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9 October 2000

Our current howler: When pundits attack

Synopsis: Berke embellished some tales and he beat on Gore’s mom. It’s what happens When Pundits Attack. (A companion to today’s "Howlings.")

Gore seen as 'misleading'
Glen Johnson, The Boston Globe, 9/24/00

Tendency to Embellish Fact Snags Gore
Richard Berke, The New York Times, 10/6/00

Debate on our doorstep
Jill Barton, The Sarasota Herald-Tribune, 10/5/00

When Rick Berke wrote about the Gore lullaby flap, he forgot to include one part of the story. He somehow forgot to tell his readers how Gore had explained his remark (see today's "Howlings" column). Gore has said his lullaby comment was a joke; indeed, the videotape showed Gore's audience laughing. But Berke said that Gore had "recalled a childhood lullaby that did not exist." And that was the end of the story.

When a public figure—let's be frank—is being called a Great Big Liar, shouldn't his explanations be mentioned? You'd think that any scribe would do that, but Berke is hardly alone in his conduct. The lullaby nonsense has been widely flogged by TV pundits who don't mention Gore's explanation. It's often missing in print stories too. For example, on September 24—two days after Gore explained his remark—Glen Johnson wrote a piece in the Boston Globe questioning Gore's credibility. The article was called, "Gore seen as 'misleading'". Here was one part of the piece:

JOHNSON: During the week, Gore also hummed a union jingle, saying he recalled it from his childhood. But the tune was not written until he was 27. In addition, he raised $4.5 million at a Hollywood fund-raiser days after criticizing the industry for violent movies and games aimed at teenagers.

But who is "misleading" the public now? That was Johnson's full account of the lullaby matter. Like Berke, he said the incident was a misstatement by Gore. But he completely omitted Gore's explanation, which had been given on September 22.

For the record, the lullaby flap wasn't the only case where Berke improved his stories. Here, for example, is his account of an exchange between Gore and Jim Lehrer:

BERKE (9): Mr. Gore's troubles began with the first question of the debate. Jim Lehrer of PBS, noted that Mr. Gore had once questioned whether his opponent had the experience to be president and asked him what he meant. Mr. Gore denied that he had ever raised questions about Mr. Bush's qualifications for the presidency, The truth is, he had—in an interview this spring with the New York Times.

Simply put, Berke is embellishing. In his first question, Lehrer did not "note that Gore had once questioned Bush's experience." He did that in his follow-up question, and when he did, Gore didn't dispute it. Here is the actual "first question" and answer:

LEHRER: Vice President Gore, you have questioned whether Governor Bush has the experience to be president of the United States. What exactly do you mean?

GORE: Well, Jim, first of all I would like to thank the sponsors of this debate and the people of Boston for hosting the debate. I'd like to thank Governor Bush for participating. And I'd like to say I'm happy to be here with Tipper and our family.

I have actually not questioned Governor Bush's experience; I have questioned his proposals. And here's why: I think this is very important moment for our country. We have achieved extraordinary prosperity. And in this election, America has to make an important choice: Will we use our prosperity to enrich not just the few but all of our families?

I believe we have to make the right and responsible choices...

In fact, Gore has almost never discussed Bush's experience. In his follow-up, Lehrer had to go all the way back to April to cite a case where Gore had done so. Reading Berke, you'd think that Lehrer explicitly said that Gore had "once" challenged Bush, and that Gore had denied "ever" doing so. Lehrer's question was more open-ended, and Gore said—accurately—that he has "actually" questioned Bush's policies, not his experience. When Lehrer cited the April interview with the Times in his follow-up, Gore didn't dispute the remark.

By the way, given that Gore has so rarely challenged Bush on this score, Lehrer's opening question is utterly puzzling. Why in the world do you open a debate with a question about a six-month-old comment? But back to Berke: Why are the words "once" and "ever" used when Berke describes Lehrer's "first question?" Simple—they create an illusion of stark contradiction. Berke is spinning—embellishing, if you like—trying to make a trivial incident sound like a stark dispute.

But so it goes When Pundits Attack. Next, Berke went to high school:

BERKE (10): Then there was the story Mr. Gore told of a 15-year-old girl in Sarasota, Fla., who he said is such a victim of school crowding that she has to stand up during every class. The fact is, the girl has a desk, and went without one for only a day.

Gore said the girl is a victim of crowding? A newspaper article said she was; Gore quite plainly cited it. Gore's account at the debate was clearly not accurate; he said the girl doesn't have a desk, and she does have a desk at this time. Gore was reading from a September 9 article in the Sarasota Herald-Tribune, which described a high school's shortage of desks. Gore accurately recounted what the article said, but some of the article's facts are now out of date. Gore was unwise to work from the article without fully updating the facts. But Berke's account may also be wrong, and it glosses the state of affairs at the school. Here's a fuller account from the Sarasota paper, published the morning before Berke's piece:

JILL BARTON: Kailey [Ellis] said she moved from a biology classroom where students had to sit on the floor to another that was short on desks on Aug. 31—the ninth day of school. She stood for one 50-minute period, and the following day a classmate gave up his desk for her.

Shall we nitpick? By that account, Ellis may have gone nine days without a desk (eight days on the floor, one day standing). And Barton's account makes it clear that the overcrowding is still unresolved:

BARTON: As a result, though, he [the classmate] was left without a desk for the following week, Kailey said.

"I'm not still standing, but there's still kids that have to sit on the side of desks and there's still not enough room in the classes," she said Wednesday before her lunch break. "There's still a lot that needs to be done to lower class size."

Why did Ellis got a desk on Day 10? Because a classmate went without his! And students still lack desks, she says. Barton's reporting notes that Ellis' class of 36 is using a lab designed for 24.

Berke's account may or may not be technically accurate, but it seems to gloss the state of affairs at the school. It gives the impression that a wholly trivial, one-day matter found its way into Gore's performance. He doesn't mention that Gore read from a newspaper article. He doesn't mention that it was given to Gore by a parent. He doesn't say that the school's overcrowding continues. Why did Berke tell the story as he did (or at all, for that matter)? At THE HOWLER, we simply can't say. But it may just be that he wrote as he did because it made for a great "Gore lies" story. Gore's narrow inaccuracy doesn't seem so grave if you reveal that Ellis' classmates are still without desks—if you reveal that Ellis' father alerted Gore to a situation that would trouble any parent. But talk about missing the forest for the trees! Berke tells the narrowest tale that he can, making an utterly trivial inaccuracy into a tricked-up referendum on character.

(Note: It is impossible to explain the strangeness of Berke's piece without noting the major debate howlers by Bush that have been ignored. We move on to that topic tomorrow.)

Let's skip over Berke's astounding bad judgment in calling Gore's mother a liar (see today's "Howlings). Berke's closing bit is from Comedy Central. First, Berke quotes a Notre Dame professor, who politely worries that "a stereotype might form" about Gore and his tales. With baggy-pants subtlety, Berke moves on to report a second expert judgment:

BERKE (27): But Chris Wetzel, a professor at Rhodes College in Memphis, said he was willing to give Mr. Gore the benefit of the doubt and did not believe he had sinister motives.

Sounds nice, but Berke does have naughty motives. Get ready to have the football pulled back. Here is Berke's closing paragraph:

BERKE (28): "Why would someone say something like this when it can be so blatantly discovered?" asked Mr. Wetzel, who has taught a research course called Detecting Impostors and Con Artists. "I think it's like that false memory syndrome when people end up believing that they were abducted by aliens."

That is the end of Berke's story. If you can't figure out why Berke closed with that, by the way, no alien will ever bother abducting you. Berke can quote any "expert" he pleases. So he quotes one who implies that Gore is mentally ill—who compares Gore to people who think that they've gone up in spaceships. And he quotes an expert who lets him get "Con Artists" and "Impostors" in his closer! Amazing—that pitiful, small little minds like this one sit at the top of our national discourse.

The public interest has suffered before from Richard Berke's miserable judgment. In September, he wrote the crackpot "RATS" subliminal-ad story that wasted the nation's time for a week. (Every day we waste on stories like these is a day we avoid things that matter.) Last Friday, Berke was at it again, showing off the Times' woeful judgment. Trust us—the people at the New York Times have no idea what lightweights they are. But they let you see it almost every day, as Berke let you see it on Friday.

In his article, Berke played shrink on Gore's aged mom; inexcusably withheld Gore's account of the lullaby; tarted up Lehrer's opening question; and got cute with a colorful quote from an "expert." And he seems to have spun you on the state of that school. Readers, Socrates memorably rolled his eyes at the thought that democracy ever could work. He probably couldn't have pictured Berke's piece. But he knew something like it was coming.

Lack of explanation: Again, Gore said the lullaby remark was a joke. Berke omitted Gore's explanation (see today's "Howlings"). We left a voicemail asking Berke why that was. Here was his voicemail in reply:

BERKE: The lullaby—I don't know, that was just a passing reference in my story, and I don't know if there's a real debate about whether that was a joke, most people say it wasn't a joke, so, he certainly said it, so I don't know what the—but there's been no big decision from on top of the New York Times. This was a passing reference to something that most people say he shouldn't have said. So anyway, feel free to call me if you want to know more about it, but there's really not much to say.

"He certainly said it!!" Egads!

The lullaby comes in paragraph 6 of a major story which—let's be frank—calls Gore a liar. It is Berke's first full example of Gore's "tendency to embellish." The article appears one month before the election. And Berke calls this passage—grab your seats— a "passing reference in my story." Amazing! And why did he fail to include what Gore said—that the remark was actually a joke? Because "most people say it wasn't a joke." Incredible! Only if "most people" (whom Berke knows) agree with a pol's explanation is he willing to put it in print! Finally, Berke says, "I don't know if there's a real debate about whether that was a joke." If he doesn't know, he ought to quit. USA Today has said it seemed to be a joke. Conservative Robert Novak said the same thing. It is simply astounding—astonishing; amazing—that the author of that voicemail is a steward of our discourse. But Berke's lazy thinking and careless morals show you something the soul of an unaccountable press elite.