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8 December 1999

Our current howler (part IV): Mothers of paraphrase

Synopsis: Inventive scribes paraphrase freely, telling us what hopefuls "said."

Between the Lines, Revealing Glimpses Of Five Candidates
Michiko Kakutani, The New York Times, 11/22/99

Commentary by Brian Williams
The News with Brian Williams, MSNBC, 12/6/99

Commentary by Al Gore
Late Edition, CNN, 3/9/99

"Inside Politics" column
Greg Pierce, The Washington Times, 3/11/99

Gore to announce campaign early to battle bad publicity
Mimi Hall, USA Today, 6/2/99

Commentary by Bernard Kalb
Reliable Sources, CNN, 11/27/99

At one point in her review of Gore's Earth in the Balance, Michiko Kakutani writes this:

KAKUTANI: Mr. Gore writes of undergoing a midlife crisis around the same time. He says that in 1989, having just turned 40, lost a presidential campaign and seen his son, Albert, nearly die in an automobile accident, he became "impatient with my own tendency to put a finger to the political winds and proceed cautiously."

Confronted with Kakutani's first sentence, many readers will only naturally think that Gore writes of undergoing a midlife crisis. They will have no way of knowing a naughty little fact; Gore never uses the term "midlife crisis" in Earth—the diagnosis is that of the thoroughly unlicensed professional therapist, Dr. Kakutani. The term "in midlife" appears once in this part of Earth, and Gore talks about "a change that sought me out in the middle of my life and gave me a new sense of urgency about the things I value the most." But Gore never uses the term "midlife crisis." And since we can assume that Gore is aware of the term, the truth about this is really quite simple: in this book, Gore deliberately chose not to write of "undergoing a midlife crisis." In fact, he seems to describe a different sort of experience—he talks in this same section about "an outer manifestation of an inner crisis that is, for want of a better term, spiritual."

Well, Kakutani had a "better term" in mind, and she put it in Gore's mouth—"midlife crisis." It played well with her theme that Gore is a bit strange, and consumed with "New Age psychobabble." What do you do if you want to say that, and your subject won't cooperate by using such terms? Simple—you paraphrase! You put the desired words in his mouth—and tell readers that that's what he "said."

Welcome to the world of paraphrase, where inventive journalists find clever ways to get hopefuls to "say" things they like. The power of paraphrase is the power to spin, and the press corps tends to use power freely. The arc of the Gore "embellishment" story is traced by the use of this helpful tool, in which pundits put words into candidates' mouths and agree to pretend that they said them.

Take the matter of "inventing the Internet," one of Gore's better-known "gaffes." Everyone knows that Gore said he did it. Indeed, here was Brian Williams this past Monday night, reading a clip from the new U.S. News:

WILLIAMS: From the inventor of the Internet, quote, "I was the one that started it all," says Al Gore. He's talking about Love Canal, uncovering it in upstate New York. More on that a little later.

In this passage, Williams recycles the Seelye/Connolly bogus quote ("I was the one that started it all"). And he links it to "inventing the Internet." The idea that Gore claimed he "invented the Internet" is a staple of the year's political discourse, but it's somewhat like that midlife crisis—those are words Gore never spoke. Here's what he did say, to CNN's Wolf Blitzer, on Late Edition Primetime in March:

GORE: During my service in the United States Congress, I took the initiative in creating the Internet.

The statement is clumsy, but that's often the way with extemporaneous speech. Of course, if the comment had seemed odd to Blitzer, he could have asked an obvious question: "What do you mean?" But Blitzer didn't ask that question, and the reason may be easy to understand—as an experienced journalist, Blitzer would have known that Gore did take the leadership, within the Congress, in developing the Internet. But it wasn't just Blitzer who didn't seem to think that Gore's remark was especially odd; when Greg Pierce excerpted Gore's Late Edition appearance in the Washington Times ("Inside Politics" column), he didn't even mention the Internet comment (see postscript). Within the press corps, no one said a word about Gore's comment for the next several days.

But a few days later, fax machines began whirring at the RNC, and criticism of Gore's incredible comment began to spread through the press. And, although Gore's original statement comprised just sixteen words, pleasing paraphrases quickly appeared—Gore had said he "invented the Internet," or that he was "the father of the Internet." It's remarkably hard, looking back through the clips, even to find the actual words Gore spoke, so quickly were those words set aside for new phrases that made the tale a bit better.

It's only natural that statements—even sixteen-word statements—will get reduced to shorter phrases, but at times it has been simply comical to watch the press corps report what Gore said. Here's Mimi Hall, in USA Today, discussing the Gore campaign in June:

HALL: A series of negative news stories unnerved Gore's campaign staff, aides say...A couple of Gore gaffes, including his assertion that he "invented" the Internet, didn't help.

The only word that Hall put in quotes was the word that Gore didn't say! How does work like this get in print? Because paraphrase quickly replaces the truth in the excitable minds of the press corps. And how hard has it been to see Gore's real statement? Just two weeks ago, on Reliable Sources, Bernard Kalb had a warning about campaign coverage:

KALB: You'd better get ready for a lot of old news over and over and over. The fact is, TV news can't resist blunders, embarrassments, gaffes, bloopers—what experts sometimes call "a defining moment" whether it is or not, whether it's fair or not.

After airing tape of two famous bloopers, Kalb then showed us this:

KALB: Remember this one? It also got a good run on TV news. [Gore on tape: "I took the initiative in creating the Internet."]

"One nice thing about our politicians," Kalb then said. "They've been very good in giving us all kinds of bites that come back to haunt them."

It's ironic that Kalb starts out raising a question of fairness because of the way he will soon edit Gore. In his tape, he clips the first six words off Gore's statement, saving his program, what—literally, two seconds? He clips off the qualifying phrase in the sentence—the phrase that might let a viewer conclude that Gore's statement wasn't quite as cuckoo or unambiguous as the viewer may have thought. Obviously, the show gained no significant time by trimming Gore's statement. What did it gain? A slightly improved declaration by Gore, in which his assertion is less ambiguous than his actual statement.

When pundits recite Gore's string of embellishments, they attribute a litany of claims to Gore, all of which have been improved by the use of that ol' debbil, paraphrase. We are told that Gore said he inspired Love Story, invented the Internet, and now that he discovered Love Canal. None of those exciting verbs ever emerged from Gore's mouth. But then, he never said he had a "midlife crisis," either. The doctor did that—the spin doctor.


Tomorrow: We take a last look at Gore-on-canal—and revisit Ceci Connolly's strange invention.

The doctor was IN: Some readers have said it's unfair to criticize Kakutani because she isn't a political reporter. We had qualms on that score ourselves—but we thought her article was among the most spin-driven pieces we have seen all year. Did Kakutani think Gore was describing a midlife crisis? She was perfectly free to say that. But Kakutani, a writer, knows how to write a sentence like this: "Mr. Gore writes of undergoing something that sounds like a midlife crisis around the same time." Her readers then would have known that the diagnosis was hers (though her editor, knowing Kakutani is not a psychiatrist, might have then cut the whole sentence out). Her readers would also have known something embarrassing—that, in a review criticizing Gore for using "New Age psychobabble," it was Kakutani who injected this New Age term, replacing the language Gore used in this section, which was traditionally spiritual.

Where does spin come from: The RNC is perfectly free to send out whatever faxes it wants. But the evidence is clear—until the Republican leadership began interpreting Gore's Internet comment, no one in the press corps seemed to find it so strange. Greg Pierce is a persistent Gore critic in his Washington Times column, as is his perfect right. But when Pierce did a second-day item on Gore's CNN appearance, he didn't even mention the Internet comment; instead, he discussed what Gore said about polls. The Internet remark has come to be seen as one of Kalb's "defining moments." No one seemed to think so at the time.