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2 October 2000

Our current howler (part I): Who’s distorting now?

Synopsis: Cokie Roberts accused Gore of "distorting" Bradley’s record. But the distortions—real groaners—came from her.

Commentary by Cokie Roberts, Bill Bradley
This Week, ABC, 10/1/00


Cokie Roberts had a winning idea—she would preview Tuesday night's debate, looking in on past performances by Gore and Bush. So she brought two vanquished foes on the air—Bill Bradley and Alan Keyes. Here was her opening statement:

ROBERTS: Well, joining us now to preview those presidential debates are two men who have debated these men. With us here in the studio, Ambassador Alan Keyes, who was in the debates with George Bush right up until the end of the primary season. Thank you for being here.

KEYES: Good to be here.

ROBERTS: And joining us from New York, Bill Bradley, former senator and presidential candidate.

Viewers could feel the excitement. But when she turned to Bradley, Roberts showed why you should be careful in watching this Tuesday's debate. Her presentation was riddled with error and spin, as we've come to expect from her Sunday program. That's right, folks. Press corps spinners will be spinning hard as soon as the forum ends Tuesday night. We advise you to trust your own lyin' eyes Tuesday evening, and to be very careful with the pundits after that.

In an opening gambit, Bradley said that the rigid debate format doesn't serve the public interest. Then, Roberts made her first presentation:

ROBERTS: Well, but [the debates] can get out distortions of records which was a problem you did have with Vice President Gore. In one of the early debates, he put out a proposition that he just kept repeating. Let's look at this one.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

GORE: But you cancel Medicaid. You cancel Medicaid and give people $150 vouchers to try to replace it and you cannot do that.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

ROBERTS: Now, over and over he kept coming back to that in debate after debate and you were never able to get out from under that.

In her question, Roberts has plainly said that Gore's statement about Bradley's health plan was a "distortion." But she never said what the distortion was, and we don't have the slightest idea what "distortion" she had in mind. In his much-discussed health care proposal, Bradley did in fact propose ending the Medicaid program, replacing it with an approach in which individuals and families would receive stipends with which they could buy their own insurance. Individuals would get $1800 per year ($150 per month). Families would get more, depending on their size. What was the "distortion" in Gore's taped remark? Typically, Roberts never said, and Bradley gave this generic reply:

BRADLEY (continuing directly from above): Well, I think the main point here is that when Governor Bush goes into these debates, that he better be prepared because Al Gore will be. He will be equipped with all the facts related to the subjects he's got to deal with. He'll be a strong debater. He'll repeat what he needs to repeat, and I think that it will be an important moment in the campaign.

That was Bradley's complete reply to Roberts' presentation on Medicaid. It ended the discussion of the topic.

Incredibly, Roberts' next presentation was worse:

ROBERTS: In the town meeting debates he'd asked people how old their children were and that kind of thing, or he'd bring up a farmer who had had a problem and I remember a very, sort of dramatic moment in the Iowa debate when he did that, he talked about a farmer. Let's take a look at this one.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

VICE PRESIDENT GORE: Why did you vote against the disaster relief for Chris Peterson when he and thousands of other farmers here in Iowa needed it after those '93 floods?

BRADLEY: You know Al, I think that the premise of your question is wrong. This is not about the past. This is about the future.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

ROBERTS: Senator Bradley, I remember watching that debate at home on Saturday and thinking, "Whew, that was a rough moment." Had you totally forgotten that vote?

From Roberts' presentation, a viewer would think that Gore had accused Bradley of voting one way when Bradley had voted the other. In fact, Bradley did vote against the disaster relief to which Gore's question explicitly referred. In 1993, there had been an initial flood relief package, which Bradley had approved. Then there was a supplemental, $1 billion relief bill, which Bradley voted against. Gore's question explicitly referred to that second bill. Here is a fuller excerpt from Gore's statement at the Iowa debate, which ABC creatively edited (Gore is referring to farmer Peterson):

GORE (1/8/00): ...Back in 1993, 300 of his 400 acres were flooded out. I joined with [Iowa senator] Tom Harkin to get the extra billion dollars of disaster relief to help Chris and the others who were flooded out. Why did you vote against the disaster relief for Chris Peterson when he and thousands of other farmers here in Iowa needed it after those '93 floods?

Gore stressed the word "extra" as he made his statement.

Readers, take a lesson in creative editing from ABC's presentation. As is clear from this longer excerpt, in the sentence immediately before the one Roberts showed on tape, Gore made it perfectly clear that he was asking about "the extra billion dollars of disaster relief"—the second, supplemental bill which Bradley did oppose. Gore's question was in no way a "distortion." The striking thing about the Iowa exchange was the fact that Bradley refused to answer the question, twice offering rambling, unresponsive replies (see the start of his first reply, presented by Roberts above). Yet This Week's viewers were unmistakably told that Gore had somehow "distorted" Bradley's record. On This Week, Bradley wasn't honest enough to tell Roberts the truth about that exchange. Instead, he gave another rambling discourse. Here is what Bradley said when Roberts asked, "Had you forgotten that vote:"

BRADLEY (10/1/00): You never forget moments, I'm sure for the rest of your life you remember all aspects of the campaigns, certainly the intense ones. I think the relevant thing for this debate, of course, is that there are no props in this debate. And I don't think that Al Gore will be hurt by that. I think that he will come in, as I said, well prepared. And I think that he will try to talk about the specifics that he wants to see happen under his administration for the American people. So the idea is specific proposals and reveal a little bit of himself to the American public is what I expect he'll try to do. And I think he'll do it well.

That is sometimes called "changing the subject." And it's sometimes called "avoiding the question." Why assume that Bradley had forgotten the vote? He had voted against Iowa flood relief! But no matter—that was the end of the program's discussion about Gore's "distortion" of Bradley's flood relief vote.

On This Week, Bradley continued the shambling, evasive and misleading comments which characterized a good deal of his campaign (never mentioned by the press, which had declared him a "straight-talking authentic"). But it is Roberts we critique in this forum, and her work yesterday was simply hopeless. Any politician who clipped a quote as ABC did on flood relief would be accused of having a character problem. Gore plainly did not distort Bradley's position on flood relief. Indeed, it is Roberts who distorted simple facts.

We're going to write to Roberts today, asking for an explanation. But on Tuesday night, be careful, folks, when the press corps starts telling you what you just saw. Doctored quotes and bogus statements are part of the press corps' stock in trade. Our press corps is a hapless elite. Be careful when they "interpret" on Tuesday.

Tomorrow: Ceci Connolly embellished freely in her preview for the Washington Post (today's paper).

 

Smile-a-while (10/2/00)

And who will proofread the transcripts: You should also be careful with ABC's transcripts. Here is the way Gore's question to Bradley about Medicaid appears on the current This Week transcript (as presented on ABC's web site):

ROBERTS: Well, but they can get out distortions of records which was a problem you did have with Vice President Gore. In one of the early debates, he put out a proposition that he just kept repeating. Let's look at this one.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

BRADLEY: When you canceled Medicaid.

(UNKNOWN): (OFF-MIKE)

BRADLEY: You canceled Medicaid and give people $150 vouchers to try to replace it and you cannot do that.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

ROBERTS: Now, over and over he kept coming back to that in debate after debate and you were never able to get out from under that.

The transcript slightly misstates what Gore actually said, and it indicates (twice) that Bradley said it! Whoever it is that guards the guardians might also take a look at their transcripts.