Ceci Connolly, the Washington Post reporter whose snide (and erroneous) coverage of Al Gore’s 2000 campaign contributed to George W. Bush becoming President, is back with more snarky coverage of “liberal activists” pushing for a “public option” on health-care reform.
In a lead article for the Post on Sunday, Connolly demeaned the efforts of “a growing cadre of liberal activists ... aiming its sharpest firepower against Democratic senators who they accuse of being insufficiently committed to the cause.”
The article depicts liberal groups as jeopardizing passage of a health-care bill because of their insistence on a “public option.” Connolly presents the Democratic senators who have face this criticism as bravely standing up to pressure from people whom she paints as both extreme and befuddled.
For instance, Connolly reports that Adam Green, interim chief executive of a group called Change Congress, “was hard-pressed to articulate a substantive argument for the public plan but said that it ‘has become a proxy for the question of Democrats who stand on principle and represent their constituents.’”
Connolly also let an unidentified “Democratic strategist” express that he “was apoplectic over what he called wasted time, energy and resources by the [activist] organizations.” She granted the anonymity “because he was criticizing colleagues,” a weak rationale for using an opinionated blind quote.
Though ostensibly a “news” story, the article recalls Connolly’s trademark ‘tude that she applied to disparage Gore a decade ago, a performance that helped build her career and earn her a spot as a Fox News commentator even if it may have set the nation on a disastrous course.
A textbook example of Connolly’s approach to journalism was her handling of Gore’s comments on the Love Canal toxic-waste case.
That 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, Gore 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.
"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. He 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, Connolly stripped Gore's comments of their context and gave them a negative twist. "Gore boasted about his efforts in Congress 20 years ago to publicize the dangers of toxic waste," she wrote.
"'I found a little place in upstate New York called Love Canal,' he said, referring to the Niagara homes evacuated in August 1978 because of chemical contamination. 'I had the first hearing on this issue.' ... Gore said his efforts made a lasting impact. 'I was the one that started it all,' he said." [Washington Post, Dec. 1, 1999]
The New York Times’s Katharine Seeyle, who seemed to share Connolly’s disdain for Gore, ran a story with the same false quote: "I was the one that started it all."
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."
The GOP release doctored Gore's quote a bit more. After all, it would be grammatically incorrect to say, "I was the one that started it all." So, the handout fixed Gore's grammar to say, "I was the one who started it all."
In just one day, the quote had gone from "that was the one that started it all" to "I was the one that started it all" to "I was the one who started it all."
Instead of going on the offensive against these misquotes, Gore tried to head off the controversy by clarifying his meaning and apologizing if anyone got the wrong impression. But the fun was just beginning.
The national pundit shows quickly picked up the story of Gore's new “exaggeration.”
"It seems to me,” chortled Chris Matthews of then-CNBC's Hardball, "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]
In reality, Connolly was wrong on all counts. “Love Story” author Erich Segal said Gore, as a Harvard student, was one of his models for the male lead of the book and movie. And Gore never said he “invented” the Internet.
Even when the Love Canal misquote was brought to the Post’s attention, the newspaper balked at running a correction and finally did so grudgingly – and still getting Gore’s meaning wrong.
On Dec. 7, 1999, a week after Gore's comment, the Post’s partial correction was tucked away as the last item in a corrections box. It 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 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.
The Post's Connolly even 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]
In other words, Connolly wouldn't even apologize for misquoting Gore and holding him up to public ridicule unfairly.
Gore’s “exaggerations” remained a central element in Campaign 2000, with many voters citing Gore’s supposed dishonesty as a key reason for voting against him, a factor in the tight race that Bush absconded with, with the help of five partisan Republicans on the U.S. Supreme Court. [For details, see our book, Neck Deep.]
Now, Ceci Connolly is back on Page One of the Washington Post, covering health-care reform.
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. Or go to Amazon.com.
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This story was published on June 29, 2009.