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18 December 1999

A Howler EXTRA: There she goes again

Synopsis: There she goes again, dear readers! Ceci Connolly is now inventing whole phrases that Vice President Gore never said.

Democrats Clash in Debate On Health Care, Education
Ceci Connolly and Mike Allen, The Washington Post, 12/18/99

Now she's dragging Mike Allen in! Our analysts were surprised when they read the Post's page-one story on last night's Dem forum. At one point, Ceci Connolly and Mike Allen offered this puzzling account:

CONNOLLY AND ALLEN: One woman, noting that the Republican contenders recently spoke at length about Jesus Christ, asked the Democrats how they felt about injecting faith into the presidential campaign.

Gore, noting that the number of atheists in America is rising, reiterated his support for separation of church and state. But he added: "I affirm my faith when I'm asked about it, but I always try to do so in a way that communicates respect, not only for people who worship in a different way, but just as much respect for those who do not believe in God."

The article then went on to describe the answer given by Senator Bradley.

Our analysts were surprised by this account. A minor point: they were quite sure that Bradley had answered first—Gore had referred to Bradley's remarks when he gave his response. But they were especially surprised by the claim that Gore had "noted that the number of atheists in America is rising." Our incomparable analysts remembered no such statement in the course of Gore's remarks. Soon, we were doing what we often must do—instructing the analysts to double-check Connolly. Sure enough, the analysts brought us the complete text of Gore's remarks:

GORE: I strongly support the separation of church and state. The bedrock principle on which our nation was founded was the search for religious freedom, which clearly meant freedom from government interference in religion. And I think that carries with it not only an obligation to respect the Constitution—for example, I think that the Constitution forbids the teaching of evolution in schools, except in religion class, but not in science class. And I think it also means that every single person in our public life ought to recognize an obligation to communicate tolerance of all religious faiths and traditions, especially the religious faiths and traditions that are held to be a minority in our country. That's what we're all about—religious freedom. Now I think that, in some times past, that principle has been wrongly interpreted to mean that somebody who is a person of faith and in public life should not even affirm his faith. I very much respect the way Bill has handled this question, you know, that's great, that's fine, that's his way of doing it. I affirm my faith when I'm asked about it but I always try to do so in a way that communicates absolute respect, not only for people who worship in a different way, but just as much respect for those who do not believe in God, who are atheists. Atheists have just as much of a right to the public discourse as anyone, as people of any religious faith in the country. And I think that we have got to really stand and if necessary fight for that principle.

So there you have it. Gore didn't say a word that resembled the statement the Post reported. Nothing was said, at any time, about whether atheists were increasing, decreasing, or staying the same. Two lesser notes—Gore's reference to atheists came late in his comments, not right at the beginning, as Connolly's readers might have thought. And Bradley had in fact answered first; Connolly's account reverses the order.

Does there ever come a time when the Washington Post sees a problem with Connolly's writing? A few weeks ago, Connolly misquoted a remark by Gore in a high school forum; the Post built a second-day story around the false quote, even after the error had been identified and corrected by Chris Matthews on Hardball. When our Outreach Task Force called the Post, it took several calls to persuade a grumbling editor to print a half-hearted correction. Now it seems that the Post's supple scribe has begun to invent entire topics. And, for those among you who are soft of heart, can we interpret the spin in this latest invention? Atheists are a substantial minority in our country; Gore was treading on tricky ground in explicitly defending their rights. Connolly's account—for which the Post no doubt has an excellent explanation—gives the impression that the interests of atheists was the first thing Gore brought up in his remarks. And, in falsely reporting that Gore commented on their alleged growing numbers, this account may well give readers the impression that Gore was making a political calculation. A Post reader would think that, as soon as this question was raised at the forum, Gore jumped in to say atheists vote.

But at any rate, the Post again has attributed remarks to Gore that plainly never occurred. Indeed, we're now at the point where Connolly is reporting entire topics that never arose. Does there ever come a time when the Post admits what we have been reporting to you since April—that it has an obvious problem among its reporters, one it should have addressed long ago?


Coming: We have now seen three articles—by the AP, the St. Louis Post-Dispatch, and the Concord (N.H.) Monitor—about the bogus Love Canal "quote." We report on that next week.

Note: Not a typo. We assume that Gore meant to say "creationism" when he said "evolution."