Exclusive: Republican presidential contender Rick Santorum is denying his slur about “black people” and “somebody else’s money” with absurd claims that the recordings of his quote aren’t accurate, now getting a sympathetic hearing from a New York Times reporter, writes Robert Parry.
By Robert Parry
New York Times political reporter Katharine Q. Seelye, who famously misquoted Al Gore during Campaign 2000, has now bent over backward to shield Republican presidential hopeful Rick Santorum from a real quote in which he disparaged “black people.”
Santorum has been running from his quote since he was caught on video discussing food stamps with a group of white voters in Sioux City, Iowa, on Jan. 1 and telling them “I do not want to make black people’s lives better by giving them somebody else’s money. I want to give them the opportunity to go out and earn the money.”
The comment won Santorum a round of applause from his white audience – and may have helped him rally right-wing Iowans as he surged to a virtual tie with front-runner Mitt Romney in the Iowa caucuses two days later. But the former Pennsylvania senator began coming under criticism for his racially charged remark, which was replayed on MSNBC, CNN and other news networks.
Rather than stand by his comment or simply apologize, Santorum offered the risible explanation that he never said “black people,” that he had “started to say a word” and then “sort of mumbled it and changed my thought.” The word on the video wasn’t “black,” he said, but “blah.”
Traditionally, the role of the press in such cases has been to hold politicians accountable, not let them make a bigoted appeal to one group and then weasel out of it later. However, the Times and its reporter Seelye chose to buy into Santorum’s ridiculous explanation.
In a brief item in the Times on Jan. 10, entitled “Food Stamp Remarks, Clarified,” Seelye wrote that “some construed” Santorum’s comments to be “racially charged” though she noted that Santorum explained that he had “been tongue-tied and had not meant to refer to black people.”
When it came to describing the actual quote, Seelye wrote that Santorum “was reported to have said” the words, rather than note that the words — “black people” — can be clearly heard on the videotape. Santorum’s context, criticizing black people for receiving welfare, also was pretty obvious. [See Consortiumnews.com’s “Fleecing the Angry Whites.”]
Seelye went on to write that Santorum “maintains that he did not say ‘black’ people’s lives but rather stumbled verbally when he was trying to say ‘people’s lives’ and uttered a short syllable that came out as ‘plives.’”
Acting as if this was a plausible explanation – and ignoring the fact that Santorum earlier had insisted that his word was “blah” people, not “plives” – Seelye added that “nevertheless, [Santorum] faced criticism afterward for apparently linking food stamps with black people.” Gee, how unfair to Santorum!
In the online version of the story, Seelye also wrote: “Moreover, he said he has done more in black communities ‘than any Republican in recent memory.’” She further quoted Santorum as responding to press questions about the “construed” quote on “black people” by saying, “You guys, you guys — it’s really sad that you are bringing this up. It’s just sad news.”
Seelye’s excuses for Santorum were in marked contrast to her combative reporting regarding Vice President Al Gore during Campaign 2000 when she and Washington Post reporter Ceci Connolly helped frame the destructive narrative that Gore was a serial exaggerator, ironically by misquoting him.
That “Lyin’ Al” narrative, especially in contrast to the mostly softball coverage of the well-liked Texas Gov. George W. Bush, cost Gore a significant number of votes, according to Election 2000 exit polls, and enabled Bush to narrow the gap with Gore enough so Republicans could steal that pivotal election – aided by Gov. Jeb Bush’s political cronies in Florida and five GOP partisans on the U.S. Supreme Court. [For details on the vote count, see Neck Deep.]
Perhaps the most memorable refrain from Election 2000 was the apocryphal quote attributed to Gore that he claimed to have “invented the Internet” when he never said that. But the national press corps also misrepresented other supposed examples of Gore’s “exaggerations.”
Indeed, some journalists behaved as if they were working out their disappointment that President Bill Clinton had survived impeachment by taking out those frustrations on Gore. Other reporters – sensing the “free-fire-zone” that was Al Gore – may have viewed it as an opportunity to demonstrate their toughness and build their careers.
Seelye and Connolly were at the forefront of this “war on Gore.” As I noted in an article in early 2000, “to read the major newspapers and to watch the TV pundit shows, one can’t avoid the impression that many in the national press have decided that Vice President Al Gore is unfit to be elected the next President of the United States.”
The article, entitled “Al Gore v. the Media,” went on to say: “Across the board – from The Washington Post to The Washington Times, from The New York Times to the New York Post, from NBC’s cable networks to the traveling campaign press corps – journalists don’t even bother to disguise their contempt for Gore anymore.
“At one early Democratic debate, a gathering of about 300 reporters in a nearby press room hissed and hooted at Gore’s answers. Meanwhile, every perceived Gore misstep, including his choice of clothing, is treated as a new excuse to put him on a psychiatrist’s couch and find him wanting.”
A key moment in this “war on Gore” came in December 1999 when the U.S. news media generated dozens of stories about Gore’s supposed claim that he discovered the Love Canal toxic waste dump.
In twin articles – by Seelye in the Times and Connolly in the Post – Gore was quoted as saying “I was the one that started it all.” This “gaffe” then was recycled endlessly and combined with other situations in which Gore allegedly exaggerated, thus persuading many voters that Gore was an inveterate liar or clinically delusional.
The media’s Love Canal stampede was allowed to continue despite the fact that the Times and the Post quickly learned that their reporters had misquoted Gore. Seelye, in particular, insisted that the inaccurate quote didn’t deserve correcting because she felt she had gotten the gist of it right, though that wasn’t true either.
The Love Canal quote controversy began on Nov. 30, 1999, when Gore was speaking to a group of high school students in Concord, New Hampshire. He was exhorting the students to reject cynicism and to recognize that individual citizens can effect important changes.
As an example, he cited a high school girl from Toone, Tennessee, a town that had experienced problems with toxic waste. She brought the issue to the attention of Gore’s congressional office in the late 1970s, he said.
“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. 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.”
After the hearings, Gore said, “we passed 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 the country. We’ve still got work to do. But we made a huge difference. And it all happened because one high school student got involved.”
The context of Gore’s comment was clear. What sparked his interest in the toxic-waste issue was the situation in Toone – “that was the one that you didn’t hear of. But that was the one that started it all.” After learning about the Toone situation, Gore looked for other examples and “found” a similar case at Love Canal.
Gore was not claiming to have been the first one to discover Love Canal, which already had been evacuated. He simply needed other case studies for the hearings.
The next day, Seelye and Connolly altered Gore’s quote, changing the word ”that” to “I,” so that Gore was boasting “I was the one that started it all.” The context was also stripped away to make Gore’s praise for the girl from Toone, Tennessee, into a supposed example of his self-aggrandizing, thus fitting the narrative of Gore the Exaggerator.
The Republican National Committee spotted Gore’s alleged boast and was quick to fax around its own take. “Al Gore is simply unbelievable – in the most literal sense of that term,” declared Republican National Committee Chairman Jim Nicholson. “It’s a pattern of phoniness – and it would be funny if it weren’t also a little scary.”
The GOP release then doctored Gore’s quote a bit more. After all, it would be grammatically incorrect to have said, “I was the one that started it all.” So, the Republican handout fixed Gore’s grammar to say, “I was the one who started it all.” In just one day, the key quote had gone from “that was the one that started it all” to “I was the one that started it all” to “I was the one who started it all.”
Instead of challenging the misquote – and then surely getting pummeled for appearing overly defensive – Gore tried to head off the silly controversy by clarifying his meaning and apologizing if anyone got the wrong impression. But the fun was just starting. The national pundit shows quickly picked up the story of Gore’s new “exaggeration.”
“Let’s talk about the ‘love’ factor here,” chortled Chris Matthews of CNBC’s “Hardball” show. “Here’s the guy who said he was the character Ryan O’Neal was based on in ‘Love Story.’ … It seems to me … he’s now the guy who created the Love Canal [case]. I mean, isn’t this getting ridiculous? … Isn’t it getting to be delusionary?”
Matthews turned to his baffled guest, Lois Gibbs, the Love Canal resident who is widely credited with bringing the issue to public attention. She sounded confused about why Gore would claim credit for discovering Love Canal, but defended Gore’s hard work on the issue.
“I actually think he’s done a great job,” Gibbs said. “I mean, he really did work, when nobody else was working, on trying to define what the hazards were in this country and how to clean it up and helping with the Superfund and other legislation.” [CNBC's Hardball, Dec. 1, 1999]
The next morning, the Post’s Connolly highlighted Gore’s boast and placed it in his alleged pattern of falsehoods. “Add Love Canal to the list of verbal missteps by Vice President Gore,” she wrote. “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.” [Washington Post, Dec. 2, 1999]
That night, CNBC’s “Hardball” returned to Gore’s Love Canal quote by playing a clip but altering the context by starting Gore’s comments with the words, “I found a little town…”
“It reminds me of Snoopy thinking he’s the Red Baron,” laughed Chris Matthews. “I mean how did he get this idea? Now you’ve seen Al Gore in action. I know you didn’t know that he was the prototype for Ryan O’Neal’s character in ‘Love Story’ or that he invented the Internet. He now is the guy who discovered Love Canal.”
Matthews compared the Vice President to “Zelig,” the Woody Allen character whose face appeared at an unlikely procession of historic events. “What is it, the Zelig guy who keeps saying, ‘I was the main character in ‘Love Story.’ I invented the Internet. I invented Love Canal.”
Gore’s ‘Bold-Faced Lie’
The following day, Rupert Murdoch’s New York Post elaborated on Gore’s pathology of deception. “Again, Al Gore has told a whopper,” the Post wrote. “Again, he’s been caught red-handed and again, he has been left sputtering and apologizing. This time, he falsely took credit for breaking the Love Canal story. … Yep, another Al Gore bold-faced lie.”
The editorial continued: “Al Gore appears to have as much difficulty telling the truth as his boss, Bill Clinton. But Gore’s lies are not just false, they’re outrageously, stupidly false. It’s so easy to determine that he’s lying, you have to wonder if he wants to be found out.
“Does he enjoy the embarrassment? Is he hell-bent on destroying his own campaign? … Of course, if Al Gore is determined to turn himself into a national laughingstock, who are we to stand in his way?”
The Love Canal controversy soon moved beyond the Washington-New York power axis. On Dec. 6, 1999, The Buffalo News ran an editorial entitled, “Al Gore in Fantasyland,” that echoed the words of RNC chief Nicholson. It stated, “Never mind that he didn’t invent the Internet, serve as the model for ‘Love Story’ or blow the whistle on Love Canal. All of this would be funny if it weren’t so disturbing.”
The next day, the right-wing Washington Times judged Gore crazy. “The real question is how to react to Mr. Gore’s increasingly bizarre utterings,” the Times wrote. “Webster’s New World Dictionary defines ‘delusional’ thusly: ‘The apparent perception, in a nervous or mental disorder, of something external that is actually not present … a belief in something that is contrary to fact or reality, resulting from deception, misconception, or a mental disorder.’”
The editorial denounced Gore as “a politician who not only manufactures gross, obvious lies about himself and his achievements but appears to actually believe these confabulations.”
Yet, while the national media was excoriating Gore over the bogus quote, the Concord students were learning more than they had expected about how media and politics work in modern America. For days, the students pressed for a correction from The Washington Post and The New York Times. But the prestige papers balked, insisting that the error was insignificant.
“The part that bugs me is the way they nit-pick,” said Tara Baker, a Concord High junior. “[But] they should at least get it right.” [AP, Dec. 14, 1999]
When the David Letterman show made Love Canal the jumping off point for a joke list: “Top 10 Achievements Claimed by Al Gore,” the students responded with a press release entitled “Top 10 Reasons Why Many Concord High Students Feel Betrayed by Some of the Media Coverage of Al Gore’s Visit to Their School.” [Boston Globe, Dec. 26, 1999]
The Daily Howler Web site, run by stand-up comic Bob Somerby, also was hectoring what it termed a “grumbling editor” at the Post to correct the error. Finally, on Dec. 7, a week after Gore’s comment, the Post published a partial correction, tucked away as the last item in a corrections box. But the Post still misled readers about what Gore actually said.
The Post correction read: “In fact, Gore said, ‘That was the one that started it all,’ referring to the congressional hearings on the subject that he called.” The revision fit with the Post’s insistence that the two quotes meant pretty much the same thing, but again, the newspaper was distorting Gore’s clear intent by attaching “that” to the wrong antecedent. From the full quote, it’s obvious the “that” refers to the Toone toxic waste case, not to Gore’s hearings.
Three days later, The New York Times followed suit with a correction of its own, but again without fully explaining Gore’s position. “They fixed how they misquoted him, but they didn’t tell the whole story,” commented Lindsey Roy, another Concord High junior.
While the students voiced disillusionment, the two reporters involved showed no remorse for their mistake. “I really do think that the whole thing has been blown out of proportion,” said Seelye. “It was one word.”
Connolly even defended her inaccurate rendition of Gore’s quote as something of a journalistic duty. “We have an obligation to our readers to alert them [that] this [Gore's false boasting] continues to be something of a habit,” she said. [AP, Dec. 14, 1999]
The half-hearted half-corrections also did not stop newspapers around the country from continuing to use the bogus quote. A Dec. 9 editorial in the Lancaster [Pa.] New Era even published the polished misquote that the Republican National Committee had stuck in a press release: “I was the one who started it all.”
The New Era then went on to psychoanalyze Gore. “Maybe the lying is a symptom of a more deeply-rooted problem: Al Gore doesn’t know who he is,” the editorial stated. “The Vice President is a serial prevaricator.”
In the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel, writer Michael Ruby concluded that “the Gore of ’99″ was full of lies. He “suddenly discovers elastic properties in the truth,” Ruby declared. “He invents the Internet, inspires the fictional hero of ‘Love Story,’ blows the whistle on Love Canal. Except he didn’t really do any of those things.” [Dec. 12, 1999]
Actually, all of those elements of the “Lyin’ Al” narrative were distortions by the U.S. press corps. It was as if the journalists had become school-yard bullies pummeling some unpopular nerd.
The earliest of these Gore “lies,” dating back to 1997, was Gore mentioning a press report that indicated that he and his wife Tipper had served as models for the lead characters in the sentimental bestseller and movie, Love Story.
When the author, Erich Segal, was asked about this, he stated that the preppy hockey-playing male lead, Oliver Barrett IV, indeed was modeled after Gore as well as after Gore’s Harvard roommate, actor Tommy Lee Jones. But Segal said the female lead, Jenny, was not modeled after Tipper Gore. [NYT, Dec. 14, 1997]
However, rather than treating this distinction as a minor point of legitimate confusion, the news media concluded that Gore had willfully lied. In doing so, however, the media repeatedly misstated the facts, insisting that Segal had denied that Gore was the model for the lead male character.
In reality, Segal had confirmed that Gore was, at least partly, the inspiration for the character, Barrett, played by Ryan O’Neal in the movie. Some journalists seemed to understand the nuance but still could not resist disparaging Gore’s honesty.
For instance, in its attack on Gore over the Love Canal quote, the Boston Herald conceded that Gore “did provide material” for Segal’s book, but the newspaper added that it was “for a minor character.” [Boston Herald, Dec. 5, 1999] That, of course, was untrue, since the Barrett character was one of Love Story’s two principal characters.
Inventing an Invention
The media’s treatment of Gore’s Internet comment followed a similar course. Gore’s statement may have been poorly phrased, but its intent was clear: he was trying to say that he worked in Congress to help develop the modern Internet. Gore didn’t claim to have “invented” the Internet, which carried the notion of a hands-on computer engineer.
Gore’s actual comment, in an interview with CNN’s Wolf Blitzer that aired on March 9, 1999, was as follows: “During my service in the United States Congress, I took the initiative in creating the Internet.”
Republicans quickly went to work on Gore’s statement. In press releases, they noted that the precursor of the Internet, called ARPANET, existed in 1971, a half dozen years before Gore entered Congress. But ARPANET was a tiny networking of about 30 universities, a far cry from today’s “information superhighway,” a phrase incidentally widely credited to Gore.
Though Gore never uttered the word “invented,” the Republicans and the press corps simply began using the word as if he had.
As the media clamor arose about Gore’s supposed claim that he had “invented” the Internet, Gore’s spokesman Chris Lehane tried to explain. He noted that Gore “was the leader in Congress on the connections between data transmission and computing power, what we call information technology. And those efforts helped to create the Internet that we know today.” [AP, March 11, 1999]
There was no disputing Lehane’s description of Gore’s lead congressional role in developing today’s Internet. But the media was off and running. Whatever imprecision may have existed in Gore’s original comment, it paled beside the press distortions of what Gore clearly meant. While excoriating Gore’s phrasing as an exaggeration, the media engaged in its own exaggeration.
In a different world, you might have thought that the journalists who committed these professional violations would have paid a serious price, especially after exit polls showed that widespread doubts about Gore’s honesty drove many citizens to vote for Bush and thus set the stage for Bush’s catastrophic presidency.
But that isn’t the world we live in. Indeed, it has often been the honest and courageous journalists – those who take on the truly difficult stories and do them well – who get severely punished, sometimes seeing their careers and livelihoods taken away from them as happened to Gary Webb. [See Consortiumnews.com’s “The Warning in Gary Webb’s Death.”]
Those who run with the herd and make grievous journalistic errors usually face no punishment at all. In fact, those reporters and pundits typically get rewarded. For instance, Chris Matthews still hosts “Hardball,” with the hour-long show now broadcast twice on weekday evenings on MSNBC.
Both Seelye and Connolly continued at their respective newspapers, covering important stories. For instance, Connolly handled the high-profile health reform battle for the Post and became a regular commentator on Fox News. (She is now a private consultant on health-care issues.)
For her part, Seelye is back on the campaign trail in 2012, where ironically she has encountered another controversy around a quote – although this time she is protecting a Republican candidate from his actual words rather than castigating a Democratic candidate for something he never said.
[For more on related topics, see Robert Parry’s Lost History, Secrecy & Privilege and Neck Deep, now available in a three-book set for the discount price of only $29. For details, click here.]
Robert Parry broke many of the Iran-Contra stories in the 1980s for the Associated Press and Newsweek. His latest book, Neck Deep: The Disastrous Presidency of George W. Bush, was written with two of his sons, Sam and Nat, and can be ordered at neckdeepbook.com. His two previous books, Secrecy & Privilege: The Rise of the Bush Dynasty from Watergate to Iraq and Lost History: Contras, Cocaine, the Press & ‘Project Truth’ are also available there.