I was previously a constitutional law and civil rights litigator and am now a journalist. I am the author of three New York Times bestselling books -- "How Would a Patriot Act" (a critique of Bush executive power theories), "Tragic Legacy" (documenting the Bush legacy), and With Liberty and Justice for Some (critiquing America's two-tiered justice system and the collapse of the rule of law for its political and financial elites). My fifth book - No Place to Hide: Edward Snowden, the NSA and the US Surveillance State - will be released on April 29, 2014 by Holt/Metropolitan.

Sunday, June 11, 2006

Combatting Media Narratives

By Anonymous Liberal

In her Sunday column--entitled "Al Gore's Convenient Fiction"--Debra Saunders dredges up a highly personal and completely baseless story meant to impugn Al Gore's integrity. Saunders writes:

Just 10 years ago, Gore told the Democratic
National Convention that after his sister Nancy's
needless death in 1984 from lung cancer, he
committed himself "heart and soul into the cause
of protecting our children from the dangers of
smoking." In his new film, Gore again dredges up his
sister's death and how it led his once tobacco-
growing family to turn away from tobacco.

After the DNC speech, reporters with memories
intervened. America learned that contrary to his
rhetoric, in 1988 Gore campaigned as a tobacco
farmer who told his brethren that "all of my life," I
hoed it, chopped it, shredded it, "put it in the barn
and stripped it and sold it." The year his sister died,
Gore helped the industry by fighting efforts to put
the words "death" and "addiction" on cigarette-
warning labels.
Saunders then explains:

Let me be clear: The problem with Gore is not that
he is a hypocrite. The problem with Gore is that
he has no idea he is not Lancelot. He has this scary
ability to block out any facts that make him less
than a perfect, selfless eco-hero, and in his need to
present himself as the world's savior, he'll say
anything -- no matter how hysterical.
But there's a problem with Saunders' story. It completely misrepresents what Gore said in his 1996 speech. Saunders writes "Gore told the Democratic National Convention that after his sister Nancy's needless death in 1984 from lung cancer, he committed himself 'heart and soul into the cause of protecting our children from the dangers of smoking.'" This sentence is clearly intended to convey to the reader that Gore claimed to have made this commitment the moment his sister died.

But here's what Gore actually said in his speech, after describing the ordeal his sister went through:

Tomorrow morning another 13-year-old girl will
start smoking. I love her, too. Three thousand
young people in America will start smoking
tomorrow. One thousand of them will die a death
not unlike my sister's, and that is why, until I
draw my last breath, I will pour my heart and soul
into the cause of protecting our children from the
dangers of smoking.
Notice that Gore clearly made this pledge to the audience, that night, in the future tense. He was not claiming to have made such a pledge the moment his sister died, as Saunders' column falsely implies. She took the quote from his speech entirely out of context.

In fact, Gore acknowledged candidly at the time that it took quite a while for the meaning of his sister's death to sink in. A New York Times article published the day after his convention speech noted:

Mr. Gore said today that he ''felt a numbness'' after
his sister's death that made it hard to translate her
illness into personal and policy decisions. ''It takes
time to fully absorb the most important lessons in
life,'' he told reporters at a luncheon today.
And while the article discussed Gore's slow evolution on tobacco issues during his political career, it also noted, contra-Saunders, that "[a]fter his sister died, Mr. Gore became an ardent Congressional proponent for cigarette warning labels"*(see postscript). So Saunder's smear is completely baseless. Gore never claimed to have had an epiphany at his sister's deathbed. He candidly admitted that his thinking evolved over time as the meaning of her death became clearer to him.

Saunders' column is merely the latest in a long line of manufactured stories intended to portray Al Gore as dishonest or prone to exaggeration. However, the fact that these stories are made up has not stopped them from gaining currency. Most Americans would be quite surprised to learn, for example, that Al Gore never actually claimed to have "invented the internet."

Often these stories are the handiwork of partisans like Saunders and are carelessly repeated by the mainstream media, eventually becoming the accepted truth. But, as Bob Somerby of the Daily Howler has exhaustively chronicled, many of the stories about Gore were not invented by partisan apparatchiks, but instead by mainstream media scribes and, occasionally, self-proclaimed "liberal" columnists and pundits.

What happens, as near as I can tell, is that through some combination of intentional partisan framing by political operatives and the press corps' pre-existing feelings toward a candidate, a narrative is born. In the case of Gore, particularly in the 1999-2000 timeframe, these two forces combined to form a sort of perfect storm. The press never really liked Gore, and his political opponents were determined to portray him as dishonest and inauthentic. As a result, the narrative of Gore as serial exaggerator emerged. Any inaccurate statement he ever made, no matter how innocent or trivial, was trotted out as evidence of Gore's pathological need to inflate his own importance. When someone offered forth a new example that fit this narrative, it was uncritically accepted as true and repeated endlessly, even if Gore had never in fact made the statement in question.

And this phenomenon sometimes works against Republicans too. Remember Dan Quayle? Though I'm sure Quayle is no genius, he is certainly not the dunce that he was mercilessly portrayed as in the media. But that was the prevailing media narrative, so any story, no matter how trivial, was trotted out as evidence of Quayle's utter stupidity. Though many of the most embarrassing stories and quotes turned out to be inaccurate, as with Gore, no one ever bothered to report it. The damage was done, the conventional wisdom had congealed.

Once the media has settled on a narrative, it is very hard to change it. Al Gore's recent re-emergence into the national spotlight has resulted in some uncharacteristically favorable press coverage. But Gore's conservative detractors, like Saunders and the National Review's Jonah Goldberg are trying very hard to reassert the old Gore narratives. And mainstream journalists (and even liberal commentators like Frank Rich) have demonstrated recently that the old Gore narratives still shape their views of the man.

But I'm cautiously optimistic that this phenomenon can be more effectively combatted and contained in the future. The reason for my optimism is the emergence of the blogosphere as a factor in American politics. In the past, the proliferation of false anecdotes and stories was enormously aided by the fact that, more often than not, no one was making any attempt to correct the record, at least until it was too late. But the emergence of the internet and bloggers allows, at least potentially, for real-time fact-checking of media accounts. These days, when someone makes up a story or misrepresents what a candidate said, there is a far greater chance that someone will discover the misrepresentation and write about it. If the misrepresentation is sufficiently egregious, it can trigger, relatively quickly, a chorus of blog posts exposing it and a barrage of angry emails to the media outlet responsible for airing it. Even when this doesn't result in a retraction, it often highlights for others in the media the dubious nature of the story and provides some incentive not to repeat it (if for no other reason than to avoid being deluged with angry emails). In this way, many false stories can be nipped in the bud, before they ever have the chance to solidify into conventional wisdom.

In a long and comprehensive examination of this very subject over at Media Matters, Jamison Foser made the following important observation:

No matter who emerges as a progressive leader, or
a high-profile Democrat, they're in for the same
flood of conservative misinformation in the media.
Too many people chalk up outrageous media
treatment of, say, Al Gore or John Kerry to the
men's own flaws, pretending that if they were better
candidates, they'd have gotten better press
coverage. That's naive. The Democratic Party could
nominate Superman to be their next presidential
candidate, and two things would happen:
conservatives would smear him, and the media
would join in.
That's undoubtedly true, and it's something that anyone interested in the success of future candidates must internalize. There are no perfect candidates and most of the ones the Democrats have put forth in the past, though not without their flaws, were not inherently inferior to their Republican rivals. It's unfortunate that the fate of important policies often depends on the perceived personal attributes of the candidates who champion them, but that's the reality of the world we live in, particularly when it comes to presidential campaigns.

But in the age of internet, we are not entirely powerless as the 'forces that be' construct their narratives about our next generation of candidates and leaders. We have the power, through vigilance, to ensure that the media's depiction of candidates tracks closer to the actual facts than it has in the past. It's important, as we get closer to 2008, that bloggers pay close attention to emerging anecdotes and stories about the presidential contenders and fact-check them thoroughly. False stories and quotes must be confronted at an early stage, before they have been repeated enough times to gain the aura of truth.

*Postscript: In her column, Saunders writes: "The year his sister died, Gore helped the industry by fighting efforts to put the words 'death' and 'addiction' on cigarette-warning labels." This is misleading on a number of levels. First, the legislative wrangling Saunders is referring to took place in early 1984, as evidenced by this June 1984 National Journal article describing it. Gore's sister died in mid-July 1984. So the events Saunders is pointing to as evidence of Gore's hypocrisy took place BEFORE his sister died. Second, and more importantly, Gore was in no way acting as a shill for the tobacco industry. At the time, the industry was pushing hard against the proposed warning label legislation and might well have succeeded had Gore not stepped in and used his clout among tobacco-state politicians to broker the compromise that eventually allowed the legislation to pass. If anyone's interested in a balanced, contemporaneous account of Gore's actions, I suggest reading the 1984 National Journal article cited above, which includes a brief profile of then-Congressman Al Gore and his views regarding the tobacco industry.

CLARIFICATION: Above I wrote: "This sentence is clearly intended to convey to the reader that Gore claimed to have made this commitment the moment his sister died." In fact, the sentence itself only suggests that Gore claimed to have made this commitment at some time in the past; it does not necessarily imply that he made it at the time of his sister's death. This, of course, doesn't make her sentence any less false, but I believe in being precise. My point remains the same. She misrepresented a future pledge as a claim of past commitment.

Morever, while the sentence itself does not necessarily imply that Gore's alleged commitment coincided with his sister's death, the overall context of the piece certainly does. Otherwise, Saunders argument would make no sense. The events she points to as evidence of Gore's dishonestly did not happen in or around 1996, but much earlier (some even before his sister's death). If she was not suggesting that Gore claimed to have made this commitment prior to those events, then her argument completely fails. Long story short, she manipulated a quote and distorted the timeline and nature of Gore's conduct in an effort to paint him as dishonest and phony.

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