2 August 1999
Our current howler (part III): Times too
Synopsis: While regional papers examined the facts, the New York Times played along with Bill Sammon.
Gore had help to stay afloat
Associated Press, The Concord (N.H.) Monitor, 7/24/99
Gores trip has dispute in wake
Paula Tracy, The Manchester (N.H.) Union Leader, 7/24/99
Gore Takes Aw-Shucks Tour (and Hits a Bump)
Melinda Henneberger, The New York Times, 7/24/99
Did the Secret Service, not the Gore campaign, request the
water release? To date, no one knowledgeable has said anything
different. In Bill Sammon's two articles in the Washington Timespieces
which created this gimmicked-up storyno one disputed the river
commission's statement that the Secret Service requested the action.
No one disputed the Gore campaign's statement that it didn't even
know about the proposalthat it had actually asked the
river commission not to adjust water levels.
But if the Gore campaign hadn't made the request, you didn't
have much of a scandal. So Bill Sammon got busy spinning, and
he kept certain facts out of view.
He never told readers that the utility, PG&E, releases
water on a daily basis. He never reported what the utility said:
that this day's release had been moved up by two hours.
He never said the release had produced electricity, and that
no water was wasted or lost. And he never told readers that John
Kassel, the supposedly "irritated" Vermont official,
told the AP that he'd been misquoted (see below).
Most important, he never explained the basic question lying
at the heart of his story: Why was the release a story at all,
if the Gore campaign had nothing to do with it? The point was
so troubling that, in his second-day article, Sammon got just
a little bit slick. Sammon gave the Gore campaign two paragraphs
to say that it hadn't requested the water release. He then spent
four paragraphs quoting local residents who didn't seem to know
the facts, letting them retell the story in an exciting and misleading
new fashion. In their telling, Gore had "allowed" a
"waste" of water to occuralthough nothing in Sammon's
original story supported this view of the facts.
It's worth noting that, while Sammon spun, local newspapers
were reporting real info. On July 24, the day after Sammon's first
story, the Concord Monitor reported information that Sammon's
readers have not yet received. The Monitor ran an AP report,
which gave a brief overview of Sammon's story, including the quotes
from Vermont official Kassel around which Sammon had built his
first article. But the AP report then said this:
THE CONCORD MONITOR (AP) (paragraph five): Kassel said yesterday
the quotes in the Washington Times were inaccurate.
(6) "We think it was absolutely appropriate to release
those flows," he said. Any publicity that focuses on solving
problems on the Connecticut River is a good thing, he said.
The Manchester Union Leader, notoriously conservative, went
further in its July 24 coverage. It made clear that PG&E releases
water on a daily basis; it quoted Clyde Kepala of PG&E saying
"the request to lower the dam was routine;" it quoted
Kepala saying that such adjustments have been made for other types
of groups; and it reported that Kassel had called the Washington
Times quotes inaccurate. In short, local papers in New Hampshire
and Vermont were providing information that put the event in greater
context, although no one really tried to explain the basic question:
Why is this "story" a story at all, if the Gore camp
didn't make the request?
What a perfect spot for the New York Times, the nation's great
paper of record! Why, it was just the time for a major paper to
begin to nail down a few facts! A flap now surrounded a leading
hopeful, with some evidence that facts were being invented or
spun. Surely the Times would bring us some clarity-and help straighten
out our invaluable public discourse.
But the New York Times had another plan, involving their ace,
Melinda Henneberger. On this day, you will remember, the brilliant
scribe with the matchless skills had decided to showcase her wit.
In a lead story in the paper's "National Report" pages,
accompanied by a large picture of Gore on the river, Henneberger
spent five paragraphs, and only five, discussing the facts of
the story. She devoted the rest of her piece to silly jokes and
worthless discussions of how stiff Gore had seemed, going on to
describe his past posture in cars, when he would take those long
car trips in the 80s.
Henneberger's article failed to clarify facts. In fact, it
almost seemed she was making some up.
Paragraph one: Showing her matchless analytical powers,
Henneberger established that Gore's canoe trip had been planned
as a slick photo op. But then, when she began to describe what
happened next, problems began to surface:
HENNEBERGER: (paragraph 2) Instead, his Presidential campaign
drew complaints from local environmentalists after the local
utility poured millions of gallons of water into the drought-stricken
river on Thursday to raise the level artificially and keep Mr.
Gore from the embarrassment of running aground.
But who were these "local environmentalists" (plural)
to whom the scribe was referring? The only such person cited by
Sammon, or by the Manchester Union Leader, was the aforementioned
Kassel. But, the day before Henneberger's piece appeared, Kassel
told the AP that he'd been misquoted, and that he wasn't concerned
by the water release. Readers were told about this in two New
Hampshire papersbut not in the great New York Times. Henneberger
never said who the offended environmentalists werethat plural
group to whom she'd referredand she never told readers that the
original troubled environmentalist said he wasn't really troubled
Next, Henneberger spent two paragraphs saying the Gore camp
denied requesting the release. In her own voice, she explicitly
said the decision was made by the river commission. Surely, then,
she would go on to explain why her environmentalists were complaining
about Gore's campaignwhy the environmentalists were aiming
complaints at Gore, for something his campaign had not
That's right. It wouldn't be the great New York Times if the
scribe didn't clarify that. Well sorry, folks. This isn't
the Times. Here was Melinda Henneberger's "analysis:"
HENNEBERGER: (3) A spokesman for the Vice President, Chris
Lehane, said the campaign had not asked for the water level to
be raised. That decision was made by the Connecticut River Joint
(5) Sharon Francis, executive director of the joint commissions,
acknowledged giving the order, "in the interest of safety
and good judgment."
(6) Still, the incident was another misadventure for the
campaignand did little to make the candidate look smoother,
looser, or more relaxed, which had been the plan...
There was no explanation of why environmentalists would be
angry at Gore, and we never learned who the environmentalists
were. There was no explanation of why the event was a misadventure
for the campaign. Henneberger proceeded to her endless
discussion of how stiff Gore seemed in various contexts, leaving
behind a puzzling story which she made no attempt to explain or
In New Hampshire, local papers were informing readers about
apparent problems with the Gore canoe flap. But in the great national
papers, there seemed to be no corresponding concern about simple
elements of fact or logic. And, with signals given that the national
papers were willing to let another pseudo-flap by, the word went
out to the major spinners, and the lying got started in earnest.
Tomorrow: Yep. When the Post and the Times showed that
they'd play along, the lying and spinning got serious.
Slick like me: How hard did Sammon work to avoid saying "daily?"
Here's how he quoted one official, smoothly avoiding the word:
SAMMON: Bill Shaheen, husband of the governor [of New Hampshire]
and chairman of the Gore 2000 campaign in New Hampshire, downplayed
the significance of the water discharge, saying the utility periodically
releases water anyway.
"Periodically" replaces "daily" in Sammon's
effort to maintain his gimmicked-up tale. In two full days of
reporting his story, Sammon never told readers the dam releases
water every day. As we've mentioned, he did quote a dam employee
saying, of the water release, "It's a first for me, and I've
been in this job for 16 years." Local papers explained to
readers about the daily release of water. Sammon, a sophist spinning
a story, decided to deep-six that fact.