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25 September 2000

Our current howler (part I): Good example

Synopsis: Writing about those new Gore e-mails, the Washington Times showed its character problems.

E-mails show Gore aides knew temple event was fund-raiser
Jerry Seper, The Washington Times, 9/23/00

Lost E-Mail Calls Gore's 1996 Events Fundraisers
George Lardner, The Washington Post, 9/23/00

Readers of the Washington Times were treated to a remarkable spectacle last weekend. The paper's page-one lead story on Saturday morning carried the following headline:

E-mails show Gore aides knew temple event was fund-raiser

"Backup tapes in Buddhist affair turned over to Congress," the subhead said. Jerry Seper began with this recitation:

SEPER (paragraph 1): White House e-mail messages released yesterday show that Vice President Al Gore's office—despite repeated denials—was aware that an event at a California Buddhist temple was a campaign fund-raiser.

Again, this was the newspaper's page-one lead story. Seper amplified his claim in paragraph 2:

SEPER (2): The e-mails, reconstructed from backup tapes of more than 100,000 messages the White House failed to turn over to a grand jury, leave little doubt that top Gore staffers knew well in advance that the April 29, 1996, Hsi Lai Buddhist Temple celebration in Hacienda Heights, Calif., was planned as a fund-raising event.

This would come as substantial news, given the history of the Hsi Lai event. As recently as July 16 on Meet the Press, Vice President Gore has said that he still doesn't think that the temple event was a fund-raiser. Seper was claiming, in this major story, that Gore staffers knew the event was planned as a fund-raiser all along.

But a funny thing happened on the way to the end of this story—Seper never cited a single e-mail that was related in any way to his claims. In particular, his article cites no messages suggesting that anyone on Gore's staff believed this event was a fund-raiser. Instead, Seper offers a rambling reprise of various aspects of this long-flogged affair. But he never offers any reason to believe the premise laid out in that headline. This page-one lead article is a simple fraud—the latest in a stream of dissembling media accounts designed to cast doubt on Gore's character.

Repeat—nowhere does Seper cite a single e-mail that relates to the claim that he makes. In paragraph 3, he explains what he's discussing: A "half-inch thick stack of messages, delivered yesterday to Congress by the White House." But there is only one lonely e-mail he actually cites. It's described in paragraph 4:

SEPER (4): One of the reconstructed e-mails suggested that Mr. Gore bring $20 to the event as "an offering." It said, "The VP will need to have some cash on hand ([a staff member] recommends $20) to offer as an offering at the Buddhist temple in LA."

The passage is amusing for its total irrelevance. Critics have claimed that Gore raised money from the temple, not that the temple raised money from Gore! But the buffoonism continues to the end of the piece. In paragraph 5, Seper begins reciting old aspects of the case—rehashing matters which have nothing to do with the new batch of e-mails. By the time his article reaches its end, no e-mails have been cited that are in any way relevant to the claim that he makes in his lead.

In a campaign that has frequently turned on "character" issues, Seper's piece stands out. But it isn't Gore's character that is called into question; it is the character of Seper himself. What kind of journalist pens such a lead—then makes absolutely no effort to sustain it? What kind of newspaper runs a headline like this—on a story that, simply put, is a fraud?

Sadly, even George Lardner at the Washington Post tried to tease something out of this clunker. The Post didn't run his piece on page one. But in Lardner's opening paragraph, he says this: "Staff memos from Vice President Gore's officeindicate that his visit to a Buddhist temple in California was considered a fundraiser." Compared to Seper, though, Lardner's a workhorse. He actually claims one example:

LARDNER (6): Another message written by Gore's scheduler almost three weeks before the Buddhist temple visit refers to "fund-raising events" to be held in Los Angeles and San Jose on April 29. It then sets out a schedule showing the Hsi Lai Temple, including a luncheon, as Gore's only Los Angeles stop.

But it has long been known that some of Gore's staffers believed the luncheon was planned as a fund-raiser. In fact, the event was originally planned as a fund-raiser, to be held at an area restaurant. As sworn testimony to the Thompson Committee established three years ago, when the luncheon was shifted to the temple site, the plan to charge admission was dropped. That evening's dinner in San Jose cost $2500 a plate; the luncheon at the Buddhist temple was free. A staffer may not have known that early in April (right around the time the switch was made). But it doesn't change the established facts, most of which Lardner fails to mention.

For the record, what one basic fact was missing from both articles? The fact that the luncheon was FREE! It's simply impossible to tell this tale fairly without citing that one basic fact. But the fact kills the drift of the corps' preferred tale; we defy you to find it in any press story. It was MIA with both Seper and Lardner, even as they rehashed tired old facts trying to fill out their articles.

But what does it mean when the Washington Times runs a page-one lead headline like that? Was it true, what the headline said? Was it true that e-mails (plural) showed that Gore aides (plural) "knew" the event was a fund-raiser? Seper phonied his way through his piece without citing a single example. Lardner too fumbled on to the end, rehashing tired old trivia. But what does it mean when the Washington Times runs that headline at the top of page one? It means there is a "character problem" in this election, all right. But it belongs to the Washington press corps.

Tomorrow: More character problems.