In December 1999, NY Times reporter Katherine Seelye misreported a statement by Al Gore about Love Canal. Seelye had her mind made up that Al Gore routinely bragged and exaggerated, and twisted Gore's uncontroversial words about holding the first Congressional hearings on Love Canal into an allegation that Gore claimed he "discovered" Love Canal. After the Times declared it had a rule against "falsification," Democrats.com member Joseph Comstock debated Timesman Bill Borders on why Seelye was never fired.
Why Didn't the NY Times Fire Katherine Seelye for Lying About Al Gore?
The New York Times Magazine has barred a writer because he falsified information. At this link
the NYTM makes the following statement:
"The Times's policies prohibit falsifying a news account or using fictional devices in factual material. Mr. Finkel has been under contract to the magazine as a contributing writer, but the editors have informed him that he will not receive further assignments."
I wrote a letter to them asking why they did not have the same standards when Katherine Seelye falsified a quote from Al Gore in December of 1999 to make it appear that Gore had taken credit for discovering Love Canal. Surprisingly, Bill Borders replied. Here's his letter.
Editor's Note: Bill Borders frequently defends distortions in the Times. Here is an exchange on October 5, 2001 with Peter Hart of Fairness & Accuracy in Reporting (FAIR). He can be reached at email@example.com
Dear Mr. Comstock:
I have your letter about Katherine Seelye and Michael Finkel. I can only assume that you're not serious. There is no similarity whatever between the two incidents, as must be evident.
Seelye made an honest mistake in quoting Vice President Gore. She missed one word -- writing "I was the one," when he said "that was the one." The Times corrected the error as soon as we determined that we had made it.
Of course it was an unfortunate error -- any error is -- and I wish we had not made it. But your description of it seems overblown. Certainly Dec. 1, 1999 was scarcely "in the heat of a presidential race," and it seems unlikely that in the election that followed more than 11 months later we caused "millions of Americans to base their choice for the leader of the free world on false information."
Since the Finkel case was detailed just today in the newspaper, there is no point in my reiterating it here. But the dissimilarities are obvious.
The New York Times
I replied back to him:
Dear Bill Borders,
Thanks for responding. But you can't be serious! An innocent mistake it was not. Seelye's reputation as a Gore basher and a Bush defender is well-known. Katherine Seelye did not change just one word. As in the old joke where a movie quotes a critic as saying "A movie of ...quality," when the actual quote was "A movie of the lowest quality," Katherine Seelye changed the entire meaning of the speech.
Gore said: 'I called for a congressional investigation and a hearing. (Here he's talking about Toone, Tennessee) 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.'
Seelye claimed he said this:
"I found a little place in upstate New York called Love Canal. I had the first hearing on that issue and Toone, Tenn. . . . But I was the one that started it all."
Seelye went further in the article, claiming Gore was taking credit for discovering Love Canal and comparing his comments to his claim to have invented the Internet. This was not simply misquoting one word. She created a false argument about a false quote. Gore had made no such claims, as even a high schooler could tell. As you know, the students at Concord High notified the Times of the error immediately. The Times defended itself for another nine days before finally printing a correction, which corrected only the quote, not the story.
We both know Seelye's political leanings. We both know Gore's over-enunciating speech pattern. It is not credible that she (and her friend at the Washington Post) misunderstood Gore's words, or his meaning, when no one else at the speech seems to have. If so, her error was one of competency, and the question then arises of how the most prominent paper in the world would allow someone so unqualified to handle the most prominent election in the world. Seelye's misquote was deliberate, as was the tone of her article.
You know the reputation Gore received as an exaggerator, even a liar, based at least in part on this story. You are quite aware that this reputation played a large role in the outcome of the election. The greatest concern with Michael Finkel's story is that by creating a false set of data he inaccurately supports a conclusion that might not be as convincing, or appear as sound, if he used actual data. So does Seelye. If she had used actual data, then the impression Americans had of Gore may have been different. It would at the very least have been more accurate. Your two writers committed the same sin: they lied about facts. It is the one sin journalists cannot commit and still be journalists.
February 22, 2002
Dear Mr. Comstock:
I am aware of the details of the error. (We explained it in our correction.) And I don't mean to make light of it. Any error in The Times is very distressing. I also don't pretend we don't make them; the daily corrections page proves our fallibility.
But if you honestly think Seelye made the mistake on purpose, I don't know what to say. We don't do that. It is simply unthinkable that a Times reporter would intentionally misquote anyone. And even if you thought we were that mendacious, which we are not, who would be dumb enough to purposely misquote a Vice President whose public utterances are all recorded?
What more can I tell you? I hope the paper can regain your trust.
Thanks for holding us to a high standard.
Dear Mr. Borders,
The mistake was not just in the quote, but in the headline and the entire tone of the article. That tone misrepresented the Vice President, and it was intentional. It is a tone Katherine Seelye maintained throughout the election, from her derision of Al Gore's clothing decisions, to her stories about babies crying at his speeches. Just as striking, she did not criticize Governor Bush for similar gaffs. In one story, she derides Gore for criticizing Bush over his misunderstanding of Social Security, turning a Bush mistake into a reason to criticize Gore. Her bias is clear, and it is that bias that caused her to write, and you to publish, a false story. I know it is harder to believe ill of a staff writer you know than of a free-lance journalist you don't, but the Times should have been as concerned for its reputation in both cases. You no doubt know of her, and your, reputation on the Internet over this.
Having said that, I still will read your paper. I'm beginning to be swayed by the argument that you are biased towards the conservatives, whether for corporate reasons or personal leanings, but you are still the most thorough paper on the market. My blood boils at the media's travesty against the Vice President, but the frenzy that followed your story can hardly be blamed on you. If I had been a competitor, rather than jumping on the bandwagon to criticize Gore, I would have turned your mistake into banner headlines to steal some of your market. The fact that everyone from Chris Matthews to George Stephanopolis chose to believe the lie instead of the truth is hardly your fault.
February 22, 2002
Dear Mr. Comstock:
Your memory deceives you (or something). Here is the article. You will see that the mistake was not in the headline, as you say, and not in the rest of the article, as you say. Maybe you are also wrong about some other things.
December 1, 1999, Wednesday Late Edition - Final Section: A Page: 20 Column: 1 Desk: National Desk Length: 986 words
Gore Borrows Clinton's Shadow Back to Share a Bow
By KATHARINE Q. SEELYE
BEDFORD, N.H., Nov. 30
Vice President Al Gore asserted today that the nation's prosperity was the central imperative of his campaign, and he gave credit to President Clinton -- and himself -- for the booming economy.
''In this campaign for president, economic policy should be front and center,'' Mr. Gore told a group of business executives here this morning as he allied himself fully with the President whose shadow he has otherwise been trying to escape.
''President Clinton has presided over an economic policy in the current administration that has been historic in its realism about what works and what doesn't work,'' Mr. Gore said, ''and I'm proud to have been a part of the deliberations that have helped to set this economic policy in place.''
Mr. Gore's comments were his strongest about his role in the current prosperity, and the remarks were striking in their full embrace of Mr. Clinton. Far from separating himself from the President, as he had been doing so frequently, Mr. Gore praised him often and used the word ''we'' to describe the administration's economic successes.
''I want you to know that I am determined to continue the prosperity and to continue the policies that have worked to build that prosperity,'' he said, pledging that as president he would invest in public education and job training for workers.
In his talk to the business group, he promised to reduce the deficit ''every single year'' of his presidency. Background papers issued by his staff said that he pledged to ''make certain that America stays on the path to be debt-free by 2015,'' but he did not say that to this audience.
Later in the day, Mr. Gore, who suffered some embarrassment this year when he took credit for the development of the Internet, 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 his economic speech Mr. Gore also discussed his little-known work as a real estate developer in the early 1970's in Daleville, Ala.
''For a brief time I was a home builder, after I came back from Vietnam,'' he told the audience. ''Tipper and I borrowed some money and bought 20 acres on the edge of the town where we lived and made it into a subdivision, 35 lots, and I had a partner who built several homes and then sold the rest of the lots. I know a good bit about how to make money that way -- that was our nest egg. To build this country is a great thing.''
Peace and prosperity are traditionally overriding issues in national elections, but mostly when they are threatened. Mr. Gore's advisers said he had not focused on prosperity until now because the economy was humming and voters were more concerned about education, health care and school safety. But Mr. Gore has been preoccupied over the last several months with the mechanics of his campaign and changing his image. And today's assertion was as much a declaration that he wanted to turn the conversation to the pocketbook issues that voters focus on increasingly as an election approaches. As one adviser put it, Mr. Gore deserved some credit for the nation's prosperity and he planned to take it.
But claiming credit for the economy has its hazards. It directly links him with Mr. Clinton.
Marshall Wittman, an analyst at the conservative Heritage Foundation, said in a telephone interview that Mr. Gore's taking credit for the economy illuminated both the cloud and the silver lining of being vice president. ''If he is going to take credit for the good, he has to take the bad with it,'' Mr. Wittman said.
The question of how responsible a president is for the economy is always an open one; a vice president's share is even more open.
Robert Reischauer, the former director of the Congressional Budget Office, appointed by Democrats, and now an analyst at the Brookings Institution, said that the Clinton administration had made ''some very gutsy decisions'' that helped vanquish the deficits and that Mr. Gore was influential in those decisions.
''Gore was known as a voice of moderation and perseverance when it came to deficit reduction,'' Mr. Reischauer said, ''and he was on the side of the president.''
But Mr. Reischauer added, ''There were a lot of other factors, not the least of which was Lady Luck.''
Images: Photos: Campaigning in New Hampshire yesterday, Al Gore, above, took questions from high school students in Concord. He made his rounds in a sport utility vehicle, below right, rather than a vice-presidential limousine. (Photographs by Stephen Crowley/The New York Times)
Correction: December 10, 1999, Friday
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.''
Copyright 1999 The New York Times Company