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22 February 2002

Our current howler (part III): Sean happens

Synopsis: Richard Berke typed a very strange tale. Sean Hannity then churned propaganda.

Commentary by Sean Hannity, Newt Gingrich
Hannity & Colmes, Fox News Channel, 2/20/02

Enron Pursued Plan To Forge Close Ties To Gore Campaign
Richard Berke, The New York Times, 2/18/02

Enron Pursued Plan To Forge Close Ties To Gore Campaign
John Bresnahan, Roll Call, 2/18/02

Commentary by Cheri Jacobus, Alan Colmes, Ellis Henican
Hannity & Colmes, Fox News Channel, 2/18/02

Commentary by Daniel Schorr
All Things Considered, NPR, 2/18/02

How does propaganda work? Richard Berke’s ludicrous article provides an instructive case study. As you’ll recall, Berke reported that Enron and Kenneth Lay gave $614,000 to Bush and the RNC, and $14,000 to Gore and the DNC (see THE DAILY HOWLER, 2/20/02). And he was able to report exactly one point of contact between Enron and the Gore campaign. Clearly, Enron vastly preferred Bush to Gore—which implies no wrong-doing on anyone’s part. But Berke had a spin he was working to sell, and he peddled his tale in the face of the facts. And by Wednesday night, this colloquy occurred on Fox’s heinous Hannity & Colmes:

SEAN HANNITY: How do Republicans deal with the strategy that is clearly outlined in the Shrum-Carville memo to tie all of this to Republicans? I mean, they’ve been throwing everything they can up against the wall against them and trying to make [Enron] a Republican scandal. What should they do? How should they strategize?

NEWT GINGRICH: Look, between Global Crossing’s ties to the Democratic National Committee chairman, Enron’s contributions to various Democratic groups, and the New York Times article that Enron and the Gore campaign were plotting together all of last year, I think there’s more than enough evidence the Republican can win that fight.

Amazing, isn’t it? On Monday morning, Berke was able to describe exactly one meeting between Enron and any Gore official. By Wednesday night, Gingrich was on the air telling Fox viewers "that Enron and the Gore campaign were plotting together all of last year!" That, of course, is a false account of what Berke’s piece was able to show. But clearly, it’s the implication Berke wanted readers to draw from his piece. He struggled and strained to put forward the idea that Enron pursued Gore and Bush just the same. (The company had "a double-sided strategy," he laughably wrote, so it could "wield influence with the next president, whoever he was." It’s incredible, but yes, he did write that.) Berke did this for one reason only; he was pandering hard to the party in power. And that party knew just what to do when handed Berke’s slick, slippery piece.

Meanwhile, the machinations behind Berke’s piece aren’t exactly real hard to decipher. On Monday, Roll Call’s John Bresnahan also wrote a piece about Enron’s "effort to reach out to the Gore campaign." Like Berke, Bresnahan had somehow managed to unearth an essential, key document:

BRESNAHAN: Although the ties between Enron and Bush administration officials have been well documented, in May 2000 Enron’s Washington office came up with a "Gore 2000 Strategy," a copy of which was obtained by Roll Call.

How did Roll Call "obtain" this document? Obviously, someone wanted articles written about how "painstakingly" Enron had gone after Gore. Berke typed up the tale they wanted. Bresnahan, to his credit, played things straighter.

Question: Just how silly is the notion that Enron was chasing around after Gore? If the Enron document isn’t totally bogus, the Houston giant was amazingly lax in the way it pursued its great blueprints. Here is part of Bresnahan’s account of what was in the plan:

BRESNAHAM: According to the memo’s timeline, beginning in July [2000], Enron lobbyists planned "outreach to key elected officials who are close to the Vice President, including Sen. Evan Bayh [D-Ind.], Sen. Joe Lieberman [D-Conn.], Sen. Bob Graham [D-Fla.], Sen. Mary Landrieu [D-La.], [then Energy] Secretary [Bill] Richardson, [then Housing and Urban Development] Secretary [Andrew] Cuomo, et al."

Unfortunately, this alleged "planned outreach" simply didn’t occur. Get a load of all this co-mingling:

BRESNAHAN: Now chairing one of the 12 Congressional probes into Enron’s demise, Lieberman received just $2,000 in donations from the energy giant…

The other three Senators mentioned in the memo all collected donations from both Enron and [Arthur] Andersen, including $24,250 the two companies gave to Bayh. Only $2,000 of that total came from Enron.

Aides to Lieberman, Graham and Landrieu said they have no record of any meetings with Enron representatives during this period.

Wow! If we’ve been able to interpret that passage correctly, the four extremely significant solons got $4,000 between them from Enron! And Bresnahan can account for exactly no contacts. Does it sound to you like the energy giant had a master plan to smooch these Gore allies? It’s hard to believe of an agency as famous for straight-talk as Enron has lately become, but it almost sounds like someone invented this "outreach plan" two long years later.

But Berke, of course, knew just what to do when handed this shaky alleged outreach plan—he described it just as his sponsors wanted. Enron had a double-sided strategy, he implausibly typed in the Times. And what happened when Berke put his spin into print? That’s right—Sean Hannity happened! On Monday night, Cheri Jacobus appeared on his show—the show on which Alan is sitting there, too? Let’s look at some of what she said about the plan that Berke described—the plan in which Enron and Lay gave forty-five times as much money to Bush and the RNC as to Gore.

The session began with Hannity spinning. "During the 2000 presidential campaign," he said, "Enron executives reportedly went to great lengths to cultivate political ties with none other than Vice President Al Gore." Do you see the kind of utter nonsense spinners were able to draw from Berke’s piece? Soon, the tough-talking Jacobus took over:

JACOBUS: Alan, I think you are missing the point here or you are purposely trying to fuzzy the line up on this.

COLMES: Fill me in. Tell me where I’m wrong.

JACOBUS: The fact of the matter is, James Carville, Terry McAuliffe, Paul Begala, a whole group of the political minds of the Democratic Party, went out there trying desperately to link Republicans to the Enron scandal…Now we know that Enron was aggressively lobbying both sides.

"Yes, that’s right," the hapless Colmes said. Cheri knew she had a green light then. Here was her next presentation:

JACOBUS: They were not doing anything different for the Republicans than the Democrats. And the Democrats are out there blatantly trying to make it seem like it’s just the Republicans that even spoke to them.

"Take a breath so I can agree with you," Colmes said.

Maybe you’ve begun to sense the way the session unfolded. Here was Cheri’s next representation:

JACOBUS: Enron was also trying to draft policy for the Gore campaign. This went both ways. They did it for the Democrats as well.

Neither Berke nor Bresnahan describe any such conduct; it’s another thing that was in the "plan" that Enron forgot to execute. And then—after a break for important messages that almost seemed balanced compared to the program—Jacobus simply lied in Ellis Henican’s face. Alas! Her "liberal" counterpart didn’t seem to know that her remarks were inaccurate:

HENICAN: The Federal Energy Regulatory Commission, how about all those vetting appointments with Enron before you put them on the very federal agency that regulates Enron? That’s all over this story.

JACOBUS: And if you read today’s news reports, you would see that they were lobbying the Gore campaign for the very same thing.

Neither Berke nor Bresnahan says any such thing—and neither Colmes nor Henican seemed to know it. But let’s return to the silence of the lambs:

JACOBUS: The fact is, Enron was lobbying both sides. And Terry McAuliffe, James Carville, Paul Begala and others are trying to make it seem like only Republicans ever took—

She was cut off there by "crosstalk." But Colmes and Henican may as well have been in Fiji for all the input they had to offer. Incredibly, neither one of them ever cited the actual data from Berke’s piece. Neither one of them managed to note that while Enron was not doing anything different for the Republicans than the Democrats, they were actually donating to Bush over Gore by a margin of 45 to one.

Two nights later, Newt was saying that "Enron and the Gore campaign were plotting together all of last year"—and he was attributing the claim to Berke. Berke, of course, said no such thing, and his article described no such interaction. But his article was written for one purpose only—to hand a gift to White House spinners. Berke, as usual, pandered to power. Propaganda—and deceit—happened next.

Next: An incomparable liberal bias watch! Does Ralph Reed know how to get spin in print? An example from June ’99.

Another Berkean scholar: Your press corps loves to recite from the Times. Monday evening, Daniel Schorr offered this account of Richard Berke’s spindrift presentation:

SCHORR: A story in The New York Times today displays the Enron Corporation as an equal, or almost equal, opportunity bidder for presidential influence. To win favor with the Gore campaign in 1999 and 2000, Enron made soft money contributions at a ratio of 54 percent for Republicans and 46 percent for Democrats.

Perfect! Schorr presented the less relevant data from Berke’s piece—the data about Enron’s gifts to Congress. And he omitted the far more relevant data—the data about what Enron gave to Bush and Gore themselves. Incredibly, Schorr ended up telling NPR’s misled listeners that Enron was "an equal, or almost equal, opportunity bidder for presidential influence." That, of course, is baldly false. But it did keep Dan on point with the Times. Our question: What on earth has our country done to be afflicted with this kind of "press corps?"