Will the Press Idiocy Ever Stop?
If someone submitted an op-ed to The Washington Post that quoted Marie Antoinette saying about starving Parisians “let them eat cake,” the Post’s editors surely would strike the apocryphal quote – and the op-ed author would be lucky to escape with a tongue-lashing about factual sloppiness.
But different rules continue to apply to made-up quotes for Al Gore. In a June 27 op-ed, Post columnist Ruth Marcus couldn’t resist tossing in one of the favorite joke lines of Campaign 2000, a reference to Gore having declared, “I invented the Internet.”
Except, of course, that Gore never spoke the Internet line anymore than the ill-fated French queen said “let them eat cake.” The fake “cake” quote was put into Marie Antoinette’s mouth by French radical propagandists much like the “I invented the Internet” quote was attached to Gore by his political enemies.
Yet, what does it say about the modern U.S. news media that such a misrepresentation could succeed in modern times, helping to shape the fateful outcome of Election 2000 and even continuing into the early days of Campaign 2008?
After all, Marie Antoinette lived more than two centuries ago, well before tape recorders and electronic media existed. One could understand how a bogus quote might be attributed to a person when there was no reliable way for taking down statements.
But there was no such excuse in 1999 when Gore’s “I invented the Internet” quote was fabricated. Indeed, the made-up quote derived from remarks that Gore made during a CNN interview with Wolf Blitzer. Videotape and transcripts were readily available.
But that didn’t stop the Republican National Committee from rewriting Gore’s words. Nor did U.S. political journalists – and late-night comedians – hesitate in taking up the apocryphal quote as if it were real.
The made-up quote was then repeated endlessly as a reference point for proving that Gore was a lying braggart and even delusional, unfit to serve in the highest office of the land. Other misquotes were then added to the mix, with each new Gore “lie” prompting the reprising of the earlier fabrications.
So, when Americans went to the polls in November 2000, millions of voters thought that Gore was either deceitful or totally nuts. Many voters told exit pollsters that the issue of Gore’s honesty was important in causing them to cast their ballots for George W. Bush.
Still, despite the Lyin’ Al canard, Gore managed to edge out Bush nationally by more than a half million votes and surely was the narrow favorite as well in the swing state of Florida. But numerous voting irregularities in Florida and pro-Bush rulings – by Gov. Jeb Bush’s subordinates and five Republicans on the U.S. Supreme Court – sealed the deal for Bush.
The rest, as they say, is history. But, as the nation heads into another election cycle, it’s worth reprising what happened in the early days of Campaign 2000 – and to note that the political press corps seems to have learned almost nothing from its catastrophic behavior eight years ago.
In her op-ed, columnist Marcus cited the “I invented the Internet” quote as particularly devastating as “a moment whose importance is magnified because it fits with jigsaw precision into an existing template.”
But the problem with Gore’s made-up Internet quote fitting with “jigsaw precision” was that not only was the quote fabricated but so was the “template.”
The press corps’ “war on Gore” can be traced back to 1997 when Gore reportedly made a passing reference in a Time magazine interview to an article in the Tennessean, which quoted Love Story author Erich Segal as saying that the lead characters in his sentimental novel were based on Al and Tipper Gore, whom Segal knew during college days at Harvard.
That brief reference in Time magazine was then picked up as part of a Gore profile in The New York Times, which noted that Segal had clarified the point, saying that the hockey-playing male lead, Oliver Barrett IV, was partly based on Gore and partly on Gore’s Harvard roommate, actor Tommy Lee Jones. But Segal said the female lead, Jenny, was not modeled after Tipper Gore.
Rather than treating this distinction as a minor point of legitimate confusion that wasn’t worthy of attention during a presidential campaign, the news media – virtually across the political spectrum – seized on the Love Story story to conclude that Gore had willfully lied.
In doing so, however, the media repeatedly misstated the facts, insisting that Segal had denied that Gore was the model for the lead male character. In reality, Segal had confirmed that Gore was, at least partly, the inspiration for the character, Barrett, played by Ryan O’Neal.
Some journalists seemed to understand the nuance but still couldn’t resist disparaging Gore’s honesty. For instance, in a later attack on Gore, the Boston Herald conceded that Gore “did provide material” for Segal’s book, but the newspaper said it was “for a minor character.” That, of course, was untrue, since the Barrett character was one of Love Story’s two principal characters.
The news media’s treatment of the apocryphal “inventing the Internet” comment followed a similar course. Gore’s actual statement may have been poorly phrased, but its intent was clear: he was trying to say that he worked in Congress to help create the modern Internet.
Gore wasn’t claiming to have “invented” the Internet, with its connotation of a computer engineer tinkering with some hardware and achieving a technological breakthrough.
Gore’s actual comment, in an interview with CNN’s Wolf Blitzer that aired on March 9, 1999, was as follows: “During my service in the United States Congress, I took the initiative in creating the Internet.”
While the phrasing may have been inelegant, Gore’s intention was both clear and correct. He had led the way in Congress to fund the development of what the world now knows as the Internet, or what Gore earlier dubbed, “the information super-highway.”
But Republicans quickly went to work on Gore’s statement. In press releases, they noted that the precursor of the Internet, called ARPANET, existed in 1971, a half dozen years before Gore entered Congress.
But ARPANET was a tiny networking of about 30 universities, a far cry from today’s Internet. Nevertheless, a media clamor soon arose over Gore’s Internet statement.
Gore’s spokesman Chris Lehane tried to clarify the point by noting that Gore “was the leader in Congress on the connections between data transmission and computing power, what we call information technology. And those efforts helped to create the Internet that we know today.”
There was no disputing Lehane’s description of Gore’s lead congressional role in developing today’s Internet. But any plaintive appeals for fairness were hopeless.
Reporters soon had lopped off the introductory clause “during my service in the United States Congress” or simply adopted favored Republican word substitutions, asserting that Gore claimed that he “invented” the Internet.
Whatever imprecision may have existed in Gore’s original comment, it paled beside the media’s exaggerated efforts to attack Gore for exaggerating.
By late 1999, the “template” described by Marcus was so firmly in place that journalists felt it even was their duty to reshape Gore’s words so they would fit into it.
For instance, the news media generated dozens of stories about Gore’s supposed claim that he discovered the infamous Love Canal toxic waste dump. “I was the one that started it all,” he was quoted as saying in articles in both The Washington Post and The New York Times.
But the two prestige newspapers had misquoted Gore on one key point and cropped out the context of another sentence to give readers a false impression of what he meant. The error was then exploited by national Republicans and amplified endlessly by the rest of the news media, even after the Post and Times grudgingly filed corrections.
The Love Canal quote controversy began on Nov. 30, 1999, when Gore was speaking to a group of high school students in Concord, New Hampshire.
The Vice President was exhorting the students to reject cynicism and to recognize that individual citizens can contribute to important changes. As an example, he cited a high school girl from Toone, Tennessee, a town that had experienced problems with toxic waste. She brought the issue to the attention of Gore’s congressional office in the late 1970s, he said.
“I called for a congressional investigation and a hearing,” Gore told the Concord students. “I looked around the country for other sites like that. I found a little place in upstate New York called Love Canal. Had the first hearing on that issue, and Toone, Tennessee – that was the one that you didn’t hear of. But that was the one that started it all.”
After those congressional hearings, Gore said, “we passed a major national law to clean up hazardous dump sites. And we had new efforts to stop the practices that ended up poisoning water around the country. We’ve still got work to do. But we made a huge difference. And it all happened because one high school student got involved.”
The context of Gore’s comment was clear. What sparked his interest in the toxic-waste issue was the situation in Toone, Tennessee – “that was the one that you didn’t hear of. But that was the one that started it all.”
After learning about the Toone situation, Gore looked for other examples and “found” a similar case at Love Canal. He was not claiming to have been the first one to discover Love Canal, which already had been evacuated. He simply needed other case studies for the hearings.
In the next day’s Washington Post, a story by political writer Ceci Connolly stripped Gore’s comments of their context and gave them a negative twist.
“Gore boasted about his efforts in Congress 20 years ago to publicize the dangers of toxic waste,” Connolly’s story said. “‘I found a little place in upstate New York called Love Canal,’ [Gore] said, referring to the Niagara homes evacuated in August 1978 because of chemical contamination. ‘I had the first hearing on this issue.’ … Gore said his efforts made a lasting impact. ‘I was the one that started it all,’ he said.”
The New York Times ran a slightly less contentious story with the same false quote: “I was the one that started it all.”
The Republican National Committee spotted Gore’s alleged boast and was quick to fax around its own take. “Al Gore is simply unbelievable – in the most literal sense of that term,” declared Republican National Committee Chairman Jim Nicholson. “It’s a pattern of phoniness – and it would be funny if it weren’t also a little scary.”
The GOP release then doctored Gore’s quote a bit more. After all, it would be grammatically incorrect to have said, “I was the one that started it all.” So, the Republican handout fixed Gore’s grammar to say, “I was the one who started it all.”
In just one day, the key quote had transformed from a reference to the waste dump in Toone, Tennessee, as “that was the one that started it all” to “I was the one that started it all” to “I was the one who started it all.”
Instead of taking the offensive against these misquotes – and thus face accusations of being overly defensive – Gore tried to head off the controversy by clarifying his meaning and apologizing if anyone got the wrong impression. But the fun was just beginning.
The national pundit shows quickly picked up the story of Gore’s latest “exaggeration,” mixing the Love Canal case with other hostile interpretations of Gore’s words relating to the movie Love Story and his support for creating the modern Internet.
“Let’s talk about the ‘love’ factor here,” chortled Chris Matthews of CNBC’s “Hardball.” “Here’s the guy who said he was the character Ryan O’Neal was based on in ‘Love Story.’ … It seems to me … he’s now the guy who created the Love Canal [case]. I mean, isn’t this getting ridiculous? … Isn’t it getting to be delusionary?”
The next morning, Post political writer Ceci Connolly highlighted Gore’s supposed Love Canal boast, putting it into his alleged pattern of falsehoods. “Add Love Canal to the list of verbal missteps by Vice President Gore,” she wrote. “The man who mistakenly claimed to have inspired the movie ‘Love Story’ and to have invented the Internet says he didn’t quite mean to say he discovered a toxic waste site.”
That night, CNBC’s Hardball returned to Gore’s Love Canal quote, comparing the Vice President to Zelig, Woody Allen’s character whose face appeared at an unlikely procession of historic events.
“What is it, the Zelig guy who keeps saying, ‘I was the main character in ‘Love Story.’ I invented the Internet. I invented Love Canal.”
The following day, Rupert Murdoch’s right-wing New York Post elaborated on Gore’s supposed pathology of deception.
“Again, Al Gore has told a whopper,” a Post editorial said. “Again, he’s been caught red-handed and again, he has been left sputtering and apologizing. This time, he falsely took credit for breaking the Love Canal story. … Yep, another Al Gore bold-faced lie. …
“Al Gore appears to have as much difficulty telling the truth as his boss, Bill Clinton. But Gore’s lies are not just false, they’re outrageously, stupidly false. It’s so easy to determine that he’s lying, you have to wonder if he wants to be found out. Does he enjoy the embarrassment? Is he hell-bent on destroying his own campaign? … Of course, if Al Gore is determined to turn himself into a national laughingstock, who are we to stand in his way?”
The Love Canal controversy soon moved beyond the Washington-New York power axis.
On Dec. 6, 1999, The Buffalo News ran an editorial entitled, “Al Gore in Fantasyland,” that echoed the words of RNC chief Nicholson. It stated, “Never mind that he didn’t invent the Internet, serve as the model for ‘Love Story’ or blow the whistle on Love Canal. All of this would be funny if it weren’t so disturbing.”
The next day, the right-wing Washington Times judged Gore simply crazy. “The real question is how to react to Mr. Gore’s increasingly bizarre utterings,” the Times said in an editorial. “Webster’s New World Dictionary defines ‘delusional’ thusly: ‘The apparent perception, in a nervous or mental disorder, of some thing external that is actually not present … a belief in something that is contrary to fact or reality, resulting from deception, misconception, or a mental disorder.’”
Yet, while the national media was excoriating Gore, the Concord students were learning more than they had expected about how media and politics worked in modern America. For days, the students pressed for a correction from The Washington Post and The New York Times. But the newspapers balked, insisting that the error was insignificant.
“The part that bugs me is the way they nit pick,” said Tara Baker, a Concord High junior. “[But] they should at least get it right.”
Bob Somerby, the editor of a media-criticism Web site, The Daily Howler, also was hectoring what he termed a “grumbling editor” at the Post to correct the error.
Finally, on Dec. 7, 1999, a week after Gore’s comment, the Post published a partial correction, tucked away as the last item in a corrections box. But the Post still misled readers about what Gore actually said.
The Post correction read: “In fact, Gore said, ‘That was the one that started it all,’ referring to the congressional hearings on the subject that he called.” The revision fit with the Post’s insistence that the two quotes meant pretty much the same thing, but again, the newspaper was distorting Gore’s clear intent by attaching “that” to the wrong antecedent. From the full quote, it’s obvious the “that” refers to the Toone toxic waste case, not to Gore’s hearings.
Three days later, The New York Times followed suit with a correction of its own, but again without fully explaining Gore’s position. “They fixed how they misquoted him, but they didn’t tell the whole story,” said Lindsey Roy, another Concord High junior.
While the students voiced disillusionment, the two reporters involved showed no remorse for their mistake.
“I really do think that the whole thing has been blown out of proportion,” said Katharine Seelye of the Times. “It was one word.”
The Post’sCeci Connolly even defended her inaccurate rendition of Gore’s quote as something of a journalistic duty. “We have an obligation to our readers to alert them [that] this [Gore’s false boasting] continues to be something of a habit,” she said.
The half-hearted corrections also did not stop newspapers around the country from continuing to use the bogus quote. A Dec. 9 editorial in the Lancaster, Pennsylvania, New Era even published the polished misquote that the Republican National Committee had stuck in its press release: “I was the one who started it all.”
The New Era then went on to psychoanalyze Gore. “Maybe the lying is a symptom of a more deeply-rooted problem: Al Gore doesn’t know who he is,” the editorial stated. “The Vice President is a serial prevaricator.”
In the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel, writer Michael Ruby concluded that “the Gore of ‘99” was full of lies. He “suddenly discovers elastic properties in the truth,” Ruby declared. “He invents the Internet, inspires the fictional hero of ‘Love Story,’ blows the whistle on Love Canal. Except he didn’t really do any of those things.”
On Dec. 19, GOP chairman Nicholson was back on the offensive. Far from apologizing for the RNC’s misquotes, Nicholson was reprising the allegations of Gore’s falsehoods that had been repeated so often by then that they had taken on the color of truth:
“Remember, too, that this is the same guy who says he invented the Internet, inspired Love Story and discovered Love Canal.”
More than two weeks after the Post correction, the bogus quote was still spreading. The Providence Journal in Rhode Island lashed out at Gore in an editorial that reminded readers that Gore had said about Love Canal, “I was the one that started it all.”
The editorial then turned to the bigger picture: “This is the third time in the last few months that Mr. Gore has made a categorical assertion that is – well, untrue. … There is an audacity about Mr. Gore’s howlers that is stunning. … Perhaps it is time to wonder what it is that impels Vice President Gore to make such preposterous claims, time and again.”
So, was it any wonder why so many Americans were confused about the issue of Al Gore’s honesty when they went to the polls in November 2000?
Now, eight years later – despite the horrendous consequences wrought by the sloppy journalism and the resulting six-plus years of George W. Bush’s presidency – the editors of The Washington Post still don’t seem to care when one of their columnists continues this idiocy.
Robert Parry broke many of the Iran-Contra stories in the 1980s for the Associated Press and Newsweek. His latest book, Secrecy & Privilege: Rise of the Bush Dynasty from Watergate to Iraq, can be ordered at secrecyandprivilege.com. It's also available at Amazon.com, as is his 1999 book, Lost History: Contras, Cocaine, the Press & 'Project Truth.'
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