9 October 1998
Life in this celebrity press corps: Gettin their news on the side
Synopsis: Editorial writers at the Post and the Journal got their news on the probe somewhere else.
Reno Opens Formal Probe of Answers Given by Gore About His Fund Raising
David S. Cloud and Phil Kuntz, The Wall Street Journal, 8/27/98
Editorial, The Wall Street Journal, 8/28/98
Reno Orders 90-Day Investigation of Gore
Roberto Suro and Michael Grunwald, The Washington Post, 8/27/98
Mr. Gores Phone Calls--Again
Editorial, The Washington Post, 8/28/98
We couldnt help chuckling at one thing we noticed, as we studied the press corps efforts to explain Renos new probe of Gore. The folks who write our editorial pages dont always seem to read their own newspapers! For better or worse, the Washington Post and the Wall Street Journal printed editorials on the Reno probe whose factual assertions plainly contradict what was reported in their own news pages! Were not sure where Post/Journal editors are getting their news; but it doesnt seem to be from the Post and the Journal.
Example: David Cloud and Phil Kuntz, in the Wall Street Journal, deserve credit for noticing, on August 27, that something was wrong with the conventional story about the David Strauss notations. They alone, among the major papers we studied, noted that the 65/35 note did not seem to suggest wrong-doing on the part of the vice president:
CLOUD AND KUNTZ: Mr. Strauss notes indicate that, at a meeting attended by Mr. Gore, someone mentioned the campaign would be financed with a split of hard and soft money contributions: 65% soft/35% hard...The notes dont appear to directly contradict [Gores] contention that he believed he was raising soft money and didnt know that some donations would be later diverted to hard-money accounts. The 65/35 notation refers to how the ads would be paid for, not how the money Mr. Gore raised would be apportioned. [Our emphasis]
And theyre right: if the 65/35 refers to the blend of moneys with which the ads will be funded, that does not contradict Gores belief that he was raising soft money only. The Gore contributions could provide the soft money, and the hard money would come from some other source. Among the majors, only Cloud and Kuntz seemed to realize that the 65/35 note--understood as a reference to how the ads would be funded--does not contradict the vice presidents assertion that he believed he was raising soft money.
Cloud and Kuntz do have a problem, however. It does not seem to occur to them that the second Strauss note may be the skunk at the picnic. They do not even mention this second note, which (as we show in todays Current howler) could conceivably refer to the $20,000 breakpoint that was in fact used by the DNC in splitting large contributions. As such, Cloud and Kuntz leave their readers with no explanation for why the probe has been renewed. Cloud and Kuntz see that the 65/35 note seems benign, but they locate no other apparent explanation for why the Gore probe was reopened.
The Journals editorial writers have no such problem. Here is how the Journal editorialized, the day after the Cloud/Kuntz report:
WALL STREET JOURNAL: Now Justice has notes from a Gore aide indicating that Mr. Gore was in the room for at least one meeting where it was clear that the funds raised would be split between hard and soft money, so that Mr. Gores calls were soliciting both. [Our emphasis]
The editorial does not attempt to explain how Strauss notes indicate that it was clear that the Gore contributions would be split in this manner. (We at THE HOWLER dispute the view. See todays Current howler.) But at any rate, wherever the editorial page is getting its info, it doesnt seem to be coming from Cloud and Kuntz. The editorial asserts a completely different factual understanding of the Strauss notes than was described in the papers news pages.
A similar split occurred at the Washington Post. This may be because the Posts news pages reported a highly arcane understanding of the renewed Reno probe. Roberto Suro and Michael Grunwald reported a basis for the probe that differed significantly from that described in all other major papers and journals:
SURO/GRUNWALD: The new investigation will focus on whether Gore misled Justice Department prosecutors and FBI agents during an interview last Nov. 12, when he said he had believed that a massive Democratic media effort during the 1996 campaign was going to be financed entirely by soft money funds.
Suro and Grunwald repeatedly assert this view of the problem: Gore said the ads would be paid for with soft money only, although he may have learned otherwise at the meeting. Indeed, what do Strauss notes suggest to Suro and Grunwald?
SURO/GRUNWALD: The notes...suggested that a decision to finance the media campaign with both soft and fully regulated hard money may have been discussed at a White House meeting attended by Gore on Nov. 21, 1996, sources said.
As weve explained above (and as Cloud and Kuntz explained), the fact that the ads would be financed with both hard and soft money does not mean that any of Gores money would go into hard accounts. But to Suro and Grunwald, the problem--as they persistently state it--is simply this: Gore knew the ads would be paid for, in part, with hard money, and said otherwise to investigators:
SURO/GRUNWALD: Gore and other participants in the Nov. 21, 1995 DNC finance meeting...said [to investigators] they had no recollection of whether they would pay for [the ads] with hard or soft money. But the notes Strauss took at the meeting could cast doubt on those statements, particularly his inscription below an agenda item about the financing of the DNC media campaign: 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. Gore had insisted he knew nothing about the use of hard money when he was interviewed last year. [Our emphasis]
The article nowhere states that Gore may have known that the money he raised would end up as hard money. Suro/Grunwald consistently describe a simpler problem: Gore knew hard money would be used for the ads, and said otherwise in the investigation.
Perhaps Suro and Grunwald simply expressed themselves poorly; their account of the matter is puzzling. Its unclear why Gore would have misled investigators about such a point, or why investigators would have much cared. (By the way, it would be illegal to finance the ads with all soft money, under FEC guidelines.) But at any rate, the Posts editorial on the subject, published the next day, expressed a quite different factual understanding of the Strauss notations. Whoever wrote the Post editorial didnt seem to be getting his news from reading the Post:
WASHINGTON POST: The recent disclosure of a memorandum suggesting Mr. Gore may have known he was bringing in hard money does not appear to have caused the Justice Department to re-examine the phone calls themselves. [Our emphasis]
Again, there is not a word in the Suro/Grunwald story to suggest that Gore may have known he was bringing in hard money. But that is the factual understanding of the new Reno probe expressed in the Post editorial.
So were curious--where do editorial writers at the Post and the Journal get the news on which they base their editorials? The factual understanding these editorials display seems to come straight from the New York Times. Are the editors secretly reading the Times? Here at THE HOWLER, as our readers must know, we surely dont recommend that!
Read on: While the majors fumbled with conceptual problems, one little hardscrabble rag got it right. See Smile-a-while, 10/9/98.
Our fairness pledge: Discussion of these stories forces us to speculate about hypothetical misconduct on the part of the vice president. We repeat: at THE HOWLER, we presume regularity until were shown otherwise. Its this eccentric way of approaching things they taught us about back in junior high. And as we have explained in todays Current howler, we do not believe the Strauss notations demonstrate wrongdoing on anyones part. The Journals editorial about what these notes make clear is the worst writing done on this entire topic. We have no way to know what the investigation may show. But at this point, the cryptic notations by David Strauss havent made anything clear.