Howling Dog Graphic
Point. Click. Search.

Contents: Archives:

Search this weblog
Search WWW
Howler Graphic
by Bob Somerby
E-mail This Page
Socrates Reads Graphic
A companion site.

Site maintained by Allegro Web Communications, comments to Marc.

Howler title Graphic
Caveat lector

9 December 1999

Our current howler (part I): Need more

Synopsis: Bill Turque—a straight shooter—says Gore embellished. We pose some incomparable questions. (ALSO: Kurtz on McCain coverage)

Back on the Slippery Slope
Bill Turque, Newsweek, 12/13/99

Nothing Succeeds Like Access
Howard Kurtz, The Washington Post, 12/8/99

Was Gore attempting to embellish last week? If so, he's not very good at it. As we noted on Tuesday, he downplayed his role in toxic site clean-up in his remarks to the New Hampshire student audience (see THE DAILY HOWLER, 12/7/99). In his Gore biography, Bob Zelnick, a Gore critic, described Gore as "the prime mover behind the Superfund," a role Gore understated last week. Unless one is in a prosecutorial frame of mind, it's a bit hard to read Gore's remarks—which stressed the involvement of the Tennessee high school student—as some big effort to overstate his own role here.

In Newsweek, Bill Turque makes a somewhat similar point, and Turque finds the whole matter puzzling. We think Turque's comments take us to the heart of the year-long effort to say that Weird Gore makes things up:

TURQUE (paragraph 5): With the campaign press now on full embellishment alert, the slightest deviation from fact, no matter how innocuous, will stick like chewing gum to the heel of Gore's shoe. What's mystifying is that, in each instance, the straight story is just as laudable. He didn't uncover Love Canal, but he did help lead the fight against toxic-waste dumping. Gore wasn't the father of the Internet, but he was arguably an uncle, sponsoring legislation that fostered its growth.

We happen to know Turque, and we think he's a straight shooter. (His new bio of Gore appears early next year. In writing the bio, naturally enough, Turque sought out our incomparable views.) The puzzlement he states about Gore's "embellishments" is often expressed in the press corps. Why would Gore embellish, scribes will ask, when the simple truth in these matters is impressive? Among pundits who are less restrained than Turque, this question all too frequently leads to unlicensed psychiatric discussions.

But there's an obvious answer to this question; in our view, there's nothing "mystifying" about this at all. Gore has occasionally made statements that don't scan because that's the nature of extemporaneous speech. The press corps could follow any hopeful around and catch him in occasional clumsy locutions; such a locution was Gore's Internet statement, in which the qualifying phrase, which would have been better in mid-sentence, went at the front of the sentence instead. (From which the press corps quickly edited it away. See THE DAILY HOWLER, 12/8/99.) The truth is, the press corps can "prove" whatever it likes if it's allowed to parse hopefuls' statements like this. Why has Gore seemed to embellish a couple of times? Because the press corps has wanted to say so. Admit it, Turque-man: some have been "on full embellishment alert" for a good long time now.

Review again the four examples of this "syndrome" which are commonly cited. First example? Love Story, a total intellectual fraud—blatant misreporting which has lasted two years. Second example? The farm chores debacle, in which pundits feigned ignorance of a part of Gore's life the press had reported for years. No one said "Boo" about Gore's Internet statement until the RNC's fax machines got whirring. And in basic ways, Gore's statement last week about Love Canal downplays his work on the toxic waste problem. And wouldn't you know it? This exciting new example was driven along by a plainly invented, false quote.

There is an obvious truth problem here, but it's not clear that the problem is Gore's. The press corps has simply invented two of these examples; goosed up another with a bogus quote; and has engaged in the kind of microscopic parsing that could make any public speaker a liar. Given all that, a basic problem lurks in Turque's piece, which is admirably restrained by current standards:

TURQUE (1): [T]he old Gore—the one with a penchant for embellishing the facts—still shows up. Describing his investigation of toxic-waste sites as a young House member in the late '70s, he said, "I found a little place in upstate New York called Love Canal." Gore did hold the first congressional hearings on [Love Canal]. But Love Canal had been declared a disaster area two months before his hearings—after grass-roots organizing by residents, not Gore's heroics. The next day, Gore corrected the "misimpression."

Note that Turque, a straight-shooter, does not use the Seelye/Connolly bad "quote." And note that, later on in his piece, he seems circumspect in citing past incidents:

TURQUE (5): Perhaps most disabling for Gore are episodes like the Love Canal stretch: small but easy-to-spot untruths. Together with past misstatements—like claiming to have invented the Internet—they feed the notion that he's a phony.

Turque, a straight-shooter, doesn't mention the farm chores; we suspect he knows that flap was bogus. And he doesn't mention Love Story either. But here's the problem: If there are only two incidents careful writers will cite; and if, in Turque's view, those two incidents are "small;" then on what basis does he claim that Gore has a "penchant" for something? Turque does refer to "past misstatements" (plural). But what are they? He only cites one.

Is there something "mystifying" about all of this? At THE HOWLER, we just don't think so. If reporters are going to parse every word, they can "prove" what they like about hopefuls. And are there reporters, out on the trail, who are eager to prove that Gore plays with facts? Of course there are—have been for some time. Sadly, we think that penchant became more clear last week.


Why we like him: Note what Turque says, by the way, about the current attitude of the press corps. He says that, given the current mindset of the press, even an innocuous, minor error will "stick like gum to the heel of Gore's shoe." As often happens in these matters, Turque makes our argument for us. He states here that reporters will now stress things that don't even matter because of their attitude about Gore. That is, of course, our incomparable view of what has already been occurring this year. How else to explain the three crackpot months in which the press corps pretended not to know that Gore really did all them chores?

Sweet selectivity: In an excellent piece in yesterday's Post, Howard Kurtz explores the flip side of this matter. He describes the press corps' relations with John McCain (sub-headline: "Does John McCain have the media eating out of his hand?") Clearly, some think that he does. After citing odd remarks by McCain that have gone unreported, Kurtz quotes Jacob Weisberg:

KURTZ: "At one level, the press protects him," says Jacob Weisberg, political writer for Slate magazine. "He delivers these stupid lines all the time. The typical response from journalists is either not to report it or to congratulate him for being so blunt instead of treating it as a gaffe...If Bush had talked about 'gooks,' everyone would say how callow he is and say he's not up to running U.S. foreign policy." [Kurtz's deletion]

Later, Kurtz quotes Time's Jay Carney:

KURTZ: "You get the sense that you're being manipulated by candor, rather than manipulated by subterfuge and deception, but it is a strategy," says Carney. McCain is gambling "that you'll put whatever potentially damaging statements he makes within the context of an overall picture of the man. That contrasts pretty starkly with a lot of other candidates and politicians." [Kurtz's emphasis]

Again, the scribes describe totally unprofessional conduct by the press corps, in which reporters bury strange comments from hopefuls they like. Are you really shocked to think it works the other way—that they gimmick up "gaffes" from those they don't favor? No one condemns the press corps more than the press corps itself, talking to Kurtz. (NOTE: If the press corps is unprofessional in its McCain coverage, that reflects on the press corps, not on McCain.)