One month after formally kicking off his presidential campaign, Vice President Al Gore paddled down the Connecticut River in New Hampshire on July 22nd, 1999, spreading his green theme of protecting the environment and pausing for a photo op. His message was quickly drowned out, though, when the Washington Times' Bill Sammon reported that local authorities had granted Gore a special favor when they released nearly 4 billion gallons of water from a nearby dam into the drought-stricken river in order to keep the vice president's boat afloat.
The price tag on the spilled water was quickly calculated at $7 million. The implication was clear: In a clumsy abuse of power, Al Gore, a supposed friend of the environment, gladly wasted precious natural resources to stage-manage a political event.
Following the lead of the Washington Times, an unabashedly conservative outlet often hostile to Democrats, the rest of the mainstream press pounced, not only upbraiding Gore for his supposed hypocrisy but also suggesting that the campaign miscue was just the latest example of a foundering presidential run. The New York Times detailed the "mishap," the Washington Post ridiculed Gore's FOUR BILLION GALLONS FOR A PHOTO OP, Newsweek dubbed it the "photo op from hell," and CNN covered the "wave of criticism after floodgates are opened on a New Hampshire river to keep Al Gore afloat."
In retrospect, the most notable thing about the whole story was just how murky the facts were. Nobody from the Gore campaign asked for the water to be released. (Concerned about security, the Secret Service did.) As for the amount of water released, it was 500 million gallons, not 4 billion - a fact that Sammon reported a week later, long after other media ran with the original story. And the local utility company that operates the dam was already dumping millions of gallons of water into the parched Connecticut River every day. The routine release had simply been moved up a couple of hours to accommodate Gore's trip. The $7 million figure turned out to be completely inaccurate, since the water was not wasted. Instead, it passed through hydroelectric turbines and generated power that the utility company sold to other utilities.
"I felt like we'd fallen through the looking glass," says Sharon Francis, executive director of the Connecticut River Joint Commissions, who coordinated Gore's visit on behalf of the region and for days fielded press queries about the derided canoe trip. She describes the media coverage as "fictional" and "nasty" and "spun to sound like something corrupt."
Two years later, Sammon defends his work, insisting that the incident makes "a point about Gore's political reflexes, [which are] to spin furiously and resort to deception."
Those are two things the D.C. press corps knows plenty about.
If the media charade surrounding Gore's Connecticut River trip had been a one-time event - nothing more than bored political reporters trying too hard to kick up some dust during a slow summer news week - this incident would be forgotten to history. Instead, it is emblematic of the way the political press operated throughout the campaign, falsely reporting trivia about Gore and challenging his character in order to score points.
The coverage was at times blatantly dishonest, and, worse, reporters seemed so determined to stick to pre-assigned scripts ("Gore is a phony") that they balked at correcting obvious errors that began to circulate. (For a complete chronicle of the press's factual missteps in covering Gore, go to dailyhowler.com, a Web site run by Bob Somerby, one of Gore's college roommates and close friends.)
Whether it was the misreported assertion that he'd invented the Internet or the ridiculously exaggerated brouhaha over his quickly corrected claim that he and his wife, Tipper, were models for the young lovers in Erich Segal's best-selling novel Love Story, Gore's close friends and admirers agree that Gore has a penchant for hyperbole. But in last year's election, the press elevated this relatively minor personality quirk into a character-defining issue.
"The coverage seemed to be much more aggressive and adversarial than I'd ever seen before," says Scott Shepard, a veteran newspaper reporter who has four presidential campaigns to his credit and who covered the Gore campaign for the Atlanta Journal-Constitution
"There was a fair amount of animus as time wore on with Gore," says James Warren, who was then Washington bureau chief for the Chicago Tribune, referring to the mood on the press plane. "People were overly hard toward him. He's a decent, honest fellow. He was not the greatest candidate, but he's not dishonest. And some in the press came perilously close to saying that."
Recalls one network-television correspondent who spent lots of time on the presidential campaign, "There just developed among a certain group of people covering Gore, particularly the print people, a real disdain for him. Everything was negative. They had a grudge against [Gore]. I don't know how else to put it."
The hostility was evident throughout the campaign as the press, in a series of questionable endeavors, worked overtime to portray Gore as a fake. For instance, after combing through twenty years' worth of public statements, the Boston Globe last year ran a typical, and contemptuous, 3,000-word expos exploring the vice president's propensity to exaggerate. Or, as the paper tsk-tsked, "Gore has regularly promoted himself, and skewered his opponents, with embroidered, misleading and occasionally false statements." No doubt uncharted territory for a major American politician.
After all that research, what did the Globe's Walter Robinson and Michael Crowley find to be among Gore's most egregious exaggerations? "Starting in 1994, Gore has added two years to his journalistic experience, upping the figure from the five years he once claimed to seven." This may seem to be the very definition of trivial - "gotcha" journalism carried to its absurd extreme. But it's also wrong.
By biographers' accounts, Gore spent two years in the Army as a reporter, or "information specialist," and five years working for The Tennessean. That's seven years. The number has never changed. Asked about the discrepancy, Robinson now argues that Gore spent only nineteen months in the Army and that his five years at The Tennessean were interrupted by two years in law school, when he worked part-time at the paper. "It was another example of Gore sort of rounding things up to his advantage, trying to make it into something bigger," says Robinson.
Of course, the Globe article set aside space to mock Gore for his claim of having invented the Internet. Perhaps the most famous of Gore's fictional missteps, that over-the-top brag became convenient shorthand for pundits to ridicule a man so uncomfortable with his own skin, the conventional wisdom went, that he felt the need to chronically inflate his achievements. Clearly, he'd say anything to get elected. (And pundits, doubling as shrinks, even knew why: "In all likelihood, his exaggerations reflect a yearning for a kind of approval and admiration that he never got from his dad," said Gore biographer Bob Zelnick.)
The fact that Gore never said he invented the Internet didn't stop the press from telling, and retelling, a story that fit into its prepackaged narrative: Gore is a liar. But it was the journalists, trying hard to paint a damning portrait of Gore, who played it loose with the facts and perpetrated what added up to a complete fabrication.
Here's what happened. In 1999, candidate Gore was taping an interview with CNN's Wolf Blitzer in which he said, "During my service in the United States Congress, I took the initiative in creating the Internet." He was no doubt referring to his landmark "information superhighway" speeches, as well as his well-known support of high-tech research that stretched back into the 1980s. (For the record, Vinton Cerf, often called "the father of the Internet," not to mention futurist Newt Gingrich, have both publicly vouched for Gore's role in helping to shepherd the Internet to life.)
So who coined the phrase "invented the Internet" and attached it to Gore? His Republican opponents, who faxed out a press release suggesting Gore had claimed to have done exactly that.
It's no surprise that GOP operatives would willfully misinterpret a statement from a Democratic presidential candidate. What's amazing is that the press went along with it so uncritically. Was it accurate? The press didn't care, as virtually every major media outlet in the country followed the Republican lead and reported over and over again Gore's claim to have invented the Internet.
Concerned about losing the election on traditional campaign issues such as taxes, Medicare and crime, topics that, according to polls, favored Democrats, the GOP worked to turn the election into a character contest. To do that, Republicans had to link Gore with President Bill Clinton by dismantling the vice president's long-standing image as an earnest Boy Scout and replacing it with that of a phony liar. The New York Times cheered the Republicans' Internet move as "clever" and "ingenious."
As would become its custom, the Gore camp responded timidly and slowly. Seeing the Internet story was taking on a life of its own, some aides suggested the vice president pop the balloon by quickly addressing it. Gore, though, waited more than a week before publicly cracking a joke about how the night before the CNN interview, he'd been up late "inventing the camcorder." By then, the story had legs. And by trying to finesse the issue with humor and adopting the fictitious premise that he "invented" something extraordinary, Gore simply gave the damaging story credence.
"The Republicans did a very good job pushing that stuff, and the press reveled in it," says Tony Coelho, who served as Gore's campaign chairman until June 2000, when he stepped down for health reasons. "They wanted to bring down 'Prince Albert.' "
Often, the GOP didn't even have to prompt the press to create Gore exaggerations - reporters did it all on their own. During a September campaign stop, Gore recalled to a crowd of union workers that his mother used to sing him to sleep at night using "Look for the Union Label" as a lullaby. The press started digging and discovered the story was a fraud and "must be labeled untrue," as USA Today's political columnist Walter Shapiro reported. The TV jingle was written in 1975, when Gore was twenty-seven years old. The story was quickly picked up by cable TV's talkers and print columnists as another "bizarre fabrication."
The only problem was that Gore told the tale as a joke, confirmed by the video of the event, which showed the audience of Teamsters laughing at the mention of the so-called "lullaby." A week later, an editorial in USA Today addressed the issue and actually sided with Gore: "A review of the videotape gives plausibility to that explanation." But Shapiro stands by the column: "I was in the room [when Gore spoke], and I didn't feel it was a joke, and my tape recorder didn't feel it was a joke. I didn't hear people laughing. But if they were laughing, it was at Gore's awkwardness."
On October 6th, 2000, New York Times reporter Richard Berke referenced the union song prominently in a lengthy piece about Gore's "tendency to embellish," stressing "how Mr. Gore recalled a childhood lullaby that did not exist." Not once did the paper inform readers that both Gore and the members of the audience considered the line to be a throwaway joke.
Like most reporters quizzed about their Gore coverage, Berke agrees that the vice president was the victim of some shoddy press but that he himself did not contribute to it. And more important, says Berke, Gore did exaggerate, so even if some careless journalists made mistakes documenting the alleged embellishments, the story itself was legitimate.
But lots of well-known embellishment stories were not legitimate, such as the infamous Love Canal incident. When Gore spoke at Concord High School in New Hampshire on November 30th, 1999, and urged students to take an active role in politics, he recalled that it was a letter years before from a student in Toone, Tennessee, that got then-Rep. Gore interested in the topic of toxic waste. "I called for a congressional investigation and a hearing," Gore told the students. "I looked around the country for other sites like that. I found a little place in upstate New York called Love Canal. I had the first hearing 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."
The next day, both the Washington Post and the New York Time botched the quote, erroneously reporting Gore had bragged, "I was the one that started it all."
The Post's Ceci Connolly, who covered Gore campaign for eighteen months and made the error, today insists that her miscue "did not change the context" of Gore's original statement. She contends that the key quote, the one that catches Gore embellishing, was the quote "I found a little place in upstate New York called Love Canal." Yet clearly from his response, Gore used the term "found" in reference to "looking around the country for other sites like" Toone, and in no way suggested he uncovered the Love Canal toxic-waste disaster.
Thanks to the high-profile misquote, though, the media's echo chamber erupted, with MSNBC's Chris Matthews mocking Gore for being delusional, while ABC's George Stephanopoulos lamented that the vice president had "revealed his Pinocchio problem." (In a press release, the ever-helpful Republican National Committee cleaned up the mangled quote, changing "that" to "who" in order to make the misquote grammatically correct: "I was the one who started it all.") This time Gore responded quickly but was again too humble, calling a reporter the morning after the Concord visit to say he was sorry if his Love Canal comments had not been clear enough.
It was actually local students, enrolled in a media-literacy course, who had to set the record straight by taking the unusual step of issuing their own press release under the headline TOP TEN REASONS WHY MANY CONCORD HIGH STUDENTS FEEL BETRAYED BY SOME OF THE MEDIA COVERAGE OF AL GORE'S VISIT TO THE THEIR SCHOOL.
It took the Post and the Times a week to run Love Canal corrections. Yet one month before Election Day, the usually reliable Associated Press reported confidently, "Gore's exaggerations have placed him more centrally than warranted at the creation of . . . the Love Canal toxic-waste investigation." The episode fit a distinct pattern: Journalists just refused to drop unflattering Gore stories, no matter what the facts revealed.
For instance, the candidate was ridiculed endlessly after the infamous Love Story flap. Actually, what Gore mentioned to two reporters in an offhand comment was that, according to an old Tennessean article,Love Story author Segal had made that claim. After Gore's quip, Segal corrected the record by saying that The Tennessean had gotten it wrong, and that both Gore and his Harvard roommate, actor Tommy Lee Jones, had served as models for Love Story's male protagonist, but that Segal did not base any character on Tipper.
Simple, right? Three years later, Newsweek still could not figure it out. Busy documenting embellishments weeks before Election Day, the magazine's Bill Turque wrote that the vice president "was not the basis for the Oliver Barrett character in Love Story." That sentence continues, ". . . author Erich Segal says Barrett was a combination of Gore and his Harvard pal Tommy Lee Jones." So why, then, was Gore belittled for his association with Love Story? Turque concedes the sentence "could have been more artfully worded" but insists "it is not fundamentally contradictory."
Regardless, Gore's team should have "stuck a knife in those exaggeration stories early on," concedes Mark Fabiani, communication director for the campaign. Instead, the tales lived on in the press and ultimately "came back to haunt the campaign."
The consensus among the press corps, according to Bob Woodward, assistant managing editor of the Washington Post, was that there were enough instances of Gore playing loose with the facts that the legitimate issue was raised as to whether he "could apprehend reality." Says Woodward, "It set off alarm bells in reporters' heads, and it should."
Perhaps nowhere were those bells going off more loudly or more often than in the head of Washington Post reporter Ceci Connolly. Her dispatches, frequently heavy on spin and regularly filled with biting jibes, were often the talk of campaign journalists, not to mention Gore officials.
Connolly was one of the reporters who botched Gore's Love Canal quote more than once. In her first dispatch on the matter, she used the twisted quote to mock Gore for dissembling about his record, a theme she had been hammering for months. In her follow-up story the next day, she printed it again, jeering, "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 he discovered a toxic-waste site."
Incredibly, none of the three examples Connolly offered to highlight Gore's compulsion for exaggerating were based on fact. Eleven months later, and just three weeks before Election Day, the Post returned to the topic of Love Canal, reporting how Gore's "clumsy" statements "suggesting he discovered the Love Canal disaster" had made him an easy target for ridicule.
At the same time that the paper was busy propping up the Love Canal story, it suddenly decided that the Love Story hoax was no longer based in fact, pointing out on October 15th, 2000, "Gore never claimed he and his wife were the models for the book Love Story but instead referred to an article in which author Erich Segal was misquoted as saying so." It just proved, the Post emphasized, "how closely Gore's anecdotes and statements are being watched" and that his every utterance will be "fact-checked."
Connolly dismisses the criticism. "I was very tough on Al Gore," she says, "the same way I was tough on George W. Bush when I covered him briefly" during the campaign. Tough? Traveling for just a few days with the Bush campaign, Connolly wrote that the candidate "evoked memories of another governor-turned-president: Ronald Reagan." The young Republican candidate, with "just a bit of swagger for the party faithful," was a "cheerful patriot" with a "sunny disposition" who "jauntily plays to the cameras and crowds." Compare that to a single dispatch from the Gore trail, in which Connolly derided the vice president as "boring" and "programmed to the point of seeming robotic" and mocked his "rarely seen human side."
Nineteen months after putting words in his mouth and then disdaining him for his supposed Internet claims, and fifteen months after spinning pure fiction about his canoe trip down the Connecticut River, the press erupted over another trivial pursuit. During the first presidential debate, Gore told the tale of Kailey Ellis, a student at Florida's Sarasota High School, and how, due to severe overcrowding, "she has to stand" during her science class.
Forget that affluent Sarasota voters last year voted down a school-budget referendum, which left the district with a $17 million shortfall or that 100 of its teachers had been laid off or that high school classes in the fall of 2000 had nine more students per classroom than the year before. The fact that the acclaimed Sarasota school system was grappling with severe budget cuts and real overcrowding was of no interest to the pundit press corps. They only wanted to know one thing: whether Kailey "has to stand during class." The answer was no, but at one point, she did have to.
That was the extent of Gore's "exaggeration": He used the wrong verb tense, saying "has" instead of "had." Looking back, Randy Ellis, Kailey's father and a registered Republican, says the national coverage of the Sarasota incident was "bizarre" and "unbelievable." "They just wanted to get a story saying that Gore was an exaggerator," he says. "Two weeks later, they were still going over and rehashing it. We couldn't believe it. It was a trip."
The press also went into a tizzy over Gore's casual comment during that first debate that he had traveled with James Lee Witt, head of the Federal Emergency Management Agency, to Texas during a spate of wildfires. As vice president, Gore had traveled with Witt seventeen different times, but not on the date in question. Gore corrected the record the next morning, but the press treated his slip of the tongue as wildly important.
According to Fabiani, the Gore camp failed to perform a fundamental task: "The challenge of a campaign is to give people something to think about instead of the pre-existing story line. If you let people's pre-existing notions prevail, you deserve what you get."
"Gore felt like he won the debate," says Tony Coelho, "but what he did do was lose the spin." Gore's former campaign manager offers only praise for the senior Bush advisers, who, during that crucial period last October, deftly handled the press. "Karl Rove and Karen Hughes outmaneuvered and out-strategized us," he says. "We weren't in the same league with them at that point."
During the debates, though, Bush made a handful of blunders regarding military operations in the Balkans and Haiti, about the facts surrounding Texas' most celebrated hate-crime trial and about his own tax plan. Bush was free to botch facts about central policy issues and the press wouldn't question his intelligence. But if Gore were to misstate nonessential details, such as how long a student had to stand in a crowded Sarasota classroom, he was tagged a liar who couldn't be trusted.
Few journalists saw anything wrong with this double standard. In fact, some found it amusing. "You can actually disprove some of what Bush is saying if you really get in the weeds and get out your calculator, or you look at his record in Texas," Time magazine columnist Margaret Carlson told radio morning man Don Imus at the height of the campaign. "But it's really easy, and it's fun, to disprove Gore. As sport, and as our enterprise, Gore coming up with another whopper is greatly entertaining to us."
Who decided that covering presidential politics was supposed to be "entertaining" and "fun" for journalists?
The press responds to critics on the right by bending over backward not to look liberal," says Geneva Overholser, a professor at the University of Missouri School of Journalism and former ombudsman for the Washington Post, referring to the common conservative criticism of the so-called liberal media. "The cumulative effect is the opposite: They're tougher on Democrats." She, too, is convinced there was "something fundamentally wrong" with the 2000 election press coverage.
Last year, a review conducted by two nonpartisan groups, Project for Excellence in Journalism and the Pew Research Center, found that a stunning seventy-six percent of the Gore campaign coverage in early 2000 centered around two negative themes: that he lies and exaggerates, and that he's tarred by scandal. "We call it the metanarrative," says Tom Rosenstiel, director of Project for Excellence in Journalism. "Journalists are looking for a story line, a narrative device, that plays out over weeks and months, and there's nothing wrong with that. The problem is if they let the narrative overwhelm the facts, then it becomes a distorting lens. It can lead journalists to ignore and mischaracterize facts as they try to fit them into the story."
Still, Beltway journalists defend their work. "I followed our coverage closely, and I thought it was excellent," says the Washington Post's Woodward. "It really was balanced." The former Watergate sleuth notes the challenge for reporters covering a fast-moving national election on a daily basis: "All these threads hang down - 'What about Bush's intelligence and Gore's truthfulness?' As a reporter, you don't know which one to pull. So you end up pulling on them all and ask, 'What is this?' If on balance you're pulling one set of strings too hard, then you have a problem." The truth is, while the press occasionally tugged a George Bush thread and ridiculed his garbled syntax, pundits were yanking on the Gore threads until they snapped.
What explains the press performance? All politics is personal, and as one theory suggests, Bush was simply friendlier and more open with the press, which translated into kinder, gentler coverage. Bush, the New York Times said last year, "not only slaps reporters' backs but also rubs the tops of their heads and, in a few instances, pinches their cheeks."
"There was a certain sort of hubris and arrogance how the Gore people handled the campaign," reports the Chicago Tribune's Warren. One senior Gore campaign aide agrees: "We clearly made some mistakes. Especially in the beginning, we were very guarded about access to him. It played into the idea that Gore was not at ease with the press." Journalists did little to hide their contempt. During a primary debate against former Sen. Bill Bradley in New Hampshire, Gore was openly booed - not by Bradley supporters but by reporters. "The 300 media types watching in the press room at Dartmouth were, to use the appropriate technical term, totally grossed out," said a 1999 Time report. "Whenever Gore came on too strong, the room erupted in a collective jeer, like a gang of fifteen-year-old Heathers cutting down some hapless nerd."
Did bad press cost Al Gore the election last year? It's naive to think Gore's chronically caustic coverage didn't cause him to lose votes during a historically close election. Looking back, Gore's handlers accept responsibility for mistakes they made during the campaign.
When will journalists do the same?
(RS883/884 - Dec. 6-13, 2001)