Liar, liar, pants on fire
Who's got a problem with the truth?
The press should look in the mirror
By David Neiwert
Special to MSNBC
Al Gore is a liar, and George Bush is dumb: That seems to be the script about the two men running for the presidency handed to us by the national press. Bush demonstrated in the first two debates that the legend of his stupidity is nonsense, despite a couple of stumbles. Contrarily, Al Gore seemed to provide grist for the mill of stories about his "truthfulness." But that story, too, is mostly a myth -- as is nearly the entire scenario about Gore’s alleged lies.
THE "GORE IS A LIAR" tale is widely presented to the public as a reminder that personal character remains an issue for many voters. And it's supposed to represent a deep-seated problem, possibly a psychological malfunction, of the vice-president's -- as though journalists and TV talking heads had suddenly sprouted psychology degrees on their résumés.
But in fact, what the case represents is a breakdown in basic standards of journalism -- simple factual accuracy -- on a massive scale, signaling deep-seated problems in the profession that are reflected in the public's growing skepticism about our fairness.
Nearly the entire array of supposed "lies" uttered by Al Gore are gross distortions of what the vice president actually uttered. Almost all of them are partisan renderings of otherwise innocent remarks, and calling them "lies" or "fabrications" is at best a gross overstatement:
- -- Gore claims he 'invented the Internet.' Actually, Gore never laid any kind of claim to invention. What he in fact said, during a CNN interview with Wolf Blitzer on March 9, 1999, was this: "During my service in the United States Congress, I took the initiative in creating the Internet." This is a clumsy rendition of a factual event: Gore was a key player in Congress in moving the network that became the Internet from the realm of the military and academia, where it originally was devised, and into the public realm, where it became the mass phenomenon it is today.
Vincent Cerf, the man widely credited as the actual "father of the Internet," in fact argues that Gore should get a great deal of credit for his seminal role in creating the legal foundation for the Internet. And even former House Speaker Newt Gingrich -- no ally of the vice president -- agrees: "In all fairness, it's something Gore had worked on a long time," he recently told a Washington gathering. "Gore is not the Father of the Internet, but in all fairness Gore is the person who, in the Congress, most systematically worked to make sure that we got to an Internet."
-- Gore claims he was the role model for 'Love Story.' This tale originated with a 1997 story in the Nashville Tennessean -- an interview with the book's author, Erich Segal, in which the reporter wrote that Segal indicated that Gore and his wife, Tipper, were the role models for the book's main characters. Then, in December 1997, in a light, late-night conversation about favorite movies with a pair of reporters from Time magazine and the New York Times, Gore briefly mentioned the story, accurately, as a humorous aside.
Later, after the tale had blown up and was distorted into one of Gore's "fabrications," the Times contacted Segal, and he told them the Tennessean was wrong: Gore in fact was one of the models for the Oliver Barrett character -- along with his roommate, actor Tommy Lee Jones -- but Tipper had nothing to do with it. Nonetheless, despite the Times' correction and the insistence of the original Time reporter, Karen Tumulty, that the remark wasn’t a boast of any sort, and was factually correct -- "He said all I know is that's what he [Segal] told reporters in Tennessee" -- the fabricated "fabrication" remains a standard of TV and newspaper pundits.
-- Gore was never a farm boy -- he grew up in a posh Washington hotel. A number of critics, both in print and on TV, have castigated Gore for making remarks on the stump about the chores he performed on his family farm in Tennessee. They point to his youth as a senator's son, attending private school and living in a Washington hotel. But that's only a half-truth; though his school years were spent in D.C., Gore in fact spent his summers working on the Gores' farm in Carthage. Every biographer of Gore -- including those critical of Gore, such as Bob Zelnick -- has detailed the fact that he performed strenuous daily chores every summer of his youth. And the summers on the farm have likewise been detailed in a number of in-depth Gore profiles in The Washington Post, the New Yorker, The New York Times Magazine, and Vanity Fair.
-- Gore claims to have 'started it all' at Love Canal. This legend began with a gross misquote that appeared simultaneously in the New York Times and the Washington Post, reporting that Gore had told a group of students that he had discovered the Love Canal toxic waste dump as an issue, adding: "I was the one that started it all." In fact, Gore didn't claim he discovered the Love Canal issue; he said instead that it had supplemented his crusade against toxic wastes, inspired by an incident in Toone, Tenn., after a teenager there had written him a letter alerting him to problems in the town: "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 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."
Clearly, Gore hadn't said, "I was the one that started it all." And the "one" that started it all was Toone, not Love Canal. What Gore was describing was factually correct in every respect -- he had written about it in detail in his 1992 book, Earth in the Balance, and his role as a prime mover in creating the toxic-waste cleanup Superfund has been amply documented by his biographers, including Zelnick. Both the Times and the Post ran corrections. But that fact has escaped the numerous pundits and partisans who bandy about the phrase "Love Canal" as yet another sound bite implying that Gore is a liar.
-- Gore claims his mother sang to him as a lullaby a union song written when he was 27. Gore didn’t make this claim seriously. As video tapes of the remark Gore made to an audience of Teamsters on Sept. 18, Gore was trying to make a joke when he said, "I still remember the lullabies I heard as a child," then sang a few bars of the ad jingle, "Look for the Union Label." Gore laughs, and the audience laughs. When dumb jokes are construed as falsehoods, the question needs to be asked: Is someone lacking a sense of humor?
After the debate
In each case, the factual basis of these tales is simply nonexistent, and in some cases their misreporting is simple malfeasance by the journalists responsible. Nonetheless, each of these tales has woven its way into the national discourse in such a way that the truth about them isn’t even questioned. And around the bones of these legends, a dozen or more supplemental incidents have been added to the story -- mostly cases in which Gore's interpretation of events might be open to question, and the dispute is then elevated to the level of proof that Gore is a liar.
This happened immediately after the first debate between Gore and Bush in Boston on Oct. 3. Two points raised by Gore caught the press' attention:
- -- Gore mentioned the case of a young student in Florida forced to stand in her class because of overcrowding at the school. Gore relied on an outdated news account -- the girl had in the interim managed to get a seat at a desk -- and officials at the school leapt to their own defense and branded Gore a liar, with those accounts receiving wide play. Receiving lesser play was the fact that the newspaper that provided the original account re-examined the case and found the basic facts of Gore's story intact: the school remained overcrowded, and several students had in fact been forced to stand for several weeks when school opened.
-- Gore mentioned that he had visited Texas in the wake of a series of disastrous fires with FEMA Director James Witt. It turned out that, though Gore in fact had made dozens of trips with Witt to various disaster scenes, Witt hadn’t been along on the trip Gore mentioned. Gore apologized for the mistake the next day. But again, pundits pointed to the misstep as further proof of Gore's dishonesty.
Unlike the previous cases, in both of these instances Gore was guilty of minor factual inaccuracy and thus shares some of the blame for them. But if relying on outdated news accounts for illustrative anecdotes and misremembering the details of your many duties as an official functionary stand as proof of dishonesty, then Ronald Reagan was a liar of colossal proportions.
How legends grow
These myths don't originate by osmosis or accident. In fact, nearly all of them can be directly traced to the Republican National Committee, which has developed a zeal for faxing attacks on Gore's credibility as part of a general strategy to attach him in voters' minds to a Clinton administration they regularly portray as "corrupt."
Such tactics shouldn't surprise anyone familiar with political campaigns. Convincing voters of an opponent's perfidousness is a time-honored electoral strategy. What is disturbing, though, is the clear picture of a credulous press simply accepting that particular spin on events and running it whole, devoid of any factual counterbalance. (Of particular note is the shared misquote of Gore's "Love Canal" remark in both the Times and the Post, which bears an uncanny resemblance to a similar alteration of Gore's remarks in an RNC fax.)
The independence and veracity of the press has been called into question increasingly in the past decade. Cries against a perceived "liberal media bias" -- some of them well-grounded, some of them mere partisan ax-grinding based on skewed data -- were heard loudly in the early 1990s and continue today.
But in the past couple of years, the tide seems to have reversed itself. Of particular note was a survey by the Pew Research Center for the People and the Press analyzing press coverage of the presidential race between April and June 2000. It found that 76 percent of the coverage of Gore focused on two negative themes: his "lies," and exaggerations and his alleged fund-raising scandals. Meanwhile, the survey found, coverage of George W. Bush largely involved warm accounts of "compassionate conservatism" and Bush's purported move to the political center.
Combined with the evolution of the "Liar Al" story and the rise of plainly right-biased news organizations like Fox News and the Washington Times, the evidence suggests that many newsrooms have responded to the charges of a "liberal" bias by instituting a de facto conservative bias. But the problem with either bias is that it overlooks factuality -- the basis of all credible journalism -- in the pursuit of partisan agendas. Stories become highly selective prosecutions instead of thorough and balanced news accounts.
If the press is serious about responding to a rising tide of reader and audience surveys indicating a steadily eroding trust in the value of their work, it needs to begin by making factual accuracy and basic balance and fairness its hallmarks and not mere afterthoughts. And it wouldn't hurt if it dropped the half-baked armchair psychoanalysis from its repertoire, either.