Thursday, September 08, 2011

Good Joke, Truth Optional

There is no reason to debate who won last night's GOP presidential debate at the Reagan library. Through roughly 2004, the rule of thumb for such gatherings might have been said to be: whomever gets in the first shot at Jimmy Carter is the victor.

That may now be replaced by 'whomever gets in the first shot at Al Gore' is the victor. Extra point for doing it as a joke; a second extra point for making it up.

By that measure, Mitt Romney is nearly nominated.

Answering Rick Perry's charge that the Texas governor "created" more jobs in Texas than Romney did as governor of Massachusetts, Mitt maintained that it was an unfair comparison because Texas is a conservative utopia. He quipped

States are different. Texas is a great state. Texas has zero income tax. Texas has a right to work state, a Republican legislature, a Republican Supreme Court. Texas has a lot of oil and gas in the ground.

Those are wonderful things, but Governor Perry doesn`t believe that he created those things. If he tried to say that, well, it would be like Al Gore saying he invented the Internet.

Ha, ha. We all laughed. And NBC's Brian Williams and Politico's John Harris said not a word in response, presumably enjoying the little joke themselves. Members of a fraternity and sorority that always has despised Al Gore (in contrast to what Gore currently stands for, which they tolerate), they wouldn't think to correct this slimy accusation.

On CNN's Late Edition on March 9, 1999, Al Gore told Wolf Blitzer

During my service in the United States Congress, I took the initiative in creating the Internet. I took the initiative in moving forward a whole range of initiatives that have proven to be important to our country’s economic growth, environmental protection, improvements in our educational system.

On December 3, 2002, Bob Somerby (in a topic he'd return to repeatedly) explained

How was Gore made into a liar? Gore made his comment on March 9; after two days of silence from the press corps, the RNC swung into action. At mid-day on Thursday, March 11, a story written by Michelle Mittelstadt appeared on the AP wire. “Republicans pounce on Gore’s claim that he created the Internet,” the headline said. But had Gore really said he created the Internet? A new GOP press release said that he had—and so did the new AP headline. Indeed, showing off her writerly skills, Mittelstadt began her crucial report with a second tendentious paraphrase:

MITTELSTADT: Vice President Al Gore’s claim that he is the father of the Internetdrew amused protests Thursday from congressional Republicans.
But had Gore really said he was father of the Internet? The language was entertaining—and highly tendentious—but it wasn’t drawn from Gore’s actual statement. No matter—on the morning of March 11, GOP leaders had released statements in which they’d attacked Gore’s remark. Mittelstadt began with Dick Armey:
MITTELSTADT: House Majority Leader Dick Armey, R-Texas, said that even under the time-honored tradition of politicians taking credit for everything, Gore’s statement is an “outrageous claim.”

Gore, who is widely credited for coining the term “information superhighway,” raised eyebrows with a pronouncement he made Tuesday during a CNN interview.

As we’ve seen, that last statement by Mittelstadt was wildly misleading. Gore’s “pronouncement” hadn’t “raised any eyebrows” with Blitzer, for example; Blitzer said nothing when Gore made his statement. Nor had it “raised any eyebrows” at the AP itself; on March 9 and 10, the service had filed several reports on the interview, none of which mentioned Gore’s comment. No, Gore’s “pronouncement” had only “raised eyebrows” among his Republican political rivals, several of whom Mittelstadt now quoted. For example, she quoted Rep. James Sensenbrenner, who said, “Gore taking credit for creating the Internet certainly gives new meaning to the term ‘March madness.’” The next day, the AP quoted a press release from RNC chairman Jim Nicholson. “Al Gore the father of the Internet?” he asked. Gore was “claim[ing] credit for other people’s successes,” according to the RNC chief. (Nicholson, of course, would play the press corps for fools throughout the election. Revisit his tour of the fancy hotel. Links are provided below.)

In her influential report, Mittelstadt committed one of the press corps’ most common sins; she took an unremarkable statement by Gore and paraphrased it in the most tendentious way possible—which also happened to be the way Gore’s political rivals were spinning it. Had Gore ever claimed to be “father of the Internet?” The language didn’t appear in his statement, but it now led Mittelstadt’s AP report. And now, the press corps—having ignored Gore’s remark for two solid days—began to file excited reports uncritically adopting the GOP’s spin-points. Indeed, some of the GOP’s most tendentious language was simply adopted, word-for-word, by major members of the press. On March 11, for example, Sensenbrenner’s press release carried this headline: “DELUSIONS OF GRANDEUR: VICE PRESIDENT GORE TAKES CREDIT FOR CREATING THE INTERNET.” On March 12, Lou Dobbs cribbed from the statement on Moneyline, his nightly CNN program. Dobbs called Gore’s remarks “a case study tonight in delusions of grandeur,” just as Sensenbrenner had done. And Gore “apparently thinks he’s the Father of the Internet,” Dobbs said, using a key phrase from Nicholson’s statement! That’s right, kids! Dobbs took “delusions of grandeur” straight from Sensenbrenner, and “father of the Internet” straight from Nicholson; like Mittelstadt, he directly adopted the GOP’s tendentious accounts of what Gore supposedly said. But there were a few things Lou Dobbs didn’t do in his report, in which he trashed Gore for his “delusions.” He didn’t describe Gore’s important work in the Congress—and he never quoted Gore’s actual statement. But so it would go throughout this election, as RNC-scripted spinners like Dobbs ginned up nasty campaigns against Gore, confounding ideas about who runs the media. On March 11, the GOP said that Gore had “delusions of grandeur.” The next day, CNN—which said nothing about Gore’s remark in real time—went ahead and used the nasty phrase too.

But then, Dobbs’ cutting-and-pasting about the Net pointed to what was to come. In three easy steps, Gore’s completely unremarkable comment was turned into something “delusional.” First, his explicit reference to the congressional context was dropped from standard press accounts. If Gore was quoted at all, his sixteen words were pared down to eight: “I took the initiative in creating the Internet.” Then, eight words were whittled to three—Gore said he created the Internet (this, of course, was the formulation which led Sensenbrenner’s release). Finally, the word “invented,” which Gore never used, became the press corps’ verb of choice. All over the press corps—all over TV—citizens were told a remarkable story: Al Gore said he invented the Internet!!! The absurd presentation was in place almost instantly, with worried pundits wracking their brains about why Gore had made such a puzzling statement. Here, for example, are early passages from just one paper—that very same paper, the Washington Times, to which Gore referred last week:

John McCaslin, 3/16/99: [T]he Gore 2000 campaign…office has already gotten a taste of what it’s in for after Mr. Gore recently took credit for inventing the Internet.

Ralph Z. Hallow, 3/16/99: Relaxed and ready to enjoy his second and better-prepared go at the GOP nomination, [Steve Forbes] joked in an interview yesterday about Vice President Al Gore’s claim of having invented the Internet.

Rowan Scarborough, 3/16/99: “This one is going to stick,” said William Kristol, editor and publisher of the conservative Weekly Standard. ‘Al Gore. Inventor of the Internet.’”

Editorial, 3/18/99: Mr. Gore has some explaining to do to parents. As everyone now knows, Mr. Gore invented the Internet, which means the vice president is responsible for making hard-core pornography available to elementary schoolchildren at the local library.

Robert Tyrell, 3/19/99: Did you hear Trent Lott is claiming to have invented the paper clip? Some think he is making a joke at the expense of Al Gore’smegalomaniacal claims about inventing the Internet.

A powerful propaganda campaign had begun. “[E]veryone now knows,” the Times said sarcastically, that Al Gore invented the Internet. Strangely, the paper had said no such thing on March 10 and 11, when it first reviewed the Gore-Blitzer session. Amazing, isn’t it? Al Gore said he invented the Internet—and the aggressively anti-Gore Times failed to notice! But then,no one in the press corps noticed this “statement” by Gore—until the RNC gimmicked it up.

The Times, of course, is a conservative paper; it battered Gore for the next twenty months over matters large, small and invented. But with startling speed, the notion that Al Gore said he invented the Internet became mainstream press dogma too. Pundits ran to recite the new story—pundits who hadn’t said a word until the RNC spoke. How quickly was Gore chided for saying he invented the Internet? USA Today used the phrase on March 15 (editorial headline: “Inventing the Internet”). That same day, Al Kamen used the phrase in his Washington Post column (he quoted a joke by a GOP spokesman). On March 16, Hardball’s Chris Matthews mocked Gore for saying he “invented the Internet.” On March 17, Judy Woodruff, hosting CNN’sInside Politics, chided Gore as “inventor of the Internet.” The embellished phrase reached the Los Angeles Times on March 18; the Boston Globe on March 20; the Associated Press on March 22. With blinding speed, the corps had invented a thrilling new story: Al Gore said he invented the Internet! And none of these news orgs had mentioned this “fact”—until the RNC scripted the spin.

With remarkable speed, the tendentious claim became Standard Issue. All over the press corps, pundits accused Gore of having said he invented the Net. The high (or low) point in this growing burlesque came in a June 2 USA Today story. In a report about problems with Gore’s early campaign, Mimi Hall penned this laughable—but completely inexcusable—account of what Gore had said:

HALL: A couple of Gore gaffes, including his assertion that he “invented” the Internet, didn’t help.
And yes, incredibly, that’s the way Hall wrote it; the one word Hall put inside quotes was the one word which Gore never said! It’s hard to know how scribes can be so inept, but Hall was hardly alone in her blunder. On June 16, as Gore formally launched his campaign, Elaine Povich—also deriding Gore’s alleged “gaffes”— matched Hall in the pages of Newsday:
POVICH: It was another gaffe in a series of missteps so far in Gore’s campaign—including…his widely mocked assertion that he “invented” the Internet.
Incredible, isn’t it? But in Campaign 2000, it happened routinely: Tendentious paraphrase was transformed into a “quote” as the press corps embellished the news to push spin-lines. For the next two years, the press corps’ embellished account would be the statement of record, passed on, inside quotes, as if Gore really said it. Millions of voters would come to believe that Gore really had made the odd claim.

Povich was actually right on one point. By the weekend of March 14, Gore was, in fact, being “widely mocked” for saying he invented the Internet. From this point on, Gore’s congressional achievements would rarely be mentioned; his unremarkable statement would be deftly transformed. The Washington press hadn’t said a word when Gore made his actual statement. Now, the corps was off and running on a two-year attack on Gore’s character. But so it went as the Washington press corps made a joke of your White House election. Such spin campaigns would be ginned up all through the 2000 race. For the record, the “farm chores” hoax began on March 16, five days after the Internet nonsense. It also began with an RNC press release. See below for links.

Invented the Internet? Gore’s recent statement to the New York Observer referred toprecisely this kind of press coverage. Invented the Internet is an obvious case in which “Republican talking points” were deftly “injected” into the work ofthe mainstream press. No one—no one!— said a word about Gore’s remark at thetime it was made. But when the RNC sent out its points, pundits simply ran to recite them. And so it went, throughout the campaign, as the RNC scripted your hapless press corps. Indeed, there’s long been a phrase for such work of this type. As the RNC sent out its points, the press corps became useful idiots.

Somerby, as he has on other occasions, addressed also the false claims regarding Al Gore pertaining to the hotel in which he grew up, Willie Horton, Love Story and Love Canal, and the chores he performed on his family's farm. These, too, helped form the narrative that Al Gore was a congenital liar, though history has demonstrated that his sense of honesty far exceeded that of his opponents.

But nothing dies as hard as the fable about Al Gore and the Internet. Gore did as he claimed, having taken the lead in Congress in fostering its development. The Internet was first utilized not in the private sector, but in the public sector, by the Defense Department. Given, further, the impact of the Internet on American society and across the globe, the individual arguably most influential in Washington in its birth ought receive a little credit, rather than ridicule. If some other individual supported Gulf War I, opposed Gulf War II, and warned us long ago about the impact of climate change, he would be queried as to how it feels to be prophetic.

It is not only debate moderators and the bulk of the mainstream media during election 2000. In post-debate analysis, MSNBC's Rachel Maddow interviewed Steve Schmidt, who ran John McCain's 2008 presidential campaign. Schmidt blithely and casually repeated the Al Gore/Internet charge and Maddow, a prime-time host on the reportedly "liberal" news network, said nothing. Which tells us something about Steve Schmidt, MSNBC, and Mitt Romney's ability to remember an effective joke he was programmed to repeat.

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