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2 November 2000

The Daily update: Dog message

Synopsis: What exactly was wrong with that doggy pill story? Thanks to a Bush ad, the nonsense is back.

Bush Uses Dog Tales to Bite Gore
Howard Kurtz, The Washington Post, 11/1/00

Aides concede Gore made up medicine story
Dave Boyer and Sean Scully, The Washington Times, 9/19/00

Focusing on Gore Hyperbole
Peter Marks, The New York Times, 11/1/00

Thanks to a Bush ad, the dog pills are back. The ad paints Gore as a liar for his doggy-pill tale, then says his remarks can't be trusted on Social Security either. The crackpot logic perfectly enacts the two-year campaign about Gore's alleged fibbing—a campaign which began with the RNC, then spread to a quite-eager press corps.

But what is supposed to be wrong with Gore's comment about the dog pills? It's always been hard to explain. Here's how the Bush ad gets started:

BUSH AD: Remember when Al Gore said his mother-in-law's prescription cost more than his dog's? His own aides said the story was made up.

They did? The ad shows a 9/19 Washington Times article. Headline: "Aides concede Gore made up medicine story." But we've found someone else who makes lots of things up—the Washington Times often makes up good stories. Here is the actual part of the Times story where the "Gore aides" make their "concession:"

BOYER AND SCULLY: In fact, Gore aides yesterday could not say whether the candidate's mother-in-law pays for the arthritis medication Lodine out of her own pocket or if the cost is covered by insurance.

Does that sound like the aides "said the story was made up?" The aides said they didn't know how Gore's mom-in-law pays for the drugs. But Gore had never said anything about that. He said (correctly) that his mother-in-law and his dog both use the drug, and that the drug costs more for humans than for pets. Here's the actual quote which appeared in the press—the only quote which appeared in the press. Gore: "While it costs $108 a month for a person, it costs $37.80 for a dog." Those were figures from a congressional study, which Gore used to sketch out the problem. For the record: Boyer and Scully said Gore was correct about the general problem. They wrote, "Gore's basic premise is correct—prescription drugs in general do cost more for humans than for pets."

Sorry, folks. "Gore aides" never said that "the story was made up." But don't expect the timorous press corps ever to note such a fact. Campaign 2000 has been neatly scripted: Bush is stupid, Gore makes things up. Yesterday, the Washington Post and the New York Times were both holding fast to those outlines.

Howard Kurtz, in the Post, did the more accurate AdWatch. Even there, things quickly got a bit hazy:

KURTZ: Gore did not "make up" the drug story but clearly misstated the facts, drawing the prices not from the family's bills but from a House Democratic study.

Sorry, Howie. The "facts" were accurate; "while it costs $108 a month for a person, it costs $37.80 for a dog." Granted, it's hard for a writer to explain to his readers why an ad would include utter nonsense like this. Perhaps if Kurtz had laid groundwork with better reporting, he could better explain to his readers the crackpot terrain of this absurd White House race.

But over at the New York Times, Peter Marks said it all was a joke. "There is an air of mischief in the Bush advertisement [that] began running on Halloween night," he said. Could a newspaper possibly have less of a clue? One hopeful is calling the other a liar; to the Times, it's all good clean fun. "The spot is funny, devastating," Marks writes, "and clearly intended to zing Mr. Gore."

So here's the part where the hapless Marks evaluates the "accuracy" of the ad. Get ready for total incompetence:

MARKS: ACCURACY...As for the reference to his mother-in-law and the dog, the Gore campaign was indeed forced to acknowledge that the anecdote was not gleaned from the candidate's own experience, but from a Congressional study.

That, of course, is utter nonsense. The anecdote was "gleaned from a congressional study?" The study didn't say that Gore's mom-in-law gets the drug (she does). It doesn't say that the dog gets it too (also true). Clearly, the entire "anecdote" wasn't gleaned from the study. Marks' statement is wrong on its face.

But Marks' statement is also irrelevant. He is supposed to be evaluating what it says in an ad. And what it says in the ad is this: "Gore's own aides say the story was made up." Did Gore's aides say the tale was made up? Kurtz correctly notes that they didn't. Marks, well scripted, quickly wanders off point. You know your attention span is lousy when you get lost in a 30-second ad.

Did aides say that the story was "made up?" Not in the piece which the ad clearly cites. But saying that would wander off script. Marks knew where to stay—right on message.