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7 March 2000

Our current howler: Shipp gets it right!

Synopsis: Boxing the ears of her colleagues (and citing real facts!), the Post’s E. R. Shipp got it right.

Typecasting Candidates
E. R. Shipp, The Washington Post, 3/5/00

Al Gore's problem with the truth
Editorial, The Washington Times, 2/29/00

Gore record of veracity scrutinized
Walter Robinson and Ann Scales, The Boston Globe, 1/28/00

We've mentioned our incomparable rule before—the analysts don't annoy us on Sunday mornings. We define Sunday morning as "quiet time," when we lounge in our sumptuous editor's quarters and ponder the really big questions.

But yesterday morning, we heard halting steps, and then a timorous knock on the door. And under that door, someone cautiously slid E. R. Shipp's "ombudsman" piece in the Post! That very term—"ombudsman"—normally occasions low, mordant chuckles at DAILY HOWLER World Headquarters. But yesterday's column was a whole 'nother thing. Writing about her newspaper's Love Canal/Love Story coverage, the Post's E. R. Shipp got it right!

Shipp's overall theme was the Post's inclination to engage in what we call "novelization." According to Shipp, the Post has tended to "speculate" about the candidates' "motives in seeking the office of president:"

SHIPP: [R]eaders react—sometimes in a nonpartisan way, more often not—to roles that The Post seems to have assigned to their actors in this unfolding political drama. Gore is the guy in search of an identity; Bradley is the Zen-like intellectual in search of a political strategy; McCain is the war hero who speaks off the cuff and is, thus, a "maverick"; and Bush is a lightweight with a famous name...As a result of this approach, some candidates are whipping boys; other seem to get a free pass.

We agree with Shipp's overall assessment, although the syndrome is hardly confined to the Post. The press corps in general exhibits the tendency Shipp describes.

At any rate, Shipp now began critiquing the Post's portraits of specific hopefuls. This passage snapped us from our reverie, and brought us right out of our plush leather chair:

SHIPP (continuing directly): Readers have questioned a Post article that portrayed Gore as delusional, thinking that he was not only the man who discovered Love Canal, a New York community contaminated by illegally dumped toxic waste decades ago, but also the basis for the for the character of Oliver Barrett IV in Erich Segal's "Love Story."

Clearly, Shipp was discussing the December 2 article by Ceci Connolly which we have critiqued in the past (links below). On December 1, Connolly had misquoted Gore about Love Canal; the next day, she linked Love Canal to the old Love Story nonsense, misstating the facts of that flap. In yesterday's column, Shipp may have helped the press corps turn a corner. She became the highest-ranking scribe to state the facts in that silly but treasured press corps fable:

SHIPP (continuing directly): Gore (Albert II) was, according to Segal, one of the preppies he had in mind in creating the character; the other was Gore's roommate, the actor Tommy Lee Jones.

We've pointed out, again and again, that this is what Segal told the New York Times when he was interviewed about this pointless matter. But the press corps preferred a different tale, and Segal's words found the memory hole. In her December 2 story, Connolly called Gore "the man who mistakenly claimed to have inspired the movie 'Love Story;'" she wrote this although it is clear on the record that Segal said Gore was a model for the Barrett character. Two other things are clear on the record: 1) The only thing Gore actually said was that he had seen a newspaper story quoting Segal on this, and 2) Everyone agrees that such an article did appear, in the Nashville Tennesseean.

These facts had been on the record for almost two years when Connolly wrote her December 2 piece, but the press has preferred a livelier tale, in which Gore can be spun as a liar. Shipp went on to critique Connolly's work on the Love Canal part of the story:

SHIPP (continuing directly): As for Love Canal, Gore said that after a high school student contacted him about a toxic waste site in Toone, Tenn., he sought information about other such sites, learned about Love Canal, and used the two as case studies in a hearing that led to legislation aimed at cleaning up such sites. As he put it: "I...had the first hearing on that issue, and Toone, Tenn.—that was the one you didn't hear of—but that was the one that started it all." That is a whole lot different from The Post's version, "I'm the one that started it all," which fits the role The Post seems to have assigned him in Campaign 2000.

To be fair, anyone can get a simple quote wrong; Connolly's principal sin was not her original misquote, which occurred in her December 1 story. The article to which Shipp clearly refers was Connolly's December 2 follow-up article; it was published even after her Day One misquote was fully examined on Hardball. Yep—even after the Day One error was cited, the Post built a Day Two story around it. And then the Post began grumbling and complaining at the thought of actually publishing a correction, arguing they only had one word wrong in their account of what Gore had said!

For the record, Shipp doesn't mention one aspect of the Love Canal flap; in Gore's statement (to a class of high school students), he said that, subsequent to receiving the letter from Toone, he "found a little place in upstate New York called Love Canal." The word "found" was immediately improved to "discovered," and excited pundits—faces flushed with success—were saying that Gore had said he "discovered Love Canal." Our view on this is simple—if you follow a candidate around all day, you will find many occasions, in extemporaneous speech, where a statement can be parsed within an inch of its life to "prove" some theme you want to get proven. But that involves the Love Canal flap. Connolly's account of Love Story was simply false—and it flew in the face of plain reporting which at the time was almost two years old.

By the way, we sent a letter-to-the-editor to the Post in December, assuming they'd want to correct Connolly's Love Story error. We include the text of the letter below, but it never did go into print. Until the worthy Shipp came along, no one at the Post seemed to care a whole lot about silly little things like correcting blatant errors. Why didn't the Post publish this letter, informing its readers of the facts of this case? Sorry—we don't read minds at THE HOWLER. But as Shipp explains in yesterday's column, Connolly's misstatement did advance a novelized tale which the Post and the press seem to love.

The Love Story tale has been spun and spun over the course of the past twelve months. It has been misreported again and again, in attacks on Gore's honesty and character. In yesterday's column, Shipp became the highest-ranking scribe to tell her readers what Segal really said. Endless spinners have told a false tale—that Gore was contradicted by Segal (see below). Yesterday, after two years of spinning—really, lying—by scribes, the Post's E. R. Shipp brought us out of our chair. Boxing the ears of her colleagues (and citing real facts!), the Post's E. R. Shipp got it right.


Visit our incomparable archives: We reported on Connolly's piece in real time. See THE DAILY HOWLER, 12/3/99 and 12/6/99. For annotated links to earlier reporting on Love Story, see the 12/6 postscript.

Just so you'll know how this game is now played: In roughly the three millionth recent article "proving" that Gore just-can't-tell-the-truth, a 2/29 Washington Times editorial said this:

THE WASHINGTON TIMES: [Mr. Gore] lied when he claimed that Harvard professor Erich Segal used him and Tipper as the models for "Love Story."

Note that the editorial mentions Tipper Gore as part of the veep's horrid "lie." Here's why: Gore told Karen Tumulty and Rick Berke that he had once seen a newspaper article in which Segal was quoted saying the Gores were the models for Love Story. Asked to comment, Segal told the New York Times that there actually had been such an article, but its writer had slightly exaggerated; Segal had told him that Gore was the model for Oliver Barrett, and the writer threw Tipper in too. In other words, Segal said that Gore had been a model, but said that Tipper had not been. Spinners of the right, like the Times editorialist, know that Segal said Gore was a model. They now typically include Tipper in their formulation, because that is the only point on which Segal even seems to dispute what Gore said. Of course, what Gore actually said was that he saw a newspaper article, and Segal agreed that the piece did exist. But this is the way modern sophists split hairs to defend their claim that Gore is a liar. Can you say "Clintonesque," boys and girls? Spinners who claim to despise clever word-play shamelessly play games to "prove" this silly claim. Future generations will marvel at the deceit of writers like the unnamed Times scribe—and will condemn the conduct of mainstream scribes, who refused to present the actual facts in this endless, inane slander.

Comically, this editorial was called "Al Gore's problem with the truth." We spent a good deal of 1998 showing you how pundits lie to "prove" that others are liars. Who has a "problem with the truth" here? The unnamed writer of this editorial, who blatantly deceives his newspaper's readers—with the consent of the rest of the press corps.

Speaking of those mainstream scribes: On January 28—on the eve of the New Hampshire primary—the Boston Globe's Robinson and Pincus published roughly the two millionth article saying Gore just-can't-tell-the-truth. This was one part of their page one report:

ROBINSON AND PINCUS: Bradley's direct assault on Gore's integrity during the [January 26] debate...underscores longstanding concerns...that Gore has a predilection for embellishing facts to burnish his personal resume or professional accomplishments.

Since early last year, for example, Gore has said, without foundation, that he created the Internet. He has also said that he and his wife, Tipper, were the models "Love Story," only to be contradicted by author Erich Segal.

This is writing so bad that the analysts wept. "Since early last year, Gore has said...?" Gore made his remark about the Internet once; Robinson and Pincus present it in comic book fashion, eliminating any meager effort at context. And Gore's one remark about Love Story was made in 1997! At any rate, we again see the standard Love Story presentation—Gore was "contradicted" by Erich Segal. That assertion is simply false. Do Robinson and Pincus know the facts? We have no way of knowing, but our analysts were surprised, during our week in New Hampshire, by the sheer volume of inept writing which they found in the Globe. This was one hopeless example.

Letter to the editor's wastebasket: Below is the text of the letter we sent the Post back in December. We actually submitted this letter twice—first when Connolly's piece appeared, and then again two weeks later. The Post never published it, but then again, they have some company in that regard. We also sent a version of the letter to the Washington Times in reply to their December 31 piece, "Liar, Liar." In that piece, Jackie Mason and Raoul Felder misstated the facts about Love Story (see THE DAILY HOWLER, 12/31/99). But remember—the press corps tells you the stories it likes. The Times didn't publish it, either:

December 19, 1999

Letters Editor
The Washington Post

RE: First Love Story, Now Love Canal
Ceci Connolly, 12/2/99

To the editor:

On December 2, Ceci Connolly wrote that Vice President Gore had once "mistakenly claimed to have inspired the movie 'Love Story.'" This claim is a favorite of the press corps. I thought you might want to inform your readers of the well-documented facts.

The New York Times' Melinda Henneberger interviewed author Erich Segal for a detailed 12/14/97 report on this matter. Her account of what Segal told her? "The character of the preppy Harvard hockey player Oliver Barrett 4th was modeled on both Mr. Gore and his college roommate, the actor Tommy Lee Jones." For what it's worth, Gore was one of the models for Love Story. That will be news to many readers because of the way the press spins this silly tale.

By the way, did Gore ever claim he "inspired" the movie? Henneberger also interviewed Karen Tumulty of Time and Richard Berke of the New York Times, the only journalists present when Gore discussed this topic. The reporters agreed: Gore only said that he had seen a newspaper story quoting Segal on the subject. Henneberger quoted Tumulty: "He said all I know is that's what [Segal] told reporters in Tennessee." And everyone agrees that there was such a story, in the Nashville Tennessean.

Gore said he saw a newspaper story. Everyone agrees there was such a piece. Segal says Gore was one of the two "models." It's hard to understand why writers like Connolly want to waste time with nonsense like this. But if you're determined to let her do it, is there any chance she could tell the tale right?

Yours truly,

Again, we sent this letter to the Post when the Connolly article appeared, and again two weeks later. The Post had finally published a correction of Connolly's December 1 "Love Canal" misquote. This letter dealt with her December 2 errors concerning Love Story. We figured the Post would want readers to know basic facts. Wrong again, Batman.

Visit our incomparable archives: Enjoy every episode in our long-dormant "x gets it right" series! For last episode, and full prior links, see THE DAILY HOWLER, 4/8/99.