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10 May 2000

Our current howler (part II): Method reporters

Synopsis: Twelve years ago, on one occasion, Dukakis said Gore bungled facts.

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

Bush Calls for Personal Responsibility...for Others
Al Hunt, The Wall Street Journal, 5/4/00

Dukakis rips Gephardt, Gore in debate
David Broder and Paul Taylor, The Washington Post, 2/28/88

Sen. Gore rebukes rivals in debate on war and peace
Bill Peterson, The Washington Post, 9/28/87

The fact is—and it's a trivial fact—Al Gore did spend seven years as a reporter after his college graduation. He spent two years as an army reporter, and five more at the Nashville Tennessean. That takes us up to 1976, when Gore ran for and was elected to Congress. There's no big mystery about those numbers. Who understands them? Every writer in town.

But Robinson and Crowley seem completely befuddled by that utterly opaque set of numbers. Once again, here's the second passage in their Globe piece which they devote to this vexing affair:

ROBINSON AND CROWLEY: Last March, Gore asserted 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 figure from the five years he once claimed to seven.

Gore did have seven years of "journalistic experience," as the writers must surely have known (five of them at the Tennessean). But in their article, they never give the slightest sign that they know where those two numbers come from. The Globe's misused readers are left in the dark; they had no way of knowing why Gore may have referred to five years of reporting in one context, and seven years in another. For all that Robinson and Crowley let on, the two numbers—five and seven—were simply made up. And not only that: Globe readers were told, in paragraph 3 of this piece, that Gore had claimed seven years of reporting "after his army service." The statements we were referred to don't say that at all—unless you're determined to make them (see THE DAILY HOWLER, 5/9/00).

But so it's gone in the political press as the attack on Gore's character has proceeded. As we'll see in the weeks to come, this attack began in March of last year, with a set of utterly bogus claims sent out from the RNC. But reporters have shown a strong desire to torture Big Scandal from the simplest situations. Character attacks have been driven by bogus claims—on matters as easy as 2 + 5.

How many errors are in the Globe piece? The Globe piece is riddled with errors—with passages in which the simplest facts are tortured to produce Great Big Problems. And Robinson and Crowley show no awareness of the groaning flaw with the method they employ. They pore over Gore's past statements and ads in a way they devote to no one else. Here is what they write early on about the way their examination proceeded:

ROBINSON AND CROWLEY: Many of Gore's inflated claims have been reported, although only a few prominently. But a review by the Globe of Gore's public statements over more than 20 years, as well as two recent biographies, suggest that the pattern has been more pronounced than previously believed, and that it remains unchecked.

For the record, if there's one thing we do believe about this article, we do believe what its authors say here. We do believe that its authors have gone through volumes of statements by and about Gore, praying they would turn up some problems.

But then, writers stumped by 2 + 5 might also be stumped by another math problem. Here it is: If we examine more than 20 years of speeches and ads from one candidate; and if we examine no years of speeches and ads from other candidates; which candidate may end up with more misstatements? Robinson and Crowley show almost no sign of seeing the problem built into their hopeless procedure. Here is their effort at balance:

ROBINSON AND CROWLEY: Many political candidates portray themselves as more effective or courageous than the facts justify and paint their opponents in the worst possible light.

For example, Bush has made claims about his gubernatorial record that are open to challenge. To cite one case, Bush takes credit for a major HMO reform in Texas. In fact, he opposed the bill and it became law without his signature. And during the New York primary, Bush's campaign ran an advertisement that falsely characterized Senator John McCain's record on breast cancer research. Bush narrowly won the election.

Those two examples about Governor Bush counter twenty-plus years worth of research on Gore. The authors show no sign of curiosity about what a similar examination of Bush might produce. (We don't—do not—recommend it.) In suggesting that Gore is more prone to misstatement, had the authors considered another recent incident involving Bush, for example? We quote Al Hunt on May 4:

HUNT: An Agriculture Department report found that Texas, more than most states, is plagued by hunger. 13% of Texans are unable to get basic food needs and 5% suffer from hunger. Mr. Bush said he didn't know of anyone going hungry in Texas. "You'd think the governor would have heard if there were pockets of poverty in Texas." He neglected to mention that several years earlier he vetoed a bill that would have collected data on hunger in the state.

How much of this might the authors find if they scoured through Governor Bush's entire life? To state the obvious, there is no way to know. It has never seemed to us that Governor Bush is any less honest than other major pols. But Robinson and Crowley show no sign of seeing the groaning problem built into their hapless procedure.

Indeed, failing to examine any other pol, they pore over ancient statements by Gore, praying the gods may answer their prayers and send them some sort of a problem. Tomorrow, we'll start to look at the major ways they distort their subject's basic bio. But in the meantime, just how silly can it get when writers have a theme they may wish to confirm? In this Globe piece, it can get pretty silly. Going back twelve years to the 1988 White House race, the authors shake us to the core when they offer these startling revelations:

ROBINSON AND CROWLEY: In the 1988 presidential campaign, then-Massachusetts Governor Michael S. Dukakis, needled once too often by Gore, upbraided him during a debate: "Please get your facts straight. If you want to be president of the United States, you better start by being accurate." Another candidate, former Senator Paul Simon, scolded Gore during another debate for making "sweeping charges."

Consider: We're told that twelve years ago, on two occasions, political opponents rebuked Gore in debates. (We note: Only one of the occasions the authors cite involves alleged factual error.) Two occasions! As Dukakis recently reminded a national TV audience, the Democratic hopefuls debated over forty times in the 1987-88 election cycle. Nor was it really all that rare for one Dem to upbraid another. Washington Post archives—easily searched—reveal endless squabbling among the "talk-weary Democrats." And Dukakis, despite his later reputation, could lick any man in the house. Example: On February 28, David Broder reported a debate in Atlanta. The Duke went after rival Dick Gephardt for his vote on the Reagan tax plan:

BRODER AND TAYLOR: Gephardt responded, "Your kind of stance on taxes in Massachusetts is one that raises taxes on ordinary, average middle-income families."

"I've cut taxes five times in the last four years," Dukakis protested.

"But you raised taxes about 10 times," Gephardt shot back.

"You know I haven't raised taxes," Dukakis said, never yielding the floor. "All I want to know is are you proud of that vote?"

In this snippet, Dukakis accuses Gephardt of misstating facts. In truth, everyone was accused of misstating facts at various times in the Democratic debates. If the Globe's "evidence" shows Gore is inclined to lie, then so too, it seems, is Dick Gephardt.

What could make a pair of reporters cite such ridiculous "evidence?" We can't say, but the Globe's presentation here is utterly worthless—except as a piece of propaganda. No one could seriously claim that this pointless item is "evidence" of the authors' serious charge. So we ask again what we've asked before: Why was this utterly worthless anecdote ever printed by the Globe in the first place?

One final note: the quoted incident seems to have occurred in a debate in Des Moines (9/27/87). Bill Peterson wrote it up in the Post:

PETERSON: Gore accused Dukakis of advocating the withdrawal of U.S. troops from South Korea and moving them to Japan. A frustrated Dukakis denied the charge, tartly saying Gore "ought to get your facts straight."

But who was right in this exchange? Who did have the facts straight—Gore or Dukakis? We don't have the slightest idea, but Peterson, typing further, said this:

PETERSON (continuing directly): Dukakis said he had called for the withdrawal of military aid to dictatorships in South Korea and elsewhere as a way to push for human rights.

"I didn't spend 16 months of my life in Korea so a military dictator could deny human rights to the Korean people," said Dukakis, who served in Korea in the mid-1950s.

It doesn't sound like Gore was wrong on the facts—or if he was wrong, he wasn't off by too much. But Crowley and Robinson don't say who was right—they never evaluate Dukakis' charge! They're content to retype the twelve-year old charge as "evidence" that Gore is an uncommon liar. Dukakis snapped at many Dems in the debates that made the hopefuls "talk-weary." But one instance is pulled out and placed in the Globe—and we see the nonsense which now passes for "method" in the press corps' destructive pathology.


Thursday: Gore fibbed about where he went to school, the Globe said. But the evidence says something quite different.