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22 May 2000

Our current howler (part I): Easy as easy can be

Synopsis: The distinction was easy as easy can be. In New Hampshire, it baffled Globe writers.

Commentary by Gloria Borger
Washington Week in Review, PBS, 5/19/00

Bradley questions Gore's integrity
Bob Hohler and Jill Zuckman, The Boston Globe, 1/27/00

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

Bradley steps up attacks as Gore quietly plays the front-runner
Jill Zuckman and Bob Hohler, The Boston Globe, 1/29/00

Democrats debate abortion; Bush senior campaigns
Michael Kranish and Jill Zuckman, The Boston Globe, 1/30/00

The distinction is easy as easy can be—when the press isn't chasing a pol. Last Friday, Gloria Borger profiled Rick Lazio on Washington Week in Review:

BORGER: He's a very popular congressman from Long Island, elected in 1992...[The Republicans] portray him as a moderate Republican. He is pro-choice, for example, although he is against federal funding for abortion...

The distinction is hopelessly simple. (1) Rep. Lazio is pro-choice on abortion. (2) He's also against federal funding. No one on the PBS panel interrupted Borger to ask what she meant. If there's an easier distinction on earth to explain, we'd like to know what it could be.

But back in New Hampshire, leading up to the primary, Bill Bradley was calling Al Gore a Big Liar, and the excitable press corps, thrilled with the chase, was suddenly confused by this concept. In a Durham (N.H.) debate on January 26, Gore described his record on abortion. Gore said he had "always supported Roe v. Wade" (and "a woman's right to choose"), but at one time had opposed federal funding. With Bradley aggressively challenging his honesty, Gore said it again the next day, on a talk show:

ROBINSON AND SCALES (1/28): The first caller, a woman who said she watched the debate, declared, "I understand if you've changed your position during your career. I'm just having a hard...I don't know how I can support your candidacy if you're dishonest about such an important subject, and especially on national television."

Gore reassured the woman, saying he had always supported Roe v. Wade, though he noted that "sometimes early in my career I voted to restrict federal funding of abortions." Nonetheless, he said, "I've always supported Roe v. Wade. I've always supported keeping abortions legal..."

The caller told the moderator that she was satisfied with Gore's response. [Globe's ellipses]

Again, the matter could not have been simpler. Gore had supported Roe v. Wade, he said, but had voted against federal funding. It was the same distinction which Borger stated so easily last Friday night.

But it doesn't matter how simple a distinction may be. When the modern press corps goes on a tear, ripping up a hopeful's character, there is no distinction so groaningly simple that pundits won't feign Big Confusion. In the paragraph immediately following those which we've quoted, Robinson and Scales referred to Gore's "puzzling metamorphosis on abortion," and Gore's presentation was soon creating confusion all over the Globe. Here, for example, are Jill Zuckman and Bob Hohler, in a page one story on January 29:

ZUCKMAN AND HOHLER (1/29) (paragraph 2): Campaigning on the western side of the state yesterday, Bradley all but called Gore a liar, and invited comparisons between the vice president and former president Richard M. Nixon. Bradley also took to the airwaves with a scorching new ad attacking Gore's claim, in Wednesday's debate, to have always supported abortion rights.

But Gore didn't say he'd always supported "abortion rights" (which might be taken to include federal funding). Gore said that (1) he'd always supported the right to choose, but (2) had voted against federal funding. What difference could the Globe's paraphrase make? The writers soon offered a longer account which muddled what Gore had said:

ZUCKMAN AND HOHLER (1/29) (13): Gore, Bradley says, has been...disingenuous about his history of support for abortion rights.

(14) Gore, at the Wednesday debate, said he has "always" supported Roe v. Wade, the decision that created the federal right to abortion.

(15) But Gore, early in his career, voted several times on bills designed to bar federal funding of abortions...

(16) Gore, however, years ago amended his stance, and now supports abortion rights across the board, including federal funding for abortion.

Remarkable, isn't it? Gore had specifically said that he'd voted against funding. But this fact was now dropped from the Globe's account of the Wednesday debate, and the impression was given that Gore's votes on funding may have contradicted what he'd said at the forum. The grisly writing continued the next day in a page-one story by Zuckman and Michael Kranish. Once again, the writers omitted Gore's statement on funding from their account of the Wednesday debate:

KRANISH AND ZUCKMAN (1/30) (paragraph 5): Gore, who said in Wednesday's debate that he has always supported abortion rights, conceded in an interview yesterday that his position on federal funding of abortion, which he initially opposed in Congress, has "evolved."

In this passage, it seems that Gore's statement on federal funding came several days after the debate. And the writers, adding to the fun, had already baldly misquoted an old Gore letter:

KRANISH AND ZUCKMAN (1/30) (4): The abortion issue continued yesterday to be the top issue between the Democrats. Bradley again attacked Gore for having said as a congressman in 1987 that abortion was "the taking of a human life," while Gore insisted that he is strongly in favor of abortion rights. Bradley's attack was intended to raise questions about Gore's overall credibility.

It sure was. And through simple incompetence or love of the chase, the Globe team was playing along. Gore had not said, in the 1987 letter, that abortion was "the taking of a human life." He had said it was "arguably the taking of a human life"—that a reasonable person could so believe. The Globe writers dropped the word of qualification, increasing the effect of their insinuation. (Incredibly, when Gore was quoted, later in the article, correcting the writers on what he had said, Kranish and Zuckman complained that Gore "seemed to choose his words carefully." It's a flaw they might well learn to emulate.)

One final note on the Globe-on-abortion: Kranish and Zuckman's critique of Gore's old letter was based on another stone-simple confusion. Suppose Gore had said, in 1987, that abortion was "the taking of a human life?" What on earth would that have to do with whether he supported "a woman's right to choose?" Being pro-choice means the woman gets to choose, whatever the pol's private views may be. Many pols disapprove of abortion but are still pro-choice (Rep. Lazio, dear readers, is one of them). It's the simplest distinction in abortion politics; every political writer knows it. Until, that is, the desire to attack an Official Approved Target comes on.

The distortions we saw in the Globe's April 11 piece weren't the first we had seen in the Globe this year. The impulse to improve basic facts had run wild in the paper in January. Case in point: On January 28, Walter Robinson and Ann Scales did an early assessment of Gore's "veracity." And in the excitement, it was bound to happen; Robinson and Scales penned the latest misstatement of a bit of iconic Gore Lore.


Tomorrow: Robinson and Scales fumbled abortion—and they raised a familiar old tale.

The morning after? Easy as easy can be: Here's how the Globe described Gore's remarks the morning after the 1/26 debate:

HOHLER AND ZUCKMAN (1/27): Gore, however, repeatedly told Bradley that he has "always" supported the right of women to choose abortion, though he conceded that earlier in his political career he opposed federal funds being used to pay for abortions.

The morning after the Dems' debate, it was easy as easy can be. Hohler and Zuckman clearly stated what Gore said about his past votes on funding. But after that, for three straight days, Globe readers got garbled and misleading accounts. Globe readers were never again told that Gore had stated at the debate that he had once "opposed federal funds being used to pay for abortions." Instead, for three straight days, Globe reporting implied that Gore's past votes on federal funding may have contradicted what he'd said at the debate. It made it seem that Gore had been dishonest—just as Saint Bradley was saying. Was that simple incompetence on the part of the scribes, or were the writers off on a mission? That, of course, we cannot say. But the work was typical of the kind of work that derives from the press corps' pathology.