BOB GARFIELD: From WNYC in New York this is NPR's On the Media. I'm Bob Garfield.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: And I'm Brooke Gladstone. Just before Al Gore announced he would not be a candidate for president in 2004, he vented to the New York Observer that he and his fellow Democrats couldn't get a fair shake from media increasingly in the pocket of Republicans, but Al Gore has been flogged by media across the political spectrum, as Paul Waldman documents in the latest issue of the liberal American Prospect. Case in point: in 1999 candidate Gore was asked by a student why young people should bother getting involved in politics. He answered that when he was in Congress, a high school student from the town of Toone, Tennessee wrote him about pollution and high rates of cancer in her town. As a result, Gore said, quote "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 you didn't hear of, but that was the one that started it all." That's what he said, but that's not what many of us read in the papers. As Waldman notes, Katharine Seelye of The New York Times and Ceci Connolly of The Washington Post reported that story...
PAUL WALDMAN: ...and they misquoted him -- only with one word, but it was a critical word. They changed his statement that said "that was the one that started it all," referring to this young girl in Toone, Tennessee to "I was the one that started it all" --
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Ah-ha!
PAUL WALDMAN:--referring to himself and referring to Love Canal, and they made it sound as though Al Gore had claimed that he had actually discovered the existence of toxic waste at Love Canal.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: And it really upset the students there!
PAUL WALDMAN:It did. They issued a press release complaining about it, and I think the -- one of the most critical things that happened is the, the next day, after Gore and his campaign complained about it, Ceci Connolly wrote another article in the Washington Post and the lead of the article was all about how Al Gore had made another verbal misstep, and she said "the man who claimed to have invented the internet and been the model for the hero of Love Story now says he didn't quite mean to say he had-- [LAUGHTER] he discovered toxic waste." So she constructed his protestations as --almost as an admission that he had lied.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: So are you saying then that Gore didn't say he invented the internet?
PAUL WALDMAN:No, actually he didn't. What he said was, quote, "When I served in the Congress, I took the lead in creating the internet" unquote.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Oh.
PAUL WALDMAN:Now you can argue that that's a, an exaggeration of his role. If you talk to the people who were involved in the early days of the internet, they will tell you that among politicians, Gore was something of a visionary in this area. But he was clearly talking about his service in the Congress. He was not saying that he was down in his basement, you know, writing computer code and inventing file transfer protocol.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Oh, but he did say that the Ryan O'Neal character in Love Story was modeled after him.
PAUL WALDMAN:This is another incident where [LAUGHTER] it got, it got distorted. He was on a, a plane or a bus with some reporters, and he was holding a newspaper where the paper said something about him and Tipper being the models for the heroes in Love Story, and he showed it to some other reporters and said "Look at this. I didn't even know this." He went to college with the author, Eric Segal. Eric Segal came out and disputed some of the details in the story. It turned out he modeled the hero on Al Gore and his roommate in college, the actor Tommy Lee Jones. So all Al Gore did was point to a newspaper article. He never actually went around saying that he was the model for the, for the hero in Love Story -- and in fact, he was the model for the hero in Love Story.
BROOKE GLADSTONE:After the high school students revealed that Ceci Connolly had misquoted Gore, she argued that it didn't really matter! She wrote, and you quote her as saying "We have an obligation to our readers to alert them that this continues to be something of a habit" -- that is to say, his "lying" -- "and long after the election Connolly maintained incredibly that her misquote 'did not change the context of what Gore said.'"
PAUL WALDMAN: Reporters come to a lot of conclusions based on kind of gut feeling and impressions and the, and the kind of consensus they, they arrive at talking to each other, and those things then have to end up being translated into news -- but they have to get pegged to some kind of an event, and so when she misheard him and thought he said "I" when he said "that," it played into the kinds of conclusions she had already made about who he was, so it was natural she would assume that it was important.
BROOKE GLADSTONE:It's not completely unjustified that reporters suspect every new move from Gore to be a re-invention, because after all he did enlist people like Naomi Wolf for his 2000 campaign makeover, and she told him to dress in earth tones to appear to be more the "alpha male."
PAUL WALDMAN: Right. But what happens is then that he end--ended up not being allowed to do almost anything that ordinary candidates are allowed to do. George Bush was allowed to change his clothes and go to some events in less formal clothing and to other events in more formal clothing without any kind of comment about whether or not that meant that he was re-inventing himself. But once the conclusion was made about Gore, he couldn't put on a casual shirt without comments about "re-invention" and what the, what the symbolism of it was.
BROOKE GLADSTONE:So your article suggests that Al Gore's bad treatment by the press was not the result of a right wing conspiracy but rather of an unfortunate political personality!
PAUL WALDMAN: I think that's true to a great extent, but I also think even if he tried to make nice to reporters, one of the problems with having people conclude that you are a phony or a liar is that there's almost nothing you can do to change that opinion. If people think, as they did, for instance, with George W. Bush that you're not too smart, well you might be able to do something to show them that you in fact are pretty smart, and they might change their opinion. But if they think you're a phony, then they're going to be looking with a jaundiced eye at anything you do.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Well Paul Waldman, thank you very much.
PAUL WALDMAN: Thank you, Brooke.
BROOKE GLADSTONE:Paul Waldman is co-author of The Press Effect -- politicians, journalists and the stories that shape the political world. His article appeared in the January 13th issue of The American Prospect.