Good politics, bad journalism

Reporters seized on stories about Al Gore the liar without checking their facts. Now the Bush campaign is cashing in.

Published October 11, 2000 8:39AM (EDT)

With a debate "win" like last week's, Vice President Al Gore might think about throwing Wednesday's showdown.

That's because while most instant polls showed Gore won the first debate with Texas Gov. George W. Bush, as the week progressed the vice president found himself caught up in an undercurrent powered by political opponents and skeptics in the press who claimed three key debate exaggerations had cost him.

"The vice president has consistently and repeatedly made up things, exaggerated, embellished facts," Bush communications director Karen Hughes told the hosts of "Fox News Sunday." He is "a serial exaggerator."

It all added up to a troubling "pattern of embellishments," according to the Sunday Page 1 piece in the Washington Post, which warned, "The attack on Gore's credibility is resonating."

That drumbeat continues, with Newsweek's "Al Gore and the Fib Factor" story now on newsstands. The Bush campaign uses examples of Gore's past exaggerations as a convenient shorthand when painting the candidate's portrait, and an amenable press corps is now on red alert, searching for any new Gore discrepancies. Of course some may be searching a bit too hard. Matt Drudge posted an exclusive Monday, reporting Gore once boasted that he raised 10,000 chickens on a Tennessee farm, which he may or may not have done. When did Gore's supposed chicken fibbing take place? During the Carter administration.

The alleged debate-fibbing trifecta featured Gore suggesting he had visited Texas forest fires in 1998 with Federal Emergency Management Agency chief James Witt; that he hasn't questioned Gov. George W. Bush's experience; and that a student at wealthy Sarasota (Fla.) High School was forced to stand in class due to overcrowding.

The morning after the debate Gore apologized on "Good Morning America" for misspeaking about Witt, suggesting he'd met with some of the director's deputies on that trip, not Witt himself. The quip about not questioning Bush's experience (Gore had in fact) seemed like nothing more than an innocuous way for Gore to take the high road and try to set the debate's tone.

That left the student-standing story, which conjured up a memorable mental picture for voters. Upon closer inspection, though, the accusation that it's a fabrication doesn't hold up. And even more telling, any reporter or columnist who spent 15 minutes making a few phone calls or reading recent clips from the Sarasota Herald-Tribune would have realized as much.

Here was the vice president's 30-second debate mention of school overcrowding: "I'd like to tell you a quick story. I got a letter today [from] Randy Ellis. He has a 15-year-old daughter named Kailey who's in Sarasota High School. Her science class was supposed to be for 24 students. She is the 36th student in that classroom, sent me a picture of her in the classroom. They can't squeeze another desk in for her, so she has to stand during class.

"I want the federal government, consistent with local control and new accountability, to make improvement of our schools the No. 1 priority so Kailey will have a desk and can sit down in a classroom where she can learn."

Gore made one misstep; he used the present tense "has to stand" instead of the past tense "had to stand." The unchallenged fact remains, though, that Kailey, and scores of her classmates, had to stand due to overcrowding, but she no longer has to.

The student's plight became part of the public dialogue when, six hours before the debate, her Republican father, who had been hired to cater food for the Gore campaign while the vice president prepared for the debate in Florida, delivered the above-mentioned letter to a steward on Air Force Two. He also included a Page 1, Sept. 10 story from the Sarasota Herald-Tribune that featured a photograph of Kailey Ellis standing in the back of her overcrowded biology class.

Written by education reporter Jill Barton, the article highlighted the drastic measures Sarasota schools were taking in order to deal with a $17 million budgetary shortfall; 100 teachers were laid off, and class sizes have soared. At the high school there are nine more students per classroom this year.

Nine days into the school year Barton went to Sarasota High School to interview students and faculty and got this quote from Ellis' biology teacher, Spike Black: "All day, at least two, three or four kids are without a chair. We could get more chairs but there's no place to put them."

Said Kailey: "In my other biology class, people had to sit on the floor."

That was the article that Gore based his anecdote on. None of the article's facts were challenged by local school officials, who, at the time, were eager to illustrate to readers how damaging the voter-approved budget cuts had been. But when Gore introduced the story nationally, Sarasota officials suddenly cried foul.

The real spinning began the morning after the debate when Sarasota High School principal Daniel Kennedy started making the rounds on local, and then national, radio talk shows insisting Gore's tale was "completely not true." No doubt defensive about having his school singled out on national television for having less-than-adequate learning conditions, Kennedy assured reporters that the episode was just a start-of-the-school-year scheduling glitch, and that Kailey only had to stand for one period because when school administrators discovered the situation it was immediately fixed. (Kailey later told the Sarasota Herald-Tribune she did have a desk the next day, but only because a classmate gave up his, and that he had to go without a desk for another week.) He also misled at least one reporter, insisting the picture taken of Ellis standing in her class was snapped "the first or second day of school." It was actually taken during the third week of school.

Kennedy, who did not watch the debate, theorized incorrectly to reporters that Gore's staff, not Kailey's father, had suggested the VP use the overcrowding anecdote. He then blamed Gore for not checking the facts. The principal also said the space shortage inside Kailey's class was caused by "probably about $100,000 worth of new lab equipment that was waiting to be unpacked."

What's interesting is that once Kennedy came forward with his version of the story, many in the usually skeptical press, embracing the Gore-is-a-liar narrative, accepted the principal's word as the unvarnished, unbiased truth, ignoring the possibility that Kennedy was simply an administrator in damage-control mode.

Instantly, the Boston Globe listed the Sarasota story as one of Gore's debate "gaffes." The Orlando Sentinel asserted, "Gore apparently misspoke Tuesday when he said a Sarasota high school student had to stand during her science class because it was crowded," while the Dallas Morning New reported matter-of-factly that "the story was wrong."

How did the Sentinel and the Morning News know Gore had misspoken and was wrong? Kennedy said so.

The New York Post was unequivocal; Kennedy's version represented "truth." And naturally the Wall Street Journal's conservative editorial page was certain Gore's anecdote was "fundamentally untrue." How did it know? Because Sarasota High School "is one of the most lavishly supported schools imaginable." And besides, the principal said the story was untrue.

By last Friday editors at the Wall Street Journal's editorial page had lined up Kennedy to write an op-ed piece about the situation. No doubt hoping he'd pen a stinging piece about how the vice president had misled the country with fuzzy facts, the principal instead toned it down a bit and explained that due to a $17 million budget shortfall, Sarasota's high school was struggling with budget cuts. Conspicuously absent was any mention of six-figure, unpacked equipment clogging up classrooms as the reason for the overcrowding.

So to recap, Kailey Ellis attends Sarasota High School, she had to stand in her biology class weeks into the school year and, yes, it was due to extreme overcrowding.

Still, critics suggest Gore fabricated the situation at Sarasota High by cynically using "has to stand" instead of "had to stand" to create a false impression about dire overcrowding at a wealthy school. "In fact, Kaylie [sic] Ellis isn't still standing at Sarasota High School," points out this week's Time magazine.

Yet here's what Sarasota Herald-Tribune reporter Barton, who tells Salon she and her editors have been surprised and frustrated by the "complete misinformation" the press has spread about the overcrowding anecdote, found during a follow-up article about Sarasota High School that ran Thursday.

"Darci Bovier, 14, a freshman, said she had as many as 60 students in her life management skills class, and three out of 40 students didn't have desks in her Latin class.

Tenth-grader Jordan Zimmer said she had three people standing at the beginning of the school year in one of her classes. They didn't get desks until after the first month of school, the 15-year-old said.

Jennifer Kohl, 16, said, "The first week in American history class myself and two other students had no desks."

They sat in chairs placed in the aisle and used their laps to balance notebooks when they had to write something, she said.

Ryan Eastmoore, a 10th-grader who had the same science teacher as Kailey Ellis, said, "We had two kids standing up for the first month of school."

Cody Best, 14, a freshman, said two girls in his science class are sitting at a table and not at desks. Katherine Izenour, 15, a freshman, said, "I was standing for two weeks; I have a seat now."

And on and on it goes. It's all there in the pages of the Sarasota Herald-Tribune, which has been reporting for weeks on the lasting impact of a dramatic budget cut: high school classrooms often teeming with 40 students and kids going without desks for weeks on end. It all raises serious doubts about principal Kennedy's claim made in the wake of the debate that "We really do not have any students standing in class. We have more desks than we have students actually."

Yet for seven days almost nobody in the national press bothered to lay out those facts. CNN correspondent Brooks Jackson came the closest last week; the Washington Post revisited the issue Monday.

For the Bush camp to suggest Gore fabricated the Sarasota school crisis was probably good politics. For the press to accept it as fact was just bad journalism.

By Eric Boehlert

Eric Boehlert, a former senior writer for Salon, is the author of "Lapdogs: How the Press Rolled Over for Bush."

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