The New York Times continues its War on Gore

Scheduled for March 21, former Vice President Al Gore's high-profile congressional testimony on the pressing dangers of global warming will likely surpass the March 16 media spectacle that accompanied Valerie Plame's appearance in the House. Wednesday will both mark Gore's first official visit to Capitol Hill since leaving the Clinton administration and offer a sneak peak at the global warming policies his administration would have likely implemented had the Supreme Court not ordered Florida officials to stop counting the votes back in December 2000.

Scheduled for March 21, former Vice President Al Gore's high-profile congressional testimony on the pressing dangers of global warming will likely surpass the March 16 media spectacle that accompanied Valerie Plame's appearance in the House. Wednesday will both mark Gore's first official visit to Capitol Hill since leaving the Clinton administration and offer a sneak peak at the global warming policies his administration would have likely implemented had the Supreme Court not ordered Florida officials to stop counting the votes back in December 2000.

Gore's right-wing critics, anxious to fuel a backlash against Gore and his award-winning documentary, An Inconvenient Truth, are using his congressional appearance to raise doubts about his global warming crusade. The Republican noise machine is already trying to gin up excitement about a possible global warming showdown, although some of its talking points seem a bit thin. (A Drudge Report “exclusive” this week hyped the fact that following his Senate testimony, Gore might be asked questions by the assembled legislators.)

Busy orchestrating their attacks, Gore's political foes received a gift last week from The New York Times in the form of a front-page Science section article alleging that scientists were raising concerns about Gore's global warming facts. Dredging up the media's 2000 campaign meme about Gore being loose with the truth, the Times resurrected the premise that Gore's an exaggerator who cannot be trusted.

The misleading hit piece was a godsend for Republican partisans. CNN right-wing talker and global warming skeptic Glenn Beck was euphoric the day of the Times report. “Al Gore is finally being slammed in the face for his distortion of science and the facts, and it's being done by The New York Times,” Beck told his CNN Headline News viewers. “Some days it just doesn't get any better.” And a headline cheered, “New York Times SLAMS Global Warming Zealots.” The post insisted, “We've always known that Al Gore is a serial exaggerator. Say, remind me who invented the internet?”

Indeed, it's hard to overstate just how closely the Times article echoed conservative talking points about global warming (i.e. alarmists are driving the debate) and about Al Gore (his exaggerations cannot be trusted).

Yet for close readers of the Times, last week's attack came as no surprise. The newspaper's coverage of Gore for years has dripped with an odd disdain; a completely out-of-context contempt for the former vice president. Note that four days prior to its attempted take-down of An Inconvenient Truth, the Times published an op-ed (subscription required) that ridiculed Gore's personal “energy lust” and mocked him as a hypocrite because his utility bills for his home in Tennessee were deemed to be excessive.

The newspaper has been dissing Gore since the 2000 campaign, when the Times, hooked on the story of his purported exaggerations, spent an extraordinary amount of time checking in with experts -- psychologists, academics, political scientists -- trying desperately to figure out what Gore's alleged embellishments meant.

Back then, the Times insinuated that Gore had exaggerated about being shot at while serving in Vietnam, about a 30-year-old conversation he'd once had with Gen. William Westmoreland, about his days as a newspaper reporter, his campaign wardrobe, going to church, his rural roots, “being a dork campaigner,” school overcrowding, and a childhood lullaby.

Can we all just collectively shake our heads in amazement that this was what the paper of record was obsessing about during a presidential campaign? (P.S. The Times remained utterly uninterested in factual missteps made by candidate George Bush during the 2000 White House race.) And of course, it was the Times that helped launch the phony Love Story and Love Canal controversies that unfairly labaled Gore an exaggerator in the first place.

Now exaggerations have been dusted off and applied to Gore's environmental campaign. The Times' charge is as flimsy today as it was back in 2000, which explains why the newspaper had to resort to such shoddy journalism to prop up the allegation.

Writing at The Daily Howler weblog, Bob Somerby, who for years has documented the media's War on Gore (he coined the phrase), had it right when he noted that an article analyzing the accuracy of An Inconvenient Truth is absolutely a legitimate undertaking for the Times. Readers deserve to know whether there's serious scientific debate about the most important -- and successful -- scientific movie ever made.

Where the Times went so wrong was that after it discovered there was, in fact, very little serious debate within the mainstream scientific community (i.e. “the middle ground”), the paper still plowed ahead with its controversial thesis and tried to fool its readers by suggesting, very high up in the story, that there were deep rifts among “rank and file” scientists -- “the centrists,” as the newspaper called them. If that were true, the Times article, written by William Broad, would have been brimming with rank-and-file scientists questioning Gore's facts. It was not.

Instead, as blogger David Roberts noted, the article had “all the hallmarks of a vintage Gore hit piece: half-truths, outright falsehoods, unsubstantiated quotes, and a heaping dose of innuendo.” The article also had all the hallmarks of a journalist approaching a topic with an already confirmed belief and then working backwards trying to prove that point by selectively quoting sources.

The Times piece did prove that the newspaper was willing to cast a very wide net to locate sources with scientific affiliations who expressed doubts about An Inconvenient Truth. No offense, but if an emeritus professor from Western Washington University was the most prominent critic the Times could find (the prof's the first person quoted in the Gore piece), I'm guessing Gore is on pretty solid footing. (Another critic prominently quoted by the Times isn't even an environmental scientist.)

See here, here, here, here, and here for detailed analysis of the article's obvious scientific shortcomings. In short, the article has been thoroughly demolished.

The New York Times chases campaign trivia

Then again, this kind of sloppy sleight-of-hand has become depressingly routine for the Times when writing about Gore. Readers can't help but get the feeling there's an unspoken, anything-goes newsroom rule when it comes to the former vice president, who's routinely portrayed in the Times as a dolt and a phony. That was clearly the case during the 2000 White House run.

What else could explain the paper's overly excited coverage when Gore, in an off-handed, late-night comment once mentioned to a Time magazine reporter that he and his wife, Tipper, were models for the young lovers in Erich Segal's best-selling 1970 novel Love Story. Actually, what Gore said was that, according to an old Nashville Tennessean article, Segal had once made that claim. After Gore's quip, Segal corrected the record by saying that The Tennessean had gotten it wrong, and that both Gore and his Harvard roommate, actor Tommy Lee Jones, had served as models for Love Story's male protagonist but that Segal did not base any character on Tipper.

The incident defined campaign trivia, yet the Times devoted 30 paragraphs to reporting the story out. Although for some reason, the Times waited until the 21st paragraph of its news story to spell out that the facts vindicated Gore. The newspaper also used a wildly misleading headline, “Author of 'Love Story' Disputes Gore Story (Hint: Tipper Wasn't Jenny),” to suggest Gore had been caught falsifying the past.

Here's the key point regarding the Love Story charade: It was fueled almost entirely by Times columnist Maureen Dowd. Yes, it was the weekly Time magazine that first published the Love Story paragraph. But Gore's trivial recollection created almost no interest in journalism and political circles until Dowd latched onto it (she announced that it represented “the week's most stunning revelation”) and wrote a factually inaccurate column mocking Gore for making -- she was sure -- the phony claim. It was only after Dowd's high-profile column appeared that the Republican National Committee (RNC) sprang into action and started pressing the story in the media. (It wasn't the last time that the RNC fed off the Times for stinging Gore attacks.)

Naturally, during the campaign, Dowd accused Gore of having “boast[ed] that he was the father of the Internet,” and later announced, “The vice president's campaign woes could make a Nashville country song: ”You've been sighin' and you've been lyin'." (Dowd recently penned a column praising Gore for being “prescient,” yet Dowd refused to acknowledge, let alone apologize for, her often habitually unfair treatment of Gore in the past.)

And it wasn't just Dowd. The Times itself became so committed to the negative narrative about Gore exaggerating that it actually helped manufacture one key Gore exaggeration. In November 1999, Katharine Seelye famously misquoted Gore during a campaign stop at Concord High School in New Hampshire, where Gore urged students to take an active role in politics. He relayed how a letter written to him in the '70s from a student in Toone, Tenn., had gotten then-U.S. Rep. Gore interested in the topic of toxic waste. “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. I had the first hearing on that issue -- and Toone, Tenn., that was the one that you didn't hear of. But that was the one that started it all.”

The next day, the Times, along with The Washington Post, botched the quote, erroneously reporting that Gore had bragged, "I was the one that started it all." [Emphasis added.] The story that Gore claimed credit for Love Canal then exploded on the Beltway media scene. Later pressed about the incident, Seelye insisted, “I really do think that the whole thing has been blown out of proportion. It was one word.”

The Times finally ran a correction nine days after MSNBC'S Hardball ran video footage making the misquotation apparent (though, for the record, the Times' “correction” continued to get the quote wrong). But that didn't mean the Times let go of the exaggeration theme, which was evident throughout the campaign in the pages of the Times.

At the Democratic national convention, the daily reported that invited speakers stretched the truth, “sometimes with a level of exaggeration that Mr. Gore himself would envy.” That same month, an unsigned Times editorial tagged Gore as “no amateur exaggerator.” Earlier in the campaign, the Times' editorial page announced, “Mr. Gore will have to offer more than an exaggerated rural boyhood, a resume and an aura of entitlement if he is to win in his own right.”

Here's a sample of New York Times headlines from its 2000 news pages:

  • Tall Tales; Is What We've Got Here a Compulsion to Exaggerate?
  • Focusing on Gore Hyperbole
  • Questions of Veracity Have Long Dogged Gore
  • Gore Admits Being Mistaken But Denies He Exaggerates
  • Tendency to Embellish Fact Snags Gore

That last one appeared on October 6, 2000, and perfectly mirrored the talking points the RNC was pushing about Gore at the time. How perfectly? The very first person quoted in the Times article for insight was none other than Karl Rove.

Seven years later, they're all playing the same game; Republican talking points about Gore-the-exaggerator are being amplified and given credence in the pages of The New York Times.

The War on Gore continues.