Accuracy in Media

In September 1987, when Senator Al Gore was running for the Democratic presidential nomination, his press secretary, Mike Kopp sent him a memo warning Gore that his image “may continue to suffer if you continue to go out on a limb with remarks that may be impossible to back up.” That apparently didn’t solve the problem, because six months later, his communications director, Arlie Schardt, sent Gore a memo in which he said, “Your main pitfall is exaggeration.”

Last February, The New York Times published an op-ed column by Arlie Schardt in which he claimed that Gore’s exaggerating was being exaggerated. He said that his 1988 memo was written to warn Gore to be careful in answering questions from a reporter who was looking into Gore’s claim that he had worked briefly as a homebuilder. Schardt apparently knew that was an exaggeration. It was based on Gore’s allegedly having helped develop a subdivision on his father’s land in 1969, the year he graduated from Harvard.

Despite the good advice given him by Mike Kopp and Arlie Schardt a dozen years ago, Al Gore has not been able to overcome the temptation to exaggerate and lie about matters great and small. Surprisingly, this was demonstrated again on August 17, when with millions watching his acceptance speech at the Democratic National Convention he solemnly declared that with the Republican plan to reduce income and estate taxes “the average family would get about enough money to buy one extra diet Coke a week.” He said, “That’s nothing. About 62 cents in change.” That would come to only thirty-two dollars a year.

The prepared speech that he was reading on the Teleprompter, said “the average family would get about enough money to buy one extra Diet Coke a day.” That would be seven times as much, two hundred and twenty-six dollars a year. Gore apparently decided at the last minute that reducing the total eighty-six percent would strengthen the impression that the Republicans have no interest in helping the average family. It is very unlikely that changing “day” to “week” was just a slip of the tongue. Gore had rehearsed this speech carefully. He even claims that he wrote it.

Gore’s figures, which came from a labor-backed group called Citizens for Tax Justice, were misleading. The sixty-two-cents-a-day is not the average for all taxpayers. It is the average for the bottom sixty percent. The New York Times says that under the Bush plan a family of four with an income of thirty-five thousand a year would have its federal income tax reduced from fifteen hundred dollars to zero. If its income was fifty-thousand, its tax would be cut by half, from four thousand to two thousand. That’s not peanuts.

The calculations based on averages are misleading because the Bush plan favors families over single taxpayers. That should appeal to Al Gore who accepted his nomination “in the name of all the working families who are the strength and soul of America.” But he wasn’t speaking for the middle-class working families when he misstated misleading figures to drum up opposition to a middle-class family tax cut.

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