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19 May 2000

Our current howler (part IV): Say the magic word

Synopsis: Keating said a slick magic word when he claimed that a Gore ad was false.

Commentary by Peter Keating
The O'Reilly Factor, Fox News Channel, 4/27/00

Will the Biggest Liar Win?
Peter Keating, George, 5/00


We have no doubt that Peter Keating is an excellent guy with excellent motives; we saw him on The O'Reilly Factor, and it was obvious to us that he's sincere. But we were struck by one other thing that night—by the kinds of short cuts scribes can take when they want to call people Big Liars. Early on, O'Reilly questioned Keating about Bush's breast cancer ads, saying, "The Bush campaign says it didn't technically lie...You say it's a lie, or a distortion?" We were somewhat surprised by the answer:

KEATING: We're saying it was an exaggeration, a distortion. We're also saying when lies come out, someone should be calling them lies...

We are? We're saying it was just "a distortion?" Keating's article is titled "Will the biggest liar win?" The words "BIGGEST LIAR" are emblazoned across Bush's chest on the cover. The breast cancer example—described as a "false charge"—is the example with which the article begins. And when O'Reilly asked Keating for his "best guns against the governor," this was the item which Keating brought up. We were a bit surprised to hear Keating say that he wasn't prepared to call it a lie. But then he described an "outright" lie. Except oops—Bush himself hadn't said it:

KEATING (continuing directly): I'll give you an example of outright lies told by third parties in South Carolina who Bush refused to—

O'Reilly interrupted there, challenging the fairness of blaming Bush for what others may have said. O'Reilly asked, How can he know what they're gonna say? So Keating addressed that issue:

KEATING: Knowing whether they know or don't know beforehand is a separate issue. If there's any coordination between campaigns and third parties, that's a violation of federal law. I'm not talking about felonies. I'm talking about when someone comes to a candidate and says, "Here's what's been said on your behalf," they have an obligation to react to it and the veracity of it or not.

But who had said anything "on Bush's behalf?" When the Wylys ran their ads in New York, for example, they didn't claim to be speaking on behalf of Bush. Are candidates really supposed to get "off message" to evaluate claims that supporters make? We find the thought odd, but odder yet, Keating couldn't seem to name a single "lie" that Bush had told himself. Why then was Bush the "biggest liar" since before FDR? Apparently because he didn't speak up when someone else had said something which seemed false.

Keating's article repeatedly called Bush a liar. Pressed, he couldn't cite a case. Depending on how the wind was blowing, a politician would simply get nailed to the wall for a squishy performance like that. But the celebrity press corps bumbles along, slandering pols at their leisure. Perhaps feeling stymied on the Bush front, Keating suddenly switched to Gore. His abrupt transition didn't make any sense, and his examples didn't get any better:

KEATING (continuing directly): the veracity of it or not. I'll give you an example. When Al Gore went around saying, repeatedly, the Bill Bradley health care reform plan would offer people $150 a month in health care vouchers. The amount wasn't $150 a month, and it didn't include vouchers.

"The amount wasn't $150 a month?" That amount was repeatedly cited by Gore in debates, with Bradley standing right there. Bradley never challenged the amount itself; he merely pointed out that the $150 was an average, not a uniform, benefit—some states would get more, some states would get less, depending on local health costs. As for Keating's point about "vouchers," we saw yesterday that the wordsmith prefers the term "benefits" (see THE DAILY HOWLER, 5/18/00.) To this, and to other claims as silly and trivial, Keating turned when he couldn't nail Bush.

Every American ought to be outraged that nonsense like this is paraded around, cited as evidence that two public figures have serious character problems. It's amazing to think that two public figures can be called "BIGGEST LIAR" on a magazine cover, and this is the best the author can do by way of providing examples. Lyndon Johnson, we're told, was less at fault when he lied the country into Vietnam!! But so it goes when our press corps, with its gruesome pathology, sets out to turn pols into liars.

But there was one particular moment in Keating's appearance that really did catch our attention. Keating breathed a magic word into the middle of one complaint:

KEATING: The first ad of the campaign ad was a Bush ad attacking Clinton and Gore on education. Gore counter-attacked, but in the counter-attack he went again too far with exaggeration, saying that under Bush in Texas there were allegations of wrong-doing in the education system. There were allegations of criminal wrong-doing in one district out of more than 1200 in the state.

It wasn't Bill O'Reilly's fault. O'Reilly reacted as anyone would when presented with such an example:

O'REILLY: Ha! The Truth Police doesn't like that...One out of 1200 districts, but he'll seize upon the one.

Viewers were given a clear impression: Gore was inventing again.

But did you see the magic word smuggled in? The magic word was "criminal." It's the magic word that let's you pretend that something is wrong with Gore's claim. Gore's ads never claimed there were "criminal" allegations, a fact that Keating knows perfectly well (see postscript). But the Gore ad was referring to, yes, "allegations of wrong-doing" in the Texas educational system—allegations that are fully worthy of significant public review.

The truth is, there have been substantial allegations of wrong-doing and error in the Texas accountability systems. Major articles on the subject have recently appeared in the Sacramento Bee, the Baltimore Sun, the Washington Post, the New Republic, and the Dallas Morning News, among others. Among the topics that have been discussed: Significant in-school cheating incidents have been reported in Dallas, Austin, and Houston. A 1996 study by the Rand Corporation threw claims of minority student progress into doubt. Claims have been made that test scores are rising because the state-authored TAAS tests have been made much easier. The percentage of low-achieving students omitted from testing has risen substantially in recent years (this too pushes scores up). None of this means that Governor Bush has engaged in any inappropriate conduct. But the issues raised about the Texas schools—whose test scores Bush has frequently touted—are issues that have popped up around the country time and again in the past several decades. It would be a substantial gain for the public interest if this year's campaign produced a review of these issues. We first discussed such testing issues in the Baltimore Sun in 1981. (Note: We do not think it's reasonable to expect a governor to be conversant with these issues.)

In recent months, Jonathan Weisman has performed a valuable service, writing articles discussing these important issues for the Sun and for TNR. Peter Keating could also have done something useful with the space he was given in George. Instead, he wrote a silly article claiming that Bush and Gore were the biggest liars since before FDR. And when he went on TV, he smuggled in a word to make it sound as if a Gore ad was lying. There's a brand new word for this silly conduct—a word that scribes themselves have coined. The word for this trick? It's "Clintonesque." It's a trait scribes insist they don't like.

But so it goes when the modern press corps sets out to turn pols into liars. A strange pathology infests the corps, and is corrupting it straight to the bone. Peter Keating called Bush and Gore Big Liars—and he couldn't come up with a single example. It's been going on like this for more than a year—which takes us back to the work in the Globe.

 

Next week: In January, the Globe was struggling with Gore-on-abortion—and misstated iconic Gore Lore.

Let's open to page 57, boys and girls: In his George article, Keating takes the same approach to Gore's ad about Texas education. Boo-hooing about what those rough men have said, Keating plays the victim again:

KEATING (in George): The mud's already flowing. The very first televised ad of the election was a Bush spot on March 17 attacking the Clinton-Gore record on education. It took Gore less than two days to launch a counter-attack—complete with a gross distortion. Gore's ad said that education in Texas is marred by "an accountability system so full of cheating it is under investigation." The truth: There are allegations of criminal data manipulation in precisely one Texas school district—out of 1,229 in the state. And so the Bush vs. Gore campaign had begun—with a negative TV attack and a misleading response.

There is no reason on earth—none at all—why Bush shouldn't criticize Clinton-Gore on education. (The word "attack" is another beloved magic word, widely used by the Manners Police.) And there is nothing Gore has ever said on this topic that is as "misleading" as Keating's other magic word. Gore's ad says nothing—not a word—about "criminal" conduct in Texas school districts. But so it goes when our modern press corps acts out its destructive pathology.