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<nettime> [RRE] The New Science of Character Assassination

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subject: [RRE]The New Science of Character Assassination

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The New Science of Character Assassination

Phil Agre

15 October 2000

You are welcome to forward this article electronically to anyone for
any noncommercial purpose.

The past ten days will go down as a turning point in American history.
This is what it's like when the far right is taking over your country:
the people support Al Gore's policies, but the polls are shifting toward
George W. Bush because the media is filled with false attacks on Al
Gore's character.  A story in today's (10/15/00) New York Times states
openly what has been clear all along, that this campaign of character
assassination has been planned and executed over a long period by the

Character assassination is, of course, nothing new for Republicans, who
mastered the art in the days of Richard Nixon.  What's new is that the
press constantly repeats the lies.  Not just once or twice, not just the
occasional slip, but over and over and over.

Let us consider the New York Times story in detail.  Written by Alison
Mitchell, it describes Al Gore's abject apology for two trivial and
much-exaggerated errors in the first debate as "the culmination of
a skillful and sustained 18-month campaign by Republicans to portray
the vice president as flawed and untrustworthy".

The New York Times discerns four landmarks in this campaign, and
landmark number one is as follows:

  ... in December 1997 ... the [Republican National] committee announced
  it had started a contest to come up with a slogan for Mr. Gore after
  he told reporters that the hero and heroine in the novel "Love Story"
  were modeled after him and his wife, Tipper.  (Erich Segal, the
  author, soon said that his protagonist, Oliver Barrett IV, was only
  partly based on Mr. Gore, while Jenny Cavilleri had nothing to do with
  Tipper Gore.)

In this case, the RNC's claim was false.  Gore had not told anyone that
Love Story was based on him and his wife.  Rather, he had mentioned a
newspaper article that had inaccurately said that, and was carefully to
say that he only had the article's word to go on.  Observe that Mitchell
repeats the RNC's false account, and then (following the longstanding
convention) makes it sound as though Segal was contradicting Gore, when
in fact he was defending him.  The false "Love Story" store continues to
be repeated to the present day.

Landmark number two:

  So when Mr. Gore said in an interview with CNN in March 1999
  that "during my service in the United States Congress, I took
  the initiative in creating the Internet", Senator Trent Lott of
  Mississippi, the majority leader, issued this mocking statement:
  "During my service in the United States Congress, I took the
  initiative in creating the paper clip".

The problem, of course, was that Gore's claim was correct.  As the
Internet's scientific leaders attest, often heatedly, Gore recognized
the significance of the Internet very early, and took the initiative
in doing the political work and articulating the public vision that
made the Internet possible.  His sentence, which is often not quoted
in its entirety, makes perfectly clear that he was talking about the
work he did in the context of his Congressional service, and that he
is not claiming, ridiculously, to have done the technical work as well.
Mitchell shades the story by omitting the Republicans' (and media's)
most common distortion of the matter, that Gore claimed to have invented
the Internet.  This falsehood has been repeated on literally hundreds of
occasions, and George W. Bush routinely uses it in his speeches.

Landmark number three:

  On the day Mr. Gore announced his candidacy in Carthage, Tenn., his
  family's hometown, Jim Nicholson, the chairman of the Republican
  National Committee, had a more elaborate stunt.  He rode in a wagon
  pulled by mules to the hotel on Embassy Row in Washington where
  Mr. Gore lived for much of his youth.

  "He has tried to pass himself off as this hardscrabble, homespun
  central Tennessee farm boy and that is not what he is", said
  Mr. Nicholson, playing off the fact that Mr. Gore had told The Des
  Moines Register that he had learned to slop hogs and clear land on the
  family farm.  Friends later told reporters that Mr. Gore's father had
  kept him on a backbreaking work schedule during summers on the family

The problem, again, is that Gore's claim was true.  He did work on his
family farm as a child.  This time, Mitchell admits that the Republicans
were making it up.  But she still shades the story by making it sound as
though the truth hadn't come out until later, and as though the contrary
view rests solely on the word of Gore's friends.  In fact the childhood
farm chores had been extensively reported for a decade.  The false claim
that Gore had lied about the chores was repeated on many occasions in
the press.

Landmark number four:

  The Republicans got help as well from an unexpected source.  When the
  Democratic primary fight became bitter, former Senator Bill Bradley
  of New Jersey insisted that Mr. Gore had deliberately distorted his
  policy positions in what he called a "pattern of misrepresentation".
  At one point, Mr. Bradley spat out, "Why should we believe that you
  will tell the truth as president if you don't tell the truth as a

The problem is that Bradley is endlessly quoted to this effect without
any attempt to determine whether he is right.  In fact Bradley often
wrongly accused Gore of distorting his positions.

And that's it.  That, according to the New York Times, is the story of
the Republicans' campaign to paint Al Gore as an embellisher.  The New
York Times cites four accusations, all of them false, and in every case
the New York Times either repeats the false accusations as truth or else
provides misleading accounts of them.

The New York Times' article is not an aberration.  The list of false
attacks on Al Gore's character that have been circulated in the media
for the last two years is extraordinary.  In some cases, as in the ones
(mis)cited by the New York Times, Gore is accused of lying when he was
actually telling the truth:

* Several publications have called Gore a liar in very harsh terms
because he claimed that his father was a pioneer in the civil rights
movement.  It is true that his father lost his nerve on the Civil Rights
Act, but that does not change the overwhelming and (until recently)
universally accepted evidence of his leadership on civil rights.  Gore's
assertion is perfectly accurate.

* In probably the single most vicious attack of the entire campaign,
several publications have suggested that Gore lied when claiming to
have been present at his sister's death.  The only evidence they offer
is that he also made a political speech the same day, and Gore's driver
has explained his schedule for that day in detail.

In other cases, Gore's words are twisted, misquoted, or simply made
up to make him sound as though he were making a claim that he was not
making.  For example, some publications have even claimed, falsely,
that Gore literally uttered the words "inventing the Internet".

There are many others:

* In the closing moments of Gore's second debate with George W. Bush,
Jim Lehrer falsely accused Gore of having called Bush a "bumbler" in
one of his campaign commercials.

Was this simply a mistake on Lehrer's part?  Okay, but Lehrer made his
"mistake" in the context of rebuking Gore for his own miniscule mistakes
in the first debate.

* Gore told a a union audience that his mother had sung the "union
label" song to him as a child.  Gore's comment was obviously a joke
and the audience took it as a joke.  Yet, incredibly, numerous supposed
journalists have asserted that he meant it seriously, or else tried
(on no evidence) to cast doubt on Gore's obviously-true claim that it
was a joke.

* When Gore spoke of his proposal to put Social Security and Medicare
in a "lockbox", some "journalists" accused him of dissembling on the
astonishing grounds that he was not actually proposing to put the money
into a physical box.

* When the Washington Post finally gave up on the "Love Story" story,
pretending that it had only recently been disproven, they moved to
another falsehood.  Gore had claimed that his sister was the first
volunteer for the Peace Corps.  This claim was accurate, inasmuch as his
sister had in fact worked for the Corps without pay from its earliest
days, only later joining its paid staff.  But the Post called Gore's
claim a "lie", on the grounds that she had not worked as a volunteer
*overseas*, which Gore had never claimed; they did not mention that she
worked without pay.

* Gore told some students in New Hampshire the story of a Tennessee
community activist who brought his attention to a toxic dump, whereupon
he looked for other examples, found Love Canal, and held the first
hearings on the issue.  "Journalists" first misquoted him as having
claimed to to have started the issue, when in fact he was giving credit
to the activists.  Even when the misquotation was grudgingly corrected,
they continued to distort his words, as if he were claiming to have
discovered the toxic pollution at Love Canal.

In yet other cases, Gore made a trivial error that has been exaggerated
by his critics, and the exaggeration has been falsely attributed to him.
Such is the case with the school in Florida that Gore cited in the first
of his debates with George W. Bush.

These are just a few examples among many.  People make mistakes all
the time.  Al Gore is one of them, and it's surprising that an army
of opposition researchers hasn't come up with more substantive errors
after fact-checking a whole life of public statements.  So is George W.
Bush, whose errors during the two debates so far have been dramatically
worse than those of Gore.  To start with, Bush falsely implied that
the Europeans have no troops in Kosovo, when in fact they have tens of
thousands, and that the United States has significant numbers of troops
in Haiti, when it does not.  And he made numerous false statements:

  that Gore was outspending him, when the opposite was true;

  that the rate of uninsured people was falling in Texas and rising
  nationally, when the opposite was true;

  that the men who killed James Byrd would be put to death, when
  only two had been sentenced to death and their appeals had not been

  that middle-income seniors would get drug coverage immediately under
  his Medicare plan;

  that Gore had lied about this;

  that the new spending in his budget plan is equal to the tax cuts;

  that "most of the tax reductions [in his plan] go to the people at
  the bottom end of the economic ladder";

  that the president is unable to influence the actions of the Food
  and Drug Administration;

  that Hillary Clinton's 1993 national health insurance initiative
  would have entailed nationalizing health care; and

  that Gore had claimed to be the author of the Earned Income Tax
  Credit law.

That is just a partial list of Bush's "mistakes" in two ninety-minute
debates, and it doesn't include the dubious numbers he quoted from
Republicans in the Senate or the mess he made of education, taxes,
Social Security, and the Middle East.  Nor does it include the
"mistakes" that littered his acceptance speech at the Republican
convention, or the especially egregious "mistakes" of his brutal
campaign against John McCain in South Carolina, and so on.

With only a few exceptions (like the one just cited), the press has
gone to great lengths to cover up or minimize Bush's false statements.
Press coverage of the first debate focused overwhelmingly on Gore's
two comparatively trivial errors and on endless suggestions that Gore
was rude for having sighed several times.

Of course, the sighs were often exaggerated by turning the volume up.
(Falsely calling someone a liar, as Bush did several times, is not
rude?)  Pundits bizarrely praised Bush for his command of the issues
after the first debate despite his lengthy catalog of errors:

And the 10/5/00 Washington Post buried the Democrats' list of Bush
errors at the end of a long story about Bush's accusations against

The problem is systemic.  A reporter for a British newspaper, the
Observer, was struck at the completely different approaches of the
reporters covering Gore and Bush, and reported a disturbing incident
in which a Washington Post reporter well-known for her open hostility
to Gore held a toy gun to his head.

Indeed, press coverage of Gore has been spun in a strongly negative
fashion for a long time.

The press, following the lead of Republican "investigators", has
repeatedly falsified and spun the famous Buddhist temple event, among

They have also falsified and exaggerated Gore's performance in earlier
debates, thereby creating a caricuture of him as a vicious attacker.

Yes, the press has suggested that Bush is not mentally competent to
run the country.  But it has not fabricated huge amounts of evidence
to support this charge, and it has not routinely used vocabulary that
is remotely as harsh as that used against Gore.  You have rarely seen
the media call Bush a "moron" or "idiot", but Gore has routinely been
called much worse.  Here is a very partial list:


  "imperious", "repellent"

  "lethal", "ruthless", "liar"

  "ruthless", "relentless", "bully", "maniacal"

  "manipulative", "dishonest"

(I am citing the Daily Howler for most of these examples so that
you can read some analysis of them.  But the Howler provides precise
citations for the originals, which should be easy to look up.)

Indeed, Bush's alleged mental incompetence is often tacitly used
to excuse his falsehoods -- he doesn't know what he's talking about,
so he can't be lying.  Or Gore is accused of a "pattern" of false
and exaggerated statements, but then Bush escapes the same accusation
for the simple reason that nobody bothers to gather Bush's false and
exaggerated statements in one place.

This is just the press.  We're not even talking about the conservatives
on the Internet that have been circulating long lists of Gore's supposed
lies and exaggerations -- most of which are, of course, themselves lies
or exaggerations, including garbled and embellished versions of the
already false versions in the press.  Some of these lists are credited
to the RNC, but of course it is hard to know for sure.

The new science of character assassination, then, has several components:

It starts with a strategy: a conscious choice by a political party that
it is going to position its opponent in a certain way.  The 10/15/00
Washington Post quotes a Republican consultant as saying that "PR 101 is
define your opponent before he tries to define himself", and the whole
campaign is clearly organized by the principles of PR.

It requires a clearinghouse to distribute "facts" that fit the strategy.
In this case the burden has been carried by the Republican National
Committee and by the office of House majority leader Dick Armey, which
got its start by circulating the original fraudulent charges from Wired
News about Gore's Internet statement.

It requires rank-and-file supporters who are willing to pass along any
junk that fits the party line.

But above all, it requires a press corps that has decided to go along
with it.  Part of the problem is that the press operates in packs
-- an echo chamber of lazy pundits in which every "fact" that fits a
prevailing stereotype gets endlessly repeated.

But it's not just that.  It is not surprising that Rupert Murdoch's
media properties, such as Fox and the New York Post, publish smears
against people who disagree with Murdoch's far-right views.  But it can
hardly be an accident that the New York Times, the Washington Post, and
the Associated Press have all assigned reporters to the Gore campaign
who write, day in and day out, the same sorts of exaggerated smears.
To be sure, the press is not unanimous in spreading Republican lies as
truth; the contrast between the NYT/Post/AP axis and the calm reporting
of the Los Angeles Times could hardly be greater.  But the Post, Times,
and AP, all well-connected and widely syndicated, set the tone for
the press as a whole.  The fix is clearly in, and these establishment
media operations are clearly down with it.  They see which way the wind
is blowing, and they don't want to get left behind.

A kind of coup is in effect, continuing the pattern of the Whitewater
hoax and impeachment.  If the far right succeeds in its campaign, then
the incoming government will be staffed by people who are trained in the
new science of character assassination.  It's all they know.  And having
destroyed Al Gore, they will come after the rest of us.

Copyright (c) 2000 by Philip E. Agre.  All rights reserved.

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