credit, the Washington Post had never presented the Gore canoe story in a news story format. We assume this means that Post news editors knew this "story" was a joke from the start. But in Dan Balz's Sunday "Politics" column, the hoohah all came spilling out. Under the sub-head "4 Billion Gallons for a Photo Op," Balz misinformed and misled the Post's readers right from his opening paragraph:

BALZ (paragraph one): Bradley's speech on campaign finance reform came on the day Gore flew to New Hampshire for a canoe trip down the scenic Connecticut River. The scenic photo op on a sunny, summer day was designed to display the vice president's commitment to clean water—but apparently not to water conservation.

Balz implied that water was wasted or lost, though it was already clear that that hadn't happened—the water released from an upstream dam would have been released a few hours later, and wasn't drinking water to begin with. But then, Balz misstated that latter point too. Read his closing paragraph:

BALZ (5): The Republican National Committee helpfully calculated that at existing water rates in the region, the 4 billion gallons [released from the dam] were worth about $7.1 million.

The figure was "helpful" to spinners and propagandists, but not to readers who might want to know what went on. Again, the water released was not drinking water, and had no worth or value as same.

Welcome to the world of big-paper reporting as we proceed on with Campaign 2K. Readers of Balz's Sunday piece were misled on every part of this story. Balz never made clear that the Gore campaign had not requested the release of this water. Balz made readers think that the water released had somehow been wasted or lost. Balz never let his readers know that the facility involved was a power plant, not a reservoir. And Balz let readers think that big money was lost—a fact that was quite plainly false.

It's sad to think how much better off you were if you were reading the Rutland Herald. Not usually thought of as one of the world's major papers, its reporting blew the great Post away. Writing on the very same day that Balz was busy confusing Post readers, the Herald clarified point after point on which the Post's readers were grossly misled.

Having set the background of the story, the Herald's John Dillon got workin'. When the story broke on Friday, he said, the RNC had "quickly faxed out a press release saying the dam 'wasted' $7.1 million in water." But then he did the work of a journalist—background work sadly missing with Balz:

DILLON (7): But the GOP's claim that the water was wasted may be based on some slippery calculations. An official from the utility that released the water said Friday that the company didn't waste the water. It generated power—and made money—during the dam release.

Dillon next quoted an official of the utility, whom Balz had overlooked:

DILLON (8): "The water wasn't spilled; it was used for generation," said Cleve Kapala of Pacific Gas & Electric, the utility that owns the Wilder dam where the water was released. "We made kilowatt hours with the water that fish like to swim in and people like to canoe in."

Where had the RNC gotten its dollar figure? Dillon—get this—had found out!

DILLON (9): Republican National Committee spokesman Mark Pfistle said the GOP came up with the $7.1 million figure by calculating what four billion gallons of water would cost based on water usage charges published by the Pennichuck Water Works, Inc., a Nashua, N.H. water utility.

Had the calculation made any sense? Sorry, Charlie. Not this time:

DILLON (10): However, the dam release apparently had no impact on drinking water supplies. And the Nashua utility does not use the Connecticut River as a source, a utility official said Saturday.

In short, Rutland readers were correctly told that water was not lost or wasted. They learned that the water wasn't drinking water, and that the GOP's dollar figure made no sense at all. Later on in Dillon's article, Kepala explained that PG&E would have released the same amount of water later that day. "[I]t just changed the generation schedule to accommodate the vice president's visit," Kepala said, according to Dillon.

We think the Post showed good original judgment in refusing to cover this whole ginned-up story. As we will see in our next few editions, the "canoe trip" story is grindingly bogus, gimmicked up by the Washington Times.

But the column that Balz (and the Post) put in print? It's recurring evidence of how lazy (and reflexively negative) the big boys are willing to be. Handed a bogus number by the RNC, Dan Balz ran to put it in print. The mighty Post was pumping out spin—and the Herald was getting the story.


Next: The Washington Times' original "canoe trip" reporting was a textbook of deception and spin.