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9 May 2000

Our current howler (part I): Easy as 2 + 5

Synopsis: The Globe’s problem was easy as 2 + 5. So why in the world was it published?

Record shows Gore long embellishing truth
Walter Robinson and Michael Crowley, The Boston Globe, 4/11/00

Commentary by Al Gore
Harvard University Commencement, 6/9/94

Gore makes his candidacy official
David Yepsen, The Des Moines Register, 3/16/99

On April 11, Walter Robinson and Michael Crowley wrote a major article about Vice President Gore for the Boston Globe. They asserted that Gore has "persistently embroidered a political resume and pedigree that shorn of embellishments are impressive by any measure." Why might such embroidery be important? Robinson and Crowley explain:

ROBINSON AND CROWLEY: Earlier fears that Gore would be hobbled by President Clinton's character failings have abated. Now, it is Gore's credibility that could become an issue. Behind the scenes, according to sources, top campaign aides have met to consider the issue's potential for damaging Gore's candidacy. His Republican opponent, Texas Governor Bush, has already telegraphed his plans to attack Gore's credibility.

It sounds like pretty serious stuff, which is why we were struck by one example. Right at the start of their lengthy piece, Robinson and Crowley list Gore's alleged fibs. The scribes include this in a list of statements the veep is alleged to have made:

ROBINSON AND CROWLEY: After his army service, he spent seven years as a journalist...

Plainly, such a claim would be false. By all accounts—there is no dispute—Gore spent five years working for the Nashville Tennessean after he served in the army. Later in their article, Robinson and Crowley return to that seven-year hitch:

ROBINSON: Last March, Gore reasserted his claim to have been a developer and small businessman. And, starting in 1994, Gore has added two years to his journalistic experience, upping the figures from the five years he once claimed to seven.

One might perhaps wonder how trivia like this could be the stuff of a White House campaign. But such issues have dominated national coverage of Gore since impeachment ended in early 1999. Soon after the end of the Senate trial, attention shifted to Gore's coming race, and the notion that Gore had an impulse to embellish, embroider, exaggerate—lie—came whirring from RNC fax machines. It began with the Internet and the "farm chores" debacle; other examples were soon alleged, too. There is no doubt about it—the theme which is raised in this lengthy Globe piece could be decisive in this year's election.

And that is why we were so surprised by the example which Robinson and Crowley cited. Gore has frequently claimed seven years as a scribe, and the numbers are hardly a mystery. Gore spent two years as an army reporter; he then spent five years at the Tennessean. And 2 + 5 = 7, as you almost surely were told early on.

But clearly, Gore did not spend seven years as a journalist after he served in the army. So we asked the Globe's Robinson to let us know where Gore had made such a claim. One of the striking things about the Globe's aggressive piece is the volume of paraphrase which it contains. The authors routinely assert that Gore said x, without giving a quotation or source.

At any rate, Robinson told us to review Gore's speech at the 1994 Harvard commencement (he steered us to According to the text at that site, this is what Gore said in the speech. Gore is discussing the period of time after he graduated from college:

GORE: My personal attitudes toward the career I have chosen changed dramatically during that time. I left Harvard in 1969 disillusioned by what I saw happening in our country and certain of only one thing about my future; I would never, ever go into politics.

After returning from Vietnam and after seven years as a journalist, I rekindled my interest in public service. Yet I believe the same disillusioning forces that for a time drove me away from politics have continued for the country as a whole.

One of those disillusioning forces, of course, has been journalism as practiced at times by the press corps. In 1976, when Gore ran for the Congress, he had in fact returned from Vietnam. And he had in fact spent "seven years as a journalist," in the army and at the Tennessean. In the utterly trivial, fleeting reference in this speech, Gore does not in fact say that he spent seven years as a journalist after Vietnam, as the Globe article attacking his character asserts. Nor does Gore say it in the other source Robinson named, the interview Gore had with the Des Moines Register's David Yepsen in March of 1999. We quote the relevant passage from the article:

YEPSEN: [Bill] Bradley, who played for the National Basketball Association before serving in the Senate, has also said he has broader life experiences than Gore.

Gore replied: "I was not a professional basketball player, that's true. My work experiences were a little less glamorous. I was a small business person, a home builder. I lived on a farm. I was a journalist for seven years. After I got out of college, I volunteered for the Army and went to Vietnam."

The account here, plainly, is not chronological. But Gore didn't tell Yepsen that he worked as a reporter for seven years after the army, either.

The alleged claim by Gore that we are discussing takes up a small part of the lengthy Globe piece. Many statements which the authors attribute to Gore deal with more serious subjects (some do not). But the seven-year claim is mentioned two times, the first time at paragraph three of the article. And this article makes an extremely grave charge against the character of a major public figure—a charge that could affect a presidential election. The notion that the charge could be built out of such silly evidence raises an obvious, serious question. How could the Globe have built such a charge on such trivia, and on such a misreading?

In fact, a set of reports over the next several weeks will show many such puzzlers in the Globe piece—a piece of work that should finally lay current press corps pathology out on the table, for extended review and critique. Nor is this article the only such work we will examine in our long vivisection. The journalism of attack, denigration and distortion has been played out in several major pieces in recent weeks. In our series, we will look at three recent articles in some detail. And we'll revisit major works of attack—and outright deception—dating back to 1997.

In the course of our articles, we'll review claims about Gore and Bush more serious than the one which we have just treated. But in this case, the Globe's error was easy as 2 + 5. So why in the world was it published?


Tomorrow: The Globe piece fumbled a second math problem—and set out a hopeless procedure.