November 7, 2000
One Voter Strikes Back
By Mollie Dickenson
One American voter has grown so frustrated with the major news media's misreporting about Vice President Al Gore's alleged exaggerations that the voter has made a federal case out of it.
On Oct. 17, Patrick West, whose last political activity was some door-to-door campaigning for Sen. George McGovern in 1972, lodged an unusual legal complaint with the Federal Election Commission.
West charged that The New York Times has acted as a Republican agent by "repeatedly" printing false quotes from Republican press releases that ridicule Gore.
Instead of reporting what Gore actually said, the complaint charges, the Times parroted the GOP claims and did not exercise "its normal journalistic or editorial function." The consequence was "to influence the outcome of the 2000 presidential election for the benefit of Republican candidate Gov. George W. Bush."
The Federal Election Commission operates under confidentiality rules that prohibit it from commenting, but the commission has assigned West's complaint the number MUR 5117, making it "an official complaint," according to the commission's press office.
The Times and complainant West were informed of the complaint's acceptance for review via a letter from the FEC on Oct. 25. The Times has 15 calendar days in which to respond. Then, the FEC's legal staff will decide whether or not to present it to the commission.
Times senior counsel Adam Liptak says that West's complaint "is all wrong, in many ways. He refers to the correct part of the statute," but the Times will argue that the "FEC has no jurisdiction over the press."
In the Times's response, says Liptak, he will "direct the FEC to its own and to congressional statutes governing the FEC, which make it plain that there was no intent to limit or burden in any way the news media's First Amendment rights."
West says, however, that he also researched both the commission's and the congressional statutes.
"I covered the First Amendment question, and I agree that no news organization should have its First Amendment rights abridged," said West, a legal and editorial consultant recently of Alexandria, Virginia. "But the First Amendment is not absolute, and the complaint takes it outside that question."
In the complaint, West cited the election law "news story exception, " and argued that the standard for the Times's constitutional protection should be that of Times v. Sullivan, the landmark ruling that held that there is no liability for libel unless a news story is published "with knowledge of falsity, or reckless disregard of falsity."
West's complaint charges that Times published and disseminated "false statements regarding Democratic candidate Vice President Albert Gore Jr. with knowledge of or reckless disregard for their falsity, and at the suggestion of the Republican National Committee, its agents or affiliates."
West says he took this action because "I've been writing reporters and editors [at the Times and The Washington Post] about the ‘Lyin' Al' storyline since last winter, to no avail."
In early October, when he failed to interest the Post's media reporter Howard Kurtz in the erroneous quotes, West turned to a provision in election law for cases covering "in-kind corporate campaign contributions."
Among the false statements the complaint names are three that have plagued Gore since March 1999: "Gore's alleged claims to have ‘invented the Internet,' ‘to have discovered Love Canal,' and to have been the ‘inspiration for the novel Love story,'" thereby "falsely impugning the integrity of candidate Gore before the public."
West has traced elements of the false statements to the Republican National Committee or Republican press releases that falsely quote Gore, and were subsequently published by The New York Times, despite the Times's earlier accurate reporting of some of the same quotes.
According to federal election law, West wrote in the complaint, "such activity constitutes public relations service, rather than news reporting. West says these three are the foundational misquotes undergirding all the other stories about Gore's so-called lies and exaggerations."
On March 9, 1999, Gore answered CNN's Wolf Blitzer's question about what Gore thought he brought to the campaign that Sen. Bill Bradley did not. Gore didn't criticize Bradley but talked about his vision and accomplishments.
"During my service in the United States Congress, I took the initiative in creating the Internet," Gore said. And indeed, Gore is widely acknowledged (even by Newt Gingrich on two occasions this year) as the member of Congress who best understood the implications of what Gore originally dubbed "the information superhighway." He also was the most responsible for obtaining federal funding for its development.
Gore's statement was not mentioned initially by any major paper or wire service, says West. But on March 11, Republicans promoted mocking allegations that Gore's statement was false. The charges came in a press release from Rep. James Sensenbrenner and in statements by Sen. Trent Lott and Rep. Dick Armey.
Republicans began substituting the word "invented," with its notion of a hands-on engineer, for Gore's phrasing about a congressional initiative aimed at "creating the Internet."
On March 13, the Times's Frank Bruni reported on the ridicule without examining the original statement. On March 24, Maureen Dowd wrote in a derogatory column about Gore that he was "boasting that he was the father of the Internet."
Then on Dec. 1, 1999, Frank Bruni wrote, "Mr. Gore ... took credit for the development of the Internet" in a story that lacked context for the original statement.
On Feb. 17, Mr. Bruni was himself inserting the Republicans' preferred word, "invented," into the Times, writing that Gore had taken "credit for inventing the Internet."
The Times has "never made an attempt to examine its coverage of this story or to correct the record," says West's complaint.
The myth that Gore claimed to have "invented" the Internet has been one of the most powerful attack lines against the vice president during Campaign 2000. At campaign stop after campaign stop, Gov. Bush mocks Gore for having claimed to have "invented" the Internet without any correction from the news media.
The 'Love' Cases
Another example of the Times's erroneous reporting was the Love Canal case. It started on Nov. 30, 1999, when Gore told a Concord, N.H., high school class that individuals can make a difference.
Gore cited a Tennessee girl who wrote him about a toxic waste site in Toone, Tenn. For a congressional hearing on the issue, Gore felt he needed another example.
"I looked around the country for other sites like that," Gore said. "I found a little place 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. ... And it all happened because one high school student got involved."
On Dec. 1, 1999, the Times misquoted Gore, saying, "I [not THAT] was the one that started it all." The article also implied that Gore had claimed that he had discovered Love Canal, when Love Canal had long been a major national story and had been evacuated.
The misquote was also carried in The Washington Post and set off a media firestorm as pundits and editorial writers debated whether Gore was simply a common liar or had become delusional, having lost touch with reality.
West's complaint noted that "the RNC used the misquote ... in faxes and handouts, [and even changed] the false quote to ‘I was the one WHO started it all.'"
Pressed by the Concord high school students, who were stunned by the sloppiness of the nation's prestige newspapers, the Times finally ran a correction of the bogus quote on Dec. 10, but no correction of the misleading context was ever published.
One of the early media distortions about Gore's alleged exaggerations came in November 1997. In a lengthy interview with a few reporters, Gore mentioned that he'd read an article in the Nashville Tennessean that Erich Segal used him, Tipper and Harvard roommate Tommy Lee Jones as models for characters in the novel "Love Story."
Segal later said the article misquoted him, but only in that he had not mentioned Tipper. Segal said he had modeled the male protagonist after Gore and Jones.
Though Segal confirmed that he had based a lead character partly on Gore, the RNC began spreading the claim that Gore had falsely claimed to be a model for Segal.
On Dec. 13, 1997, columnist Maureen Dowd picked up on the story, accepting that Gore had made a false claim. On Dec. 16, columnist Frank Rich referred to "Al Gore's now inoperative boast to reporters on Air Force Two that he and his wife, Tipper, were the basis for the hero and heroine of 'Love Story'."
The belief that Gore lied about "Love Story" became stock in trade for the multitude of articles about Gore's supposed exaggerations, repeated hundreds of times in other media outlets."I am very disturbed when even the most intelligent, well-informed people I know," says West, "have no idea that Al Gore did not say the boastful things The New York Times repeatedly reported that he said."
The false beliefs about Al Gore, generated by the bogus media accounts in some of the nation's leading newspapers, will certainly be in the minds of many Americans as they cast their ballots for president of the United States.