In echoes of Gore 2000, media still robotically report fake "facts" that confirm false storylines
On July 16, The New York Times posted to its website an article by Anne E. Kornblut about Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton's (D-NY) recent trip to Arkansas. Kornblut, one of the Times' official Hillary beat (or is it Beat Hillary?) reporters, claimed that Clinton had blasted fellow Democrats for "wasting time" and "for taking on issues that arouse conservatives and turn out Republican voters rather than finding consensus on mainstream subjects."
But the targets of Clinton's criticism, as was clear from a transcript of her remarks, were Republicans, not fellow Democrats. Despite the glaring error -- pointed out within hours by weblogs including Eschaton (written by Duncan Black, who is also a senior fellow at Media Matters for America), Americablog, and Daily Kos -- the Times left the article online, uncorrected, all day.
Monday morning, with the Times report inexplicably still uncorrected, Media Matters posted audio of Clinton's comments, further confirming that Kornblut had it all wrong.
According to Salon.com's War Room blog, it wasn't just bloggers and websites that brought the error to the Times' attention. Salon reported on July 17:
Clinton spokesman Philippe Reines tells us that the senator's office asked the Times for one [a correction] Sunday. But it's Monday afternoon now -- a lifetime later in Internet time -- and the Web site for the 'paper of record' still features Kornblut's false report.
A "lifetime later" is right: By Monday afternoon, conservatives had gleefully seized on the attacks Clinton purportedly made on fellow Democrats. NewsMax, National Review Online's blog, and Matt Drudge all hyped the story. It wasn't just the right that fell for the Times' false report, though. On The Huffington Post and Democratic Underground, commenters relying on the false Times report lashed out at Clinton. The Frontrunner, a leading national summary of the day's political and policy news, picked up the false Times report for its July 17 edition.
Still, the Times left the article online and uncorrected until Tuesday evening -- more than two days after others had pointed out the error. As Eric Alterman wrote at The Huffington Post, "One wonders how long it would have taken the Times to correct the Kornblut story had not several prominent bloggers been all over the case since the piece was first posted online."
Interestingly, though the Web version of the Times article includes the correction -- buried at the end of the article, where it won't be noticed by anyone who simply reads the false headline and false first three paragraphs -- we can find no indication that the correction is available in the Nexis news database. So users of that service will find the false article, with its false claims about Clinton -- but no correction. Still, that's better than NewsMax, National Review Online, the Drudge Report, and The Frontrunner: We find no indication that any of them have yet told their readers about the correction.
Alterman's question -- asking how long would it have taken the Times to correct Kornblut's article had it not immediately been pressured to do so -- reminds us of a startlingly similar incident from the early stages of the 2000 presidential campaign.
In the December 1, 1999, edition of The New York Times, reporter Katherine Seelye wrote:
Later in the day, Mr. Gore, who suffered some embarrassment this year when he took credit for the development of the Internet, said he was the one who had first drawn attention to the toxic contamination of Love Canal. He was telling a school audience that each person can make a difference in the world and he recalled a child writing to him when he was in Congress about a hazardous-waste site in Tennessee.
He then added: "I found a little place in upstate New York called Love Canal. I had the first hearing on that issue and Toone, Tenn.," he said. "But I was the one that started it all. And it all happened because one high school student got involved."
Mr. Gore held Congressional hearings on the matter in October 1978. But two months earlier President Jimmy Carter had declared Love Canal a disaster area, and the federal government, after much howling by local residents, had offered to buy the homes.
The same day, Washington Post reporter CeCi Connolly reported much the same thing, in much the same way:
Speaking later at Concord High School, Gore boasted about his efforts in Congress 20 years ago to publicize the dangers of toxic waste.
"I found a little place in upstate New York called Love Canal," he said, referring to the Niagara homes evacuated in August 1978 because of chemical contamination. "I had the first hearing on that issue."
Gore said he first became aware of the problem when a young girl in Tennessee wrote to him about a mysterious illness that had befallen her father and grandfather. Although few remember his hearings on that site in Toone, Tenn., Gore said his efforts made a lasting impact. "I was the one that started it all," he said.
Gore's shorthand description of Love Canal -- and his failure to note that the hearings he chaired came a few months after President Jimmy Carter declared the neighborhood a disaster area -- were reminiscent of earlier attempts to embellish his role in major events.
He has been ridiculed for claiming to have been the inspiration for the movie "Love Story," and today even he poked fun at his earlier assertion that he invented the Internet.
There was only one problem: Gore didn't actually say "I was the one that started it all." Both Seelye and Connolly got it wrong -- a fact that was clear as early as the December 1, 1999, broadcast of Hardball, which played a clip of Gore saying:
I found a little place in upstate New York called Love Canal, had the first hearing on that issue in Toone-Teague, Tennessee. That was the one you didn't hear of, but that was the one that started it all. We passed a -- a major national law to clean up hazardous dump sites, and we had new efforts to stop the practices that ended up poisoning water around -- around the country. We've still got work to do, but we've made a huge difference, and it all happened because one high school student got involved.
Gore didn't say "I was the one that started it all," he said "that was the one that started it all." He wasn't taking credit for "starting it all" -- he was giving credit. In addition to changing "that" to "I," both the Times and the Post disappeared the key first part of the sentence, which would have made the misquote obvious had it been included: "That was the one you didn't hear of."
So what happened the next morning? Did Seelye and The New York Times admit and correct their error? They did not. Did Connolly and the Post? They did not. Instead, they doubled down on the original error. The Post ran a December 2, 1999, story by Connolly headlined "First 'Love Story,' Now Love Canal" that began:
Add Love Canal to the list of verbal missteps by Vice President Gore.
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 when he said at a high school forum Tuesday in New Hampshire: "I found a little place in upstate New York called Love Canal."
Gore went on to brag about holding the "first hearing on that issue" and said "I was the one that started it all."
Though Hardball had aired Gore's actual words on December 1, 1999, the Post and Times didn't correct their reports; the Post even ran a new one repeating the error and pretending the purported exaggeration was part of a pattern with Gore. And the rest of the political media was off to the races. A New York Post headline encapsulated the media reaction: "Gore admits he invented yarn about Love Canal."
On the December 2, 1999, edition of Hardball, host Chris Matthews asked Republican strategist Ed Rollins about Gore: "What is it, the Zelig guy who keeps saying 'I was the main character in Love Story, invented the Internet, I invented Love Canal?' "
Think about that for a minute: On the December 1, 1999, edition of Hardball, Matthews played the actual clip of what Gore actually said. He even told viewers "The Times went further than they should have and they misquoted him." But the very next night, Matthews fell in line, joining his colleagues in accusing Gore of claiming to have "invented Love Canal." This onslaught of media mockery of Gore for the supposedly self-aggrandizing comments, which supposedly fit a pattern -- a pattern that was as bogus as the Love Canal example -- isn't a trivial matter. In a campaign decided by 537 votes, it may well have been a decisive matter.
On December 7, 1999, The Washington Post finally got around to running a correction -- though the correction itself continued to mischaracterize Gore's comments:
A Dec. 1 article and a Dec. 2 Politics column item about Vice President Gore's involvement in the Love Canal hazardous waste case quoted Gore as saying "I was the one that started it all." In fact, Gore said, "That was the one that started it all," referring to the congressional hearings on the subject that he called.
In fact, as the full quote -- which the Post still did not run -- made clear, "[t]hat was the one that started it all" didn't refer to Gore's hearings, but to a waste site in Tennessee. So the Post's "correction" kept intact the notion that Gore had exaggerated his own role.
On December 10, 1999, the Times ran its "correction":
An article on Dec. 1 about a campaign appearance by Vice President Al Gore in New Hampshire rendered a passage incorrectly in a comment he made about the contamination of Love Canal. Mr. Gore said: "I found a little place in upstate New York called Love Canal. I had the first hearing on that issue and Toone, Tenn. But that was the one that started it all." He did not say "But I was the one that started it all."
Like the Post, the Times continued to omit the first portion of the quote: his statement that Toone, Tennessee, was "the one you didn't hear of."
To recap: The Times and the Post both misquoted Al Gore. Evidence that they misquoted him was public knowledge -- broadcast on Hardball -- the very same day. Yet both the Times and the Post dragged their feet for days before issuing inadequate, still-misleading corrections -- and in the interim, the Post even ran another article about the bogus quote. Despite the publicly broadcast evidence that Gore had been misquoted, other media piled on. Few of those other media outlets ever ran corrections. Sound familiar? It's exactly what happened, on a much smaller scale, to Hillary Clinton this week.
This week, Bob Somerby wrote on his blog The Daily Howler about Kornblut's misquote of Clinton, wondering how it could have occurred:
Why did that account even seem to make sense? Democrats try to inflame the Republican base? We now know what Clinton was actually saying; she was actually saying that the Republican majority in the Congress tries to inflame the Republican base. But why did Kornblut's account even seem to be accurate? As with much that these people write, it never even seemed to make sense.
We don't know how Kornblut made her mistake. We assume it was just that: a mistake. They happen. We do, however, see how it could have seemed accurate.
By way of explanation, we go back to 1999. Look back at those initial reports in the Times and the Post. Both Seelye and Connolly included the same context for their report about Gore supposedly taking excessive credit for Love Canal: Both referred to Gore's earlier comments in which he supposedly, as the Times put it, "took credit for the development of the Internet."
It certainly seems plausible that the dominant media narrative about Gore -- that he was quick to exaggerate and take undue credit -- played a role in the mistake both Seelye and Connolly made. After all, both exaggerated Gore's purportedly exaggerated Internet comments. Long before the December 1, 1999, articles appeared, the "Gore said he invented the Internet" myth had been debunked.
What Gore actually said -- and this is not a matter of dispute, not to anybody who cares enough to tell the truth -- was not that he "invented" the Internet. It was "During my service in the United States Congress, I took the initiative in creating the Internet." That's far different from claiming to have "invented" the Internet; Gore was obviously talking about his efforts as a member of Congress, not as an inventor in a laboratory or at a computer.
And, indeed, Connolly's own Washington Post reported on March 21, 1999, that "many of the researchers and venerated propeller-heads who did have a hand in the Internet's creation said Gore deserves substantial credit for passing a number of bills that boosted supercomputing and high-speed communications networks, which in turn helped create the Internet as it exists today."
Yet there was Connolly on December 1, 1999, referring to Gore's "earlier assertion that he invented the Internet." That wasn't an accurate characterization of Gore's comments, as a simple check of her own newspaper's archives would have shown. And that was the context in which she reported a false quote and inaccurate characterization of Gore's Love Canal remarks -- a characterization that just happened to dovetail perfectly with the Internet story. Coincidence? How could it be? Even the Post's ombudsman (back when it had one) noted as much in a March 5, 2000, column, writing that Connolly's version of the Love Canal comments "fits the role The Post seems to have assigned him in Campaign 2000."
So how does this help answer Somerby's question? Somerby's point seems to be that Kornblut's version of Clinton's comments is so obviously wrong, it's inconceivable how she could have made the mistake. Who could believe, after all, that Democratic Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton was actually saying that Democrats were "taking on issues that arouse conservatives and turn out Republican voters"?
It certainly is hard to explain by looking at the quote. And neither Kornblut nor the Times has offered an explanation. But the answer may not be in the quote at all. It may be in the storyline. Kornblut's article begins: "Senator Hillary Rodham Clinton, returning to her red-state ties, chastised Democrats ... ."
Democratic infighting and disarray -- real or imagined -- just happens to be one of the political media's favorite storylines, as we've previously noted. Recent debate over Iraq provides a perfect illustration: The Washington Post has run headlines like "Democrats Divided on Withdrawal Of Troops"; The New York Times joined in with "Clinton and Kerry Show Democratic Divide on Troop Withdrawal"; and for a while, CNN viewers could be forgiven for wondering if the channel changed its name to "Democrats Divided."
Kornblut's (false) article depicting a Democrat supposedly attacking other Democrats just happened to dovetail perfectly with a standard media portrayal of Democrats. Coincidence? Maybe. But you'd have to be crazy to deny that, in general, these storylines have a self-perpetuating effect, which sometimes results in news reports that are consistent with the storyline -- but not with the truth. How else to explain comments by PBS' Gwen Ifill's this month about the 2004 vice-presidential debate she moderated?
As Media Matters' Duncan Black pointed out on his personal blog, during a July radio appearance, Ifill described Democratic vice-presidential candidate John Edwards' mention of Vice President Dick Cheney's daughter this way:
Ifill: And ya know the funny thing? I didn't even ask about Mary Cheney they obviously the candidate, the Democratic candidate, Senator Edwards, just felt the need to bring it up apropos of nothing and then claim later that he was just trying to express his sympathy and solidarity with the vice president's daughter.
But that wasn't true. Edwards didn't "bring it up apropos of nothing" -- Ifill brought it up! Here's her question to Dick Cheney during that October 5, 2004, debate:
IFILL: The next question goes to you, Mr. Vice President.
I want to read something you said four years ago at this very setting: "Freedom means freedom for everybody." You said it again recently when you were asked about legalizing same-sex unions. And you used your family's experience as a context for your remarks.
Can you describe then your administration's support for a constitutional ban on same-sex unions?
Cheney answered, then it was Edwards' turn. So -- since Gwen Ifill had brought the topic up -- Edwards said:
I think the vice president and his wife love their daughter. I think they love her very much. And you can't have anything but respect for the fact that they're willing to talk about the fact that they have a gay daughter [Mary Cheney], the fact that they embrace her. It's a wonderful thing. And there are millions of parents like that who love their children, who want their children to be happy.
So, in 2004, Ifill brought up Mary Cheney; Edwards responded by speaking very favorably of the Cheney family's relationship and of the vice president's comments about it. In 2006, Ifill misstated her own role in the exchange, falsely claiming that she hadn't brought up the topic and that Edwards's comments were "apropos of nothing."
Once upon a time, Ifill obviously knew that wasn't true. That's how powerful these anti-Democrat, anti-progressive media narratives that have dominated public discourse for years are: Ifill told a tale that conformed to the storyline that Edwards and Sen. John Kerry somehow did something wrong in speaking of Mary Cheney -- even though doing so required her to speak falsely about her own role in the matter!
When will it end? Alterman noted that the immediate online reaction to The New York Times' false Clinton story this week hastened a correction -- a good sign, indeed.
But it's worth remembering that when the Gore-Love Canal saga played out in 1999, there was contemporaneous online refutation of the bogus story. Throughout the mess, Somerby did the hard work, every day, of explaining in great detail and in real time how the media were getting it wrong -- and yet the damage was done anyway.
Regular readers know where we're going with this: It isn't enough for Somerby and Alterman and Media Matters and Eschaton and Americablog and Daily Kos to keep a close eye on the media and insist that they get it right. Every progressive -- every person who cares about the truth -- has to do so.
Even though Clinton's office asked for a correction the day the Kornblut story was published, even though bloggers posted the correct transcript the same day, and even though Media Matters posted the audio the next day -- despite all that, The New York Times still took more than two days to correct the mistake.
With your help, the next time something like this happens -- and it will, sooner rather than later -- we can stop the false story more quickly. And speed is important: As the Love Canal incident reminds us, a mistake in The New York Times is one thing; a mistake in The New York Times that the rest of the media spends weeks repeating can change the course of history.