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24 May 2000

Our current howler (part II): Same old "Story"

Synopsis: Robinson and Scales fumbled Gore on abortion--and misstated a much-Loved old Story.

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

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

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

It's heresy to say so, but as New Hampshire approached, Bill Bradley engaged in a bit of distortion. According to Bradley, Gore had said that he'd "always supported abortion rights" at their 1/26 debate; that was untrue, Bradley complained, because of Gore's votes against federal funding. At the actual debate, of course, Gore had explicitly cited those votes; Gore had said (1) he'd always supported "the right to choose," and (2) he'd voted against federal funding (see THE DAILY HOWLER, 5/22/00). The distinction is easy as easy can be, but Bradley suddenly found it confusing, and he called the veep a Great Big Liar all over the state of New Hampshire. Normally, you'd expect major papers to straighten this out, but Boston Globe writers were also befuddled. For three solid days, they garbled Gore's statement. Just how bad did the muddle get? Again, read Kranish and Zuckman:

KRANISH AND ZUCKMAN (1/30): But Gore, who said in Wednesday's [1/26] debate that he has always supported abortion rights, conceded in an interview yesterday that his position on federal funding of abortions, which he had opposed, has evolved.

That, friends, is grisly writing. The pair made it sound like they had wrung a "concession" from Gore three days post-debate. Gore had cited his funding votes at the debate. Writing like this should earn hopeless scribes one-way tickets to other professions.

No doubt about it. If Walter Robinson had wanted to scrutinize someone's veracity, he could have started with Kranish and Zuckman. But with Globe reports echoing Bradley spin, Robinson and Scales penned a page-one report examining Gore's "veracity." Most of the themes of Robinson's 4/11 piece first appeared in this shorter effort. But before the writers could get to those themes, they bungled the abortion flap too:

ROBINSON AND SCALES (1/28) (paragraph 2): Several times during the [Wednesday] debate, and again yesterday, Gore insisted that he has always supported both a woman's right to choose and Roe v. Wade, the 1978 Supreme Court decision that ensured that right.

(3) But Bradley's campaign asserted yesterday that on Wednesday night alone, Gore made several misstatements of fact, and not just on abortion...

What were the alleged misstatements on abortion? In the next paragraph, the writers cited one:

ROBINSON AND SCALES (1/28) (4): In 1984, Gore also supported an amendment to a civil rights bill that would, in one clause, have redefined the term "person" to include "unborn children from the moment of conception." The amendment failed, but the National Abortion Rights Action League at the time said its effect would have been to end federal funding for hospitals that perform abortion.

Exactly. The vote was about federal funding, which Gore had acknowledged opposing—not that you'd know it from Robinson's account of what Gore said at the debate. In paragraph 3, Robinson also cited Gore's vote on the 1977 Hyde Amendment. And what had that vote been about? The Globe had explained it, easy as pie, the morning after the Wednesday debate:

HOHLER AND ZUCKMAN (1/27): Gore did cast a number of votes against federal funding for abortions. According to a summary of Gore's abortion voting record in a recent biography by Bob Zelnick, Gore, in 1977, his first year in Congress, voted for an amendment offered by Representative Henry Hyde, the Illinois Republican, that banned spending federal funds on abortions unless necessary to save the life of the mother.

On the morning after, it was all so simple. The Globe explained that the Hyde vote also concerned federal funding—which Gore had explicitly said he'd opposed.

Let's put it charitably: The Boston Globe was not to place to learn what Gore said on abortion. For three solid days, the paper fumbled and bumbled, misleading readers on the serious charges involved. Robinson and Scales, after fumbling abortion, then took a broad look at Gore's "veracity." And sure enough—you knew it would happen—some old icons of Gore Lore came up.

Bradley's "direct assault on Gore's integrity" was raising old concerns, the pair told readers. The assault echoed "longstanding concerns" that Gore is inclined to "embellish facts to burnish his resume:"

ROBINSON AND SCALES (1/28) (7): 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 for the movie "Love Story," only to be contradicted by author Erich Segal. Last month, in a lengthy profile in the Washington Post, Gore acknowledged his memory had failed him when he once said that Hubert H. Humphrey used some of Gore's wording in his 1968 acceptance speech at the Democratic National Convention in Chicago.

The third item may be unfamiliar—it's a murky affair which the Post reported in a December 27 profile. The incident is a bit hard to evaluate; the profile containing the anecdote was "lengthy," but the account of the incident was fairly brief. But the first two items Robinson cites are gold standard samples of iconic Gore Lore. "Inventing the Internet" and "inspiring Love Story" are two of the treasured, most familiar examples of how Gore is alleged to deceive.

And that's why the writing of Robinson and Scales is so especially striking. Look at their time frame above, for example. In paragraph 7, they start with the phrase "since early last year," then list their three examples. But only one of the three incidents had actually happened "since early last year." Gore's Love Story comment occurred in 1997—although a reader of this passage would surely think different—and they place no time frame on the incident involving Hubert Humphrey (the time frame is not defined in the Post article). Did they perhaps mean that Gore had been making the Internet claim "since last year?" Gore made the Internet comment on one occasion, in March 1999. Plainly, this paragraph suggests that Gore has made many odd statements "since early last year," but that suggestion is baldly misleading. Do professional writers really write this poorly? Or do these writers intend to mislead? This is the way the passage would read if the writers had written it straight:

REWRITE (1/28): Last March, for example, Gore said, without foundation, that he created the Internet. In 1997, he also said that he and his wife Tipper were the models for the movie "Love Story"...

Suddenly, it doesn't sound like such a big deal—when the passage is rewritten straight.

And the time frame is only the start of it. To be honest, it's hard to trust the writers' good faith when one sees how poorly this passage is executed. The writers say Gore's Internet statement was made "without foundation," but many Internet founders and pioneers subsequently attested to Gore's influential work in developing (yes, "creating") the Net. Meanwhile, the writers' paraphrase of what Gore actually said is like something from a Dick-and-Jane primer. Can this possibly be a good faith effort to evaluate a serious charge about character?

But Love Story is the matter that caught our eye when we first read this passage last winter. The writers make two standard statements. Gore claimed that he and Tipper were the models for Love Story, they say. And they say that Gore was contradicted by the book's author, Erich Segal. However familiar, both claims are false, plainly false on the record since 1997. That such a trivial matter has so captured the press corps tells us something about their puzzling perspective. But when writers like Robinson are still wrong on the facts, several years after the record was clarified, that tells us something about the pathology now infecting our troubled public discourse.

Tomorrow: False—simply false.