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30 July 1999

Our current howler (part II): Sammon says

Synopsis: Bill Sammon says Gore didn’t know from the water. So why was this even a story?

New Hampshire opts to float Gore’s boat
Bill Sammon and Laura R. Vanderkam, The Washington Times, 7/23/99 (Friday)

Raising of river is news to Gore
Bill Sammon, The Washington Times, 7/24/99 (Saturday)

Nature boy
Editorial, The Washington Times, 7/27/99


Finishing his work on the Gore canoe ride, Bill Sammon penned a revealing picture, right at the end of the pair of articles that created this gimmicked-up tale. Sammon was quoting Sharon Francis of the Connecticut River Joint Commission, the official who ordered water released to facilitate Gore's New Hampshire bark outing:

SAMMON (7/24): Although [Francis] said she had told Mr. Gore about the river raising at the completion of the canoe trip, the vice-president's staff was caught off-guard by the move. Members of an advance team had arranged for news photographers to set up their cameras on a sandbar in the river so they could snap photos of Mr. Gore as he paddled past.

But when the teams returned to the site just before the canoe trip, the sandbar had all but disappeared under the rising waters. [End of article]

Sammon says it in his own voice: Gore's staff didn't know about the water release. Indeed, in two full days of reporting this story, Sammon never presents a single witness who disputes the things the Gore staff has said—that the campaign didn't ask for release of the water, and didn't know it was going to happen. There is no allegation anywhere in these articles that Gore's campaign sought the water release. All throughout the Sammon articles, it's the Secret Service which requested the action.

And that's the fact that makes this story so irrational and so puzzling. If Gore's camp didn't seek the release of the water; if Gore's camp didn't know about the release; then why in the world is release of the water a story about Gore at all?

There is no real way to answer the question—so Sammon downplays it deftly. In these articles, he tends to bury the Gore camp's denials, and offers a variety of countervailing images, giving readers a different impression. In his first story, for example, he waits until paragraph 12, on the inside, "jump" page, to say the Gore camp has denied all involvement. But in paragraph five, right out on page one, an official gives a different impression:

SAMMON (7/23): "It was a bit artificial, to be honest with you," Mr. [Cleve] Kapala [of PG&E] said. "But the river was pretty dry and no one wanted the canoes dragging on the bottom. Vice President Gore's people were concerned that we not raise the level too high, either, because they didn't want it to be dangerous."

Since Sammon nowhere disputes the claim that the Secret Service made the request, we assume it's the Service to whom Kapala refers. But there it is, right up front—a suggestion that Gore's campaign made the request, which no one actually asserts at any point in these articles.

In his second article, Sammon just gets flat-out slick. In paragraphs ten and eleven, he quotes Gore spokesman Chris Lehane, saying the Gore campaign didn't request the release. He offers no evidence to dispute Lehane's account, and supports it at the end of the piece. But, having quoted Lehane and utility officials saying Gore was not involved, he immediately offers some gems from the public, suggesting exactly the opposite. First this:

SAMMON (7/24) (14): The unusual discharge angered drought-plagued residents of New Hampshire, where a local reporter dubbed the flap "Floodgate."

(15) "I find it ironic, because a lot of places have water emergencies going on and are telling people not to water their lawns or wash their cars," said Jeff Thede, who was eating lunch at an outdoor Portsmouth restaurant yesterday when Mr. Gore walked by to shake hands with voters.

That's our Bill! Knowing the event did not waste water—the water was going to be released the same day—Sammon quotes a New Hampshire resident who doesn't understand that fact. Readers hear about citizens who can't wash their cars or water their lawns—even though Sammon knows the water in question would never have gone to those uses. And, having muddied the issue with Thede's observations, he finds someone else who doesn't quite know the facts:

SAMMON (16): Sandra Roseberry, a self-described environmentalist who said she was impressed by Mr. Gore after hearing him speak at an environmental conference several years ago, was disappointed by Thursday's stunt.

(17) "I'm not too impressed," she said. "But I think what he's done for the environment probably overshadows this incident. I hope he would think a little bit before allowing something like this to happen again."

Again, knowing Gore didn't "allow" the release, Sammon quotes someone who doesn't know it, building images in the reader's mind of Gore engineering the event. Sammon, the writer who broke the story, quotes people who misunderstand the story—and he never points out that the two people quoted don't seem to understand what occurred.

Welcome to the world of enterprise scandal, where scribes construct flaps from thin air. And why do people, like the two Sammon quoted, believe Gore "allowed" the event? Why do they believe drinking water was wasted? We'd have to say they believe these things because Sammon helped them do so. In the course of writing his pair of stories, which created the whole puzzling Gore canoe flap, Sammon is careful to avoid saying things which might deflate the force of the scandal. Even in his Saturday piece, for example, he never says that the water came from a power plant, not a reservoir; and he never quotes the utility's statement, explaining that the water wasn't "wasted." (The Rutland Herald made these points clear. See THE DAILY HOWLER, 7/29/99.) On Friday, he carefully culled his quotes from participants to make the event seem extremely unusual. No one would know that a scheduled release was simply moved up by a couple of hours. Instead, here's how he quotes the PG&E employee who was in charge of releasing the water:

SAMMON (7/23) (8): "It's a first for me, and I've been in this job for 16 years," Mr. [Dennis] Goodwin said. "But if we hadn't done it, they might have hit bottom."

It all sounds very unusual. We learn the next day (reading hard, between lines) that it isn't the first time Goodwin ever released water; it's just the first time he ever released water for a VIP. Sammon never tells readers that the dam's precious water is released all the time, or that electricity was generated from Goodwin's release. Is it surprising folks think drinking water was wasted, when scribes write slick stories like this?

Yep. A lot of points were left unclear by the varied things that Sammon said. But it all comes back to a basic conundrum: Why is this story a reflection on Gore, if his camp didn't order the release? A whole lot of things needed straightening out, by the time Bill Sammon finished up what he said. Luckily, the New York Times knew what to do. They turned to their ace, Melinda Henneberger.

 

Monday: The Rutland Herald clarified facts. Melinda Henneberger told jokes about posture.

Kassel of sand: Sammon's stories were inspired by remarks by John Kassel, director of the Vermont Department of Natural Resources, who was along with Gore on the canoe trip. In Sammon's first-day story, the sense that something was amiss was almost wholly derived from Kassel's comments. Example:

SAMMON (7/23) (3): "They won't release the water for the fish when we ask them, but somehow they find themselves able to release it for a politician," Mr. Kassel groused as he clambered up the riverbank after the four-mile canoe trip. "The only reason they did this was to make sure the vice president's canoe didn't get stuck."

Sammon said the action "irritated" Kassel. But it's virtually impossible to understand Kassel's point in Sammon's article. It's never clear what Kassel means in his reference to releasing water for fish. But it's safe to say that Kassel's grousing creates the sense that what happened was wrong.

Interesting, then, to note what appeared in a Times editorial this Tuesday. After repeating Kassel's recorded complaints, the Times editorial said this:

THE WASHINGTON TIMES: Mr. Kassel has since denied making those claims. (This newspaper stands by its story.)

Readers of the Times' news pages have never been told about Kassel's reversal. But then, there's a lot of things Times readers don't hear. In the very same paragraph, the editorial says this:

THE WASHINGTON TIMES: Commission officials say they made the order "in the interest of safety and good judgment." In fact, good judgment would dictate that Mr. Gore reschedule his photo op rather than waste 4 billion gallons of water

It had been four days since the utility explained in detail that the water produced electricity and hadn't been "wasted." But then, Times readers never were told that either. Times readers were told what the paper wanted, in the interest of ginning a scandal.

Because we care: The utility had also abandoned its estimate that four billion gallons of water were released. That fact is a minor book-keeping fact, but the Times didn't mention it, either.