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13 November 2000

Our current howler (part I): Spinner One, down to the wire

Synopsis: Katharine Seelye continued her nonsense right through the campaign's final weekend.

Gore Describes Texan as Not Up to the Job
Katharine Seelye, The New York Times, 11/4/00

Gore, Hungry for Power
George Will, The Washington Post, 11/12/00

On Friday, November 3, Vice President Gore made several campaign stops. Katharine Seelye of the New York Times described them (page one) the next day. She closed her report with the following account of the VP's event in Las Cruces:

SEELYE (paragraph 30): Despite the nerve-wracking closeness of the election, Mr. Gore showed uncharacteristic spontaneity with the crowd of thousand huddled in a sports stadium. The vice president focused suddenly on one baby, bundled up in a pink snowsuit and held aloft by a man. "Hold your baby up one more time," Mr. Gore yelled out. "What is your baby's name?"

The answer drifted back across the crowd, "Christina."

"Let me tell you," Mr. Gore shouted. "This entire election is about Christina's future. Will we have the best schools? Will she have opportunity in her life?"

Christina started to bawl.

"Will she stop crying?" the vice president called out affectionately. "Yes, she will," he said, "Hi Christina," he said, giving her a small wave.

That was the end of Seelye's report. Yelling and shouting, the oddball vice president was out on the trail, making little baby girls cry.

Did the "Christina" incident really occur? At THE HOWLER, we have no way of knowing. But we can say this—Seelye's November 3 piece was the perfect cap to her crackpot reporting of the 2000 campaign. From start to end, the report was larded with the weird spin that has defined Seelye's work. That the New York Times would have published such tripe helps define our truly odd press corps culture.

The piece was strange even by Seelye's standards. On Thursday, Bush had made a clumsy statement, in which he made it seem that he didn't know that Social Security is a federal program. According to Seelye, Gore "ridiculed" Bush for the statement. Then, in paragraph 4, she wrote this:

SEELYE (4): The vice president never allowed that Mr. Bush's comment might have been a mistake or a poorly worded thought, instead milking the idea that it was just plain dumb—and that it was further evidence that Mr. Bush is blank on the basics and not equipped to be president.

Every word "Kit" wrote was true. And not only that—the vice president "never allowed" that Bush was a truly fine person who had been a joy to Mom and Dad as a child. Never said it! Seelye's loony editorial was especially comic, aimed at the man who was long misquoted as having said he "invented the Internet." Had anyone in the press corps ever "allowed" that Gore's Internet statement "might have been a poorly worded thought?" New standards suddenly crowded "Kit's" work as a nerve-wracking vote now drew near.

Seelye, of course, is the soul of fairness. Until she writes pure crap like this:

SEELYE (26): Though the air was nippy, Mr. Gore took off his suit coat, as he has for the last several days, despite the creeping November chill. Lately, he has been wearing a blue suit, white shirt and red tie, a uniform that one adviser described as a move to appear presidential as well as to show consistency. Mr. Gore had been faulted earlier in the campaign for frantically changing his wardrobe and dressing casually, in earth tones, in an effort to show that he was a regular person.

"Had been faulted," of course, by Seelye. Did a Gore aide say what Seelye reported? At THE HOWLER, we have no way of knowing. But Seelye is peerless at finding ways to work those earth tones into her story. Seelye's otherwise pointless paragraph about Gore's outfit allowed her to play with ancestral spin-points. Seelye again managed to raise treasured questions about whether Gore conducts himself in "frantic" ways and whether he's even "a regular person." And what had triggered this rumination by Seelye? Stop the presses! Gets the news to the world! Gore had put on a red tie!

Seelye, of course, is a crackpot. So are her editors, who—for reasons that gaping historians will ponder—actually put this into print:

SEELYE (11): "I need your help to take this country back," he said, not specifying from whom.

Seelye never allowed that Gore's comment might have been a mistake or a poorly worded thought, instead milking the idea that it was just plain strange. Incredibly, she typed this in next:

SEELYE (12): He also made an appeal based on what he described as his hard work for the state—as if a debt were owed in return for his years of service.

(13) "You know me, and you know that for 16 years I've represented the state faithfully and well, and I've worked hard," he called from a platform. "Nine times, nine times I've raised my hand and taken an oath to the Constitution. And I've never violated that oath."

That was the only quote offered to support Seelye's spin—that Gore had spoken "as if a debt were owed in return for his years of service."

But then, for the past two years, the Times' "Kit" Seelye has been a journalistic junk man. We can only hope that descendants will marvel that the Times ever put her in print. But print her they did, for two solid years, as Seelye reinvented the Gore campaign—in a stream of derision, distortion and spin, an affront to our greatest public process.

In this last great effort, Seelye missed few chances. But this was our favorite performance:

SEELYE (10): Mr. Gore held a rally here [in Alcoa, Tennessee], near Knoxville, on the airport tarmac, with Air Force Two in the background and airplanes coming and going. He said he was glad to be "home"...

And yes—Spinner One put quotation marks around the word "home." She was telling her readers that Gore—a phony and a creature of Washington—wasn't really "home" at all. Dressed in his "uniform," "grasping at Mr. Bush's remarks," the inauthentic Gore of the press corps' Master Narrative was acting out his role one last time. Seelye, a novelist, was typing her spin; Gore's words and clothes were the stuff of her satire. Why did the Times put this tripe into print? Here at THE HOWLER, we don't have a clue. But the fact that they did put such nonsense in print is why you should scorn this pathetic, failed newspaper.

Tomorrow: Brian and Chris, Monday night


The Daily update (11/13/00)

Will lacking grace: When the going gets tough, George Will starts dissembling. On Sunday, his column complained about "the mendacity of Al Gore's pre-election campaign." It also slammed Gore's "serial mendacity." And it mentioned Gore's "corrupting hunger for power;" "he is, strictly speaking, unbelievable," Will said. He is also a "dangerous man," for whom aides "do their reckless work." That is remarkably overwrought rhetoric. But then the columnist tried to support it. Here was his sad first example:

WILL (paragraph 3): [Gore] staggered Bill Bradley in an Iowa debate by asking why Bradley voted against flood relief for Iowa. Bradley voted for $4.8 billion of relief, and opposed—as did the Clinton-Gore administration—only an amendment to add $900 million.

Slick, oh so slick. Unfortunately for Will's position, the Clinton administration did support the supplemental bill in the end, and Bradley did vote against the bill. As we have noted before, Gore's question to Bradley in the January Iowa debate explicitly referenced the second vote, on the $900 million. And Bradley had voted against it. But back in January, when the debate occurred, pundits began reciting the Bradley camp's spin. They said that Gore had somehow misled with his question, and that Bradley had merely forgotten how he voted on flood relief. In fact, Bradley did vote against the $900 million, and the premise of Gore's question was explicit and accurate. But spinners still distort this point, including, alas, the shameless Bradley, appearing on This Week last month (see THE DAILY HOWLER, 10/2/00).

Will was spinning about the flood relief query. But if you want to be spun in various ways, just read his entire column. Get spun on Palm Beach, for example:

WILL (6): The Democratic Party dotes on victims, but what, exactly, victimized those 19,000 Palm Beach County voters who, as almost 15,000 in the county did in 1996, botched their ballots by punching two candidates for president? It is absurd to say it is "unfair" to do what the law requires—disallow improperly marked ballots. And it is sinister when Democratic voters, after leaving polling places where they could have asked for guidance or fresh ballots, suddenly "remember" that they might have misread their "butterfly" ballots.

Start first with Will's numbers of spoiled ballots (15,000 in 1996 vs. 19,000 this year). It has been reported, again and again, that the 15,000 spoiled ballots in 1996 included ballots where two candidates were punched and ballots rejected for no punch at all. The corresponding number in this election is 29,000 spoiled ballots, not 19,000. The change in numbers make no real difference, but that doesn't seem to bother Will. Frankly, we're not sure he even knows who he is; he seems to embroider, embellish and exaggerate even where the real facts would be just as good! Meanwhile, he suggests that the Palm Beach problem was dreamed up after the fact; that is, of course, a complete affront to the well-established record. It has been widely documented—over and over—that confusion about the Palm Beach ballot was reported throughout Election Day. The fact that voters reported confusion doesn't mean they should get a revote. But Will's column misstates basic facts. This occurs, of course, in a furious piece asserting that Gore is a serial liar!

We don't have the time to hit all Will's misstatements. But here's one more worth noting:

WILL (8): The Palm Beach ballots were designed by a Democrat and approved by a process that included Democrats, and sample ballots were published in newspapers and mailed to voters—all without eliciting pre-election complaints.

It makes a wonderful story. Unfortunately, if you've seen the sample ballot from the Palm Beach Post, it looked nothing like the actual ballot. The presidential candidates were listed in one column, eliminating the source of the ballot confusion. But writers like Will "keep spin alive," telling readers the stories they like.

"Keep spin alive," the rabble-rouser cries, as his column hits the streets. And why, or why, does Will spin so? We learn in his opening paragraph:

WILL (1): So the Clinton-Gore era culminates with an election as stained as the blue dress, a Democratic chorus complaining that the Constitution should not be the controlling legal authority, and Clinton's understudy dispatching lawyers to litigate this: "It depends on what the meaning of 'vote' is."

That blue dress will always be with us. Very unwisely, a president engaged in ten acts of oral sex. For Will, that conduct will never die. It gives him the right, in his own mind, to dissemble about others who were uninvolved but nearby. So Will complains about "serial mendacity;" in so doing, he impeaches himself. But then, you know the way this works. The simple truth is never enough for those who embellish and embroider.