Exclusive: The U.S. news media continues to hail Rep. Paul Ryan as a “fiscal hawk” despite the ocean of red ink in his budget plan. The latest to misrepresent Ryan’s record is the New York Times’ Katharine Q. Seelye, who famously distorted Al Gore’s words in Campaign 2000, writes Robert Parry.
By Robert Parry
New York Times columnist Paul Krugman has made the unassailable point that it is absurd to let Rep. Paul Ryan masquerade as a “fiscal hawk” when his budget plan – with more tax cuts for the rich – would extend deficit spending for a generation or more. But that hasn’t stopped the Times’ political reporter Katharine Q. Seelye from continuing the Ryan charade.
Seelye, who apparently can’t find a Republican excuse that she won’t buy into, transformed an article about the Massachusetts Senate race into incoherence by positioning Ryan as a “fiscal hawk” and thus making Sen. Scott Brown’s nervousness about Mitt Romney’s selection of Ryan for Vice President sound like Brown is in some competition with his Democratic rival Elizabeth Warren to run up the federal debt.
“Mr. Brown is doing all he can to erase the notion of party politics from the public consciousness — a balancing act that has become trickier since Mr. Romney chose Representative Paul D. Ryan, a fiscal hawk, as his running mate,” Seelye wrote, adding:
“Democrats in Massachusetts were thrilled with the selection of Mr. Ryan, whose conservative fiscal and social views are out of sync with New England Republicanism, and Ms. Warren is determined to pin him on Mr. Brown.”
But what makes Ryan a “fiscal hawk,” which is defined as someone who advocates aggressive policies to eliminate the budget deficit? The budgets that Ryan has promoted as House Budget Committee chairman simply don’t do that, in large part, because they blow a hole in government revenues by making George W. Bush’s tax cuts permanent, by reducing the income tax rate even more and by getting rid of the tax on capital gains.
Though Ryan has talked vaguely about counterbalancing that lost revenue by making some unspecified adjustments and by slashing spending, his 2012 budget foresaw a continued federal deficit for nearly three decades – and only brought to an end then if his original Medicare voucher plan were enacted because it would have shifted medical costs heavily onto the backs of future seniors.
If a less draconian overhaul were enacted – along the lines of the revised scheme that he embraced last December – the likely effect would be to take less money out of the pockets of seniors for medical insurance and thus delay any federal budget-balancing even longer. In other words, the media’s hackneyed reference to Ryan as a “fiscal hawk” is just bad reporting.
As Krugman noted in a blog post on Aug. 18, it’s important to “look at what [Ryan’s] budget (pdf) actually proposes (as opposed to vaguely promises) in its first decade. First, there are a set of tax cuts for higher income brackets and corporations. The Tax Policy Center (pdf) estimates the cost of these tax cuts, relative to current policy, at $4.3 trillion.
“Second, there are spending cuts. Of these, approximately $800 billion comes from converting Medicaid into a block grant that grows only with population and overall inflation – a big cut compared with projections that take into account rising health-care costs and an aging population (since the elderly and disabled account for most Medicaid expenses).
“Another $130 billion comes from doing something similar to food stamps. Then there are odds and ends – Pell grants, job training. Be generous and call all of this $1 trillion in specified cuts.
“On top of this we should add the $700 billion in Medicare cuts that Ryan denounces in Obamacare but nonetheless incorporates into his own plan. So if we look at the actual policy proposals, they look like this: Spending cuts: $1.7 trillion; Tax cuts: $4.3 trillion. This is, then, a plan that would increase the deficit by around $2.6 trillion.
“How, then, does Ryan get to call himself a fiscal hawk? By asserting that he will keep his tax cuts revenue-neutral by broadening the base in ways he refuses to specify, and that he will make further large cuts in spending, in ways he refuses to specify. And this is what passes inside the Beltway for serious thinking and a serious commitment to deficit reduction.”
So one might think that Seelye would want to avoid falling into the trap of accepting Ryan’s self-serving self-image as a “fiscal hawk.” There’s also the question of whether he deserves to be called a politician with “conservative fiscal” views in contrast to New England Republicans. In Seelye’s world, New England Republicans may be profligate spenders who don’t care about deficits, but in the real world, they are arguably more fiscally conservative than radical tax-cutters like Ryan.
But Seelye has a history of carrying water for right-wing Republicans. Earlier this year, she “clarified” former Sen. Rick Santorum’s comment to a group of whites in Iowa about not wanting “to make black people’s lives better by giving them somebody else’s money.” When criticized, Santorum insisted he had said “blah,” not “black.”
Traditionally, the role of the press in such cases is to hold politicians accountable, not let them make a bigoted appeal to one group and then weasel out of it later. However, Seelye chose to buy into Santorum’s ridiculous explanation.
In a story 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 said he had “been tongue-tied and had not meant to refer to black people.”
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, Seelye ignored the fact that Santorum earlier had insisted that his phrase was “blah people’s lives,” not “plives.”
Seelye’s excuses for Santorum – and her flattering depiction of Ryan as a “fiscal hawk” – 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 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.”
Seelye and Connolly were at the forefront of this “war on Gore.” A key moment came in December 1999 when they led the U.S. news media in generating 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 Mess
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, twisting Gore’s praise for the girl from Toone, Tennessee, into a supposed example of his self-aggrandizing, thus fitting the narrative of Lyin’ Al 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.”
Instead of challenging the misquote – and 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 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?”
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]
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.”
On Dec. 6, 1999, The Buffalo News ran an editorial entitled, “Al Gore in Fantasyland.” 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, adding:
“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.’”
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]
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, 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 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]
By the way, Gore wasn’t wrong regarding the Love Story incident, either. In 1997, Gore had mentioned a press report that indicated that he had served as a model for the lead male character 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. [NYT, Dec. 14, 1997] However, the political press corps repeatedly misstated the facts, insisting that Segal had denied that Gore was the model for the lead male character.
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.” Though Gore never uttered the word “invented,” the Republicans and the press corps simply began using the word as if he had.
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.
Instead, both Seelye and Connolly continued at their respective newspapers, covering important stories. Connolly handled the high-profile health reform battle for the Post and became a regular commentator on Fox News, before becoming a private consultant on health-care issues. Seelye is back on the campaign trail in 2012 for the Times.
To read more of Robert Parry’s writings, you can now order his last two books, Secrecy & Privilege and Neck Deep, at the discount price of only $16 for both. For details on the special offer, 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.