Give The Tennessean credit for not ignoring reports that Al Gore regularly smoked pot during the 1970s when he worked as a reporter at the newspaper. But despite interviewing nearly 40 past colleagues of Gore, The Tennessean’s reporting on the story Tuesday breaks precious little ground and raises more questions than it answers.
Editor Frank Sutherland, a close friend of Gore’s during that time, weakened the story by refusing to tell his reporters what he knows about Gore’s marijuana use. Two others who were close to Gorephoto editor Nancy Rhoda and ex-reporter Andrew Schlesingerwouldn’t talk, either.
With various news outlets reporting a friend’s account that intimated that Gore’s pot use could have qualified him as an honorary Allman Brother, the paper conducted a veritable inquisition this past weekend. According to the story, 31 former and present Tennessean staffers claim they never saw Gore inhale, while only two said they did.
Those two witnesses give conflicting, although not necessarily incompatible accounts. Ken Jost, now a staff writer at Congressional Quarterly, said Gore used pot occasionally.
”It was certainly more than once,“ he told the paper. ”It certainly wasn’t every time I saw him.“
However, former reporter John Warneckewho put this story on the map by giving interviews to the Web site www.stopthedrugwar.com and later to the online magazine Salontold The Tennessean that Gore smoked marijuana countless times.
”More than 100,“ he said. ”More than 200. More than I can remember. It seemed like all the time we were together we were smoking.“
Warnecke, who has struggled with drug addiction and depression, lacks credibility. In 1987 he told a news organization that he remembered seeing Gore use pot only once. Now, in numerous interviews with other media outlets, he explains his about-face by saying that he at first lied to protect Gore, but now is telling the truth to expose the hypocrisy behind this country’s harsh drug laws. Gee, how noble.
One former colleague of both Warnecke and Jost tells the Scene that she believes Jost’s account.
”I consider Ken to be a particularly exacting and careful journalist,“ says Eve Zibart, a former Tennessean writer who is now a staff writer at The Washington Post. ”I have not considered John as a reliable source on this subject.“
One friend of Warnecke says Warnecke and Gore weren’t all that close.
”Nobody believes they were together 200 times, much less smoked pot together,“ that friend tells the Scene.
Regardless, The Tennessean unfairly diminished the accounts of both Jost and Warneckeboth of whom agree that Gore’s pot smoking wasn’t a one-time thingby giving journalists who weren’t pals with Gore equal credibility. Among the people listed who denied ever seeing Gore light it up: Former associate editor and now occasional film reviewer Gene Wyatt and sports reporter Larry Woody. Sources say neither was close enough with Gore socially to see him smoking pot.
But one former reporter at The Tennessean who requested anonymity says the three people who refused to comment to the paper were part of Gore’s social circle.
”Some of the people who denied seeing Al Gore smoke pot were not particularly close to him socially,“ this source says, ”while Frank Sutherland, Andrew Schlesinger, and Nancy Rhoda all were.“
So why doesn’t Sutherland just clear up the issue once and for all? ”If Al Gore wants to talk about his private life, that’s fine,“ he told the paper. ”But I’m not going to talk about my private life. That’s nobody’s business.“
Back in 1988 when The Tennessean pursued a similar story, Sutherland also wouldn’t comment to reporters about Gore’s pot use. And again in a conversation with the Scene this week, Sutherland reiterates, ”My private life is nobody’s business.“
That doesn’t fly. The Tennessean routinely publishes the details of people’s private lives, whether it’s Garth Brooks’ marital problems or former Nashville Banner publisher Irby Simpkins filing for divorce. For Sutherland not to talk about Gore’s pot use is, well, wimpy.
Instead of trying to protect Gore, The Tennessean editor should worry about his readers right to know whether a presidential candidate is lying about his past. Like a good journalist, Sutherland should simply tell the truth and let the chips fall where they may. If he did that, his paper might actually have a story to report.
Matt Pulle, who never smoked pot with Al Gore, can be reached via e-mail at email@example.com.