The New Science of Character Assassination by Phil Agre : LUSENET : TB2K spinoff uncensored : One Thread


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The New Science of Character Assassination

Phil Agre

15 October 2000

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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 Republicans.

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. 0,2669,SAV-0008220064,FF.html

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 farm.

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 candidate?"

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 exhausted;

    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 Gore.

    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 others.

    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.

  • -- Maxwell (, October 19, 2000


    Sorry about the format. :-(

    -- Maxwell (, October 19, 2000.

    What's wrong Gore-bashers? Cat got your tongue?

    -- The truth hurts, don't it guys? (@ .), October 20, 2000.

    I don't know who the hell you are, Maxwell, but I'll repeat that you read the same stuff that *I* do.

    I'm not sure why the press is doing this, to be honest. At first, I thought that they wanted to ensure that this election turned into a horse-race, and [certainly] it wouldn't based on the issues alone. I'm now beginning to wonder if Gore simply wouldn't be a newsworthy president for them. There's NOTHING to associate him with any scandals. He's simply too clean for their tastes, in comparison to Bill's adventures in the White House. OTOH, W. is RIDDLED with scandals, and the press could spend four years talking about them if he gets elected.

    -- Anita (, October 20, 2000.

    Far out. This Agre dude reads like the Bizarro version of Rush Limbaugh. Both agree we are looking at an epic battle of Good against Evil, they only disagree on who's wearing which uniform right now. Imagine the apoplexy Limbaugh and Agre would suffer if the major candidates were as different as, say, Tweedledum and Tweedledee. Scary.

    On second thought, I haven't yet heard Limbaugh propose such a *comprehensive* conspiracy theory. And here I thought that was the prerogative of the extreme RIGHT-wingers. Well, live and learn.

    Entertaining essay, though. I like escapist literature.

    -- Flint (, October 20, 2000.

    I will take one of these on:

    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.

    As the Internets scientific leaders attest? You mean, the one that has supported Gore's comments? Haven't heard much from most of those who truly created the Internet - the early ARPA net gurus, the military work that preceded the Internet, the TCP/IP forefathers who were working on the protocol when Gore wasn't even involved in politics.

    Fact: Gore did not help create the Internet. He, along with many others, supported policies that allowed computer gurus to create it. Do you see other politicians claiming they helped "create" the internet?

    Mr. Agre's work in trying to paint Republicans as character assassins brings up a couple of questions - is it fair or ethical to use UCLA resources to spam this political ad to his listserver members, using UCLA computers? Did Mr. Agre do this work on his own time, or did the taxpayers pay for it?

    -- David (, October 20, 2000.

    Here's something from someone considered the "Father of the Internet", David.

    I forgot his name already.

    -- Anita (, October 21, 2000.

    I'm now beginning to wonder if Gore simply wouldn't be a newsworthy president for them. There's NOTHING to associate him with any scandals.

    And here I thought that Al Gore was the only person in America who did not realize that the Buddist temple was a fund raiser.

    Ok, so there are two.

    -- Uncle Deedah (, October 21, 2000.

    Oh yeah, 'David' ( Did you take a second to ask any of the Internet's scientific leaders? Or are you just another spouting ignoramus?

    The Internet is not TCP/IP or any other protocol a technical person might have invented. The Internet was created by an act of Congress. The driving force behind that act was Al Gore. Even Newt Gingrich acknowledges that.

    The Internet is an organization created out of the DARPA-net and various other governmental properties and made public, created by congressional legislation, created by legislation authored and supported and resubmitted numerous times by Senator Al Gore (as NREN).

    You can go pick up a copy of Malamud's "Stacks" published in 1992 and you will find very few people mentioned by name, and only one of those--around page 30--who has no technical connections whatsoever. That person is Senator Al Gore, mentioned specifically because his farsighted activism in the Senate in the late eighties and early nineties created the Internet.

    -- David Stewart Zink (, November 25, 2000.

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