3 August 1999
Our current howler (part IV): Eyes wide shut
Synopsis: When the major press looked the other way, the lying got started in earnest.
Gore still awash in raising of river
Donald Lambro, The Washington Times, 7/29/99
Ill will runs high in Gores wake
Alec MacGillis, The Concord (N. H.) Monitor, 7/27/99
Down with the potty police
Kenneth Smith, The Washington Times, 7/29/99
Gores death spiral?
Tony Blankley, The Washington Times, 7/28/99
Commentary by Brian Williams
The News with Brian Williams, MSNBC, 7/28/99
Commentary by Chris Matthews
Hardball, CNBC, 7/29/99
It had been almost a week since the Gore canoe triphigh time
for a real retrospective. So Donald Lambro of the Times got busy,
assessing the gimmicked-up tale:
LAMBRO: (paragraph 2) The river story has taken on a life of
its own, as conflicting statements by Mr. Gore's campaign staff
and state officials continue to raise new points of interest.
Six days after the July 23 event, the media continue to cover
the story, with headlines like yesterday's in the liberal Concord,
N.H., daily newspaper the Monitor: "Ill will runs high in
Readers surely thought the liberal Monitor was slamming that
hapless Al Gore. In fact, the Monitor's story adopted a different
posture; principally, it reported statements by water officials
disputing the Washington Times! Indeed, here is the Monitor's
overview of the "ill will," almost all of it aimed at
MACGILLIS: (paragraph 4) Depending on whom you listen to, the
canoe controversy is the result either of an ill-conceived photo
opportunity by Gore or a political hit-and-run by his foes.
(5) In either case, though, the dam debate has demonstrated,
in classic fashion, how quickly a buoyant campaign stop can be
sucked into a whirlpool of bad publicitywhatever the truth
of the matter at hand may be.
Lambro's readers could hardly have guessed it, but the Monitor
story focused on alleged errors by the Times. Throughout the piece,
officials disputed impressions created by Bill Sammon's original
But so it goes when that gang at the Times is determined to
gin up a story. An article which principally criticizes the Times
gets spun as a slam at ol' Gore! And why did the Times feel so
free to be bold? Because on the national level, it had become
quite clear: No one cared if the Washington Times gimmicked up
a bogus story. It had become quite clear that the Washington Times
could say whatever it pleased about Gore.
How had the major national papers responded to the Times' canoe
flap? On July 24, the New York Times had published Henneberger's
silly effort, focusing principally on Gore posture issues, and
making suspect claims of its own (see THE DAILY HOWLER, 8/2/99).
On July 25, the Washington Postwhich never reported the canoe
trip as a news storyhad published Dan Balz's howling column,
in which Balz reprinted an RNC claim about how many millions dollars
worth of water was wasted. (See THE DAILY HOWLER, 7/29/99. Even
the Washington Times didn't stoop to reprinting the RNC's groaning
figure.) Nopein New England, local papers were doing their job,
reporting facts about the story. But the national papers had given
the signal: the Washington Times could say what it likes, however
bogus, about the campaign of Gore.
And when the major press corps gives a signal like that, the
liars come out of the woodwork. There's no reason not to
spin and deceive, if you know that you'll get a free pass. In
this instance, spinners competed to gloss the key point: the water
release wasn't requested by Gore. Everything now turned on making
it seem that Gore had requested the water.
Kenneth Smith, on the Washington Times op-ed page, displayed
the gang's flair for illogic:
SMITH: [I]t seems there was some concern that Mr. Gore's photo
opportunity might run aground. So someonethe Gore campaign insists
it was not responsibletold the local utility to open the floodgates
on a dam 10 miles up the river to help keep the vice president's
boat, and perhaps his campaign, afloat. Initial reports both at
this newspaper and elsewhere put the total release at roughly
4 billion gallons. The veep's boat then went off without incident.
Understandably lots of Americans are wondering why the feds
are so strict about their water use when Mr. Gore is so casual
Smith at least was willing to say that the Gore campaign denied
making the request. But that didn't stop him, sentences later,
from simply asserting that Gore was responsible. Most comically,
note Smith's reference to 4 billion gallons of water. By the time
that Smith's column appeared, it had been known for three days
that this figure was wrong. Smith goes ahead and uses it anyway,
artfully choosing words to be technically accurate. After all,
the Times had "initially reported" the figurea
figure which had been known for three days to be false.
So it goes when the Washington Times is determined to make
up a story.
The day before, Tony Blankley was slicker, never saying even
a word about who had requested the water. Here's how his spinning
BLANKLEY: It's easy to make fun of the various Gore campaign
stumbles, such as last week's embarrassing release of desperately
needed water for drought relief in order to allow Mr. Gore to
paddle a canoe to a photo-op.
But the water was not going to be used for "drought relief,"
as Blankley and his editor, Helle Bering, of course know. And
Blankley calls the release a "Gore campaign stumble,"
without discussing who requested the action. Everything moves
to passive voice, to allow the spinning to proceed unencumbered.
Andhere comes the end of civilization, dear friendsTony Blankley
now sampled Melinda Henneberger:
BLANKLEY: [A] New York Times article cites friends of Mr. Gore
as saying that he is "troubled" by his deeply ingrained
stiffness... A Gore political operative goes on to blame Mr. Gore's
mother, Pauline, for his excessive formality. Let me give the
Gore campaign some free advice: Don't blame Mr. Gore's mother
for his incompetence. Take it like a man; don't hide behind a
But this ugly, graceless conduct is getting to be a habit for
Or perhaps Mr. Blankley's projecting. Henneberger's article
didn't quote a member of "the Gore campaign;" it (pointlessly)
quoted Chip Forrester, "who worked for Mr. Gore in Tennessee
for four years and ran his 1990 senatorial re-election campaign."
Nor was Forrester unkind about Mrs. Gore; he merely said, "She's
very dignified and proper and the formality comes from her."
Blankley, who simply hates all lying, turns this mild remark by
a former associate into "ugly, graceless conduct" on
the part of "Mr. Gore!" And by the way, can we
offer free advice to Blankley? Tony, when you're misleading readers
about public figures, you can drop honorifics like "Mister."
Yep. All around, spinners sought ways to imply that
Gore wasted big water. And now that the coast was obviously clear,
the timid little TV boys even stuck their brave toes in the water.
Brian Williams, done blubbering about Kennedy's death, interjected
canoe footage on his Wednesday night program, right in the middle
of a discussion on polling that had absolutely nothing to do with
WILLIAMS: And we look at poor Al Gore right now on the now-famous
Connecticut River where 4 billion gallons were added to it over
a dam to make sure his canoe wouldn't be stuck on a sand bar,
part of the campaign that for a while there couldn't seem to make
a good move. Bob Teeter, a little more please on this cross-over
Again, we meet the passive voice; the four billion gallons
"were added." Williams makes the release "part
of" Gore's campaign, and he uses the gallon figure long known
to be wrong. The next night, a tabloid talker:
MATTHEWS (running canoe footage): It seems to me that the problem
[Gore] has now is he's now caught in, once again, a big publicity
disaster. Once it was the Buddhist monks out in California, now
it's the river he was on the other day up in New Hampshire, all
of a sudden was bubbling over with about five times as much gallonage
coming down the river to make him look good, so they opened up
the floodgates, literally, for this guy. It doesn't seem environmentally
Who opened the floodgates? It's easy"they"
did. It's passivethe river "was bubbling over." And
the release "doesn't seem environmentally sound," although
that's not what environmentalists said. But big papers had taken
a hike on the truth, and it was clear no price would be paid for
the spin. The little papers were doing their job, but the big
press was washing its hands. If the spinners deceived, and the
spinners misled, the Post and the Times wouldn't say Word the
First. So sophists, skillful, misled the publicjust as Socrates,
long ago, said would happen.
Tomorrowthe Howler epilogue: Should major papers report
on spin? Only if they think the truth matters.
Missing persons: Spinners didn't want to say "Secret Service,"
so they got slippery about who had requested the event, turning
to the passive voice, or simply saying "they" or "someone."
Matthews: All of a sudden, the river was bubbling
over. "They" opened the floodgates.
Williams: Four billions gallons were added over a dam.
Blankley: It's easy to make fun of the embarrassing release
Smith: "Someone" told the local utility to
open the floodgates.
The words "Secret Service" did not appear in any
of the discussions we excerpt. Maybe the pundits were simply helping
the Service maintain its low profile.