The Lincoln Plawg - the blog with footnotes

Politics and law from a British perspective (hence Politics LAW BloG): ''People who like this sort of thing...'' as the Great Man said

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Saturday, June 18, 2005

Quoting politicians: Gore and the Love Canal - again

I mentioned on May 29 the This American Life episode which has a piece on the Gore speech in Concord, NH which set the Love Canal hare running.

Now, I find a 2003 paper (PDF) at the Shorenstein Center site Al Gore and the "Embellishment" Issue: Press Coverage of the Gore Presidential Campaign which supplies much useful background.

For instance, I don't recall having seen mentioned that Bob Somerby, arch-defender of Gore against the army of media orcs, was (p4)
[one] of Gore's room-mates

And the paper identifies (p2) a couple of - one is lead to assume - unchallenged Gore stretchers from his abortive presidential run in 1988: first, that, as journo at the Nashville Tennessean, he had got
a bunch of people indicted and sent to jail
(two indicted, none sent to jail); and, second, that he included in campaign material a photo of himself carrying an M16, though he had been a noncombattant (a USA journo) in Vietnam.

We get the Love Story story, the I created the internet story and the farm boy story before getting to the Love Canal saga on p7.

Somberby has the text of Gore's Concord remarks on the subject.

The problem was with the reporting of the Post (Ceci Connolly) and the Times (Katherine Seelye). Seelye reported that Gore had said (emphasis mine)
I found a little place in upstate New York called the Love Canal. I had the first hearing on the issue and Toone, Tenn. But I was the one that started it.

Connolly's report of his Love Canal remarks were similar, and included the sentence in bold.

However, there was a third journo on the case, Hadley Pawlak of AP. She was not present at the speech, but was detailed by her editors to get the SP on it, with a view to playing the exaggerator angle.

She spoke to Gore, who told her he had meant to say not that he had started the Love Canal controversy, but that his Congressional hearings had started the move towards remedial Federal legislation.

She then checks the tape of the AP hack trailing Gore, and finds that both the Times and the Post have misquoted him. In the bolded sentence, he had in fact said That, not I.

Her hopes of a famous victory against the two rags were soon dashed. Her piece, sliced and diced by the AP editors, used the correct quote, and gave some context to what Gore had said.
But the article made no mention of a misquote in other newspapers. Moreover, it opened with Gore's apology to Pawlak and a reference to past embellishments. "Vice President Al Gore moved quickly Wednesday to stop Love Canal from turning into 'Love Story,'" it began...'If anybody got the misimpression that I claimed to do what citizens in Love Canal did, I apologize,' Gore said.

The effect of the AP piece on the tidal wave of ridicule crashing on Gore's head was negligible. And ditto on the misreporting of Pawlak's supposed betters.

Seelye says (p8) that
...the Times...required its reporters "to shape their stories, barring unexpected news," by 10:00 a.m
The Gray Lady keeps banker's hours, it seems. (Perhaps it's all different now, with Gore's internet having grown so.)

Her main story for that day was not Love Canal but the economy. And, listening to the tape, she said she'd found the LC statement ambiguous. No so ambiguous that she didn't include it in her piece.

her story on Love Canal noted that Gore was "not available to answer questions from reporters after he made this statement," as a "signal,"she explains, "that there was some ambiguity in his remarks."


Another example of the essentially runic nature of journalistic prose. Except - to the layman, these runes don't look like runes, they look like ordinary English. They're not.

As I've pointed out umpteen times here, journalism is done in code. It's the media Big Lie beyond any other. Far more basic than anonymous sources, though far less discussed.

We get another excuse (p10):
Both Seelye and Connolly point out that the Love Canal remarks were not highlighted in their December 1 articles, which were themselves routine reports from the campaign trail and, as such, not given page-one treatment.

Here we get an illustration of another piece of journalistic mumbo-jumbo: the fact that a story is buried is an indication not only of the editors view of its importance, or of their desire to spare important interests unnecessary embarrassment: it may mean it's just not been sufficiently reported to put in a more prominent spot.

They think it's dodgy, but haven't the heart to spike it. Or they don't want the opposition to notice a gap in the coverage. So they slip it in on A17.

A recent classic example, of course, was Isikoff's Newsweek story (May 2005 archive passim) on the supposedly upcoming Southcom report on mistreatment of prisoners at Guantanamo.

The story was a snippet that ran in the Periscope section. And one of the excuses made by Newsweek apologists (though not, that I can trace, by the mag's editors) for the cavalier way that the Isikoff story was dealt with was that that section was essentially a gossip column. For unconsidered trifles that were included for their entertainment value, on the principle Si non è vero, è ben trovato.

The point is, as Isikoff found, that, for those looking to exploit copy, size is not important. The GOP had a field day with the Love Canal, and the rest, more or less, is history.

The Gore story fed an established arc (what George Stephanopolous called (p3) his Pinocchio problem [1]) that ensured a conveyor-belt of juicy stories for all parts of the newspaper. The egregious misquoting by the finest journalists [2] money can buy? Don't go there!

The paper then (p14) picks up with the Concord High School students, in Joanne McGlynn's media literacy class, who made their own protests about the way Gore's words had been travestied.

They hit the retractions that the Post and Times eventually made (on December 7 and 10 respectively):
These "decontextualized retractions," as one account termed them, did not satisfy everyone. "They fixed how they misquoted him," one Concord [] student remarked, "but they didn't tell the whole story."

Honours student, clearly.

Finally, Gore's Love Canal statement seems to be in an entirely different class to the intentional bomb-throwing of Howard Dean's - characterisation of the Republican party as a white Christian party and that Republicans...a lot of them have never made an honest living in their lives - and Richard Durbin's - the kinda sorta comparison of Guantanamo with the methods of Stalin and Hitler.

Both men's comments were unambiguous, and clearly designed to cause a rumpus. Whether as part of a good cop, bad cop routine (that evidently failed!) or merely to excite the base, I know not.

  1. A Washington Monthly piece from 2000 under hed He's No Pinnochio!

  2. As I'm always at pains to point out, it's editors who decide what to commission from their journos, and what of the product they receive actually runs. It is inconceivable that the senior editors of the Post and Times did not address their papers' coverage of the Pinocchio story, and find that it was good.

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