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4 August 1999

A Howler prescription: Where this river leads us

Synopsis: Sammon’s latest shows why the press should speak up when Big Spin appears in the discourse.

GOP Goofs In Attack On Gore Dam Opening
John Dillon, The Rutland (Vt.) Herald, 7/25/99

N.H. dam worked overtime, papers say
Bill Sammon, The Washington Times, 8/2/99

Ill will runs high in Gore’s wake
Alec MacGillis, The Concord (N. H.) Monitor, 7/27/99

Immediately after the Gore canoe trip, the RNC got busy spinning, and it released a bogus dollar figure to explain how much water was "wasted." How bogus was their dollar figure? Folks, even Bill Sammon didn't print it! Hay-yo! Sadly, Dan Balz of the Washington Post did, passing the nonsense on to his readers. The Post has never told its readers that the figure was a total confection (see THE DAILY HOWLER, 7/29/99).

All praise, then, to the little Rutland Herald, the real newspaper in this fandango! The little Herald knows that official deception is news in and of itself. On the very same day that the mighty Post was passing on the latest RNC spin, the alert little Herald said this:

DILLON: (paragraph 1) Republicans have sharpened their pencils and their rhetoric in an attempt to skewer Vice President Al Gore for his Connecticut River campaign swing last week.

(2) But GOP staff may be all wet in their calculation that Gore's trip wasted more than $7.1 million of river water.

The alert little Herald, in a detailed report, informed readers of these basic facts:

  1. The water wasn't "spilled;" it was used for electricity.
  2. There was, therefore, no water "wasted."
  3. The water involved wasn't drinking water.
  4. The water had no value as drinking water, certainly not at the price the RNC gimmicked up.

And hail Columbia! The Herald even mentioned Jim Nicholson by name, telling readers who was trying to con them. The little Herald eclipsed the Post, which passed Slick's bad number along.

If political parties conspire to deceive, should major papers report it? Only if those major papers believe that the truth really matters. Does it matter if people are given false info—are led to believe things that simply aren't true? The Rutland Herald thinks it does—but not our celebrity press corps. For months, CelebCorps sat back and said nothing at all, when Jim Nicholson was pushing the farm chores deception—and now millions of people believe Gore lied when he talked about his Tennessee background. The press corps' permissive attitude toward (some) public lying has never been a whole lot more plain—and the resulting damage to our public discourse has never been a whole lot more obvious.

We also cheered on July 27, when the Concord Monitor took on the canoe trip. In a page-one story, the Monitor reported statements by New Hampshire officials, disputing Bill Sammon's spin-driven stories—and mentioning the Washington Times by name as a source of disputed reporting. The Monitor told readers what the officials had said—that the water release was a daily event; that the Gore campaign didn't request the release; that the utility grants water releases "quite often;" that John Kassel disputed Sammon's account of what he said. And we cheered the little Monitor for naming the Times, because so many aspects of the whole canoe matter were so clearly being spun in the Times.

But the major papers have taken a pass on the ongoing ginned-up canoe flap. The major papers sit silently by, while the campaign of spin powers on. It's a nice way to keep their white shoes clean, but the papers' approach has unfortunate consequences. Over time, their readers will be exposed to the Big Spin about the canoe trip. Remarks we reported yesterday—from Brian Williams; from Chris Matthews—will be a regular part of the media follies. Readers of the major papers ought to be told what actually happened in the matter at hand. But the papers have made no attempt to inform readers about what will clearly be an ongoing topic.

And what happens, dear readers, when major papers ignore Big Spin all around them? Soon, our discourse is ruled by Bill Sammon, and by work like his latest report. Sammon's thesis? The dam was kept open more hours, on the day of Gore's trip, than PG&E originally said. Having cited documents purporting to show this, Sammon went to work on his spin:

SAMMON: (paragraph 3) The documents contradict assertions by PGE officials that they had opened the floodgates only two hours earlier than usual and kept them open only four to six hours. Those assertions have been repeated by Gore defenders seeking to limit political fallout from what has become known as "Floodgate."

Sammon's remark begins another effort to make Gore seem responsible for the release. According to Sammon's reporting, Gore and his camp had nothing to do with what the utility did that day. But Sammon continues, fudging the distinction between utility officials and Gore's campaign:

SAMMON: (4) The shifting stories about how early the dam was opened and how long it gushed water come on the heels of similarly evolving estimates of how much water was released to keep Mr. Gore's canoe afloat during the July 22 excursion. PGE officials initially said they released nearly 4 billion gallons, but Gore defenders later countered that the figure was only 97 million.

But of course, it was the utility itself, not "Gore defenders," which adjusted the water estimate. It did so on July 26, as was reported by the Concord Monitor the next day. But Sammon wants the Gore campaign and the utility officials to be conflated. Still referring to the gallon estimates, he continues with that effort:

SAMMON: (6) The constant revisions and backpedaling by both PGE officials and Democratic defenders of Mr. Gore have served to prolong what some Republicans initially expected would be a one- or two-day story about an embarrassing political misstep.

Sammon describes as a "political misstep" an event which, according to his own reporting, was requested by the Secret Service, without knowledge by the Gore campaign. He hopes to erase the key fact in this story: the Gore's campaign didn't request the release. Sammon has offered no reporting whatever showing this is not the case. So he tries to obscure what actually happened; the words "Secret Service" no longer appear in any of Sammon's reporting.

What does appear in Sammon's report is transparent image peddling:

SAMMON: (8) Some observers believe Mr. Gore should have acted swiftly to contain the damage by acknowledging the river raising was ill advised and perhaps poking fun at himself for having been duped into participating in the excursion.

Sammon doesn't name his brainy "observers," because no such observers exist on this planet. This paragraph exists to lodge an image—an image of the VP being "duped," and "participating" in the event. In fact, no reporting by Sammon has indicated that Gore "participated" in the event at question. None of Sammon's reporting has ever indicated that Gore knew the release would occur.

Major papers have clearly decided the canoe trip is not a real story. USA Today gave the story one paragraph. The Post didn't report it at all. Presumably, these papers decided there is no story here, because the Gore campaign didn't request the release. Repeat: In Sammon's three page-one articles on the flap, there is not even a single allegation that the Gore campaign requested the release. In fact, Sammon himself says the opposite (see THE DAILY HOWLER, 7/30/99).

But if there isn't a story in the release of the water, there is a story—a serious story—in the deception and spin that have followed. Millions of people will eventually believe that the Gore campaign wasted big water. They will believe this because spin to that effect is being broadcast every day, and the major press has sat regally by—has watched the Big Spin and said nothing. But when the major press sits regally by, it hands our discourse to the dissemblers. It's time CelebCorps got busy defending our discourse—as the alert Rutland Herald has done.


Smile-a-while: How silly can Sammon's reporting get? See "Smile-a-while," 8/4/99.