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28 September 2000

Our current howler (part II): Love that Story!

Synopsis: Sean Hannity won’t stop misstating Love Story. Will he do and say anything to win?

Commentary by Alan Colmes, Sean Hannity, Nancy Skinner, Sheri Jacobus
Hannity & Colmes, Fox News Channel, 9/19/00

It must have come as quite a surprise to viewers of Hannity & Colmes.. Co-host Sean Hannity was involved in a familiar chore—accusing Al Gore of embellishing. Hannity had cited Love Story at the start of the segment. But Alan Colmes put an actual quote on the screen! And then, by golly, he read it:

COLMES: Again, I want to show you what the truth is and put it in perspective. The New York Times, December 1997, quoted the author of Love Story, Erich Segal, who said: "When the author Erich Segal was asked about Gore's impression, he stated that the preppy hockey-playing male lead, Oliver Barrett IV, indeed was modeled after Gore and Gore's Harvard roommate, actor Tommy Lee Jones." So the author said yes, Al Gore was the role model.

In Melinda Henneberger's 12/14/97 story, Segal had explained, in detail, that Gore and Jones had been the models for the male lead in the weepy best-seller.

It must have come as news to H & C's viewers. Hannity frequently claims that Segal contradicted Gore's remark on this subject. Indeed, earlier in the Tuesday night program, Hannity said it again. He was accurately contradicted by a guest, Chicago talk host Nancy Skinner:

HANNITY: This is a big picture that we've got to look at. Al Gore once told the American people, told the crowd, Love Story was based on his life and Tipper's life. The author of Love Story says it's not true.

SKINNER: No, that's not true, Sean—

HANNITY: Absolutely, he's on record—let me finish, let me finish, and then you can respond. He says it's not true, and I have quotes of him and I can bring them up later in the program.

We never did see those quotes. But Skinner soon returned to Love Story. She corrected Hannity's statement:

SKINNER: Back to the Love Story thing you started with—

HANNITY: Did he create the Internet, Nancy?

SKINNER: No, we're starting with Love Story, that was your first mention. OK. Erich Segal said that indeed Al was the model for the male model—

HANNITY: That's not true—

SKINNER: But that he never said Tipper was, and that all Al Gore had ever said—

HANNITY: Not true—

But as Colmes' quote would later show, Skinner's statement was perfectly accurate. Segal plainly told the New York Times that Gore and Jones were the two models.

Hannity's misstatements are wonderfully ironic, because he himself routinely commits the crime which he lays off on Gore. He routinely misstates the facts of this trivial incident—and in the process he calls Gore a liar. He also embellishes facts. On Tuesday, for example, he said that Gore "told the crowd" that the book was based on his life and that of his wife. But in fact, Gore's one fleeting comment on this subject was made in a late-night conversation with two reporters—Karen Tumulty of Time magazine, and Rick Berke of the New York Times. There was no "crowd" present—Hannity was improving the story. So, more lavishly, was Fox contributor Sheri Jacobus, responding to the Colmes comment quoted above:

JACOBUS: And Al Gore eagerly went out there and tried to let everybody know he was more than a role model, that this was in many ways based on him.

He did? Most charitably put, Jacobus is embellishing. Gore made one brief remark on this topic, and one only. (Tumulty has stressed to me how fleeting it was. "Two or three sentences tops," she has said, "in a two-and-a-half hour conversation.") Gore never "eagerly went out and tried to let everybody know" anything about this pointless matter. Jacobus' claims are simply made up. Over at the Fox News Channel, it looks like embellishment is going around.

Why does Fox permit this nonsense? It's long past time that we try to find out. On Hannity & Colmes, Gore is routinely assailed as a liar on the basis of statements—like Hannity's this night—that simply don't square with the facts. Indeed, the basic facts of the Love Story episode have been misstated in the media again and again. Tuesday night, Skinner stated them fairly clearly. When she did, Hannity changed the subject:

SKINNER: [A]ll that Al Gore had ever said—

HANNITY: Not true—

SKINNER: —is that he had read in the Tennessean, a newspaper, that, where Erich Segal had said that he and Tipper were the model. You know what? The Tennessean newspaper did write that. Erich Segal has confirmed that it was Al Gore, but not necessarily Tipper. So there was a minor difference that got blown into—

HANNITY: I don't have a lot of time to refute every fact here. But did he create the Internet?

Fox should be ashamed to see evasive work like that done on its channel.

What are the facts about this endlessly-flogged groaner? The facts are clear from the 12/14/97 New York Times piece, the one which Colmes quoted. There had been an article in the Tennessean quoting Segal (inaccurately, as it turns out). In the article, Segal was quoted saying that Love Story was based on both the Gores. It was to that article that Gore alluded in his remark to Berke and Tumulty. What did Gore actually say to the scribes? In the 12/14/97 New York Times piece, Henneberger quoted Tumulty:

HENNEBERGER: "[Gore] said Segal had told some reporters in Tennessee that it was based on him and Tipper," Ms. Tumulty said. "He said all I know is that's what he told reporters in Tennessee."

Again, Tumulty has stressed to me, several times, that Gore's remark was fleeting and lacking in import. Between them, Berke and Tumulty wrote one sentence, total, about Gore's "attempt to let everybody know he was more than a role model."

Hannity's conduct is remarkable. He routinely tells viewers that Gore "has a problem with the truth," based on patently false recitations like this one. Indeed, even Colmes' presentation of the New York Times quote didn't stop Hannity from his bogus presentations. The next night (Wednesday), he again told viewers that Erich Segal had contradicted Gore on this matter. Evidence doesn't seem to count much at Fox. Tell us again, so we can get it straight: Do they "report" or "distort" when we decide?

It's amazing to think that such utter trivia has driven a White House campaign. But, without question, it plainly has—this silly incident has been cited, again and again, as a referendum on Gore's lack of character. Why has the press corps put up with this nonsense? It's a stain on the press corps' sad reputation—and given the importance laid off on this incident, it's an assault on our misused democracy.

Note: On Thursday and Friday of last week, we asked Hannity, by e-mail, to explain his comments. We asked him if he stands by his statements to Skinner. We asked him to explain why he said that Gore had "told the crowd." We asked him to provide the quotes which he had promised to Skinner. We enjoyed several conversations with an able assistant, but Hannity never responded.

At THE HOWLER, we're frankly concerned. We're worried that Hannity may have a "character problem." We suspect he will do or say anything to win. In fact, we're not sure that he knows who he is. So Roger Ailes, sir, please tell us true: Why do you put up with this nonsense?