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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 Gore’s wake
Alec MacGillis, The Concord (N. H.) Monitor, 7/27/99

Down with the potty police
Kenneth Smith, The Washington Times, 7/29/99

Gore’s 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 trip—high 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 Gore's wake."

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 the Times:

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 publicity—whatever 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 stories.

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 Post—which never reported the canoe trip as a news story—had 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.) Nope—in 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 someone—the Gore campaign insists it was not responsible—told 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 about his...

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 figure—a 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 got started:

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. And—here comes the end of civilization, dear friends—Tony 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 skirt.

But this ugly, graceless conduct is getting to be a habit for Mr. Gore...

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 the subject:

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 dynamic

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 sound.

Who opened the floodgates? It's easy—"they" did. It's passive—the 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 public—just as Socrates, long ago, said would happen.


Tomorrow—the 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." Enjoy:

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 of water.

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.