3 December 1999
Our current howler (part I): Making it up
Synopsis: Its hard to be less concerned with the truth than Chris Matthews is. But the Post and the Times have both done it.
Homer: The Iliad
Translated by Professor Fagles, Viking, 1990
First Love Story, Now Love Canal
Ceci Connolly, The Washington Post, 12/2/99
Commentary by Chris Matthews
Hardball, CNBC, 12/1/99
Gore Borrows Clintons Shadow Back to Share a Bow
Katharine Seelye, The New York Times, 12/1/99
Our overwrought analysts flopped on the ground when we told
them their work on tax issues would be bumped. They love the way
a good tax discussion allows them to breathe the clear air of
reason, and they had a "flat tax" article fromwhere
else?the New York Times they've been waiting to discuss for three
weeks. They tore their garments and fell to the ground when we
told them other matters had arisen. Rushing down to survey the
scene from the sumptuous rooms where we keep them housed and honored,
our internationally-acclaimed Task Force on Classical Allusions
was reminded of headstrong Achilles. The fast runner had just
learned that Patroclus was fallen. We think Professor Fagles has
it just about right:
A black cloud of grief came shrouding over Achilles.
Both hands clawing the ground for soot and filth,
he poured it over his head, fouling his handsome face
and black ashes settled on his fresh clean war-shirt.
Overpowered in all his power, sprawled in the dust,
Achilles lay there fallen,
tearing his hair, defiling it with his own hands.
And the women he and Patroclus carried off as captives
caught the grief in their hearts and keened and wailed.
So it was with our overwrought analysts. For the record, there
are of course no "captives" of any kind on the sprawling
campus of our incomparable world headquarters. In that area, society
has advanced since the fast runner's daythough not, it's quite
plain, in certain others.
And we ourselves were torn to think of your reaction to another
Gore-coverage storybut we're sorry folks, if you want the news,
you have to go where the news is occurring. Over the past few
days, we've been able to see, with exceptional clarity, the remarkable
genesis of another press "scandal"and if we're going
to chronicle the coverage of this race, this incident cries out
for review. Some of you want a quota system, in which we rotate
politely from hopeful to hopeful. Sorrywe still hope to spend
a cycle of stories looking at recent coverage of Senator McCain.
But the antique story being played out this week demands our current
Because it's hard to be less concerned with truth than tabloid
talker Chris Matthews. But this week, incredibly, Ceci Connolly
(and the Post) and Katharine Seelye (and the Times) have managed
to achieve that distinction. In the process, they've successfully
ginned up the latest "scandal"one the talker is blabbing
all over the air. Here was Connolly, telling a story she likes,
in the Washington Post Thursday morning:
CONNOLLY (12/2) (paragraph 1): Add Love Canal to the list of
verbal missteps by Vice President Gore.
(2) The man who mistakenly claimed to have inspired the movie
"Love Story" and to have invented the Internet says
he didn't quite mean to say that he discovered a toxic waste site
when he said at a high school forum Tuesday in New Hampshire:
"I found a little place in New York called Love Canal."
(3) Gore went on to brag about holding the "first hearing
on that issue" and said "I was the one that started
That short dispatch spills over with errors, as we will detail
anon. But here's the newest one: Gore plainly had not said
"I was the one that started it all" at the forum where
he mentioned Love Canal. On Wednesday evening, a tabloid talker
had said so, straight out, on his normally inventive cable program.
He was discussing Wednesday morning's piece in the New York Times
which had started the chain of misquoting:
MATTHEWS (12/1): But of course the Timesof course, this always
happensthe Times went further than they should have and they
misquoted him [Gore], this is the paper of record, misquoted him,
said, quote, "But I was the one that started it all"
when in fact he said "That was the one that started
it all." [Talker's emphasis]
Indeed, the talker had played tape of Gore at the forum, and
Gore quite plainly had not said "I was the one who
started it all." But there was Connolly the next morningeven
Matthews had corrected it!still highlighting the baldly
false quote, and telling her readers it was just like other
things Gore has said in the past. Just for the record, here is
the passage from the Wednesday morning Times which started this
SEELYE (12/1): Later in the day, Mr. Gore, who suffered some
embarrassment this year when he took credit for the development
of the Internet, said he was the one who had first drawn attention
to the toxic contamination of Love Canal. [Seelye's paraphrase
is highly tendentious.] He was telling a school audience that
each person can make a difference in the world [the hapless Seelye
is surely proving that] and he recalled a child writing to him
when he was in Congress about a hazardous-waste site in Tennessee.
He then added [only after material which Seelye has
edited], "I found a little place in upstate New York called
Love Canal. I had the first issue on that issue and Toone, Tenn.,"
he said. [Seelye does more editing here.] "But I was the
one that started it all. [More material is deleted without
indication.] And it all happened because one high school
student got involved."
So that was Seelye, on Wednesday morning. Wednesday night,
Matthews corrected the highlighted statement, playing tape that
showed what Gore plainly said. But the next morning, Connolly
continued to tell the story she liked, building a story around
the bogus quote, and mixing it in with statements about Love
Story that are baldly, demonstrably false.
Despite a talker's correction of the plain misquote, this incident
has become a new pseudo-scandal; last night, for example, the
talker came back to Love Story/Love Canal at least
three separate times on his show. You will almost surely hear
this incident characterized and spun repeatedly in coming weeks.
As such, the sequence of events that unfolded this week are a
perfect anatomy of a press pseudo-scandal, in which quotes are
edited, spun, and invented to let journalists tell stories they
like. The five paragraphs we've quoted from Seelye and Connolly
are simply full of demonstrable errorplain, flat-out deceptions
of readers that the hapless scribes happily recite.
Oh yesone other thing, just for the record. How did the two
papers handle the corrections? You knowhow did the Timesand the
Post tell their readers that what they had written was false?
To use a word from Michiko Kakutani's review, the answer to that
question is predictable. There has been no correction, in either
paper, of the baldly false quote they put into print. This morning's
Post doesn't tell its readers that Connolly misquoted Gore in
yesterday's paper (building her story line out of the error),
and it doesn't tell readers that she used the quote after everyone
knew it was wrong. Two days have gone by since Seelye started
this mess, and the Times has also made no correction.
These stories are simply full of misstatements. They define
the license of our hapless scribes. We wish that we could go on
to other storiesour analysts still scrape the soot from the ground.
But this one shows, in stark relief, the gimmicking up of a pseudo-scandal.
Sorry, folksif you want to see your press corps in action, this
is the story to watch.
Monday: Connolly's statements about Love Story
are plainly, demonstrably false.
We restate: For the record, bad coverage reflects on
the journalist, not on the hopeful. If Gore is receiving bad coverage,
that doesn't reflect on whether he or Bradley should be the Democratic
For the record: The scribes invested in this story are
editing Gore's statement like mad. So here is a transcript of
what Gore said. According to the Washington Times, Gore was responding
to "a student's question about youth cynicism." He has
already cited the girl who wrote him about the Tennessee waste
GORE: I called for a congressional investigation and a hearing.
I looked around the country for other sites like that. I found
a little place in upstate New York called Love Canal. Had the
first meeting on that issue and Toone, Tennesseethat was the
one that you didn't hear of. But that was the one that started
it all. We passed a major national law to clean up hazardous waste
sites. And we had new efforts to stop the practices that ended
up poisoning water around the country. We've still got work to
do. But we made a huge difference. And it all happened because
one high school student got involved.
Assignment: According to Seelye, Gore says here that "he
was the one who had first drawn attention to the toxic contamination
of Love Canal." We invite you to search this statement for
those words. The ancients simply memorized Homer. They didn't
paraphrase; they would recite. Sadly, when writers like Seelye
are allowed to paraphrase, nonsense and mischief inevitably ensue.
The use of creative paraphrase by writers like Seelye is the most
powerful argument for C-SPAN.
One other pointeven when Seelye seems to quote, she does so
in a spirit of license. At one point, she "quotes" Gore's
statement as follows:
SEELYE: "But I was the one that started it all. And it
all happened because one high school student got involved."
In Gore's actual statement, four sentences separate the two
Seelye uses (one of which she rewrites, of course). But she uses
no ellipsis to alert her readers that material from Gore has been
left out. (The use of the ellipsis was invented, of course, to
protect us from writers like Seelye.) Simply put, a high school
senior can't pass in work like this. Welcome to the New York Times,
a talker's sad "paper of record."