Politics, Technology, and Language

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

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.)

Here’s what Cerf and Kahn had to say:

No one person or even small group of persons exclusively “invented” the Internet. It is the result of many years of ongoing collaboration among people in government and the university community. But as the two people who designed the basic architecture and the core protocols that make the Internet work, we would like to acknowledge VP Gore’s contributions as a Congressman, Senator and as Vice President. No other elected official, to our knowledge, has made a greater contribution over a longer period of time.

But did this really lose Gore the election? No, and yes. There were a thousand things that lost Gore the election, indeed, there were about 500 things that he could have done differently in Florida on Election Night and the weeks that followed that would have saved him an election he in fact did win. Had he won his own home state of Tennessee, losing Florida wouldn’t have mattered.

But surely one of the reasons Gore lost his home state was that the people there had lost confidence in Gore as someone who tells he truth. Instead, all too many of them saw him as someone who lies, exaggerates, and takes credit for things he didn’t do.

McCullagh was right about one thing; his 11 March 1999 article triggered a “media feeding frenzy.” It provided a focal point for a bunch of disparate stories— many, if not all, false—the way white blood cells gather around a point of infection. It’s a reputation Gore has never been able to shed; it’s not an exaggeration to say it may have lost him the 2000 election and may keep him from running in 2008.

Sad to say, Phil Agre’s exploding of the myth of the “I invented the Internet” Gore meme came as early as March 2000, well before that year’s election day. It didn’t help.

Likewise, there’s absolutely no excuse for Rep. Young to repeat the Abe Lincoln hanging-of-lawmakers meme in February 2007. Back in August 2006, FactCheck.org completely disproved it, on the occasion of it being repeated by a Pennsylvania Republican Congressional candidate, Diana Irey.

By the way, the idea that the Waller misquote was due to a wayward copy editor is itself endlessly repeated, and pretty clearly false. Factcheck reproduced the whole sentence, wrong quote marks and all:

“Congressmen who willfully take action during wartime that damage morale and undermine the military are saboteurs, and should be arrested, exiled or hanged,” that’s what President Abraham Lincoln said during the War Between the States.

There’s no way to remove the quote marks and not still have something that says that Lincoln said something he never said. So much for the power of the media to correct an error. (I shouldn’t even bother to point out that any copy editor worth his or her salt would have started a new sentence with “that’s.”)

Once something like this gains widespread circulation, it doesn’t go away. So much for the power of the Internet. It reminds me of creationism. When people—and this includes journalists—want to believe a good story, they rarely let the facts get in the way.

36 Responses to “How a journalist invented that Al Gore invented the Internet”

  1. tigtog said

    Nice summary. This invented quote particularly infuriates me.

  2. There’s no way to remove the quote marks and not still have something that says that Lincoln said something he never said.

    Mythical quotes aside, it is hard to deny that Lincoln’s tussles with the Copperheads did not take some highly unusual forms, the case of Clement Vallandigham being a prime example.

    And didn’t William Seward entertain a fantasy of seeing certain Congressmen in chains in his journal? Memory and Google fail me in finding an exact quote.

  3. Certainly Lincoln did restrict habeas corpus. On the other hand, the Constitution does mention rebellion, and Lincoln had the mother of all rebellions on his hands – Unlike the 43rd president. And, after all, it’s the context of the current assault on habeas corpus that the Lincoln quote comes up.

    And don’t you think today’s Supreme Court would have found Vallandigham’s military tribunal to abide by the Geneva Convention?

  4. And, after all, it’s the context of the current assault on habeas corpus that the Lincoln quote comes up.

    That’s the problem with historical analogies, you can come up with some really bad precedents, even looking into just American history (Alien & Sedition Acts, et al).

    And don’t you think today’s Supreme Court would have found Vallandigham’s military tribunal to abide by the Geneva Convention?

    The Geneva Conventions would have been an extremely alien concept for Lincoln’s time. In fact (lo cal plug to follow), the ACW gave rise to the first precedent of two countries coming to agreement on the rules of war. The Confederate privateer, the “Alabama”, was built in a British shipyard, crewed by British sailors apart from a few officers who were American and captured or destroyed some 60 US merchant ships, which added considerable friction to US-British relations.

    After the war, the US gummamint demanded reparations from Britain for all the damage the Alabama and other British operated privateers had done. Britain told the US to get lost. Long negotiations ensued and eventually an agreement was reached in which Britain admitted responsiblity and coughed up some money. That agreement was negotiated in Geneva. The city hall has the “Alabama” Room where it all was hammered out. The agreement provided stimulus for the internationalization of the Red Cross and the Geneva Conventions.

    And now you know… the Rest of the Story.

  5. The page http://www.redcross.lv/en/conventions.htm attributes the first Geneva Convention, in 1864, entirely to the protection of what had just been formed as the Red Cross (and the wounded soldiers themselves), and only cites the Battle of Solferino with no reference to the Civil War at all.

    http://www.spartacus.schoolnet.co.uk/EUgeneva.htm has some more info, and mentioned the Civil War, but only in the context of Clara Barton’s humanitarian work (naming Florence Nightingale and the Crimean War in the same sentence) and tells basically the same story.

    That 1st Geneva Convention (we’re up to the 4th now?) would have been before the end of the Civil War.

  6. Dang it, that’s what the signage in the Alabama Room said, but I probably missed quite a bit in translation. And it is easy to get the Hague and Geneva Conventions mixed up.

  7. Counterpoint said

    Created and invented mean the same thing.

    From Meriam-Webster Online Thesaurus:

    Entry Word: invent
    Function: verb
    Text: to create or think of by clever use of the imagination
    Synonyms concoct, contrive, cook (up), devise, fabricate, make up, manufacture, think (up)
    Related Words coin, contrive, create, design, hatch, produce; daydream, dream, fantasize; conceive, envisage, imagine, picture, visualize

    Al said that he “took the initiative in creating the Internet” which amounts to the same thing as what you are saying was never said. One could argue that what he meant was that he “led an initiative that facilitated the creation of the Internet” (still arguably untrue) but that was not what he said. He may not have meant what he said the way he said it, but he said it. Your much to-do over the word invent is a moot point. At best this is still a gaffe, at worst a delusion of self-grandeur.

  8. Counterpoint, leaving aside the opportunistic and misleading way you lopped off the first part of the statement, you can’t possible be asserting that “invent” and “create” are interchangeable terms. I can create a lovely vase in a pottery shop. I’m hardly invented vases or that particular vase.

    How about you set aside the bogus synonym game and get down to the hard work of refuting Vint Cerf and Bob Kahn. I didn’t quote their whole statement, though I did link to it. It’s looks like you didn’t check it out, so here’s a bit more of it.

    “as the two people who designed the basic architecture and the core protocols that make the Internet work, we would like to acknowledge VP Gore’s contributions as a Congressman, Senator and as Vice President. No other elected official, to our knowledge, has made a greater contribution over a longer period of time.

    Last year the Vice President made a straightforward statement on his role. He said: “During my service in the United States Congress I took the initiative in creating the Internet.” We don’t think, as some people have argued, that Gore intended to claim he “invented” the Internet. Moreover, there is no question in our minds that while serving as Senator, Gore’s initiatives had a significant and beneficial effect on the still-evolving Internet. The fact of the matter is that Gore was talking about and promoting the Internet long before most people were listening.

  9. Counterpoint said

    It is obvious that create and invent mean the same thing in the case of the Internet because it never existed before (which is why your vases analogy doesn’t work). I didn’t mean to imply that the terms are universally interchangeable, but they certainly are in this particular case.

    invent: “to produce (as something useful) for the first time through the use of the imagination or of ingenious thinking and experiment”

    This is a definition, not just a synonym. (http://www.m-w.com/dictionary/invent – see definition 3.)

    Despite your apparent ability to psychically peer into the human heart and detect nefarious motives on the part of those who disagree with you, I wasn’t being opportunistic and misleading by “lopping off” anything. The first part of the statement was immaterial to the point that I was making and doesn’t change it. Yes, we all know Al was in congress. So what. The point is that he said that HE did something. Not we, but “I”. What did Al say he did? “I took the initiative in creating the Internet.” Yes, yes, he did this while in congress (to avoid the nefarious lopping accusation again). A plain reading of what the man said comes across as an overstatement of his role. The truth is that neither congress nor Al created the Internet. The problem is exacerbated by his choice of the form of the verb create, and the phrase “in creating”. Also that he “took the initiative” instead of “led an initiative” (which is what it is properly called when members of congress champion a cause or bill). And actually it should have been “led initiatives” (plural) because there was more than one. Neither Congress nor Al took the initiative in creating the Internet (Vint Cerf and Bob Kahn did that). All of these things together makes the assertion sound quite overstated and indeed comes across as a claim to creating the Internet (notice the intentional avoidance of the word invent). The truth is that, at most, while he was in congress, he LED initiatives that HELPED to bring about the CREATION of the Internet, something that occurred quite outside of congress and indeed, Al gore’s mind. If this is what he meant, no matter how you slice it, it was a very poorly worded overly simplistic statement just begging to be “misunderstood” and ridiculed.

    Furthermore, the Internet was already created and in existence prior to Al gore’s initiatives as revealed by Cerf and Kahn’s opinion that “while serving as Senator, Gore’s initiatives had a significant and beneficial effect on the still-evolving Internet.” Yes, he may have helped things out that allowed the Internet to get to where it is today. But that’s a far cry from “I took the initiative in creating the Internet.” Having a “significant and beneficial effect” on something is miles away from “I took the initiative in creating” that something.

    I have no problem with Cerf and Kahn’s statements. No refutation is necessary because they don’t interfere with my point, which was simply to make a distinction between what Al Gore may have meant and what he actually said (which is exactly all they accomplish by trying to explain what they feel Al really “intended” to mean).

    Once again, Al’s statement is at best still a gaffe, at worst a delusion of self-grandeur.

  10. Something can be invented without being (yet) produced, i.e., created. And something can be created without having ever been invented.

    When Cerf and Kahn say “still-evolving Internet” they’re noting that there’s no one point at which the Arpanet and the other major networks that could exchange files and e-mail with it became a single network of networks, the Internet. What Cerf and Kahn took the initiative to invent was a protocol that made the nascent Internet more efficient and better connected. But in the day-to-day existence of the Internet, not much about 2 January 1983 was different from 31 December 1982.

    The Internet was fashioned out of things that already existed, a disparate collection of networks that had already achieved some modest forms of internetworking. It’s a paradigm of something that was created without being invented.

  11. Counterpoint said

    So what did Al gore create?

    Compare your answer with what he said…

    It’s as simple as that.

  12. American Dad would say “Superb”


  13. All this stuff is just silly. Al Gore never said he invented the internet.

    I never said that I invented writing, yet I am a better writer than most of the bloggers who respond to this site.

    What does that have to do with anything?

    Stuff still happens. The globe is getting warmer. Who gives a S— what the cause is?

    The important thing is what are we going to do about it?

  14. digglahhh said

    “All this stuff is just silly. Al Gore never said he invented the internet.”

    Yes. That is the point of this post.

    “I never said that I invented writing, yet I am a better writer than most of the bloggers who respond to this site.”

    That remains to be proven. Although perhaps “shit” is a proper noun and your last sentence may not be a grammatical monstrosity. “Stuff still happens” is a pretty impressive construction though. Rarely do we thought articulated so precisely yet with such an abstract undertone; I’m feeling the metaphysical vibe.

    You added nothing to the discussion and insulted the writing of our readership. Could you really not think of another (misconstrued) analogy?

    Stop trolling!

  15. Won Byone said

    “Thank God George Bush is president!”

    How many times did all of your friends spew that inane mantra after 9/11? Have any of you said it in the last year? Last two years?

    Well, maybe you will feel better if you keep up your pretense that you made a good choice. Check your portfolio. Drool over your taxcut. But ask yourselves, “Are we safer with Bush than with anyone else?”

    If you answer yes then put a bumper sticker on your car and get T-shirts that say:
    “Thank God Bush
    is president!”
    Just be prepared that nobody will take you seriously. They will think you are joking.

  16. mynehog said

    I’m not like father, he first, 3d incest comics aiming his reflection in order.

  17. private said

    Oh, kelli_________________________________________________________________ private peaceful express yourself instantly with head thrown back to.

  18. JD said

    Speaking of bumper stickers, HERE’s one on the issue of Al Gore inventing the internet that I think you’ll ALL enjoy:



  19. […] be more valuable to the team if THEY were the sole keepers of the information on a system. Before Al Gore invented the internet (cough, cough), knowledge wasn’t so readily available. PEOPLE were the knowledge. They […]

  20. hughvic said

    Your apologia pro Gore is so tendentiously misleading as to constitute a whole new wrinkle of lies in this running saga, which began not with a reporter or a Republican operative, but with Mr. Gore finally being taped saying on national television what he’d been saying to groups of technologists for years, that he initiated the creation of the Internet, a fabulous and rather disturbing confabulation. I have no problem whatever with someone summarizing that famous statement of Mr. Gore’s as a claim of invention, or as an instance of Mr. Gore’s billing himself as the Father of the Internet. He brought those shorthand references to his outrageous, impossible plagiarism upon himself. Furthermore, you have no idea whether his gaffe on CNN actually cost him the election; moreover, your historical parallels are in fact non-parallel rhetorical devices. Which is to say bullshit. The man’s close enough to cracking as it is without your running interference for him. Get real.

  21. Thanks for the vague, undocumented, unsubstantiated report of what Gore allegedly did. It was entertaining, and nicely illustrative of the very problem being discussed. As a counterargument, though, you can see that a stirring defense of friend-of-a-friend journalism isn’t going to cut it. Go peddle it on Rush Limbaugh’s blog, or anywhere that sort of thing is standard debate procedure.

  22. hughvic said


    Good grief, what philodoxa!

  23. Great! Since it’s so easy to find, you’ll have no trouble finding and posting the URL here.

  24. hughvic said

    No, lazybones. It doesn’t work that way. You didn’t perform due diligence, and so it’s not for me to hasten to your feet with the fruit of your hunt. The burden’s on you.

  25. Well it’s not for me to repair your broken metaphors, so I’ll just point out that if you provided me with the fruit of my hunt, it would discourage my feet from moving, not hasten them.

    Your sense of how an argument is supposed to work is similarly defective. I thoroughly documented my side of it, now it’s up to you to document your half-baked version.

  26. Alekhan said

    Even though the media and Bush’s campaign were the culprits of creating this fallacy, I still think it’s the American’s “Seinfeld” instant, brainless jocular attitude that was/is the driving force of this creation. AND, Bush is that KARMIC result.

  27. Hugo said

    This whole manufactured controversy is a quibbling over the canard “invented”, as in “Al Gore said that he ‘invented’ the Internet.” Fine. He didn’t say so. He said that he FATHERED the bleeding Internet. What a bunch of Fauntleroys you all are, defending this power-nut gone to seed on the basis of his NOT having chosen the wrong fork…

  28. Maria said

    I like your arguments and feel you are the winner! Hooray. I hope I made my point.

  29. Hugo said

    Our brunette former Vice President evidently also has fathered a thinning head of blond hair, as you might have noticed from his recent appearance with his son Barack, whom he evidently remembered to endorse for President of the United States, an office our blond Kahuna championed and helped to create back in the day, with Jefferson and Washington and Tommy Lee and the boys.

  30. Maria said

    Right on Hugo! Gore is a gore in my side.

  31. Hugo said

    I know I know, Maria. It’s awesome. It’s toadally beautiful, and we should, like, cel-e-brrr-ate (or whatever), babe! The dude is rockin’!

  32. Maria said

    Hughvic and Hugo,
    I think you are two awesome human beings. Is there any way to clone more like you? Your names are similar. Could this mean that there is another demension named “H” where there happens to be heralds ( with “H” names) that proclaim truths that others consider homilies because they know less than they think…

    You are heralds- in a hhhhilarious world that only knows HHHHollywood as a mecca for deep thought.
    This is Huge.

  33. Hugo said

    You’re stone cool, Maria. Your phlattery schtick is a bit Hwhhhhorish, but the rest of the snidery is spot-on, in view of the standards of your generation. You’ll go far.

    As far as you’re paid to go, I’m sure…

  34. Maria said

    Thanks HHHHHHugo,
    You go man and continue to go……

  35. Jim Moskowitz said

    I wanna spread the falsehood that Gore claimed to have invented the algorithm – and that he even named it after himself.

  36. […] this presents an alternative and a complement to commercialization. Oh, and we’d know that Al Gore didn’t invent the Internet, and that he never actually said he […]

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