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Caveat lector

Clinton was slimed by bad-faith reporting. The press shouldn’t make it a habit.

MONDAY, JULY 8, 2002

AND NOW FOR THE REST OF THE STORY: In 1990, George W. Bush sold 212,000 shares of stock in the Harken Energy Corporation. Soon thereafter, Harken announced a large second-quarter loss, and its stock price tumbled a bit. (It had already dropped, by a larger amount, when Iraq invaded Kuwait.) Because Bush sat on Harken’s audit committee, the timing of Bush’s stock sale was questioned. In 1991, the SEC investigated, concerned about insider trading.

Over the years, there has been good news and bad news for President Bush regarding his sale of that stock. First a bit of slightly bad news: In his 1994 gubernatorial debate with Ann Richards, Candidate Bush misstated the contents of an SEC letter about its probe of his sale. Bush’s campaign had asked the SEC to issue a statement about the matter. In a letter to Bush’s lawyer, the SEC said, “the investigation has been terminated as to the conduct of Mr. Bush, and…at this time, no enforcement action is contemplated with respect to him.” But the letter also said that this “must in no way be construed as indicating that the party has been exonerated or that no action may ultimately result.” Despite this, Bush explicitly said, during the Richards debate, that he had been “exonerated” by the SEC’s probe. Why, you could almost say he embellished the facts! Richards corrected his error.

On the other hand, there was good news for Bush in September 2000, which some scribes now seem to be glossing. Responding to a Freedom of Information request by the Associated Press and the Dallas Morning News, the SEC released a boatload of documents about its probe of Bush. On September 6, 2000, the AP’s Pete Yost quoted a summary by investigators. “It appears that Bush did not engage in illegal insider trading,” the gumshoes had written in 1992, “because it does not appear that he possessed material nonpublic information or that he acted with [intent to defraud] when he sold the Harken stock.” According to Yost, “[t]he investigators noted that Bush did not initiate the sale of his stock, that he was approached by a broker and checked with the company’s general counsel about the propriety of the sale before carrying it out.” Additionally, the AP asked NYU law prof Stephen Gillers to review the SEC docs. According to Yost, Gillers “said the agency made a sound judgment legally and ethically to close the insider trading probe without interviewing Bush.” On September 7, the Dallas Morning News drew similar conclusions from its own review of the SEC documents. (Headline: “Records show what Bush knew before stock sale; Regulators concluded in 1992 that he did nothing improper.”) Had the SEC taken a dive for Bush, whose pappy was prez at the time of the probe? “We’re dealing with investigators here who are not political appointees,” Gillers told the AP’s Yost. More from Yost: “Gillers said the evidence contained in the SEC documents was ‘fairly persuasive against proceeding’ against Bush.”

For the record, none of this speaks to a separate question, recently raised in two Paul Krugman columns. When Bush sat on Harken’s audit committee, did he know about a shaky 1989 deal involving Aloha Petroleum, a Harken subsidiary? On Saturday, Paul Kedrosky of the National Post wrote that “[w]hile it seems clear from SEC documents that Mr. Bush didn’t know about the problems with Aloha, it also seems clear he should have known.” Yesterday, Krugman seemed to suggest that Bush may have known. “If Mr. Bush didn’t know about the Aloha maneuver, he was a very negligent director,” Krugman wrote. Is there any evidence that Bush knew about the Aloha maneuver? The SEC documents suggest that he didn’t. Is it fair to say that he should have known? On that, we don’t have a clue. But Aloha is, at least on face, a separate matter from the charge concerning insider trading. When the SEC investigated Bush’s sale of stock, Aloha was not directly at issue.

Here at THE HOWLER, we’re not legal eagles. We can’t competently judge the docs for ourselves. But several matters have been conflated in recent reporting about Harken happenings. If the AP, the DMN, and Gillers were right, the SEC found strongly for Bush concerning the question of insider trading. Did Bush do something wrong at Harken? Here at the HOWLER, we don’t have a clue. But those who want to suggest wrongdoing need to account for the SEC’s findings. Clinton was slimed by bad-faith business reporting. The press shouldn’t make it a habit.

WILLING TO DO AND SAY ANYTHING? On the other hand, Candidate Bush was stretchin’ and strainin’ in that debate with Ann Richards. First there was his overstatement about the SEC’s letter. At another point, he memorably said, “I proudly proclaim I’ve never held office. I have been in the business world all my adult life. I have met a payroll. I know what it means to risk capital.” What made this presentation so comical? Bush had “never held office” for one major reason; when he ran for office in 1978, the voters had (narrowly) turned his bid down. That was Bush’s race for Congress; he had also explored the possibility of running for the Texas state senate in 1972, and for governor in 1990. Meanwhile, Bush embellished his description of Richards, slamming her as a career politician. “If Texans want someone who has spent her entire adult life in politics, they should not vote for me,” he said. Hmmm. Richards first ran for office at age 43. Bush, by contrast, was 32 when he spent a year running for Congress.

Why do these otherwise unremarkable stretchers leap up off the page today? Because of the way the press corps covered the Bush-Gore race six years later. The script was known to one and all—Candidate Gore will do and say anything. Gore is inclined to embellish and lie. In order to “prove” that nasty charge, embellishing journalists made themselves useful, inventing “misstatements” by Gore. To cite one world-class example of press corps dissembling, the Boston Globe’s Walter Robinson sifted through decades of statements by Gore, searching for ways to call him a liar. Unable to find enough actual howlers, he stretched and strained and made a bunch up. How absurd was Robinson’s work? Baldly deceiving the Globe’s misused readers, he even pretended he didn’t know why Gore claimed “seven years of journalistic experience.” (Duh! Gore spent two years as an army reporter, then five more years at the Nashville Tennessean.) Bizarrely, Robinson even claimed that Gore was “creating myths” in praising his father’s civil rights record—and, of course, he strained to find troubling misstatements in Gore’s three dozen public debates. He played silly games in that area too; at one point, Robinson quoted Michael Dukakis in a 1988 debate, telling Gore, “Please get your facts straight. If you want to be president of the United States, you better start by being accurate.” But here’s what Robinson didn’t mention; examination of the exchange with Dukakis shows that what Gore had said was perfectly reasonable. In the debate in question, Gore criticized something The Duke had said; the same criticism was later made by Jack Kemp and Bob Dole, and was widely made by mainstream pundits. But Globe readers had no way to know this. Craftily, Robinson let his readers assume that Gore must have made something up.

But while Robinson was straining for all he was worth, trying to gimmick up groaners by Gore, did he mention those stretchers by Bush in debate? You’re dreaming if you have to ask. Robinson was typing a rigid press script; therefore, he didn’t examine past statements by Bush. That’s right, kids. Robinson examined twenty-three years worth of statements by Gore, and no years worth of statements by Bush. Then he marveled at the fact that Gore seemed to have more “misstatements.”

Remember, no one dissembles as much as the press corps. Thrilling details to come in the book.

WHY CHILDREN HAVE TURNED OFF TO BASEBALL: Have you noticed? Journalists won’t give Ted Williams credit for his work in TV newsreels. The place: Scottsdale, Arizona, February 1958. I was ten years old, in town from Boston, to see how the Red Sox were looking. On Ted’s first day in camp, I was alertly sitting behind the dugout when a TV producer signed me up for a spot. The ensuing shoot went much as planned. When Teddy ran out onto the field, I yelled, “How about an autograph, Mr. Williams?” Ted doubled back and signed my card. That evening, viewers in the Boston area thrilled at our easy interaction.

Don’t even ask about the time I saw Jim Bunning no-hit the Red Sox. Williams made the final out, flying deep to the track in Fenway. Adult fans applauded Bunning, but like other kids in the park, I was hurt. Since that day, I’ve always wondered what kind of a man would pitch his no-hit gems on the road. (Bunning’s second no-hitter, against the Mets, was pitched at Shea Stadium—on Father’s Day!) Years later, of course, Bunning’s cruel tendencies took final form. He reappeared as a heartless pol, supporting the Contract with America.

FRIDAY, JULY 5, 2002

THE LATEST BAD MEN IN BLACK SEQUEL: Could they really be of this earth? Where on this earth could you find such unintelligent life forms? In this morning’s Baltimore Sun, that tired old script-reading pundit, Jules Witcover, robotically mouths the same tired lines his colleagues have all mouthed before him:

WITCOVER: Al Gore, in a recent closed meeting in Memphis with key supporters, vowed that if he runs for president again in 2004, he’ll listen to his own counsel rather than that of consultants, of whom he had a small army in 2000.

“I’d just let it rip,” he said, and “let the chips fall where they may. ... To hell with the polls, tactics and all the rest.”

That’s a familiar refrain from losing candidates. They imply that it was bum advice from others that cost them the election in question.

Predictably, Witcover’s robotically scripted remarks ran beneath a scripted headline. “Al Gore seeks to reinvent himself,” the mandatory Gore headline said.

Note the dimness of Witcover’s “reasoning.” In a closed meeting, Gore is said to have said that he’ll ignore the polls if he runs for the White House again. To Witcover, this means that Gore has “impl[ied] that it was bum advice from others that cost [him] the election.” But of course, nothing in Gore’s quoted statement actually leads to that naughty conclusion. If the second-hand “quote” from Gore’s meeting is accurate—and Witcover, of course, doesn’t know if it is—then all Gore really said is this: I paid too much attention to polls. Why would that lead a sane human being to say Gore is blaming consultants?

The answer is perfectly obvious. No sane person reasons this way, but pundits like Witcover are there to type scripts, not to behave like real humans. And, according to the press corps’ well-rehearsed scripts, Gore must always be reinventing himself; any unattractive way you can restate his words is perfectly OK after that. In the last week, every pundit in the land has raced to type this new approved script. Where on this earth could our editors find such complete lackeys, such consummate copyists?

Are the Witcovers actually of this earth? Could any human be so dim and so scripted? Last evening at Arundel Mills mall, we were turned away from Men in Black. But with life forms like Witcover running around, do we really have to go to the mall to suspect that ETs now have landed?

PUNDITS SAY THE MOST SIMILAR THINGS: But then, here was Charlie Cook’s utterly hapless assessment. Cook types scripts for the National Journal:

COOK: Listening to former Vice President Al Gore’s graceless remarks over the weekend, when he effectively blamed his 2000 presidential campaign loss on “polls, tactics and all the rest,” one question kept coming back to me: “Does he really believe what he’s saying?”…[F]rom my vantage point it seems that Gore was the weakest link in the Gore/Lieberman campaign—not his pollsters, his strategists, his tacticians or his other consultants.
To Cook, when Gore blames his loss on “polls and tactics,” he is actually blaming his pollsters and tacticians. Sometimes, work like this makes us flash to Men in Black. But sometimes, after a week of such efforts, we give up and we say, Dumb and Dumber.