Serial misinformer Kit Seelye reportedly set to become NY Times "Web political correspondent"
Research ››› ››› BRIAN LEVY
On March 6, the website gawker.com posted an announcement -- reportedly published in the "in-house [New York] Times newsletter" -- that Katharine Q. "Kit" Seelye, who has been reporting from the Times' Business/Financial Desk, will be assuming the position of "Web political correspondent" at the Times. The newsletter went on to describe Seelye's new role: "As the first person to hold the job, Kit will help define it. But the basic idea is clear: To have a political correspondent whose first priority is the Web. She will do everything from original reporting -- to capture a moment, tease out a subtext, spotlight a person -- to writing analyses and political memos." However, Seelye's previous political coverage for the Times has been broadly criticized. In particular, she has been singled out for advancing -- and, in some cases, generating -- misleading attacks on former Vice President Al Gore during the 2000 presidential race.
Indeed, in their book The Way to Win: Taking the White House in 2008 (Random House, 2006), ABC News political director Mark Halperin and Politico Editor-in-Chief John F. Harris noted that many in the media view Seelye's coverage of Gore as one of the "main reason[s]" he lost:
A number of members of the Gang of 500 ["the group of columnists, consultants, reporters, and staff hands who ... serve as a sort of Federal Reserve Bank of conventional wisdom"] are convinced that the main reason George W. Bush won the White House and Al Gore lost was that Gore's regular press pack included the trio of Katharine "Kit" Seelye (of the New York Times), Ceci Connolly (of the Washington Post), and Sandra Sobieraj (of the Associated Press). [Page 129]
Halperin and Harris asserted that these three reporters "were more representative of Gore's problem than they were the cause," but later added: "Gore made mistakes, and had some bad luck ... [but t]he media, the New leading the Old, helped Bush tell his good story about himself, and helped Republicans tell a bad story about Gore" (Page 130).
Eric Alterman, now a senior fellow for Media Matters for America, further noted in the October 21, 2002, issue of The Nation that "Katharine Seelye's and Ceci Connolly's coverage turned out to be so egregious that the two were singled out by the conservative Financial Times of London as 'hostile to the [Gore] campaign,' unable to hide their 'contempt for the candidate.' "
In particular, Seelye has been heavily criticized for her reporting on Gore's 1999 comments regarding the "Love Canal," a toxic-waste dump in upstate New York.
In a December 1, 1999, New York Times article (subscription required), Seelye reported:
Later in the day, Mr. Gore ... 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.
Mr. Gore was not available to answer questions from reporters after he made this statement.
In fact, Gore did not say what Seelye -- and the Post's Connolly -- reported he said about the Love Canal. This became evident when a clip of Gore's statement aired on the December 1, 1999, broadcast of MSNBC's Hardball:
GORE: 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.
As the clip proves, Gore did not claim "he was the one who had first drawn attention to" Love Canal -- as Seelye reported. He did not say "I was the one that started it all," but rather: "that was the one that started it all" [emphasis added].
The Times eventually ran a correction, but not until December 10, 1999 -- nine days after the article was published and Hardball ran the video footage making the misquotation apparent. Further, the Times acknowledged only having "rendered a passage incorrectly," without noting that Seelye's claim -- that Gore "said he was the one who had first drawn attention to the toxic contamination of Love Canal" -- was also false. Following is the full text of the 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."
According to a December 13, 1999, Associated Press article, the high school students in the audience during Gore's speech had "persuaded The New York Times and The Washington Post to run corrections" on the misquotation of the speech. Nonetheless, Seelye and Connolly "defended their stories, saying Gore's comments were newsworthy, even without the incorrect quote." Seelye said: "I really do think the whole thing has been blown out of proportion. It was one word. ... The Gore campaign never disputed the meaning of the quote."
On February 17, 2000, Slate editor-at-large Jack Shafer noted that Seelye and Times reporter John M. Broder omitted Love Canal, "one of the keystone allegations in the 'Gore is a liar' rap sheet," in their February 17, 2000, article, "Questions Over Veracity Have Long Dogged Gore." Shafer suggested the omission was because "it's Seelye's fault -- and the Washington Post's Ceci Connolly's -- that folks think Gore claimed credit for Love Canal in the first place. Which he didn't" [emphasis in original].
Many assailed Seelye for her original article and her refusal to admit error. The criticism of Seelye's coverage of Gore extended beyond this incident, however:
The "Questions Over Veracity" article repeated other well-worn falsehoods regarding Gore's "veracity," including that Gore had "tak[en] credit for inventing the Internet" -- a claim that has been thoroughly debunked.
Seelye and Broder also reported that Gore had claimed that he and his wife, Tipper, had been "the model for Erich Segal's 'Love Story.' " But as Princeton history professor Sean Wilentz -- and many others -- noted:
Gore never made the claim ... Schmoozing one night about the movies with two Time reporters, Gore had mentioned an interview, reported in the Nashville Tennessean, in which Segal claimed that Gore and Tipper were the models for his story. There was such an interview, but the Nashville reporter misquoted Segal, who actually said that Al, and not Tipper, had served as one of his models.
- Media critic and weblogger Bob Somerby, who repeatedly criticized Seelye's coverage of Gore -- including the Love Canal incident -- objected to another assertion in the "Questions Over Veracity" article: that Gore "has also misrepresented Mr. [former Sen. Bill] Bradley's [D-NJ] health care plan" by saying that Bradley's plan would give "$150 a month [per] family." Seelye and Broder wrote: "In fact, the Bradley plan would grant each individual $150 a month and provides other mechanisms for poor families to receive health care." But Seelye provided no examples of Gore misrepresenting Bradley's plan as $150 per family rather than $150 per month. Moreover, as Somerby noted, during a January 27, 2000, debate with Bradley, Gore had described the $150 voucher as for each individual: "Senator Bradley proposes to substitute vouchers, or subsidies as he prefers to call them, limited to $150 per month per person." Of the assertion that Gore had said Bradley's plan was for $150 per family, Somerby asked, "when had Gore ever made it? All too typically, Seelye cited no example." Somerby added that he "kn[e]w of no case where Bradley ever lodged the complaint which Seelye had now somehow contrived."
- In the April 1, 2000, issue of Washington Monthly, consortiumnews.com editor Robert Parry criticized Seelye and Connolly for "show[ing] no remorse for" having misquoted Gore's comments on Love Canal.
- In the September/October 2000 edition of the Columbia Journalism Review, former Los Angeles Times media writer Jane Hall highlighted an April 16, 2000, Seelye article as an example in which "[t]he underlying message ... was clear: Al Gore is a lying politician who will do anything to get elected -- a theme happily echoed by the Bush-Cheney campaign."
- In the October 2000 edition of the now-defunct magazine Brill's Content, Seth Mnookin quoted Cox Newspapers reporter Scott Shepard, who said of Seelye, Connolly, and Sobieraj's relationship with Gore: "It seems to go somewhat beyond adversarial and short of animosity. [I]t's certainly different from anything I've seen on other campaigns."
Seelye's reporting of the 2004 presidential election was also widely criticized:
- Joe Conason, now a syndicated columnist, wrote in a December 2, 2002, post at Salon.com that Seelye did not advance reporting on potential conflicts of interest that would lead former Nixon Secretary of State Henry Kissinger to resign from the chairmanship of the 9-11 Commission, "although she did find a tendentious way to connect Sen. John Kerry, D-Mass., a White House critic, to Kissinger Associates through H.J. Heinz, the condiment giant." Conason wrote that the Times' "investigation of the investigator [Kissinger] has been noticeably limp."
- As Somerby flagged on January 7, 2003, Seelye, in a profile of 2004 Democratic presidential candidate Dick Gephardt (D-MO), seemed to inject her own opinion of a statement from Gephardt that she quoted. She first quoted Gephardt saying, "We've got to put a distinctive alternative out and say to people, if these problems bother you and you want these problems solved, here's a way to get it done." Seelye then wrote: "Emphasizing his experience ... reminds voters that Mr. Gephardt, who will turn 62 at the end of this month, is a creature of Washington. He has been on the inside for a quarter-century and has yet to solve the problems that he says he understands so well." Somerby responded: "As a House member, Gephardt failed to solve the nation's problems! Where on earth -- except in our press corps -- can you find such consummate nonsense?" [emphasis in original]
- In a February 2, 2004, article, Seelye wrote that then-Democratic National Committee chairman Terry McAuliffe's criticism of President Bush's Vietnam-era military service "seemed partly pre-emptive" and "might also have been a diversionary tactic by Mr. McAuliffe, who has watched with dismay as the Democratic candidates deliver increasingly harsh blows at one another. If that was the case, it failed." Commenting on the article, then-Salon.com media blogger Michael Dietz wrote that Seelye's reporting had managed to "mak[e] an issue disappear while seeming to foreground it" [emphasis in original] and suggested that "[t]he charge itself is unimportant: the crucial datum, as any insider would know, is how it's going to be used."
- Dietz and Somerby objected to Seelye's April 22, 2004, characterization of Kerry's Naval records as praising Kerry's "patrician manner," when Seelye herself noted the records had, in fact, praised Kerry's "dynamic leadership," "appearance," and "use[ of] the English language." As Seelye also noted, a Kerry superior wrote: "In a combat environment often requiring independent, decisive action, Lt. j.g. Kerry was unsurpassed."
Dietz wrote that "[a]s should ... be obvious, nowhere in Kerry's evaluations do his commanders use anything like that phrase." Somerby wrote that " 'patrician manner' isn't in those records." Seelye used no quotations around the phrase "patrician manner," suggesting it was her own. A Media Matters Nexis search could find no other contemporary news account describing the records as suggesting that John Kerry was in any way "patrician," except for a St. Petersburg Times article that appears to be primarily compiled from Seelye's article.*
* = search terms "patrician and kerry and date(geq (4/20/2004) and leq (4/25/2004))