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12 September 2000

Our current howler (part II): Coulda shoulda

Synopsis: Johnson could have provided a service if he had simply spelled out the key facts.

On Bush tax plan and Social Security, Gore's rhetoric seen loose with facts
Glen Johnson, The Boston Globe, 9/10/00

If Glen Johnson had just tried to pen an informative piece, he could have provided a service. He could have told Globe readers this:

  1. When Bush says his tax cuts would total $1.3 trillion over ten years, he refers to tax revenue lost from 2001 through 2010. This includes the year 2001, when the tax cuts wouldn't be in effect.

  2. When Gore says the Bush tax cuts would cost the treasury $1.9 trillion over ten years, he refers to the years 2002 through 2011 (the first ten years the cuts would be in effect). His figure includes $1.6 trillion in lost tax revenue, and an extra $300 billion in increased interest costs due to the failure to pay down federal debt.

Each way of describing the cuts is perfectly reasonable and accurate. Bush's estimate for the years 2002-2010 comes from the congressional Joint Tax Committee. Gore's additional estimate for the year 2011, and his estimate of increased interest costs, comes from Citizens for Tax Justice. Unsurprisingly, each campaign presents the numbers in a way designed to help its own cause. For political purposes, Bush seems to prefer minimizing the size of the cuts; the Gore camp prefers larger numbers.

But Johnson didn't present the info in a way that would help inform readers. Whatever his motives, his presentation looks like a polemic, designed to reinforce a treasured theme. And he doesn't tell readers what is obvious to anyone who understands the numbers involved; when Gore says Bush's cuts "spend the whole surplus," he is referring to the non-SS surplus (see THE DAILY HOWLER, 9/11/00). Clarifying that would have been a service. But Johnson seems to have a point to make. He doesn't clarify; he seeks to persuade.

Would Bush's tax cut spend the entire general revenue surplus from 2002-2011? Johnson would have performed a service if he had tried to evaluate that claim. Instead, he never even tells his readers what Gore is actually claiming. Therefore, he also never tries to say what the surplus will be for the ten years in question. And although he tells his readers that Gore can't be trusted, he doesn't say that Bush is lightly massaging these numbers—counting a year in his "ten-year" account when the cuts won't yet be in effect.

This all supports that treasured theme: "Gore has a long history of making statements that stretch the truth," Johnson writes. But we'd have to say that, in this article, Johnson joins that club as well. How hard did Johnson work in this piece to stick to his treasured old saw? Let's take a quick look at two examples. First, here's how the theme was presented:

JOHNSON: Gore, however, has a long history of making statements that stretch the truth, such as his claims that he "took the initiative in inventing the Internet," or that he and wife Tipper served as the model couple for Erich Segal's novel "Love Story."

In this passage, Johnson returns to the two treasured tales with which the RNC has long driven this theme. Sadly, though, Johnson doctors what Gore said about the Internet; he leaves out half of Gore's short quote, and adds in the high-octane word "invented." Johnson—who quoted Gore accurately on September 1—reverts here to using false quotes. And what can you say about a scribe who keeps peddling the tired old Love Story chestnut? Just last Tuesday night, Karen Tumulty again described the real circumstances of Gore's comment, which Johnson misreports in this passage (see postscript). This tired old howler has been debunked again and again. But somehow, bad pennies come back.

We thought it was worth noting one more way that Johnson pushes his theme. He says this about the sainted martyr, Bill Bradley:

JOHNSON: In January and February, Bradley complained repeatedly about Gore telling audiences the former senator wanted to eliminate Medicaid and replace it with a $150-a-month voucher. In truth, that dollar amount was not a cap, as Gore implied, but an average. And it was not per family, but per individual. When challenged on the statement, the vice president modified his language, but only slightly.

He subsequently said the vouchers were "capped at $150 a month or averaged at $150 a month, however you want to say it," even though the statements were contradictory.

By all accounts, the $150 was a "weighted average," not a fixed amount or a cap; when Gore "implied" otherwise, that was inaccurate. (Some states would get more than $150-per-person, some states would get less.) But Johnson persists in the absurd idea that Gore told voters it was $150 per family. This claim is utterly bogus. As we pointed out back in July, Bradley himself used the $150 figure to describe his plan all the way through New Hampshire (see THE DAILY HOWLER, 7/11/00). And while he pointed out that the figure was not a "cap," he never showed the slightest concern that anyone would think the figure referred to families. For example, look at the January 26 debate, on the eve of New Hampshire voting. Bradley pointed out, in response to Gore, that New Hampshire would get more than $150-per-month. But even then, in his seventh debate with Gore, he didn't show the slightest concern that people were somehow being misled into thinking this meant $150 per family. Bradley—who complained about every conceivable misstatement, including several that never occurred—never said a word about this alleged deception. But those like Johnson who enjoy treasured tales have introduced this problem after the fact. So tell us again, so we'll all understand: Who is it who enjoys twisting facts?

Johnson doctors a quote; he tells groaning old stories; he introduces bogus claims; he mangles the budget numbers. This is what happens when reporters insist on conveying treasured themes, not the facts.

Back to the numbers that anchored this piece: Johnson could have provided a valuable service if he had laid out the various facts on the tax cuts. Instead, he penned a highly selective tale. Globe readers should get back their quarters.

Tomorrow: Another story in the Globe shows love of those treasured old stories.

Missing link: Johnson's article is still hard to find on the Globe's web site. It's not listed in the "Campaign 2000" archives. It's missing in the Gore archives, too. But if you want to see it, we'll help you out. You know what to do. Just click here.


The Daily update (9/12/00)

Tumulty speaks: Last Tuesday night, American University sponsored a panel concerning press coverage of this election. C-SPAN2 aired the forum live. Time's Karen Tumulty—one of two reporters present for Gore's 1997 comment on Love Story—again expressed her surprise at the way the comment has been reported. She stressed the fleeting nature of Gore's remark, as we have discussed before. See THE DAILY HOWLER, 5/25/00, 7/11/00.

Curses! We failed to tape C-SPAN's overnight re-airing; the forum aired a bit earlier than C-SPAN's schedule had said. So we'll now shell out the sixty bucks to get the tape and give you her statement. And the Boston Globe should do its readers a favor. They should shell out the sixty bucks too, and let its reporters listen to Tumulty. Although, given its scribes' proven love for treasured old stories, we doubt it would do any good.