Politics, Technology, and Language

If thought corrupts language, language can also corrupt thought — George Orwell

Archive for February 20th, 2007

How a journalist invented that Al Gore invented the Internet

Posted by metaphorical on 20 February 2007

Quotes can spin around and around, even though they’re inaccurate. Once the meme has popped out of the bottle, it’s impossible to jam it back in. Should we care?

Mary Ann Akers, in her Washington Post blog, reported the other day on one misquote that’s been misquoted at least 18,000 times.

During floor debate on the Iraq war yesterday, Rep. Don Young (R-Alaska) quoted Abraham Lincoln as advocating the hanging of lawmakers who undermine military morale during wartime.  

“Congressmen who willfully take action during wartime that damage morale and undermine the military are saboteurs, and should be arrested, exiled or hanged,” Young declared.

One problem: Lincoln never said such a thing.

Conservative scholar J. Michael Waller did, in an article for Insight magazine in December 2003. Waller later told Annenberg Political Fact Check that the supposed quote “is not a quote at all” but that a copy editor mistakenly put quotation marks around his words, making them appear to be Lincoln’s.

Annenberg has counted 18,000 references to the Lincoln “quote” by those who typically support President Bush’s war policy.

That’s bad, but it’s not as if Lincoln lost an election over a misquote. But arguably Al Gore did.

On Saturday, Gore will probably get an Academy Award for his documentary, “An Inconvenient Truth.” It will mark the culmination of a remarkable political rehabilitation that’s taken 7 years. But one thing he’ll never shake is the inconvenient falsehood that he said that he invented the Internet. Yet he never said it. That he never said it has been documented thoroughly, and still people say he said it. Vint Cerf and Robert Kahn, who arguably did invent the Internet, have said that what Gore did say, the limited thing that he did take credit for, was true. And yet, for the past 8 years, I’m not sure I’ve had a conversation where Gore’s name has come up without someone jokingly referencing it.

Much of the following historical reconstruction was done originally by Phil Agre in his now-defunct and much-missed Red Rock Eater newsletter. It’s all masterfully coallated by Seth Finkelstein’s excellent
page here.

Here’s the sentence at issue, before tech journalist Declan McCullagh reworded it.

“During my service in the United States Congress, I took the initiative in creating the Internet.”

At 3:00 a.m. EST, on 11 March 1999, McCullagh, at the time a reporter for Wired News, wrote an article, “No Credit Where It’s Due.” It started like this:

WASHINGTON — It’s a time-honored tradition for presidential hopefuls to claim credit for other people’s successes. 

But Al Gore as the father of the Internet?

That’s what the campaigner in chief told CNN’s Wolf Blitzer during an interview Tuesday evening. Blitzer asked Gore how he was different than other presumptive Democratic challengers, such as Bill Bradley. “What do you have to bring to this that he doesn’t necessarily bring to this process?”

Two paragraphs later, McCullagh gets around to quoting the actual quote. He then took Gore to talk for having not invented the Arpanet, the predecessor network that, several generations of networking later, led to the Internet. But that was just the start.

Later that morning, House Majority Leader Armey released a statement headlined, Armey Applauds Vice President Gore for Ingenuity, Creativity and Imagination.” By 3:00 p.m., twelve hours after his original story was pushed on-line, McCullagh put out a message on his influential mailing list, Politech, with the subject line:

House Majority Leader Armey on Gore “inventing the Internet”

Once let out of its bottle, the word “invent” would never make its way back in.

By 23 March, McCullagh was able to write another article, crowing about how far and wide the meme had spread.

Inveterate neatnik Trent Lott, Senate majority leader, claimed credit for inventing the paper clip. House Republicans joined the chorus, with majority leader Dick Armey taking credit for the interstate highway system. 

Next came the media feeding frenzy. On 11 March, Wired News was the first to report Gore’s remarks. Hundreds of articles were quick to appear, many drawing the inevitable comparisons to Gore’s other gaffes.

He went on to mention the story that “Gore took credit for inspiring the tough-guy hero in Erich Segal’s novel Love Story,” which also happens to not be true. (The Daily Howler deconstructed this out-of-the-bottle meme here. There’s also the one about Gore taking credit for Love Canal; the Daily Howler took that on here.)

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