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26 July 2000

Our current howler (part II): Spotting a cop

Synopsis: Carlson said Russert tried to "prosecute" Gore. It’s not hard to see why she said it.

Commentary by Tim Russert, Vice President Al Gore
Meet the Press, NBC, 7/16/00

Investigate Al Gore, again
Editorial, The Washington Times, 7/13/00

After 8 Years in Office, Unfamiliar in Michigan
Katharine Seelye, The New York Times, 7/15/00

It's disappointing, but when Russert began his session with Gore, he borrowed some shtick from "Kit" Seelye. He opened up with a question posed at a recent Gore town hall event:

RUSSERT: Important campaign coming up, a lot of very important issues. You were in Saginaw, Michigan, on Thursday night.
GORE: Yeah.
RUSSERT: And for three hours, took real questions from real people.
GORE: Yep.
RUSSERT: I'd like to play one of those questions from Sheila Redman and a portion of your response and give you a chance to talk about it:

Hay-yo! You know how thatold game is played! Reporter sifts through three hours of questions, waiting for someone to be stupid or rude. (Seelye said it was three and a halfhours.) Then he builds his story or interview around that one thrilling question. Seelye began her July 15 story with the question which Redman asked Gore. Russert now played it on tape:

Town hall meeting, on tape:
REDMAN: I feel kind of bad in asking this, but I have to.
GORE: Yeah.
REDMAN: Where have you been for the past eight years?
GORE: Good question. Thank you. Thank you. The job of vice president is a mixed blessing. But you may not always notice that guy. And if you do, he may be just standing there stiffly behind the president, not saying a word. Well, when you—is it like the woman behind the man?

That's where Russert's tape cut off. Gore was midway through his reply. "What were you trying to say?" Russert imploringly asked.

The Redman question, of course, was a twofer. Not only did Redman ask an embarrassing question, but Gore seemed to make an odd comment. In explanation, Gore told Russert what he may have known—Redman had added the "is it like the woman behind the man" remark, although the mike didn't pick her words up. Gore was repeating what Redman had said. Gore than gave Russert a standard riff about what it's like to serve as vice president.

Russert pointed to absolutely nothing of interest about the Redman question. As soon as Gore explained the "woman" remark, he moved on to a different topic. Had Russert thought that the Gore-Redman exchange was so important that it really needed to open the program? Or had he simply decided to open things up with a question that maybe made Gore look silly?

To state the obvious, we have no idea about big honchos' motives. But picking out an embarrassing question—and running it right at the start of your show—that's exactly the way a host would act if he were trying to be, say, a "prosecutor." And that's the word that came to mind when Margaret Carlson watched Russert quiz Gore. She approvingly told Imus that Russert had indeed been a "prosecutor," "and he did a very good job," Carlson said. Russert "chopped him up into little pieces" (see THE DAILY HOWLER, 7/25/00). And Bill Sammon had seen it pretty much the same way. Until Russert made a mistake in asking one question, he "had been brilliantly pummeling this guy all morning," the scribe said on Special Report.

Sorry. We don't think that scribes should prosecute pols—and our reasons for thinking that were on display all through the Russert-Gore Meet the Press. From beginning to end, Russert's performance was riddled with errors—errors which tended to "prosecute" Gore, if we could use Carlson's term of art. He misstated what Gore had said about an important fund-raising matter. He spun a court ruling on Elian Gonzalez. His presentation of the Hsi Lai temple was—can we talk?—just this side of malpractice. He interrupted Gore freely throughout the session; one almost wished that Alan Keyes would once again appear to accuse Russert of running for office (see THE DAILY HOWLER, 1/17/00). He asked lightweight questions on sensitive topics—the kind students ask in their dorm rooms, Carlson said. He baldly misstated Gore's Social Security proposal. He created a jumbled, confusing discussion about Gore's record on abortion. As we saw yesterday, he raised an embarrassing old tale about a Gore "barnyard epithet"—without saying that five solid years have now passed, and there's no evidence the event ever happened (see THE DAILY HOWLER, 7/25/00). He played a little word game about "White House coffees." There was barely a topic which Russert raised in which the discussion wasn't burdened with spin. He even came up with a question which was "silly," "oddball" and "trivial," Marjorie Williams reported.

Williams called Russert "too well-prepared" (see THE DAILY HOWLER, 7/21/00). We wonder what show she was watching. Minor example: At one point, discussing a serious issue of character, Russert oddly said this:

RUSSERT: The other issue was your raising money at the White House. The attorney general said it was soft money; therefore, it was OK. Others insist, "No, it was hard money, real money for the campaign." Leon Panetta gave testimony that you were very focused on the documents, you looked at the documents, that, uh—You then told The New York Times that, in fact, sometimes you drank a lot of iced tea and had to excuse yourself for the rest room.

He "told the New York Times?" Gore's iced-tea comment has been aggressively spun, most absurdly by the Washington Times, but no one till now has ever suggested that Gore made his remark to a newspaper! As Gore explained to Russert, his remark was in response to questions he was asked by FBI agents. The agents asked Gore, as would be routine, if he had left the room during the meetings in question. Respondents must answer such questions. But this is how far the clown-like spinning has gone at the Washington Times:

THE WASHINGTON TIMES: In one interview, [Gore] contemptuously told investigators that an excessive amount of iced-tea consumption required him to visit the rest room at the very moment the agenda of the meeting turned to discussion of the need to raise regulated hard money...

There is no evidence that Gore ever said any such thing; the Times' misled readers are being handed burlesque. But even the Times, in its silly spinning, knew Gore's statement had been made to investigators. Only Russert, "too well-prepared," somehow thought Gore had made his remarks to a newspaper. If that's the mark of good preparation, the corps' standards are even lower than we thought.

Russert's comments about the tea were essentially harmless (if a bit hard to fathom). But other segments of the interview help explain why Carlson saw it as a "prosecution." Carlson praised Russert for playing Javert; we don't think that's a journalist's role. But it's easy to see why Carlson said what she did. Tomorrow, we'll scan some examples.

Tomorrow: Was Russert playing dumb about Hsi Lai? How about with Gore's stand on SS?


The Daily update (7/26/00)

Missing information: Senator Danforth appeared on last Friday's NewsHour, discussing his conclusions on the Waco disaster. This was the very first Q & A:

LEHRER: Your conclusion on the question about whether or not agents killed people. Your answer is no, is that correct, sir?

DANFORTH: My answer is no and it's an absolutely clear answer. As I said today, I state it with 100 percent certainty. There is no question about it. There is no evidence of gunfire by federal agents that morning. There is absolutely no evidence that the government officials started the fire. By contrast, David Koresh and his followers spread fuel throughout the complex, lit it on fire. And that was the cause of the tragedy; moreover, the Branch Davidians killed about 20 of their own people execution style mainly by shooting them in the head.

Incredibly, there is information in that Q & A that never appeared in the Washington Post or the New York Times. In both papers' page-one stories, two of Danforth's conclusions were never mentioned—that Davidians deliberately started the fire, and that they killed about twenty of their own members. Jerry Seper, of the Washington Times, did quote Danforth on those topics. He delivered the news early on:

SEPER (paragraph 4): "The tragedy at Waco rests with certain Branch Davidians and their leader David Koresh who shot and killed four [Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms] agents, wounded 20 others, shot at FBI agents trying to insert tear gas into the complex, burned down the complex, and shot at least 20 of their own people, including five children," he said.

Seper put that info up front. But Washington Post and Gotham Times readers never received the information. Neither Susan Schmidt (Post) nor Jim Yardley (Times) got either element into their reports. On the NewsHour, Danforth stressed that how important it was that people find out what really occurred. Maybe the Post and the Times were just being polite. But their readers never read what Danforth says happened—never read basic information which was included in the NewsHour's very first Q & A.

When the Post editorialized about the disaster, it said this: "On the fringes of American political culture, the obsession with Waco is probably here to stay." The paper's refusal to inform its readers can only help make that occur. Final note: In the Post editorial, readers are explicitly told in the very first paragraph that the Davidians set the fire themselves. But reporter Schmidt couldn't bear to say it, in her entire page one tale.

Commentary by Jim Lehrer, Jack Danforth
The NewsHour, PBS, 7/21/00

Danforth clears government in raid on Davidians
Jerry Seper, The Washington Times, 7/22/00

Waco: Case Closed
Editorial, The Washington Post, 7/23/00

Investigation Clears Agents at Waco
Susan Schmidt, The Washington Post, 7/22/00

A special counsel finds government faultless at Waco
Jim Yardley, The New York Times, 7/22/00