8 December 1999
Our current howler (part IV): Mothers of paraphrase
Synopsis: Inventive scribes paraphrase freely, telling us what hopefuls "said."
Between the Lines, Revealing Glimpses Of Five Candidates
Michiko Kakutani, The New York Times, 11/22/99
Commentary by Brian Williams
The News with Brian Williams, MSNBC, 12/6/99
Commentary by Al Gore
Late Edition, CNN, 3/9/99
"Inside Politics" column
Greg Pierce, The Washington Times, 3/11/99
Gore to announce campaign early to battle bad publicity
Mimi Hall, USA Today, 6/2/99
Commentary by Bernard Kalb
Reliable Sources, CNN, 11/27/99
At one point in her review of Gore's Earth in the Balance,
Michiko Kakutani writes this:
KAKUTANI: Mr. Gore writes of undergoing a midlife crisis around
the same time. He says that in 1989, having just turned 40, lost
a presidential campaign and seen his son, Albert, nearly die in
an automobile accident, he became "impatient with my own
tendency to put a finger to the political winds and proceed cautiously."
Confronted with Kakutani's first sentence, many readers will
only naturally think that Gore writes of undergoing a midlife
crisis. They will have no way of knowing a naughty little fact;
Gore never uses the term "midlife crisis" in Earththe
diagnosis is that of the thoroughly unlicensed professional therapist,
Dr. Kakutani. The term "in midlife" appears once in
this part of Earth, and Gore talks about "a change
that sought me out in the middle of my life and gave me a new
sense of urgency about the things I value the most." But
Gore never uses the term "midlife crisis." And since
we can assume that Gore is aware of the term, the truth about
this is really quite simple: in this book, Gore deliberately chose
not to write of "undergoing a midlife crisis."
In fact, he seems to describe a different sort of experiencehe
talks in this same section about "an outer manifestation
of an inner crisis that is, for want of a better term, spiritual."
Well, Kakutani had a "better term" in mind, and she
put it in Gore's mouth"midlife crisis." It played well
with her theme that Gore is a bit strange, and consumed with "New
Age psychobabble." What do you do if you want to say that,
and your subject won't cooperate by using such terms? Simpleyou
paraphrase! You put the desired words in his mouthand tell readers
that that's what he "said."
Welcome to the world of paraphrase, where inventive journalists
find clever ways to get hopefuls to "say" things they
like. The power of paraphrase is the power to spin, and the press
corps tends to use power freely. The arc of the Gore "embellishment"
story is traced by the use of this helpful tool, in which pundits
put words into candidates' mouths and agree to pretend that they
Take the matter of "inventing the Internet," one
of Gore's better-known "gaffes." Everyone knows that
Gore said he did it. Indeed, here was Brian Williams this past
Monday night, reading a clip from the new U.S. News:
WILLIAMS: From the inventor of the Internet, quote,
"I was the one that started it all," says Al Gore. He's
talking about Love Canal, uncovering it in upstate New York. More
on that a little later.
In this passage, Williams recycles the Seelye/Connolly bogus
quote ("I was the one that started it all"). And he
links it to "inventing the Internet." The idea that
Gore claimed he "invented the Internet" is a staple
of the year's political discourse, but it's somewhat like that
midlife crisisthose are words Gore never spoke. Here's what he
did say, to CNN's Wolf Blitzer, on Late Edition Primetime
GORE: During my service in the United States Congress, I took
the initiative in creating the Internet.
The statement is clumsy, but that's often the way with extemporaneous
speech. Of course, if the comment had seemed odd to Blitzer, he
could have asked an obvious question: "What do you mean?"
But Blitzer didn't ask that question, and the reason may be easy
to understandas an experienced journalist, Blitzer would have
known that Gore did take the leadership, within the
Congress, in developing the Internet. But it wasn't just Blitzer
who didn't seem to think that Gore's remark was especially odd;
when Greg Pierce excerpted Gore's Late Edition appearance
in the Washington Times ("Inside Politics" column),
he didn't even mention the Internet comment (see postscript).
Within the press corps, no one said a word about Gore's comment
for the next several days.
But a few days later, fax machines began whirring at the RNC,
and criticism of Gore's incredible comment began to spread through
the press. And, although Gore's original statement comprised just
sixteen words, pleasing paraphrases quickly appearedGore had
said he "invented the Internet," or that he was "the
father of the Internet." It's remarkably hard, looking back
through the clips, even to find the actual words Gore spoke,
so quickly were those words set aside for new phrases that made
the tale a bit better.
It's only natural that statementseven sixteen-word statementswill
get reduced to shorter phrases, but at times it has been simply
comical to watch the press corps report what Gore said. Here's
Mimi Hall, in USA Today, discussing the Gore campaign in June:
HALL: A series of negative news stories unnerved Gore's campaign
staff, aides say...A couple of Gore gaffes, including his assertion
that he "invented" the Internet, didn't help.
The only word that Hall put in quotes was the word that Gore
didn't say! How does work like this get in print? Because
paraphrase quickly replaces the truth in the excitable minds of
the press corps. And how hard has it been to see Gore's real
statement? Just two weeks ago, on Reliable Sources, Bernard
Kalb had a warning about campaign coverage:
KALB: You'd better get ready for a lot of old news over and
over and over. The fact is, TV news can't resist blunders, embarrassments,
gaffes, blooperswhat experts sometimes call "a defining
moment" whether it is or not, whether it's fair or not.
After airing tape of two famous bloopers, Kalb then showed
KALB: Remember this one? It also got a good run on TV news.
[Gore on tape: "I took the initiative in creating
"One nice thing about our politicians," Kalb then
said. "They've been very good in giving us all kinds of bites
that come back to haunt them."
It's ironic that Kalb starts out raising a question of fairness
because of the way he will soon edit Gore. In his tape, he clips
the first six words off Gore's statement, saving his program,
whatliterally, two seconds? He clips off the qualifying
phrase in the sentencethe phrase that might let a viewer conclude
that Gore's statement wasn't quite as cuckoo or unambiguous as
the viewer may have thought. Obviously, the show gained no significant
time by trimming Gore's statement. What did it gain? A slightly
improved declaration by Gore, in which his assertion is less ambiguous
than his actual statement.
When pundits recite Gore's string of embellishments, they attribute
a litany of claims to Gore, all of which have been improved by
the use of that ol' debbil, paraphrase. We are told that Gore
said he inspired Love Story, invented the
Internet, and now that he discovered Love Canal. None of
those exciting verbs ever emerged from Gore's mouth. But then,
he never said he had a "midlife crisis," either. The
doctor did thatthe spin doctor.
Tomorrow: We take a last look at Gore-on-canaland revisit
Ceci Connolly's strange invention.
The doctor was IN: Some readers have said it's unfair
to criticize Kakutani because she isn't a political reporter.
We had qualms on that score ourselvesbut we thought her article
was among the most spin-driven pieces we have seen all year. Did
Kakutani think Gore was describing a midlife crisis? She was perfectly
free to say that. But Kakutani, a writer, knows how to write a
sentence like this: "Mr. Gore writes of undergoing something
that sounds like a midlife crisis around the same time."
Her readers then would have known that the diagnosis was hers
(though her editor, knowing Kakutani is not a psychiatrist, might
have then cut the whole sentence out). Her readers would also
have known something embarrassingthat, in a review criticizing
Gore for using "New Age psychobabble," it was Kakutani
who injected this New Age term, replacing the language Gore used
in this section, which was traditionally spiritual.
Where does spin come from: The RNC is perfectly free
to send out whatever faxes it wants. But the evidence is clearuntil
the Republican leadership began interpreting Gore's Internet comment,
no one in the press corps seemed to find it so strange. Greg Pierce
is a persistent Gore critic in his Washington Times column, as
is his perfect right. But when Pierce did a second-day item on
Gore's CNN appearance, he didn't even mention the Internet comment;
instead, he discussed what Gore said about polls. The Internet
remark has come to be seen as one of Kalb's "defining moments."
No one seemed to think so at the time.