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
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.