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30 August 1999

Our current howler (part I): Now he tells us

Synopsis: Kenneth Walsh knew the farm chores flap was a hoax. In best press corps style, he didn’t say so.

Fathers and Sons,
Kenneth Walsh, U.S. News & World Report, 8/9/99

The analysts were steaming at the start of the month, when they'd finished their U.S. News & World Report—bitter over a bit of reporting by the journal's respected Kenneth Walsh. In it, Walsh examined the "Daddy Factor" in the White House campaigns of hopefuls Al Gore and George Bush. Midway through, Walsh indulged in some psychiatrizing about Albert Jr.:

WALSH: Some associates say Gore's unblinking loyalty toward his dad was replicated in his vehement defense of President Clinton, another patron and mentor, during last year's Monica Lewinsky scandal.

Yep. By now it's been proven that unnamed Gore associates will say just about anything you like about Gore. In fact, here at DAILY HOWLER World Headquarters, we have a little rule about that. If you don't like what unnamed Gore associates are saying, just turn to a different newspaper.

But it was Walsh's next passage that brought our analysts right out on their spartan study carrels' wooden chairs. On the subject of young Gore's loyalty to his father, Walsh quoted the Gores' former housekeeper:

WALSH: "Anything his daddy told him to do, he did," recalls [Mattie Lucy] Payne. "He was a child who always listened to his parents, never talked back to them. He was a sweet boy." Even as an adolescent, when his father would make him do tough chores on the 250-acre family farm in Carthage during the summer, young Al rarely complained. His father insisted that he work alongside the hands, baling hay, herding some of the family's 600 head of Black Angus cattle, mucking out hog bins, harvesting tobacco. Once his father ordered him to clear a wooded field with a small hand ax, a job that took all summer.

Say what? Walsh was reciting the part of Gore's life story that disappeared down the memory hole this spring, when demonic RNC chairman Jim Nicholson began his campaign of mad farm chores faxing (links below to previous reports). In March, Nicholson decided Gore's story was more appealing if Gore were portrayed as a creature of Washington; he began faxing out misleading and false reports disputing Gore's accounts of his youth. And for three solid months, the obedient press corps ran from their fax machines straight to their desks, and filled the press with exciting reports of how Gore had misstated his past.

At the time, we pointed out the groaning problem with this remarkable conduct. For the previous twelve years, a succession of political writers had published Gore profiles in major newspapers and magazines. And in almost every one of these major profiles, the writers had detailed the very same chores that Nicholson's faxes disputed. And, just as the farm chores flap was being ginned up, Bob Zelnick had published his Regnery bio of Gore. Zelnick gave detailed descriptions of this part of Gore's life—and, in his book's closing paragraph, ended up making the hillside plowing the central metaphor of Gore's entire life.

Now it turns out that U.S. News' Walsh apparently knew all along that the attacks on Gore's account were bogus—had been familiar all along with this long-established part of Gore's life. In "Fathers and Sons," he described this era exactly as it had been described many times before in the press. But, for three solid months while Gore was being savaged, Walsh sat by and said not a word. The analysts—fine and idealistic young scholars—were troubled by Walsh's puzzling silence.

But welcome to the celebrity press corps, where the Code of Silence runs deep and runs strong. It should hardly come as any surprise that Walsh kept his counsel this year. To speak up at the time would have flown in the face of the principle this press corps holds most dear. Journalists simply don't correct other journalists—no matter how wrong their reporting.

We saw "the vice president's dark side," Donald Lambro wrote, when Gore "told farmers how he had...plowed steep hillsides with a team of mules" (Washington Times, 3/25/99). Michael Medved said that Gore's "fanciful recollections of a rustic boyhood" showed us Gore's "delusional view of himself" (USA Today, 4/15/99). Surely, Walsh wasn't the only scribe who knew these abject slanders were false. But no one said a word about it. No one dared stand up to colleagues and tell readers the reports were sheer nonsense.

This week, we'll take a look at this timorous press corps' abiding faith in the Code of Silence. Journalists simply don't criticize journalists, not in this self-dealing crew. Meanwhile, we've tried to explain to our upset analysts why the scribes behave as they do. Maybe their dads didn't raise them up right was pretty much the best excuse we could conjure.


Tomorrow: A piece in the Standard had spelled it out—journalists don't rat on other journalists.

Visit our incomparable archives: The March-to-June Gore farm chores flap has been the press debacle of the year. For our original reporting on this mess, see THE DAILY HOWLER, 3/25/99 and 3/25/99 (two reports).

In April, we reported on Michael Kelly's changing views of the chores. See THE DAILY HOWLER, 4/3/99. We also explored the Weekly Standard's remarkably selective reporting. See THE DAILY HOWLER, 4/5/99 (with a companion piece on the Washington Post; see THE DAILY HOWLER, 4/5/99).

In May, Ceci Connolly tried to keep the story alive. See THE DAILY HOWLER, 5/25/99. Finally, Diane Sawyer's embarrassing 20/20 "pop quiz" was the silliest performance of the year. See THE DAILY HOWLER, 6/29/99. Be prepared to rethink Sawyer's salary.

One final question before we quit. Where in Sam Hill was Kenneth Walsh during all this nonsense? And where were all the other scribes who must have known that these slanders were false?