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3 December 1999

Our current howler (part I): Making it up

Synopsis: It’s hard to be less concerned with the truth than Chris Matthews is. But the Post and the Times have both done it.

Homer: The Iliad
Translated by Professor Fagles, Viking, 1990

First ‘Love Story,’ Now Love Canal
Ceci Connolly, The Washington Post, 12/2/99

Commentary by Chris Matthews
Hardball, CNBC, 12/1/99

Gore Borrows Clinton’s Shadow Back to Share a Bow
Katharine Seelye, The New York Times, 12/1/99

Our overwrought analysts flopped on the ground when we told them their work on tax issues would be bumped. They love the way a good tax discussion allows them to breathe the clear air of reason, and they had a "flat tax" article from—where else?—the New York Times they've been waiting to discuss for three weeks. They tore their garments and fell to the ground when we told them other matters had arisen. Rushing down to survey the scene from the sumptuous rooms where we keep them housed and honored, our internationally-acclaimed Task Force on Classical Allusions was reminded of headstrong Achilles. The fast runner had just learned that Patroclus was fallen. We think Professor Fagles has it just about right:

A black cloud of grief came shrouding over Achilles.
Both hands clawing the ground for soot and filth,
he poured it over his head, fouling his handsome face
and black ashes settled on his fresh clean war-shirt.
Overpowered in all his power, sprawled in the dust,
Achilles lay there fallen,
tearing his hair, defiling it with his own hands.
And the women he and Patroclus carried off as captives
caught the grief in their hearts and keened and wailed.

So it was with our overwrought analysts. For the record, there are of course no "captives" of any kind on the sprawling campus of our incomparable world headquarters. In that area, society has advanced since the fast runner's day—though not, it's quite plain, in certain others.

And we ourselves were torn to think of your reaction to another Gore-coverage story—but we're sorry folks, if you want the news, you have to go where the news is occurring. Over the past few days, we've been able to see, with exceptional clarity, the remarkable genesis of another press "scandal"—and if we're going to chronicle the coverage of this race, this incident cries out for review. Some of you want a quota system, in which we rotate politely from hopeful to hopeful. Sorry—we still hope to spend a cycle of stories looking at recent coverage of Senator McCain. But the antique story being played out this week demands our current attention.

Because it's hard to be less concerned with truth than tabloid talker Chris Matthews. But this week, incredibly, Ceci Connolly (and the Post) and Katharine Seelye (and the Times) have managed to achieve that distinction. In the process, they've successfully ginned up the latest "scandal"—one the talker is blabbing all over the air. Here was Connolly, telling a story she likes, in the Washington Post Thursday morning:

CONNOLLY (12/2) (paragraph 1): Add Love Canal to the list of verbal missteps by Vice President Gore.

(2) The man who mistakenly claimed to have inspired the movie "Love Story" and to have invented the Internet says he didn't quite mean to say that he discovered a toxic waste site when he said at a high school forum Tuesday in New Hampshire: "I found a little place in New York called Love Canal."

(3) Gore went on to brag about holding the "first hearing on that issue" and said "I was the one that started it all."

That short dispatch spills over with errors, as we will detail anon. But here's the newest one: Gore plainly had not said "I was the one that started it all" at the forum where he mentioned Love Canal. On Wednesday evening, a tabloid talker had said so, straight out, on his normally inventive cable program. He was discussing Wednesday morning's piece in the New York Times which had started the chain of misquoting:

MATTHEWS (12/1): But of course the Times—of course, this always happens—the Times went further than they should have and they misquoted him [Gore], this is the paper of record, misquoted him, said, quote, "But I was the one that started it all" when in fact he said "That was the one that started it all." [Talker's emphasis]

Indeed, the talker had played tape of Gore at the forum, and Gore quite plainly had not said "I was the one who started it all." But there was Connolly the next morning—even Matthews had corrected it!—still highlighting the baldly false quote, and telling her readers it was just like other things Gore has said in the past. Just for the record, here is the passage from the Wednesday morning Times which started this idiocy off:

SEELYE (12/1): Later in the day, Mr. Gore, who suffered some embarrassment this year when he took credit for the development of the Internet, said he was the one who had first drawn attention to the toxic contamination of Love Canal. [Seelye's paraphrase is highly tendentious.] He was telling a school audience that each person can make a difference in the world [the hapless Seelye is surely proving that] and he recalled a child writing to him when he was in Congress about a hazardous-waste site in Tennessee.

He then added [only after material which Seelye has edited], "I found a little place in upstate New York called Love Canal. I had the first issue on that issue and Toone, Tenn.," he said. [Seelye does more editing here.] "But I was the one that started it all. [More material is deleted without indication.] And it all happened because one high school student got involved."

So that was Seelye, on Wednesday morning. Wednesday night, Matthews corrected the highlighted statement, playing tape that showed what Gore plainly said. But the next morning, Connolly continued to tell the story she liked, building a story around the bogus quote, and mixing it in with statements about Love Story that are baldly, demonstrably false.

Despite a talker's correction of the plain misquote, this incident has become a new pseudo-scandal; last night, for example, the talker came back to Love Story/Love Canal at least three separate times on his show. You will almost surely hear this incident characterized and spun repeatedly in coming weeks. As such, the sequence of events that unfolded this week are a perfect anatomy of a press pseudo-scandal, in which quotes are edited, spun, and invented to let journalists tell stories they like. The five paragraphs we've quoted from Seelye and Connolly are simply full of demonstrable error—plain, flat-out deceptions of readers that the hapless scribes happily recite.

Oh yes—one other thing, just for the record. How did the two papers handle the corrections? You know—how did the Timesand the Post tell their readers that what they had written was false? To use a word from Michiko Kakutani's review, the answer to that question is predictable. There has been no correction, in either paper, of the baldly false quote they put into print. This morning's Post doesn't tell its readers that Connolly misquoted Gore in yesterday's paper (building her story line out of the error), and it doesn't tell readers that she used the quote after everyone knew it was wrong. Two days have gone by since Seelye started this mess, and the Times has also made no correction.

These stories are simply full of misstatements. They define the license of our hapless scribes. We wish that we could go on to other stories—our analysts still scrape the soot from the ground. But this one shows, in stark relief, the gimmicking up of a pseudo-scandal. Sorry, folks—if you want to see your press corps in action, this is the story to watch.


Monday: Connolly's statements about Love Story are plainly, demonstrably false.

We restate: For the record, bad coverage reflects on the journalist, not on the hopeful. If Gore is receiving bad coverage, that doesn't reflect on whether he or Bradley should be the Democratic nominee.

For the record: The scribes invested in this story are editing Gore's statement like mad. So here is a transcript of what Gore said. According to the Washington Times, Gore was responding to "a student's question about youth cynicism." He has already cited the girl who wrote him about the Tennessee waste site:

GORE: I called for a congressional investigation and a hearing. I looked around the country for other sites like that. I found a little place in upstate New York called Love Canal. Had the first meeting on that issue and Toone, Tennessee—that was the one that you didn't hear of. But that was the one that started it all. We passed a major national law to clean up hazardous waste sites. And we had new efforts to stop the practices that ended up poisoning water around the country. We've still got work to do. But we made a huge difference. And it all happened because one high school student got involved.

Assignment: According to Seelye, Gore says here that "he was the one who had first drawn attention to the toxic contamination of Love Canal." We invite you to search this statement for those words. The ancients simply memorized Homer. They didn't paraphrase; they would recite. Sadly, when writers like Seelye are allowed to paraphrase, nonsense and mischief inevitably ensue. The use of creative paraphrase by writers like Seelye is the most powerful argument for C-SPAN.

One other point—even when Seelye seems to quote, she does so in a spirit of license. At one point, she "quotes" Gore's statement as follows:

SEELYE: "But I was the one that started it all. And it all happened because one high school student got involved."

In Gore's actual statement, four sentences separate the two Seelye uses (one of which she rewrites, of course). But she uses no ellipsis to alert her readers that material from Gore has been left out. (The use of the ellipsis was invented, of course, to protect us from writers like Seelye.) Simply put, a high school senior can't pass in work like this. Welcome to the New York Times, a talker's sad "paper of record."