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8 February 2000

Our current howler (part III): Checkered past

Synopsis: The press corps’ fervent love of the truth is an exciting but recent development.

Bradley's Cries of Foul: Fair?
Thomas Edsall and Dan Morgan, The Washington Post, 1/29/00

A Victory With a Price
Al Hunt, The Wall Street Journal, 2/4/00

Have aspects of Senator Bradley's record and proposals been misrepresented in this campaign? It's certainly possible that this is true, but as usual, it's hard to find out. The press corps' typical scatter-shot approach has produced a typically frustrating situation, in which a variety of charges get dragged through the press, with no charge given enough attention for the reader to come to a judgment. For example, Bradley's first major claim was that Gore was misrepresenting basic aspects of the Bradley health plan. Bradley has cited some variant of this claim almost every time he has been asked to state his main objection. But in a generally instructive, page-one "Fact Check" in the Post, Thomas Edsall and Dan Morgan write this:

EDSALL AND MORGAN: On the crucial issue of health care, by contrast, Gore's attacks on Bradley's ambitious plan to provide coverage for all Americans, while containing some factual errors, appear substantive. And the sheer complexity of Bradley's proposals has left some room for Gore to reach his conclusions.

In one example, Edsall and Morgan discuss Gore's complaint about Bradley's proposal to provide prescription drug benefits to Medicare recipients. In the 1/26 Dem debate, Gore said that Bradley's plan would require seniors to spend $900 out of pocket before getting any help with drug costs; according to Edsall and Morgan, "several health care experts said that Gore's point was well taken, even though his numbers were slightly off" (Bradley's plan provides help after $800, not after the $900 Gore cited). But what about Gore's larger claims—his claims that Bradley's plan would spend the entire projected budget surplus, would provide inadequate coverage to current Medicaid recipients, and would place the Medicare program in jeopardy by failing to provide needed funding? Do those major claims "appear substantive?" We still don't know, because Edsall and Morgan barely touch on those claims at all, and because the press corps in general has simply refused to evaluate these central disputes. We'll say this much for Gore's critique—Gore made his complaints in the open air, long ago, in the October 27 Dem debate. If his charges against Bradley's health plan were untrue, the press corps has had time to show it. But Edsall and Morgan, scanning one major claim—the claim that Bradley's plan would provide inadequate coverage to current Medicaid recipients—simply repeat the two campaigns' positions, offering no real attempt to assess who is right. This article goes beyond other efforts to evaluate the health care debate. But even then, the writers make no real effort to say if Gore's principal complaints against Bradley are right.

But so it goes when the celebrity press corps assesses exciting campaign stories. Bradley has repeatedly charged that Gore is distorting his health care plan; the press corps, given more than three months, is simply too lazy to assess that. Instead, they jump ahead to exciting new charges—Gore-distorted-on-abortion is the latest sensation—where they showcase their gnat-like attention span and their abiding love for conceptual error. Edsall and Morgan's work in this piece is the best we've seen on "Has-Gore-distorted." But even they, in their opening passage, show the press corps' deep love for confusion:

EDSALL AND MORGAN (paragraph 1): Under fire from Bill Bradley during Wednesday's (1/26) Democratic debate, Vice President Gore declared unequivocally, "I have always supported Roe v. Wade. I have always supported a woman's right to choose."

(2) But as a congressman from Tennessee in the 1980s, Gore displayed a different attitude about abortion. He voted for a law that described a fetus as a person and wrote one Nashville voter in 1983, "It is my deep personal conviction that abortion is wrong."

The writers give themselves cover with nebulous language, writing about Gore's past "attitude." But in truth, the letter Gore wrote to the Nashville voter has absolutely nothing to do with his two quoted statements. People who think that abortion is wrong can still support the right to choose; the one point has nothing to do with the other. But all throughout the celebrity press corps, writers have cited fleeting glimpses of Gore's past personal attitudes as if they contradicted his statement at the debate. They don't; dear readers, not in any way; but writers in love with an exciting story have competed to see who can reason most poorly, accusing Gore of distortion in the process, in this case on page one of the Post.

Did Gore misrepresent his abortion record when he said, "I have always supported the right to choose?" Here at THE HOWLER, we don't really know, because the press corps is too inept to find out. If Gore did indeed "vote for a law which defined a fetus as a person," that might well contradict what he said. But the references to this vote have been typically brief; Edsall and Morgan give no more information than what we have quoted, and we have seen no one else make any real effort to explain the cited vote in detail.

The press corps' refusal to evaluate the health care dispute shows its contempt for issues that matter. And its scatter-shot efforts to "prove" Gore has lied show its love for a good accusation (as long, of course, as the accusation is made against a hopeful who is in deep disfavor). As we've noted, Al Hunt assessed the press corps' attitude toward Candidate Gore in a recent column; he said the press corps' "cynicism toward Gore...may be more intense than at any time than Richard Nixon," and he said the reason for that press disfavor is Gore's "distortions and misrepresentations" in the campaign against Bradley (see THE DAILY HOWLER, 2/7/00). But we do feel obliged to make one small point—if the press corps has the hatred of distortion which Hunt describes, it's an exciting new press corps development. In fact, the charge that Gore distorts and exaggerates started long before the campaign against Bradley; it began as part of an aggressive PR effort that began last winter, roughly ten seconds after impeachment ended. The earliest charges that fueled this campaign included charges that were baldly false. For three months, the press corps scalded Gore for a statement about the summers he had spent on his family's farm as a youth. Among other comments, Gore was called "deeply dishonest" by Donald Lambro (Washington Times) and "delusional" by Michael Medved (USA Today). The Weekly Standard said Gore's account was "preposterous," offering a quote from an old New Yorker profile that had been expertly edited to keep readers from knowing a basic fact—the New Yorker profile had explicitly described Gore's chores on the Tennessee farm (see THE DAILY HOWLER, 3/29/99). The farm chores debacle went on for three months, with pundits tumbling over one other, trying to find the most exciting way to misstate fact and call Gore a liar; and this whole campaign was played out in the press despite some embarrassing facts:

Fact one: Gore had spent his summers on the family farm, and the celebrity press corps surely knew it; in fact, the press corps had written a succession of Gore profiles over the previous twelve years, which had frequently described these same chores (Gore's father had wanted him to work on the farm to learn the value of work, they had said). One of the most influential articles ridiculing Gore's statement was a Washington Post column by Michael Kelly, "Farmer Al;" in the column, Kelly derided the notion of the chores, although Kelly himself, in 1987, had written a Baltimore Sun profile of then-Candidate Gore in which the chores were described in detail. Similar episodes of gruesome dissembling were routinely observed in this three-month reign of error, and we didn't see Hunt, or anyone else, express their hatred of distortion back then. No one said a word about these distortions, although it is abundantly clear that major writers knew that these representations were false. (In New Hampshire last week, we spoke with a major columnist whose intelligence we admire. He told us that he had thought the farm chores story was unfair and silly. We couldn't help noting a mordant fact—he didn't say a word at the time. Neither, of course, did anyone else. In the press corps, it's simply not done.)

Fact two: Just when the farm chores theme was developing, an awkward publishing event occurred. Bob Zelnick published a Gore biography (for conservative Regnery Press) which described the "preposterous" chores in detail. Darn it! He was spoiling all the fun! Indeed, so central did Zelnick make the chores that he referred back to them in the book's closing paragraph, making them the metaphor for Gore's entire life. (To Zelnick, they captured Gore as the dutiful son, striving to please his father.) Zelnick, in interviews, made it clear that Gore did indeed know how to farm. What influence did this have on the farm chores debacle? None at all. This part of Zelnick's book was ignored.

So it goes when the truth-loving corps sinks its teeth in a story it likes. The original and exciting Gore-can't-tell-the-truth theme emerged throughout the press last March, built around three core examples—the farm chores, Love Story, the Internet. The sheer idiocy displayed by the love of such topics we'll put aside at the present time. How about accuracy? The farm chores story was an outright deception, indulged in all over the press corps. (After three solid months of aggressive repetition, the theme disappeared without a trace.) The brain-dead Love Story tale still floats through the press, almost always rendered in ways that are baldly false (see Robinson and Scales, page one, Boston Globe, 1/28/00). Sorry, Al (Hunt), you're wrong if you think that the outraged press corps hates deception. It loves deception when the setting is right, and when it's aimed at appropriate targets.

Did Gore distort the Bradley health plan? The press is too lazy to try to find out, and now that the evidence suggests that perhaps he did not, the focus of this story moves on. Did Gore misstate his abortion record? The press is too inept to assess it. Meanwhile, the largest groaner of the New Hampshire campaign—McCain's big howler about Bush's fiscal plan—is still being tidied by some in the press. Tomorrow, we'll look at the latest comic attempt to pretend that it just never happened.

We have no confidence, none at all, in the press corps' ability to make sweeping judgments—in the press corps' ability to let us know who is truthful and who tends to lie. This press corps reasons poorly; thinks as a group; despises substance; is endlessly lazy. It picks and chooses among hopeful howlers, telling the stories it likes. Meanwhile, does Bradley's health care plan add up? They've had three months and two weeks to sort that one out. If they would do their job—if they'd sort through the facts—the public could decide which hopefuls are truthful. The public would also—imagine this—be informed about topics that matter.


Tomorrow: Three different pundits assess one small point—Gore/Bradley on nursing home standards.

Visit our incomparable archives: The farm chores debacle began last March, and raged in the press corps for roughly three months; when Diane Sawyer interviewed Gore on 20/20 in June, it was the first thing the celebrity brought up. This extended episode was a press corps disgrace, about which no one in the press corps said "Boo." For extensive links to our past reporting, see "The 21-year-old intern and other urban legends," THE DAILY HOWLER, 10/07/99 (extensive links found in postscript).

Note: The farm chores debacle was driven throughout by press releases from RNC head Jim Nicholson. To Hunt, the press corps hates distortions. They seem to love them when they're faxed out by Jim.