In a pathbreaking study of the mass media and modern culture, The Image, first published in 1961, the historian Daniel J. Boorstin coined the term "pseudo-event." A pseudo-event, Boorstin wrote, is "not spontaneous ... but planned, planted, or incited"--an event whose "occurrence is arranged for the convenience of the reporting or reproducing media," and whose "relation to the underlying reality of the situation is ambiguous."
The latest metamorphosis of Boorstin's pseudo-event is the pseudo-scandal, an ambiguous or outright false scandal that acquires the appearance of the real thing in the media through the dogged repetition of charges and investigations. Genuine scandals, such as the Iran-Contra affair and the pilfering by former Democratic Congressman Dan Rostenkowski, have touched members of both major parties in recent years. But likewise, both parties, aided by the media, have helped to perpetuate pseudo-scandals related to campaign finance or other matters of alleged behind-the-scenes financial favoritism. The 1991-1992 pseudo-scandal over the Banca Nazionale del Lavoro and President George Bush's alleged illicit dealings with Saddam Hussein (promoted by, among others, New York Times columnist William Safire and vice presidential candidate Al Gore); the 1992 uproar over the House Bank overdrafts (promoted by, among others, Newt Gingrich); the false Whitewater, Travelgate, and Filegate scandals (promoted by observers and operatives all across the political spectrum, from Jerry Falwell to Christopher Hitchens)--each has exemplified the exploitation, for ideological or partisan purposes, of justified public concerns about the modern nexus of money and political influence.
Of course, negative propaganda stories have been a staple of American politics from the early years of the republic, when Federalist editors denounced the Democratic-Republican Thomas Jefferson as a Jacobin atheist and traitor. Today's pseudo-scandal retains traits of classic mudslinging; above all, it involves distortion of an opponent's record and public statements. As in the past, many of today's partisan peddlers of pseudo-scandals spread them around through friendly journalists and pundits--modern equivalents of press lords like William Randolph Hearst and vicious columnists like Westbrook Pegler.
But there are also crucial differences. Recent pseudo-scandals have relied on the manipulation of the courts, congressional committees, and the now-defunct Independent Counsel Act in order to harass elected and appointed officials with flimsy accusations. And the pseudo-scandal masters have managed to gain the subtle and often unwitting but crucial complicity of the independent mainstream news media. Without the credibility provided by law and journalism, the new style of pseudo-scandal might simply be dismissed as partisan maneuvering. Coated with a gloss of objectivity, however, pseudoscandals gain a respectful hearing, vastly reinforcing the blatant tub-thumpers, fake inside-dopesters, and latter-day Peglers who appear on the cable networks and talk-radio shows as well as in the newspapers.
Although the focus of today's pseudo-scandals is primarily political money, the direct historical antecedent is the media-friendly demagoguery pioneered by Senator Joseph McCarthy. McCarthy, Boorstin wrote, showed "it is possible to build a political career almost entirely out of pseudo-events." It is nearly forgotten today that McCarthy worked gleefully and sometimes woozily, during and after hours, cultivating "the boys" of the press over drinks and gossip. News-hungry reporters, in turn, developed a fascination for McCarthy: Love him or hate him, he was great copy. "Newspapermen were his most potent allies, for they were the co-manufacturers of pseudo-events," Boorstin observed. "They were caught in their own web. Honest newsmen and the unscrupulous McCarthy were in separate branches of the same business."
Despite the chastening experience of McCarthyism, the media have now become both more scandal-hungry and more vulnerable to pseudo-scandals, thanks to the vast expansion of cable television, talk radio, and the Internet, and the consequent radical shortening of news cycles. Apart from technological innovations, the pseudo-scandal owes its emergence to three disastrous developments of the 1980s and 1990s: the growth of antipolitical media sensationalism, the post-Watergate tendency to criminalize political differences, and the development of an absurd and degrading soft money campaign finance system that has widened opportunities for genuine corruption and pseudo-scandals alike.
Traditional political corruption, from the Credit Mobilier scandal of the Grant years to the Teapot Dome affair during the Harding administration, involved straightforward bribery. The role of money in politics today is typically more indirect. Given the enormous costs of running modern televised political campaigns and the soft money loopholes in our financing laws, politicians are compelled to be full-time fundraisers. Contributors, in turn, normally expect special access, which can lead both to corruption and to something that is nearly as damaging, the appearance of corruption.
See the Campaign Finance Special Section!
In this year's presidential race, the appearance of corruption has dogged one candidate, Al Gore. Between April and June 2000, according to a survey by the Pew Research Center for the People & the Press, 76 percent of the media coverage of Gore focused on two negative themes: his alleged lies and exaggerations and his alleged scandals. (Over the same period, the survey found, the bulk of the coverage of George W. Bush involved his putative move to the center and elaborations of "compassionate conservatism.") In the past year, painstaking articles in several publications have exposed the emptiness of the allegations against Gore. Nonetheless, the charges linger in the public mind as commonplace knowledge, and the repeated depiction of Gore as scandal-tainted could prove important, perhaps even decisive, in November. If it does, it will be the ultimate triumph of the pseudo-scandal.
Tempest over the Temple
The oldest and grandest of the Gore pseudo-scandals is the Buddhist temple affair. On March 15, 1996, Vice President Gore had a 10-minute social visit in the White House with Master Hsing Yun, the head of the Taiwan-based Fo Kwang Shan Buddhist order. The meeting was arranged by John Huang, who for four months had been working as a fundraiser at the Democratic National Committee (DNC), with the assistance of Maria Hsia, a Democratic fundraiser who was also an immigration counselor for Master Hsing's order.
Hsing's chief American branch, the International Buddhist Progress Society, was one of the largest Chinese community organizations in southern California, and Gore agreed to visit the society's 15-acre Hsi Lai Temple complex in Hacienda Heights at some future date. Gore had already been scheduled to address some fundraising events in the Los Angeles area the following month. With Huang in charge of planning, arrangements were set for a fundraising luncheon in Monterey Park on April 29, followed by a goodwill visit to the temple. On March 23, Maria Hsia confirmed these arrangements in a letter to Gore.
As often happens with public officials' schedules, this one got revised. In early April, members of Gore's staff advised Huang that the vice president lacked the time to appear at two separate functions on April 29. Huang duly canceled the Monterey Park fundraiser. Gore ended up giving a ceremonial five-minute speech at the Hsi Lai Temple on tolerance and world brotherhood, then attended a luncheon at the temple dining hall.
Gore's briefing materials, since made public, listed the temple visit merely as a "luncheon." If the event had been a planned fundraiser, it would have been essential for the briefing notes to say so to keep Gore on cue. The briefing notes for a fundraiser later that day in San José, for example, explicitly mentioned fundraising, while the notes for the temple event did not. Nor, the Los Angeles Times later reported, did any of the familiar trappings of a fundraiser appear at the Hsi Lai Temple: the usual campaign materials, the table for soliciting contributions, the candidate's coy thank-yous to his generous audience. It seems to have been a typical campaign gathering, commonly held in churches, synagogues, and other places of worship, and familiar to Republicans and Democrats alike--doubtless designed to curry favor with past and potential supporters, but not directly to raise cash. Don Knabe, a Republican Los Angeles county supervisor who attended the event, told the Times that "if it was a fund-raiser, it wasn't like any fund-raiser I've ever been to."
But Huang and Hsia did, in fact, try to raise some campaign money directly out of the event. Prior to Gore's cancellation, Huang had already sold tickets to the Monterey Park fundraiser. He had also promised his superiors at the DNC that Gore's sojourn in Los Angeles would produce anywhere from $250,000 to $350,000 for the party. Apparently, Huang did not want to lose his donors' contributions; nor did he want to disappoint the DNC. Instead of doing what he should have done--return the money--he invited the Monterey Park ticket-buyers to have lunch with Gore at the temple instead. Moreover, immediately after the event, he and Hsia stepped up their solicitations, gathering 42 checks totaling about $100,000. Only 15 of the checks came from the 100 or so people who had attended the temple luncheon, and no checks were collected at the luncheon itself. Still, Huang--in defiance of explicit instructions given to him by former DNC Finance Director Richard Sullivan, in early April, not to hold a fundraiser at the temple--blurred a crucial distinction and thereby quietly turned the temple event into a quasi-fundraiser, albeit, the evidence shows, unknown to Gore.
Worse, as part of the recouping effort, Hsia did things that a federal jury later decided were criminal. First she solicited a $55,000 contribution from the temple--a tax-exempt organization legally barred from making such political donations. Then she tried to cover her tracks by having the donation come in the form of $5,000 checks written by temple monastics, who were in turn reimbursed by the temple, a scheme that plainly violated campaign finance law. To make matters even worse, Huang, adopting his own "don't ask, don't tell" policy, did not inquire about the provenance of the suspicious checks when Hsia handed them over to him for delivery to the DNC.
In October, with the election less than a month away, The Washington Post learned from one of the donors, Charlie Woo, that Huang had told him there was a charge to attend the temple event, and that he had accordingly arrived with a check in his pocket. Some months later, under questioning by Senate staffers, Woo clarified his story, explaining that Huang had originally invited him to the Monterey Park fundraiser but, when that event was canceled, redirected him to the Hsi Lai Temple. Woo also said he found it "weird" that, at the temple event, there was "no mention of money." But by the time Woo gave his full explanation, alarmist reports in the Post, The Wall Street Journal, and other newspapers, helped along by damning press releases from the Republican National Committee (RNC), had turned the story into an all-out assault on Gore's campaign ethics.
When questioned about the allegations, Gore himself replied that he had thought at the time it was a community event, not a fundraiser. Had he left matters there, the story might have lost some of its steam. Rogue fundraising by overambitious partisans, unbeknownst to the candidates and their staffs, is, after all, not unheard of, in either party, especially in the modern era of soft money financing frenzies. Indeed, during the very same month when the alleged temple scandal story broke, the vice chairman of Republican presidential nominee Robert Dole's campaign, Simon Fireman, pleaded guilty to charges that he had illegally laundered $120,000 in federal campaign contributions, including $69,000 to the Dole campaign. Yet no one jumped to the conclusion that Dole himself knew anything of the scheme.
But Gore, trying to go the extra mile to be helpful to the press, acknowledged that funds had been sent in "too soon after the [temple] event" to escape the appearance of impropriety, while asserting his own ignorance of what happened at the time. By telling what he thought to be the whole truth, Gore only further incited a scandal-hungry press and his political adversaries. Seven days later, Senator John McCain and four House committee chairmen demanded that Attorney General Janet Reno appoint an independent counsel to investigate Gore. Seven days after that, the Clinton-Gore ticket trounced Bob Dole and Jack Kemp.
Despite the election results, and perhaps even because of them, Republicans seized upon the Buddhist temple incident. In 1997 Newt Gingrich speculated to reporters that various scandals might topple Gore as well as Clinton from office, by resignation if not by impeachment. Three years earlier, prior to the 1994 elections, Gingrich had told a group of lobbyists that if the Republicans took control, Congress would have 20 task forces or subcommittees investigating the White House and the Clinton administration. After losing the 1996 presidential election, they kicked that strategy into high gear, launching 30 new congressional investigations in 1997 alone.
President Clinton had, of course, long been beleaguered by investigations of what later turned out to be phony scandals, beginning with Whitewater and his alleged involvement in the death of his oldest friend, Deputy White House Counsel Vincent Foster. But with the reports about the Buddhist temple and other alleged financing irregularities, Republicans believed that Gore, too, was vulnerable. When the Monica Lewinsky story broke in January 1998, public attention focused on Clinton's potential removal from office. GOP true believers, however, saw the possibility of a twofer that could elevate Gingrich from the speaker's chair to the presidency.
The Senate Committee on Governmental Affairs, chaired by Senator Fred Thompson, held hearings on campaign finance irregularities, focusing nearly its entire effort on Democrats. In its final report, the Republican majority included a long chapter on "The Hsi Lai Temple Fundraiser and Maria Hsia," as if the facts clearly established that was the nature of the event. The chapter dismissed exculpatory testimony and ignored published reports about the original Monterey Park event and ensuing mix-up and asserted that the DNC had, from the outset, planned a fundraiser at the temple. A few individual Republicans raised doubts. "I'm willing to stipulate that the vice president did nothing wrong in attending the temple," Senator Robert Bennett of Utah said in committee hearings. "I'm prepared to believe the vice president on that subject," Senator Arlen Specter of Pennsylvania said on Face the Nation. But the RNC would not back down from the temple allegations.
Artfully exploiting the media, the Republicans also developed several mini-pseudo-scandals about Gore, further impugning his character. Reports appeared that Gore had used his office telephone to solicit hard as well as soft money contributions in violation of the 1883 Pendleton Act and that he had given false statements to investigators about his knowledge of the use of hard money in the 1996 campaign. Four years after the fact--after prolonged and exacting investigations by Republican-controlled congressional committees and the Department of Justice, as well as by the press--no evidence has come to light to support the charge of Pendleton Act violations. The second charge, regarding Gore's alleged false statements, is based on an ambiguous statement by former White House Chief of Staff Leon Panetta, that Gore had "listened attentively" during a private meeting in which hard money use in the campaign's media fund was discussed. Gore, once again trying too hard to explain everything, later reportedly claimed to an investigator that he might have missed the hard money talk because he drank a lot of iced tea at the meeting and took frequent bathroom breaks. After reviewing the evidence, Attorney General Reno advised the United States Court of Appeals in December 1997 that she had concluded that the allegation that Gore solicited hard money was "insubstantial" and "depend[ed] so heavily on conjecture and speculation" that it didn't merit appointment of a special prosecutor.
As recently as last month, Attorney General Reno continued to decline requests from Justice Department officials to appoint special prosecutors to look into various allegations against Gore. Her decisions have led some commentators to charge that she is protecting Gore with an eye to the 2000 elections. But the known facts about these episodes support her judgments.
The Bottom of the Case
Early this year, the first careful appraisals of the finance-related Gore pseudo-scandals began to appear. An article by Roger Parloff in The American Lawyer demolished the original charges about Gore's alleged temple shakedown, the bogus claims about his Pendleton Act violations, and other related matters. One prominent analyst hostile to Gore, Stuart Taylor, Jr., of the National Journal, retracted an earlier statement, conceding that "the suggestions that [Gore] has been dishonest about the Buddhist temple and his fund-raising phone calls seem like a bum rap." And a close reading of the reports and documents released by the Fred Thompson and Dan Burton committees, as well as Gore's testimony to Justice Department officials on April 18, 2000, shows that the case against Gore in the all-important Buddhist temple affair now rests on nothing more than a willfully negative reading of the evidence.
Here is what the case amounts to: On March 15, 1996, Gore's scheduler Kimberly Tilley sent an e-mail to Gore, mentioning planned fundraisers on April 29 in Los Angeles and San José (Thompson Committee Exhibit # 17-160). On April 11, 1996, after DNC Finance Director Sullivan told John Huang that a fundraiser could not be held at the temple, Huang sent a memo to Tilley (Thompson Committee Exhibit # 17-113) that described the temple as the site of an upcoming "proposed event" and also mentioned the earlier discussions with Sullivan. But the memo's subject line read "Fundraising lunch for Vice President Gore 6/29/96 in Southern California." (Plainly, the date was a typo; the memo concerned April 29, not June 29.) An April 10 e-mail from another Gore scheduler, Jackie Dycke, refers to DNC fundraising events in San José and Los Angeles on April 29 (Thompson Committee Exhibit # 17-171). Undated notes from an unnamed Gore scheduler mention a "DNC Luncheon in LA/Hacienda Heights: 1000-5000 head/150-200 people" (Thompson Committee Exhibit # 17-172). On April 15, John J. Norris, of Gore's national security staff, wrote an e-mail to Robert Suettinger of the National Security Council (Thompson Committee Exhibit # 17-162) asking about the propriety of Gore's attending an event at the temple; Norris referred in passing to this event as a "fundraising lunch." Finally, two general spreadsheet fundraising memos from former White House Deputy Chief of Staff Harold Ickes to, among others, President Clinton and Vice President Gore, dated April 10 and April 25 (Thompson Committee exhibits # 17-168 and # 17-169), stated that the DNC expected to raise somewhere between $250,000 and $350,000 as a result of Gore's visit to the Los Angeles area.
Supposedly, these materials prove that the DNC and Gore's staff (and, by inference, Gore himself) knew all along that the Hsi Lai Temple event was a fundraiser. But this interpretation is as tendentious as those presented in the Thompson report. The March 15 e-mail from Kimberly Tilley, for example, dated from before the temple visit was added to Gore's itinerary. As for the April 11 Huang memo, Tilley has testified that she paid no special attention to the subject line, chiefly because there was (and is) a certain looseness of talk in the hurried day-to-day operations of any campaign, conflating formal fundraising events with other DNC events for past and prospective donors. Dycke's e-mail and the undated schedulers' notes reflect the same looseness of talk. Norris, the national security aide, was concerned strictly with the diplomatic ramifications of any appearance by Gore at the temple. The Ickes memos contain no mention of the temple as a fundraiser site, only figures, given him by the DNC, of expected returns from Gore's trip to Los Angeles. And contrary to the assertions of the Thompson Committee majority report, Gore has testified that he never read these memos from Ickes and has explained why he didn't. Indeed, there is no evidence that Gore read any of the e-mails or memos in question.
The case against Gore also flies in the face of the testimony by John Huang at the Maria Hsia trial last February, describing his role in quietly devising the temple fundraising scheme. Most important, it ignores the briefing notes that Gore actually did see in connection with the temple event. Unperturbed by contrary evidence or the journalists' challenges, the RNC has continued sending out its attack-blast faxes about the temple incident. What Stuart Taylor has called the "bum rap" has become the gospel truth among pundits and political correspondents, as an emblem of Gore's supposed sleaziness.
A wave of new stories about Gore's supposed propensity to lie began appearing in March 1999, almost immediately after the Senate cleared President Clinton of impeachment charges. Old false charges about the 1996 campaign mingled with new false charges that, though quickly disproven, took on a life of their own.
First came the Internet smear. On March 9, 1999, questioned by CNN's Wolf Blitzer about what distinguished him from his Democratic primary opponent, Bill Bradley, Gore remarked: "During my service in the United States Congress, I took the initiative in creating the Internet." In fact, beginning with his sponsorship of the Supercomputer Network Study Act in 1986 and the High-Performance Computing Act in 1991 (which Gore first introduced in Congress in 1989), Gore had been a leader in legislative initiatives to develop the Internet. (Vinton Cerf, sometimes called the "father of the Internet," has remarked that "the Internet would not be where it is in the United States without the strong support given to it and related research areas" by Gore.) And Gore kept at it as vice president, spearheading the administration's efforts to develop "the information superhighway."
Upon viewing the Blitzer interview, though, a lazy reporter from Wired magazine picked up the story, sarcastically mischaracterized Gore in the Web pages of Wired News as claiming he was "the father of the Internet," and pointed out that research leading to the Internet began as early as the late 1960s. "Vice President Gore tells a reporter the Internet was his idea," Wired News concluded, inaccurately, adding the kicker, "Nice try, Al."
The next day, RNC Chairman Jim Nicholson faxed a selection from the Wired News piece to editors and reporters. Within a few days, RNC faxes had further distorted matters, saying that Gore "claimed to have invented the Internet," as if Gore had tried to pass himself off as a scientific genius. Soon thereafter, the canard was all over the news media and the late-night shows, along with the first stories about Gore's supposed penchant for exaggerating his own accomplishments. Instead of expressing outrage, Gore chose to regret his choice of words in the Blitzer interview. Months later, he was still apologizing, citing the Internet remark as a big political mistake, which only made the false charge seem more credible.
Journalists, prompted by the RNC, were also instrumental in publicizing other Gore pseudo-scandals. In one of these, Gore supposedly fabricated a personal connection to Erich Segal's weepy best-seller (and later hit movie) Love Story. At least as early as March 1999, the RNC faxes began reviving the story, first reported by Time in December 1997. And on January 28, 2000, a Boston Globe piece titled "Gore Record Scrutinized for Veracity" claimed that "[Gore] has also said that he and his wife, Tipper, were the models for the movie 'Love Story,' only to be contradicted by author Erich Segal." On February 17, The New York Times repeated the charge, in passing, in an article entitled "Questions Over Veracity Have Long Dogged Gore."
In fact, Gore never made the claim, and Segal never contradicted him. Schmoozing one night about the movies with two Time reporters, Gore had mentioned an interview, reported in the Nashville Tennessean, in which Segal claimed that Gore and Tipper were the models for his story. There was such an interview, but the Nashville reporter misquoted Segal, who actually said that Al, and not Tipper, had served as one of his models. Gore had no way of knowing that Segal had been misquoted. And so Segal, when contacted by Time, did not "contradict" Gore but instead corrected the Tennessean's mistake. Segal later observed that "Al attributed [the story] to a newspaper. Time thought it was more piquant to leave that out." Yet supposedly objective reporters and commentators, as well as Republican officials, continued to cite the Love Story pseudo-scandal as yet another example of Gore "bragging" and "inflating his past."
The Love Story chicanery was followed by the Love Canal hoax. On November 30, 1999, visiting Concord High School in New Hampshire, Gore urged the students to take an active interest in politics. Thanks to a letter from a student, he said, he had been alerted to the dangers of toxic waste in the student's home town of Toone, Tennessee; in turn, he found out about Love Canal, New York, and went to work on the toxic waste problem. "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."
Plainly, Gore, in his talk to the students, cited the story of Toone as an exemplary case of how an individual young citizen influenced public policy--"the one that started it all." While taking credit for holding hearings, he did not claim that he was the first official to discover Love Canal, which had already been evacuated; rather, he listed it as the most famous of the disasters discussed at the hearings prompted by the student's letter from Toone.
But the next day, The Washington Post reported that "Gore boasted about his efforts in Congress 20 years ago publicizing the dangers of toxic waste." Without mentioning Toone or the student's letter, the Post dispatch continued: "'I found a little place in upstate New York called Love Canal,' he said, referring to the Niagara homes evacuated in August 1978 because of chemical contamination. 'I had the first hearing on this issue... .' Gore said his efforts made a lasting impact... . 'I was the one that started it all.'" The New York Times also reported the false quotation: "I was the one that started it all."
The ever-alert Republicans spread the alarm via fax. "Al Gore is simply unbelievable--in the most literal sense of that term," RNC Chairman Nicholson proclaimed. And inside the media echo-chamber, the usual group of pundits--including Chris Matthews on CNBC, Ceci Connolly in The Washington Post, George Stephanopoulos, William Kristol, and Cokie Roberts on ABC--repeated the Love Canal slur as if it were true.
Soon enough, the truth came out; but, as Robert Parry has shown in The Washington Monthly, the Post and the Times ran corrections that were both half-hearted and misleading. Thereafter, the story resurfaced, in its original form, in the National Journal and The Washington Times, as well as in various local newspapers. One of the main features of the pseudo-scandal is that it carries on willy-nilly, impervious to facts. The day after Gore accepted his party's presidential nomination in mid-August, Bush reminded reporters about "the Buddhist temple event"--an event, The New York Times observed, "that symbolized the ethical questions raised after Mr. Gore's aggressive fund-raising" in 1996. Bush and other Republicans have given every sign that they hope to ride the Gore pseudoscandals all the way to the White House. If that happens, our entire political system, and not just Vice President Gore, will be the loser--for future candidates and advisers, of all parties, will be bound to reflect on the 2000 elections, and go on to master and refine the pseudo-scandal playbook.
One long-term response to the pseudo-scandal phenomenon would be genuine campaign finance reform. A concrete step in that direction would be the enactment of the McCain-Feingold bill, which Gore, though not Bush, has pledged to support. But repairing the campaign finance system will take time and cannot, in itself, break the vicious cycle of pseudo-scandal promotion by political partisans and a gullible, scandal-hungry press corps.
Besides, long-term solutions will come too late to affect the current presidential election. What remains to be seen in 2000 is whether responsible journalists will expose the pseudo-scandal syndrome for the deformation that it is. Only when that happens will the responsible media be able to do justice to the presidential campaign--and to their own profession. ¤
|Should the Supreme Court reconsider its ruling in Buckley v. Valeo? Discuss campaign finance reform in our forum.|