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6 December 1999

A Howler extra: This weak

Synopsis: We don’t think we’ve ever run an EXTRA before. That’s how bad This Week was this Sunday.

Commentary by Cokie Roberts, George Stephanopoulos, William Kristol
This Week, ABC, 12/5/99

Bush to Offer $483 Billion Tax-Cut Plan
Eric Pianin and Terry Neal, The Washington Post, 12/1/99

Commentary by Cokie Roberts
This Week, ABC, 11/7/99

We don't think we've ever run an EXTRA before. But that's how bad it got, dear friends, on Sunday's This Week program. Cokie Roberts had committed her usual howler—this week, it dealt with the Bush tax plan (see below)—when George Stephanopoulos was asked to say what sort of week Al Gore had had:

STEPHANOPOULOS: No, he had a bad week as well, and he probably dodged a bullet—

ROBERTS: Love Canal!

STEPHANOPOULOS: Yeah—Bradley this week showed that he's a little prickly. Gore again revived his Pinocchio problem. Says he—

ROBERTS: Pinocchio problem [laughter]!

STEPHANOPOULOS: Says he was the model for Love Story, created the Internet, and this time he sort of discovered Love Canal. It was sort of a senator's slip, they fixed it quickly the next day, but reporters are going to be watching him like a hawk on his exaggerations.

We haven't yet discussed Gore's Love Canal statement, but there you have it, friends and neighbors—another pundit citing Love Story. Again, Melinda Henneberger's reporting—now two years old—showed Gore did not make the claim Stephanopoulos describes (see THE DAILY HOWLER, 12/6/99). And for what it's worth, author Erich Segal says Gore was one of two models for the Ryan O'Neal role.

Please note—Stephanopoulos is not a political opponent of Gore. His statement demonstrates an unsurprising fact—surely, very few Washington pundits know the facts in the Love Story nonsense. The silly Love Story tale is so deeply entrenched that they actually believe what Ceci Connolly said—that Gore "mistakenly claims to have inspired" the book/movie. At any rate, one part of Stephanopoulos' statement was correct—reporters surely will be watching Gore like a hawk. This week, two of them watched the VP so closely that they finally found a way to invent a false quote. The "quote" appeared in their papers on Wednesday. And sure enough—misinformation being This Week's lingua franca—we didn't have to wait very long to hear someone repeat it on Sunday:

ROBERTS (continuing directly): This is him saying that he discovered Love Canal when he had hearings on it after 250 people had been evacuated.

WILLIAM KRISTOL: Yeah. [Reading] "I found a little place in upstate New York called Love Canal. I was the one that started it all." Two months after 250 people were evacuated.

Kristol read the "quote" with a triumphant air. Sam Donaldson asked if the statement showed a "character flaw." George Will quickly said that it did.

Of course, if it's character flaws that the viewer is after, they aren't real hard to find on This Week. Kristol, for example, read this false quote four days after Chris Matthews corrected it. That's right, folks. Four days after this quote is corrected, it's still being read on This Week. And why does Kristol apparently not know, to this day, that Gore never made the statement he read? Because the New York Times and the Washington Post have refused to correct their errors. We called the Post ourselves on Friday, asking why there had been no correction, and we were told that they'd run one on Saturday. Saturday and Sunday came and went, and neither paper corrected their error. Result? On Sunday morning, the two papers' "mistake" was recited—this time, for a national audience.

But this is just par for the course on This Week. Just how bad can the program get? Listen to Roberts, five minutes earlier, in a discussion of Governor Bush's new tax plan:

STEPHANOPOULOS: ...One of the things that surprised me the most, even though he does weight it down toward lower income people, he made a bigger tax plan than the House Republicans. That's—

ROBERTS: No he didn't—


ROBERTS: 483 billion dollars?

STEPHANOPOULOS: That's over five years. Over ten years it goes about a trillion dollars, bigger than the House Republican tax plan.

It is simply astounding that Roberts didn't know this basic fact about the Bush tax proposal. And it seems to show where Roberts gets her info—from scanning headlines on page one of the Post. On 12/1, the Post had driven our analysts wild with their explanation of the size of the plan. They had run a dollar figure in their page-one headline, without saying how many years the figure covered:

WASHINGTON POST HEADLINE (12/1): Bush to Offer $483 Billion Tax-Cut Plan

Since most recent tax plans have been pegged by their ten-year cost, we assumed this headline would mislead readers. But even we never dreamed, dear friends, that the Post would hook a big fish like Roberts. After all, a reader who made it through paragraph five found the Post's pair of writers saying this:

PIANIN AND NEAL (paragraph 5): But in crafting his new approach, Bush has proposed a much bigger tax cut than even the GOP tax legislation that was vetoed by president Clinton in September. That plan would have cost $155 billion over five years or $792 billion over 10 years. Bush aides said his plan would cost $132 billion a year for the sixth through 10th year, or $1.14 trillion over a decade...

In short, someone who simply scanned Post headlines would have thought what Roberts thought. Someone who read through paragraph five would have known what Stephanopoulos said. And by the way—on Wednesday, every paper we review explained the fact which Roberts didn't know. Every paper said that Bush's tax cut exceeds the size of last year's House effort.

But incredibly, four days later—FOUR DAYS LATER!!—Cokie Roberts still didn't know this! Didn't know it!! You know—Cokie Roberts, paid millions of dollars to host one of the country's most important news programs? In this remarkable gaffe, Roberts continues a string of performances that have had our analysts howling for weeks. The most striking? Go back with us to November 7, when Naomi Wolf appeared on this pitiful program. At the time, Wolf was the hottest name in political news; this was her first TV interview since the flap began about her role in the Gore campaign. Early on, Roberts asked this:

ROBERTS: People keep referring to you as "controversial feminist writer." And some of the controversy is your work, most recently—is it most recently? Promiscuities? [Roberts' emphasis]

WOLF: Uh-huh. Uh-huh.

Does Roberts do any preparation at all? The answer is obvious here. Naomi Wolf has written three books. Three! And Roberts, presenting an exclusive interview with an important newsmaker, hadn't done enough background work to know which of Wolf's books came last—didn't know which book came last, even though she was planning to ask about one of them! Does anyone imagine, even for a minute, that Roberts had actually looked at these books? Sorry, folks—utter lack of preparation like this is an insult to the American public interest. Clearly, Roberts does no preparation at all before This Week goes on the air. But then, who could possibly think anything else following her comment on Governor Bush's tax program?

We're going to make a simple statement (and we hope to return to this topic later on). In any other professional sector, work like this could bring instant dismissal. If ABC were running an engineering firm, and one of their engineers was this badly misinformed, they would simply have to let her go, because it matters when bridges fall down. Engineering firms get sued and lose everything if their employees are completely unprepared. (Result—they never are.) And by the way, the performance of This Week's entire cast was absolutely staggering this Sunday. We have only begun to scrape the surface of the howlers committed "this week."

But note the point to which we'll return all week: William Kristol cited a quote that is plainly and simply invented. It was shown to be wrong on Wednesday night—four days later, Bill Kristol's still reading it! What kind of a press corps is so lazy and hapless that a bogus quote still airs four days later? You can provide your own descriptions, friends. But you saw it here, on this great Sunday program.


For the record: Congratulations to Fox News Sunday and CNN's Late Edition! Why? For having enough sense not to mention the Love Canal pseudo-scandal in their panel discussions this week. It also wasn't mentioned in the Meet the Press panel, which principally covered the New York Senate race. (Our analysts haven't reviewed Face the Nation.) No, if it's hapless, yowling errors you're after, tune in to the prep-free This Week.

Final note: We hope this is obvious, but in case it is not—nothing we have said is meant as a judgment about Governor Bush's tax plan. Roberts should know basic facts about this plan. Her viewers could then judge its merits.