6 December 1999
Our current howler (part II): Love that story
Synopsis: The press corps loves the Love Story tale. Theres only one problemits wrong.
First Love Story, Now Love Canal
Ceci Connolly, The Washington Post, 12/2/99
Commentary by Chris Matthews
Hardball, CNBC, 12/2/99
Author of Love Story Disputes Gore Story (Hint: Tipper Wasnt Jenny)
Melinda Henneberger, The New York Times, 12/14/97
Where does Ceci Connolly get her quotes? Apparently, Katharine
Seelye gets her quotes at the very same place. Last Wednesday
night on Hardball (12/1), Chris Matthews showed itSeelye
had misquoted Al Gore in that morning's New York Times (see THE
DAILY HOWLER, 12/3/99). Gore had spoken about the 1978 congressional
hearings concerning Toone, Tennessee and Love Canal; Matthews
played tape of Gore's actual statement, and there it was, clear
as a bellthe most exciting part of Seelye's quote was just plain
flat-out wrong. But the same bogus quote had appeared in Connolly's
Post story, and there it was again the next day, this time anchoring
a Connolly piece. In her 12/2 follow-up, Connolly said, in her
lead, that Gore had made a "verbal misstep" about Love
Canalas he had done earlier about the movie Love Story, the
scribe most emphatically said.
We'll take a look in the next two days at Gore's statement
about Toone and Love Canal. But in her 12/2 follow-up story, Connolly
was just one of many scribes who compared Love Canal to Love
Story.. On Thursday night, the same tabloid talker who cited
Seelye's error was "having fun" with Love Story
himself. Ten minutes in, he said this:
MATTHEWS (12/2): Well, let's talk about Al Gore and have some
fun. We've gone into the serious part of the program now and here's
the hilarious part. This is Al Gore in the sort of Zelig condition
he finds himself in. You know, the guy who keeps showing up in
historic moments in history?
The talker cited Love Story throughout his show. Two
minutes after this comment, for example, he asked a guest: "What
is it, this Zelig guy who keeps saying I was the main character
in Love Story," and he mockingly asked, "[W]ho
played Al Gore in the Love Canal story? We know Ryan O'Neal played
him in Love Story [laughter]." Just past the halfway
point of the show, he promo-ed the fact that he would soon ask
two more guests about Love Canal and Love Story; sure enough,
speaking with the guests about ten minutes later, he brought up
Love Story again. In the discussion, Gore was accused of
"delusion" and was said to be living in "fantasy
land." On his program the night before, Matthews had said
that, in the future, "We will have to talk about the psychological
tendencies involved" in Gore's alleged conduct concerning
Love Story and Love Canal. Clearly, serious conclusions
are being drawn about Gore's alleged comments on Love Story.
One might almost imagine that a serious press corps would feel
obliged to get basic facts right.
But that is the lingering problem. Pundits have shown an undying
love for Love Storythey have brought it up time and again,
for two years. But there's one big problem with the Love Story
talewhat has been repeatedly alleged is just false. In the Post,
Connolly had described Gore as "[t]he man who mistakenly
claimed to have inspired the movie 'Love Story.'" But the
two claims lodged in this statement are both false. For all the
press corps' love for this story, the story has been simply wrong
for two years. It represents one of the longest-running misstatements
of fact in the sad gong show we now call our "public discourse."
The Love Story nonsense began in late 1997invented
by a Maureen Dowd columnand in the aftermath of that piece, Melinda
Henneberger wrote a lengthy story on the topic for the Sunday
New York Times (12/14/97). No one has ever disputed the facts
she reported; pundits have simply preferred to ignore them. But
what Henneberger reported, two years ago, contradicts both the
things Connolly still says.
First question: Did Gore "inspire Love Story?"
As part of her research, Henneberger interviewed Erich Segal,
who had known Gore at Harvard while writing Love Story.
And sorry, folks, we hate to upset you, but here's Henneberger,
on what Segal said:
HENNEBERGER: The character of the preppy Harvard hockey player
Oliver Barrett 4th was modeled on both Mr. Gore and his college
roommate, the actor Tommy Lee Jones.
According to Segal, Jones had been the model for the "macho
athlete with the heart of a poet" part of the character,
and Gore had been the model for the young college student with
a highly accomplished father to live up to.
So Gore had been a "model" for the part. Parsing
pundits will doubtless note: none of this means that Gore "inspired"
Love Story. But it also became clear in Henneberger's piece
that Gore had made no such claim. Gore's meaningless remarks about
Love Story had been made on a long, late-night plane ride,
in a conversation with two respected reportersRick Berke of the
New York Times, and Karen Tumulty of Time. Henneberger
interviewed both reporters. Sorry, folks, we hate to disappoint
you, but here's Tumulty's account of what Gore said:
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
Berke agreed that Gore attributed the story to reporters in
Tennessee. And sure enough, Segal confirmed that there had been
such a story, in the Nashville Tennessean. Segal told Henneberger
that the reporter "just exaggerated" a bit, playing
"the local-hero angle;" for example, Segal said the
reporter added Tipper Gore into the mix, though she had not been
the model for Love Story's other lead character in the
tale, Jenny Cavilleri.
Incredible, isn't it, that this sort of nonsense inspires our
press two years later? That on the basis of absolute idiocy like
this, a major public figure is called "delusional" on
TV, and a reporter who can't even get simple quotes right calls
his character into question? Two years later! Welcome to
the riot of nonsense and spin we laughingly call our public discourseand
welcome to the world of Ceci Connolly, whose grisly work for the
Washington Post has been on this level all year.
But the facts of this story, as reported two years ago,
are, sad to say, all too simple. Gore told reporters that he had
seen a newspaper story saying he and Tipper were the models for
Love Story. That's "all I know," Gore had said.
And everyone agrees such a story did exist. In a rational world,
that would end the silly tale, but for the record, Segal said
that Gore and Jones were the two models for the Ryan O'Neal
part. Now read again what Connolly wrotetwo years laterand
raise a cup to our great public discourse:
CONNOLLY: [Gore] mistakenly claimed to have inspired the movie
Say hello to our brilliant celebrity press corps, 1999 style.
Those are the facts about this story, a story the press corps
has pimped around for two years. Again this week, Connolly misstates
the basic facts, and unlicensed psychiatrists examine Gore's psyche.
The facts of this story are simple to statealthough they're embarrassing
facts for the Washington press corps. But isn't it time that the
press corps corrected its errors? Shouldn't these simple facts
finally be told?
Tomorrow: The Love Story flap was invented by
Dowd. What about the Love Canal story?
Keeping you posted: We have written to principals at
the Washington Post, asking the paper to correct Connolly's errors.
We'll provide a full record at the end of the week.
Read with care: Those who review Henneberger's 1997
story are advised to proceed with caution. The relevant facts
do emerge from her piece, but she manages to spin them substantially.
Although Hennberger knew what Gore had actually saidand although
she knew that what Gore had said was correctshe began her story
pointing out the flaws in what he was alleged to have said.
Good thinking! In short, Henneberger made quite a big deal about
the fact that Tipper Gore was not Jenny Cavilleri (that's
the headline). Only later in her piece did she reveal what she'd
learned: Gore never said that she was.
Only in the great New York Times can one expect to see
this kind of writing.
Why did Henneberger bury the lead? The Love Story flap
had been invented by Maureen Dowd, in one of the dumbest columns
of the past several years; we have discussed this in more detail
(links below). Just guessing: if we had learned, as Henneberger
did, that Dowd's column had been based on bad facts, we wouldn't
have wanted to rush that news to the top of our story either.
But the facts in Henneberger's story are clear; Gore only
said that he had seen a newspaper story, and everyone agrees that
the story did exist. On that basis, Gore has been called a crackpot
and a liar for the past two years. Say hello to your celebrity
Visit our incomparable archives: Past reports on this
See THE DAILY HOWLER, 3/30/99: Time barely mentioned
Gore's Love Story comment. But Maureen Dowd somehow
spied a dark motive.
See THE DAILY HOWLER, 3/31/99: Melinda Hennberger learned that
Gore had been misquoted. She buried it deep in her story.
See THE DAILY HOWLER, 4/1/99: A week after Henneberger described
what had happened, Sam and Cokie didn't seem to have heard.
See THE DAILY HOWLER, 4/2/99: With Love Story back in
the news in March, scribes took turns misreporting basic facts.
See THE DAILY HOWLER, 6/21/99: The RNC threw a birthday party
for Erich Segal (in absentia). Pundits made gifts of misstatements.