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9 October 1998

Our current howler: They can call him Al

Synopsis: The press corps tried to cover Reno’s new probe of Gore. They got the names right--and not too much else.

Sources: For this series of articles, we examined reporting of Reno’s renewed probe of Gore in: the New York Times, the Washington Post, the Wall Street Journal, the Washington Times, USA Today, U.S. News, and Newsweek. We also reviewed a column in The Hill, the only paper to get major aspects of this story halfway right.


On August 26, Janet Reno announced a new 90-day probe of Vice President Gore’s 1995-96 fund-raising phone calls--in particular, a probe of whether Gore may have misled investigators in 1997 in statements about the phone calls.

By all accounts, the new probe was triggered by two hand-written notations on a memo from a November 21, 1995 fund-raising meeting, a meeting which Gore had attended. The notes were written by David Strauss, who was then Gore’s deputy chief of staff.

In a section of the memo that dealt with funding for a $44 million “issue ad” campaign, Strauss had made two notes. He had written “65% soft/35% hard,” an apparent (inverted) reference to FEC guidelines for the proper funding of such ads. And he had written a second notation: “Corporate or anything over $20K from any individual.” As we will see, this second note could imaginably have been a reference to the way money raised by Gore’s phone calls would be split between hard- and soft-money accounts.

News of Reno’s renewed probe of Gore broke in the Wall Street Journal on August 18. Over the course of the next several weeks, major newspapers and weekly newsmagazines struggled to interpret the new Reno probe, trying to determine why Gore was being investigated. Reno herself was characteristically mum on the subject; and there were few leaks from within the investigation reported in the press.

Eventually, of course, we will likely know the nature of the Reno investigation. But in the meantime, the efforts of the press corps to interpret the situation have revealed more about the press corps itself than about the nature of Reno’s new probe. Almost uniformly, the major press has failed to comprehend even the most obvious facts about the notes that Strauss wrote, and have failed to present coherent accounts of the likely focus of the Reno investigation.

Over the past ten years, the press corps has increasingly taken to itself the power to pass judgment on public officials. This story, then, provides a bit of a warning: they who would sit as judge and jury are often less than fully skilled at developing even simple, basic facts.

*                *                *                *

When news of the Reno probe leaked August 18, it was clear that the Strauss notations had triggered the new inquiry. A leaked copy of the memo, showing the notations, appeared in the Washington Post on August 21. From that day on, the press corps attempted to interpret what Strauss had meant in making his cryptic pair of notes, and attempted to explain why the pair of notes would set off a new probe of Gore.

By the time Reno announced her 90-day probe on August 26, the Washington Post had figured out the apparent meaning of at least one of the Strauss notations. Roberto Suro and Michael Grunwald, in the August 27 Post, gave this account of the Strauss note:

THE POST: [H]is inscription below an agenda item about the financing of the DNC media campaign [reads] ”65% soft/35% hard.” Those figures refer to a formula, sanctioned by federal guidelines, for the financing of advertising with both forms of campaign contributions.

In this remark, the Post became the only major paper to observe that Strauss’ pair of numbers corresponded to FEC guidelines for the funding of so-called issue ads (the type of ads Gore’s phone calls sought to finance). In a 1995 advisory opinion, the FEC had stated that “issue ads” could be paid for with a blend of hard and soft moneys, in a 65/35 mix. Since the phone calls would raise money for the series of issue ads which the DNC kicked off in 1995, the Post sensibly concluded that the proper funding of the ads had been discussed at the 1995 meeting.

But there was one groaning problem with what the Post wrote--the FEC had stated that the parties had to fund at least 65% of issue ads with hard money, with an upper limit of 35% soft money. If Strauss’ numbers did refer to the FEC guidelines, he had apparently reversed the formula, a fact which Suro and Grunwald failed to note. But the most likely interpretation of the “65/35” notation is that the participants at the meeting, quite appropriately, may have been discussing FEC rules for funding issue ads, and that Strauss had simply transposed the two numbers in recording them.

It was not impressive that the Post had missed Strauss’ error, but other papers bungled the meaning of this notation quite totally. For example, on September 10--a full three weeks into the new probe--USA Today said this, in an editorial:

USA TODAY: A 1995 White House campaign memo, turned over to investigators 18 months after it was sought, shows the money gathered by Gore and Clinton solicitations was supposedly split so 35% went to the re-election committee.

The memo “shows” no such thing, and no money went to the re-election committee. But other papers presented interpretations of the 65/35 note, while making no effort to explain their conclusions. David Johnston of the New York Times had drawn this conclusion on August 27:

THE NEW YORK TIMES: Mr. Strauss also noted “65 percent soft, 35 percent hard,” an apparent reference to the division of contributions between hard- and soft-money accounts.

Johnston did not attempt to explain why he had interpreted Strauss’ note in this manner; but it is quite clear, as we will see, that “65% soft/35% hard” was not a formula the Democrats used for splitting the Gore phone contributions into hard- and soft-money accounts. The New York Times and USA Today were both wrong about the meaning of this note--and have never corrected their stated interpretations.

*                *                *                *

As it turned out, the contributions raised by Gore in his phone calls had been split into hard and soft accounts. This news had been revealed by the Post’s Bob Woodward in a major page-one story on September 3, 1997, a story which triggered Attorney General Reno’s previous 90-day probe of the vice president’s phone calls. The “split” had been done by the DNC, after the contributions arrived; Gore stated he had no knowledge of the practice, and had believed, when he was making the calls, that he was raising soft money only. Reno announced, in December 1997, that there was no evidence to indicate that Gore had known otherwise; according to Reno, there was no evidence that Gore had known that some of the money he raised would end up in hard-money accounts. But at any rate, the split that was made at the DNC did not follow a 65/35 soft/hard division; the actual way the DNC split the donations had been reported in Woodward’s September 3 story:

WOODWARD: DNC spokeswoman Amy Tobe Weiss said last night that “the vice president was not aware that the money was being designated for the federal [hard money] account.” She said that it was “routine procedure” to assign the first $20,000 of a large donation--the legal limit for a hard money contribution--to that account and to deposit the rest into the soft money account, and suggested that had happened inadvertently with the contribution solicited by Gore.

Woodward’s article listed six contributors who had made large contributions to the DNC as a result of Gore’s calls. In each case, $20,000 of their contributions had been assigned to DNC hard money accounts.

In other words, anyone who looked back at Woodward’s page one report could have seen how the Gore contributions had been “split.” It is hard to understand why the Times and USA Today couldn’t accomplish this simple bit of homework--or where they would have gotten the idea that the money was split on the 65/35 basis that they reported, incorrectly, to their readers.

But beyond that, anyone who looked back at Woodward’s page one story could have seen what Strauss’ second notation may have meant--could have seen that Strauss’ second notation seemed to correspond to the formula by which the DNC had “split” the Gore contributions. The Gore contributions were not split on a 65/35 basis; they had been split on the basis that Weiss had described--using the same $20,000 breakpoint that Strauss had written down in his second notation.

The second notation, then, could quite plausibly explain why Reno began the new probe. Gore had stated, in the original 1997 investigation of his fund-raising phone calls, that he had believed he was raising soft money only--that he did not know that the DNC would split the contributions into hard- and soft-money accounts. Strauss’ second note suggests the possibility that the plan to do so may have been discussed at the 1995 meeting. But, to date, no major paper has offered this obvious explanation of the possible import of the second notation. And no major paper has told its readers that the second Strauss note seems to correspond to the formula by which the DNC divided up the Gore contributions.

The papers had failed to do the elementary homework that would have shown what the second notation might have been taken to mean. They then went on to produce fanciful formulations of what the notations might mean. Here for example is the full paragraph in Johnston’s 8/27 New York Times piece about what the two notations likely meant:

THE NEW YORK TIMES: Mr. Strauss also noted “65 percent soft, 35 percent hard,” an apparent reference to the division of contributions between hard- and soft-money accounts. In his small neat hand, Mr. Strauss jotted a shorthand definition of soft money as “corporate or anything over $20K from an individual.”

In his first sentence, Johnston simply is wrong; the contributions Gore raised over the phone were not split on a 65/35 basis. His second sentence is essentially incoherent. What does it mean to call this note a “definition” of soft money? For example, parties aren’t required to put the first 20K of a contribution into hard accounts; they are allowed to, at their discretion. But principally, Johnston had failed to realize that Strauss’ notation seems to correspond to the formula, as described by the DNC’s Weiss, of how the Gore contributions ended up being “split” between hard and soft accounts.

So there you have a grisly look at the fact-finding abilities of the great major papers. No national paper--none of them at all--has offered a coherent account of these simple notations. Incredibly, none was able to go back even eleven months in time, to the seminal Woodward article, and realize the obvious possible meaning of the second Strauss notation. And many of them have asserted that the 65/35 notation referred to the way that Gore donations would be “split”--although a simple review would have made it quite clear that this was not how the moneys were divided.

To state the obvious, we don’t have any way of knowing what this may mean about Gore’s past statements; the vice president’s claim that he didn’t that know the money would be split may well be perfectly accurate. It is not at all clear, from the second notation, that the meeting’s participants discussed splitting the Gore contributions. This second notation could have been Strauss’ transcription of basic information about soft-hard money rules. It may reflect a discussion of how contributions to the DNC would be split as a general matter--excluding the soft money donations that were going to be generated by the phone calls from the vice president.

Here at THE HOWLER, we observe odd procedures--we presume regularity until we’re shown otherwise. It’s an eccentric way of approaching these matters that they taught us about back in junior high. In this case, it is not at all obvious, from Strauss’ notations, that participants at the meeting knew the Gore donations would be split. It is not at all clear this meeting’s agenda contradicted what was later claimed by participants.

But it does seem fairly clear why a conscientious investigator might want to look into this second notation. We presume it is likely this second notation that triggered the renewed Reno probe.

But whatever this episode means or doesn’t mean about the vice president’s fund-raising conduct, we can tell you, more clearly, what this episode shows about the mainstream press. In this episode, the corps has demonstrated an uncanny ability to be flummoxed by the most basic facts. Anyone familiar with FEC rules should have seen what the 65/35 note most likely meant; and the possible import of the second note would have been apparent to anyone who did the simplest homework. And yet these were elements that went unexplained (or were explained incorrectly) all through the major papers’ reporting.

So here’s the moral that we would draw from our look at this bit of mainstream reporting. We think that, at a time when the press corps seems increasingly to believe it is qualified to pass judgment on public figures’ souls, it’s always worthwhile to remind the corps of its obvious human fallibility. The next time the corps prepares to tell us what “the public” is thinking, or who deserves to hold public office, or what an individual’s conduct in some matter must mean, we hope the corps will recall what we saw in this episode. And what exactly did we see, you ask? The press corps’ ability--human, all too human--to be misled by the very simplest sets of facts.

Read on, part I: Editors at the Post and the Journal seemed to get their Reno news straight from the Times! See Life in this celebrity press corps, 10/9/98.

Read on, part II: Only a little hardscrabble weekly managed to get this tale halfway right. See Smile-a-while, 10/9/98.