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3 June 1999

Our current howler (part III): Twice-told tale

Synopsis: In a knock-off of a deeply-flawed fund-raising piece, Jill Abramson closely tracked Ceci Connolly.

Al Gore’s Money Problem
Jill Abramson, The New York Times Magazine, 5/9/99

The Gore Machine
Ceci Connolly, The Washington Post Magazine, 4/4/99

In April, we reviewed Ceci Connolly’s deeply flawed piece on the Gore fund-raising “machine” (see THE DAILY HOWLER, 4/20/99, and following articles from 4/21 through 4/23). The piece was riddled with problems from start to finish. But it did express an emerging press theme: Al Gore is in love with Big Money.

And you know what we’ve told you before, Dear Reader: When this press corps gets a story it likes, it tells it again and again. Jill Abramson’s piece in the May 9 Times mag is a striking case in point.

Connolly opened with an image of Gore speaking at a spiffy fund-raiser; Abramson begins the same way. Connolly closed with an image of Gore “racing from event to event on Manhattan’s Upper East Side.” At the end of Abramson’s piece, “Gore’s entourage races to a $1,000-a-head fund-raising luncheon,” then he “dashes off” to two more fund-raisers. (Each writer is amazed to learn that public officials might attend two events in one day.) Especially in a piece that insinuates so much about a public figure’s moral conduct, it is grating to see the degree of similarity exhibited through Abramson’s work. No academic authority anywhere in this nation would accept work so baldly derivative.

But for our purposes, what disturbs us most about Abramson’s piece is that it echoes work so bad to begin with. Connolly’s piece was full of lazy insinuation about the Gore fund-raising “machine.” We won’t hit all the ways that Abramson tracks Connolly--but we will touch a few of the highlights.

Describing Gore as the “$55 million man,” Connolly repeatedly feigned amazement at the “staggering,” “record” sums the Gore camp was raising. Abramson also pretends to be shocked at the dollars involved in Gore’s effort. But like Connolly, she never tells readers that Gore’s principal rival, George W. Bush, is attempting to raise much more money than Gore. Somehow, Gore becomes the Big Money man while Bush raises substantially more money.

As we explained in our review of Connolly, Gore is attempting to raise roughly $31-32 million for primary spending, to be supplemented by roughly $15-16 million in federal matching funds. That would give him the roughly $47 million in spending that will be allowed in this year’s primary season.

Bush, however--as is perfectly legal--is considering turning down matching funds. That would let him spend unlimited sums in the upcoming primary season. As has been clearly explained by Bush campaign leaders, the Bush campaign would have to raise at least $50 million for primary spending for this approach to make any sense. Hence, at the present time, Gore plans to raise $32 million for primary spending; Bush seeks at least 60% more.

As we said when we critiqued Connolly’s work, the Bush camp’s plan is perfectly legal, and the unlimited spending of GOP rival Steve Forbes makes the plan wholly understandable. That still leaves Abramson amazed at Gore’s “record amounts,” while Bush plans to raise 60% more! Throughout her piece, Abramson oohs and aahs at the “staggering” sums Gore hopes to raise between now and next August--while never mentioning that Gov. Bush is hoping to raise so much more.

And Abramson, like Connolly, is willing to insinuate that Gore will break rules for his money. Connolly repeatedly said Gore was “stretching the rules as far as he can,” though she gave absolutely no examples of misconduct. She seemed to say that, because Gore was trying to raise the full amount allowed by the FEC, he thereby was “stretching the rules.”

Abramson’s spin is more detailed. She says Gore and his aides “pay lip service” to the need for finance reform--but provides no evidence that their views aren’t sincere. She then says that, in the absence of new finance rules, they will play by existing rules, “with a vengeance.” Yep--CelebCorps never tires of feigning surprise that candidates play by the rules that exist. But the Gore campaign will do more than that, according to the Times’ skilled insinuist:

ABRAMSON: Candidates who accept Federal matching funds must limit their spending to $33.5 million in the primaries, but there are legal ways to skirt the rules. Money spent on fund-raising and accounting costs does not count toward the limit, and candidates are allowed to establish separate funds for complying with the arcane and complex Federal election laws.

In two paragraphs, Abramson has said that the Gore campaign “pays lip service” to reform, will “play with a vengeance” and is seeking ways “to skirt the rules.” And how will they “skirt the rules,” you ask? They will “skirt the rules” by maintaining funds for lawyers and accountants that federal rules expressly call for! Amazing! First with Connolly and now with Abramson, following the rules the FEC sets is described as “stretching” and “skirting” them!

Abramson manages to go even farther; she implies Something Is Already Wrong. Having described the Gore camp’s self-imposed fund-raising safeguards, she goes on to say this:

ABRAMSON: Still, concedes Gore’s campaign manager, Craig Smith, “No system is going to be perfect.” In fact, there have already been a few glitches. Some suspicious donations that came in money orders may be returned. [Our emphasis]

In other words, the campaign has identified donations that may not be legal, and may end up sending them back. This, of course, is exactly the way a campaign’s procedures should work. But this gloomy Goth press corps could never report that a campaign’s procedures are actually working. Finding a campaign correctly examining donations, Abramson gloomily tells her readers that “glitches have already occurred.”

We’ll spare you the point-by-point review we gave Connolly’s article. But we must repeat one key point. Abramson’s article, like Connolly’s, gives no evidence at all that misconduct has occurred. But her article is a masterwork of contrary spin and insinuation.

One other point should be restated. The central theme of these articles is plain: Al Gore is in love with Big Money. The articles swim in goggle-eyed appreciation of the “record amounts” Gore wants to raise. Abramson never mentions why these are “record amounts”--because the FEC rules have allowed for inflation! The press corps enjoys saying Gore Loves Big Money--and they’ll say it however they can.

But it is deeply misleading to make that claim without saying what we’ve noted above: that Gore is raising considerably less money than his principal rival, Gov. Bush. By all accounts, neither Bush nor Gore has done anything wrong in their fund-raising efforts. We only wish we could say the same about certain campaign finance journalists.

Jill’s notes: We can’t take the time to list all the ways that Abramson’s article tracks Connolly’s. We are amazed by the similarities. Here’s a few more, large and small, that we think are worth pointing out. Don’t miss #4:

  1. The things that man will do! Connolly pretends to be amazed that Gore would “even solicit contributions over the Internet.” Abramson feigns surprise that one of Gore’s college roommates is “even raising money from Gore’s class at Harvard.” Imagine! Even that!

  2. Always quote Fred: Abramson, like Connolly, quotes Fred Wertheimer saying that Gore makes himself “emblematic of the Washington money raising so much money.” Like Connolly, she doesn’t mention in this passage that the amount of money being raised is the amount specified by the FEC. She also doesn’t mention, at any point, that Bush hopes to raise more money than Gore. How does one become the emblem of money by raising less money? Wertheimer doesn’t speak to the point either time, and the authors don’t much seem to care.

  3. Why Bill picked him: Like Connolly, Abramson suggests that Clinton chose Gore for VP in 1992 because of his fund-raising prowess. Neither writer offers a source, and we have seen the claim made nowhere else. For example, in Bob Zelnick’s detailed discussion of why Gore was chosen, he never mentions such a reason.

  4. The main idea: Abramson’s principal claim is that Gore’s facility with fund-raising--“his greatest strength”--“may also prove to be “his greatest vulnerability.” Connolly offered the exact same construction, supported with slightly different reasoning:

    CONNOLLY (April): [W]hen it comes to fund-raising, no player on the national scene has excelled like the vice president...But Gore’s greatest strength could also prove to be his greatest vulnerability.

    ABRAMSON (May): Gore’s facility with total-immersion fund-raising, then, may be his greatest strength. Yet it may also prove to be his greatest vulnerability.

  5. Pick a number, any number: Abramson says that Gore “intends to raise a staggering $55 million” before the Democratic convention. The number first appeared in Connolly’s piece; to get it, Connolly took the $47 million allowed for primary spending, then added on an $8 million fund (the GELAC fund) that campaigns are allowed to collect for possible later fines and penalties. We’ve seen this gimmicked-up figure nowhere else. For the record, the Post does not add on the GELAC fund in defining the Bush campaign’s goals. The Post routinely says Bush hopes to raise $50 million to avoid the spending limits that go with matching funds. It is clear this plan would make no sense if the GELAC fund were included in that total. (We note again what we have said above: we do not intend to imply, in any way, that the Bush campaign has done anything wrong in its fund-raising goals or procedures.)