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29 March 1999

Our current howler (part IV): Getting Gore rewrite

Synopsis: What Gore had said wasn’t silly enough. So Dick Armey--and the press corps--reinvented it.

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

Claiming a Clip, Lott Fires at Gore
Associated Press, The Washington Post, 3/14/99

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

Inventing the Internet
Editorial, USA Today, 3/15/99

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

Mike Leavitt, USA Today, 3/12/99

Internet Al, Down on the Farm
Scrapbook, The Weekly Standard, 3/29/99

We know you’ll accuse us of parsing too closely, but the thing that caught our eye last week was the ubiquitous use of lazy paraphrase found in CelebCorps’ scribblings. When journalists accuse public figures of fibbing, you’d think they’d repeat what was actually said. But what Gore had said wasn’t quite good enough, so they made it a little bit better. This is what Gore said:

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

And sad to say, it was pretty much true; Gore had taken the lead, within the Congress, in promoting the Net’s development. Indeed, Gore’s statement was so unremarkable that Wolf Blitzer said nothing about it at the time--didn’t ask Gore for clarification. And no journalist said a word about it in the course of the next two days.

But Dick Armey wanted to stir up a fuss, so he spun Gore’s remark just a little. According to Armey, Gore had said he “created the Internet,” and soon mainstream journalists were typing that up, creating what they love--a scandal. Writers trained to root out spin now were eagerly passing it on. Again, here’s the lead paragraph of the AP report, which seems to have driven the coverage:

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

Mittelstadt embellished Gore’s statement even more than Armey. Soon excited journalists, all over town, were reinventing what the VP had said.

Some writers engaged in simple burlesque. Ron Nehring, in a Washington Time’s op-ed piece, said that Gore had “announced to the world that he is the 20th century’s Thomas Alva Edison;” Greg Pierce, in his “Inside Politics” column, said Gore “just last week claimed to be the father of the Internet.” (It’s strange when one can criticize an opinion writer for using the language of an AP lead paragraph!) But almost all news writers spiced up the remark, mirroring Armey’s language.

Here’s the lead paragraph from the Post’s first story (it too was an AP report):

WASHINGTON POST (3/14): Prompted by Vice President Gore’s claim that he created the Internet, Senate majority Leader Trent Lott (R-Miss) made a surprising revelation of his own, taking credit for creating the paper clip.

A week later, in a story providing Gore’s side of the flap, Jason Schwartz opened up the same way:

SCHWARTZ: So--did he do it? Did Al Gore create the Internet?

It was so much fun to improve what Gore said, the scribes just couldn’t resist it. A USA Today editorial opened like this:

USA TODAY: Forget impeachment. It was a mere schoolyard scuffle compared to the war raging today: Did Vice President Al Gore, or did he not, create the Internet?

Chuck Raasch, in his article presenting Gore’s case:

RAASCH: Mixing humor with a more sober analysis of the history of cyberspace, Vice President Gore defended on Thursday his statement that he invented the Internet.

On and on the typists went, obediently mimicking Armey’s language, creating the problem that they had not seen when Gore made his actual statement.

For the record, a few scribes were more careful--tried to avoid using Armey’s words in place of Gore’s own. For example, here is the start of Paul Leavitt’s brief dispatch, USA Today’s first coverage:

LEAVITT: Republicans mocked Vice President Gore’s claim on CNN Tuesday that while in Congress he “took the initiative in creating the Internet.”

Leavitt led with Gore’s real words, as did Susan Page in the paper’s next edition. But both Leavitt and Page mirrored Armey’s spin when they summarized Internet history. “The Internet, originally called ARPANET, dates to 1969, when the Defense Department began funding the project,” Leavitt wrote. This artless account makes it sound as if an existing company just changed its name. But it took Leavitt straight to Armey’s kicker: “Gore joined Congress eight years later,” he wrote, suggesting Gore couldn’t have “invented” this thing that “dated to” 1969. We’ll make a guess: at the time that Leavitt typed up this account, he knew nothing at all about the ARPANET, or its role in Net history--except for what he had read in Armey’s inventive fax.

Yep. We think that when journalists accuse public figures of fibbing, they must repeat what the person really said. And they should repeat it at the top of their story, not in the middle paragraphs. As Leavitt’s work showed, nothing will stop the modern-day scribe from reciting the essence of blast-fax spin. But the bulk of reports on the VP’s alleged fibbing repeated the words that Dick Armey had said.

Why didn’t Blitzer challenge Gore’s remark? Why didn’t journalists comment originally? Easy. They didn’t do so because what Gore had said wasn’t that far off--until, with the help of credulous scribes, Dick Armey reinvented the story.

Tuesday: The Love Story flap was completely invented--modern journalism as bad as it gets.

Visit our incomparable archives: This press corps loves to pass on spin. For an especially egregious recent example, see THE DAILY HOWLER, 2/24/99 (with links to past reporting).