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26 March 1999

Our current howler (part III): But who invented the blast fax?

Synopsis: Dick Armey faxed out some Internet spin. The press corps typed it up.

Gore Deserves Internet Credit, Some Say
John Schwartz, The Washington Post, 3/21/99

Al Gore: Method Man
William Greider, Rolling Stone, 4/1/99

Vice president plays up role as Net ‘evangelist’
Chuck Raasch, USA Today, 3/19/99

GOP: Gore’s claim does not compute
Michelle Mittelstadt (AP), The Washington Times, 3/12/99

Gore Internet gaffe gives critics club for campaign
Rowan Scarborough, The Washington Times, 3/16/99

Did Vice President Gore “invent the Internet?” Better yet: Did he say that he did? Here is what the VP said when he chatted with Wolf on March 9:

GORE: During my service in the United States Congress, I took the initiative in creating the Internet.

And of course Gore did take the lead, within the Congress, in promoting and advancing the technical developments that have led to our now-beloved Net. Here’s what Internet guru Vinton Cerf told the Post’s John Schwartz:

SCHWARTZ: Vinton G. Cerf, a senior vice president at MCI Worldcom and the person most often called “the father of the Internet” for his part in designing the network’s common computer language, said in an e-mail interview yesterday, “I think it is very fair to say that the Internet would not be where it is in the United States without the strong support given it and related research areas by the vice president in his current role and in his earlier role as senator.”

According to Schwartz, Katie Hafner, co-author of a history of the Internet, “agreed” with that assessment:

SCHWARTZ: Hafner said people have been haggling over the true beginnings of the network for decades. “...[T]here are so many people who did at least one pivotal thing in either creating the network, or encouraging the use of the network, or bringing the network to the public--and Gore was one of those people.”

William Greider wrote this, in a Rolling Stone profile published before the recent flap:

GREIDER: [Gore] held the first congressional hearings on industry’s casual disposal of toxic wastes and on global warming, and he was an early champion of the system we now call the Internet.

Chuck Raasch, of USA Today, quoted University of Pennsylvania professor Dave Farber, whom Schwartz described as “one of the early players in the Internet:”

RAASCH: Dave Farber, a professor at the University of Pennsylvania, told [The Commercial Appeal of Memphis], “Gore did not technically create the Internet, but without him there is a good chance it would not be where it is today.”

Indeed, when Gore made his initial statement March 9, it produced no comments in the press corps. On Wednesday, March 10, and on Thursday, March 11 not a word was written. Even in the Washington Times, a paper which lives for Clinton-Gore scandal, not a single word appeared about what the VP had said.

But to many within this celebrity press corps, it’s just not a day without scandal. And as we’ve often shown you before, the scribes just love being handed spin, and rushing it right into print! And that’s exactly how the Great Gore Scandal took the nation on Friday, March 12, as obedient pundits recited spin they’d been handed by historian Richard Armey.

We’re not quite sure who invented the fax, but Armey sure knows how to use it. He sends out messages of dubious accuracy, and pundits just type them right up! For the pundits, it’s a whole lot simpler than going out and spending their time doing real reporting! And Armey’s stuff has pre-packaged panache, the kind that those editors simply love!

And so it was that, starting on Friday, the nation’s press was full of experts, spinning remarkably similar tales about how the Net had begun. The Washington Times ran AP on page one. Here’s how the story began:

MITTELSTADT: Vice President Al Gore’s claim that he is the father of the Internet drew amused protests yesterday from congressional Republicans.

At least you get your spin up front. Quoting what Gore had actually said would have taken some of the bang from the story. So Mittelstadt juiced it up a bit with her “father of the Internet” jive.

In paragraph two, Mittelstadt’s source becomes clear; she quotes a thoroughly perplexed Mr. Armey, describing Gore’s statement as an “outrageous claim.” And she says that Gore had “raised eyebrows” on Tuesday when he made his worrisome statement. But as we’ve mentioned, we’re not quite sure just where it was that those eyebrows were raised. No journalist had said a word about it--not until Armey’s staff hit the fax.

Was the ARPANET where the Net began? Back in ’69, when Al Gore was a boy? We don’t really know, and the scribes don’t know either. But Dick told Mitt, and Mitt typed it up. And after that, everyone said it.

Micro-managing: Several pundits were helpful in saying that Gore had a word out of place:

SCARBOROUGH: Pollster John Zogby said the vice president would be better off claiming he “helped” or “aided” in developing the phenomenon...Mr. Zogby added: “The boastfulness could be worrisome for him. It’s almost as if there’s a self-esteem problem there.”

Zogby can’t predict a Senate race in his home state, but suddenly now he’s the shrink to the stars. Professor Farber, less grandiose, offered a similar assessment:

SCHWARTZ: “The guy used an inappropriate word,” Farber said. “If he had said he was instrumental in the development of what it is now, he’d be accurate.”

But to this ever-vigilant celebrity press corps, an inappropriate word means a character flaw. This same press corps, remember, assailed Dan Quayle because he managed to spell a word wrong. Gore was “instrumental” in developing the Net. What’s the scandal? He said it so wrong.

Next: It reminded worried pundits of the Love Story flap. But that flap was completely made up.