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Who Invented "Invented"?:
Tracing the Real Story of the "Al Gore Invented the Internet" Hoax

Phil Agre
http://dlis.gseis.ucla.edu/pagre/

17 October 2000


An extraordinary article appears in today's Wired News.  In this
article, the Wired News reporter who gave rise to the flap about
Al Gore and the Internet reviews the controversy.

  10/17/00: <http://www.wired.com/news/print/0,1294,39301,00.html>

This article is worth reviewing in depth because of the record of
distortion and falsehood that it disingenuously glosses over.

The flap arose from three articles in Wired News, dated 3/11/99,
3/15/99, and 3/23/99.  These articles are worth reading in their
entirety:

  3/11/99: <http://www.wired.com/news/politics/0,1283,18390,00.html>
  
  3/15/99: <http://www.wired.com/news/politics/0,1283,18480,00.html>

  3/23/99: <http://www.wired.com/news/politics/0,1283,18655,00.html>

Gore's words in a CNN interview, as quoted by Wired News, were as
follows:

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

Gore meaning, obvious to anyone who knew the record, was that he did
the political work and articulated the public vision that made the
Internet possible.  No reasonable person could conclude that Gore was
claiming to have invented the Internet in any technical sense.  The
first half of his sentence makes this clear: he is talking about work
he did in the context of his service in the Congress.  The creation
of the Internet was a process that had several phases and took several
years, and Gore is claiming the principal credit for the political
side of that effort.  It is a substantial claim, but an accurate one.

The 3/11/99 Wired News article, however, is overwhelmingly hostile in
its tone, and seeks to refute Gore's claim through several misleading
strategies:

(1) It suggests, first of all, that Gore could not have been involved
in creating the Internet on the grounds that ARPANET was developed
several years before Gore entered Congress.  This is quite beside the
point, of course, given that ARPANET and the Internet are different
things.

(2) It criticizes Gore for a vision of the Internet based mainly on
supercomputers rather than personal computers, not mentioning that
this was also the vision of the Internet's technical pioneers.

(3) It claims that Gore could not have been involved in the Internet's
creation because he was not a leader of its privatization.  This is a
non sequitur.

(4) It insinuates that Gore lacks technical knowledge by claiming that
he mispronounced the word "routers" as root-ers, even though this is a
common and accepted pronunciation of the word among Internet architects.

The article attempts to diminish Gore's credit for the Internet in
other misleading ways.  It says, for example, that:

  Gore has taken credit for popularizing the term "information
  superhighway" and around 1991 penned related articles for
  publications such as Byte magazine.  But the term "data highway"
  has been used as far back as 1975, before Gore entered Congress.

The second sentence, again, is a non sequitur, given that Gore is only
said to have taken credit for popularizing the term, not for coining
it.  That Gore popularized the term is indisputable.

The 3/11/99 article did not use the word "invented".  Instead it
spoke of Gore as claiming to be the "father of the Internet", already
a stretch.  But the Wired News article of 3/23/99 then amplifies the
original accusation:

  WASHINGTON -- Al Gore's timing was as unfortunate as his boast.
  Just as Republicans were beginning to eye the 2000 presidential
  race in earnest, the vice president offered up a whopper of a
  tall tale in which he claimed to have invented the Internet.

Gore's claim is once again inflated, and the word "invented" appears.

Much happened between 3/11/99 and 3/23/99.  On the very day that
the original article appeared, 3/11/99, the office of House Majority
Leader Dick Armey issued a press release mocking Gore's statement.
This press release read in part as follows:

  If the Vice President created the Internet then I created the
  Interstate highway system.  Both were begun during the Eisenhower
  Administration and I think Ike actually deserves a little credit
  here.

  http://www.politechbot.com/p-00285.html

The press release does not use the word "invented".  That word first
appears in a Nexis search in a 3/13/99 news articles by Frank Bruni
of the New York Times and Michelle Mittelstadt of the Associated Press,
both of whom report on a statement by Trent Lott that they both quote
as follows:

  During my service in the United States Congress, I took the
  initiative in creating the paper clip.

and

  Paper clips bind us together as a nation.

Lott does not use the word "invented", preferring to mimic Gore's
exact words, but both of the articles do use the word "invented"
to paraphrase Lott's claim (not Gore's).  A similar article appears
in the Washington Post on 3/14/99.  The first Nexis article that
uses the word "invent" to paraphrase Gore is an unsigned 3/15/99 USA
Today commentary entitled "Inventing the Internet".  It illustrates
the general trend of press reports over this period: Gore's phrase
"take the initiative in creating the Internet" is paraphrased as
"created the Internet" and "created" is then glossed as "invented".
The 3/15/99 Wired News article closely follows the pattern of these
other publications.

It is worth noting that the Associated Press and Washington Post
articles both falsely state that the Internet was originally called
the ARPANET and date it to 1969, citing this as evidence against
Gore's assertion.  Dick Armey's press release had simplified the
original argument in Wired News somewhat by stating, misleadingly at
best, that "scientists at ... DARPA, launched what is now the Internet
in 1969".  The Associated Press and Washington Post at least provide
the name ARPANET, but again both of them treat it as identical to
the Internet.  The USA Today commentary embroiders this theme even
further by stating that "[t]he Internet was invented in the 1960s when
Gore was barely out of college".  The same false information appears
as part of a passing mention of the controversy in an 3/15/99 USA
Today article by Paul Leavitt, Susan Page, and Steve Komarow: "The
Internet dates to 1969, eight years before Gore was first elected
to Congress."  A similar statement appears in a harsh editorial in
the 3/16/99 Detroit News.  The first press reports, then, repeated
the misleading argument in Wired News that was amplified by the Armey
press release.  It is likely, therefore, that Wired News and Armey, or
third parties whose thinking derived from them, were the main sources
for the initial mainstream press reports.

The first, very forceful defenses of Gore's record by the Internet's
scientific leadership (specifically Steve Wolff, with additional
comments by Tony Rutkowski) appear only a couple of days later, in
an article in the 3/18/00 New York Times by Katie Hafner.  The word
"invent" does not appear in this article.

That same day there also appears the first article in Nexis to falsify
Gore's quote, an Arizona Republic article by Sandy Grady that states:

  In a weekend interview, Gore, who prides himself as cyberhip,
  bragged, "I created the Internet".

This is also the first article to connect the Internet theme to the
recurring theme of Gore's supposedly rigid personality.  The theme
of Gore exhibiting a "pattern" of false statements first appears in
a column by Jack Germond and Jules Whitcover the next day.  Their
point (at least overtly) is not that Gore exhibits such a pattern,
but that he faces the danger that his opponents will discern such
a  pattern and hold it against him.  They, too, repeat the false
claim that the "the Defense Department began funding the Internet
in 1969, eight years before Mr. Gore was elected to Congress".  Note
that this is actually a corruption of earlier formulations, which at
least identified 1969 as the year when ARPANET began operation (not
funding).

An article by John Schwartz in the 3/21/99 Washington Post provides
further heated commentary in support of Gore from the Internet's
technical leadership, this time Dave Farber and Vint Cerf.  Cerf in
particular is quoted as saying this:

  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 to it
  and related research areas by the vice president in his current role
  and in his earlier role as senator.

On the other hand, Farber was also quoted as saying this:

  The guy used an inappropriate word.  If he had said he was
  instrumental in the development of what it is now, he'd be accurate.

This is the first, and to my knowledge the only, demurral from among
the scientists who have expressed support for Gore's contributions.
Katie Hafner of the New York Times, who cowrote a book about the
history of the Internet, is also cited as an authority in support of
Gore.  Significantly, however, this article also provides the clearest
statement to that point that Gore had claimed to be the inventor of
the Internet.  The statement comes from Dan Quayle: "if Gore invented
the Internet, I invented spell-check".

The "Internet" controversy is first connected to the then-developing
"pattern" of supposed reinventions and exaggerations by Al Gore on
3/21/99.  A commentary by Philip Gailey in the 3/21/99 St. Petersburg
Times says this:

  Gore's recent statement that as a member of Congress he had taken
  the initiative in "creating the Internet" drew hoots of laughter,
  especially from Republicans.  Gore has long been a promoter of
  the Internet, but he didn't invent it.  Trying to keep a straight
  face, Senate Majority Leader Trent Lott quickly issued a news
  release claiming that he invented the paper clip.  This was
  not the first time Gore has over-reached.  A year ago Gore told
  reporters that he and his wife, Tipper, at the time when they
  were college sweethearts, were the inspiration for the novel Love
  Story.  That came as news to the befuddled author, Erich Segal.

Gore's quote, having grown familiar, has now been reduced to a few
words, without the context of the first half of the sentence.  The
phrase "took the initiative" is now outside of quote marks as well.
The pattern of equating "creating" and "invent[ing]" has begun to
settle in.  Much more importantly, the Internet story is now coupled
with another of the now-canonical "exaggeration" stories -- the "Love
Story" story.  The author's claim is false on two counts: Gore did
not make such a claim about himself and Tipper (he only told reporters
about a news article that mistakenly made such a claim), and Segal did
not contradict Gore (who was in fact one of the models for the hero
of Segal's book).  The decontextualized and tendentiously paraphrased
"Internet" story is now coupled with the multiply falsified "Love
Story" story -- a pattern that will grow much more intense later on.

Another example of the nascent pattern is found in a 3/21/99 article
in the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel by Michael Ruby.  This article is
worth quoting at length:

  ... the vice president, long thought to be a bright fellow whose
  earnest public persona and wooden speaking style belied a private
  puckishness, has demonstrated in midlife a bizarre need to burnish
  his image.

  The first sign came a couple of years ago, when Gore revealed that
  he and wife Tipper were the star-crossed pairing Erich Segal had
  in mind when he wrote the 1970 weeper "Love Story".  He should have
  wired this first with Segal, who later said it wasn't true.

  More recently, he placed himself up there with Edison and Bell,
  claiming to have invented the Internet.  One small benefit of this
  curious fable Pentagon technocrats and university academics actually
  did the job three decades ago was a blizzard of one-liners from some
  normally unfunny guys.

  Senate Majority Leader Trent Lott, for one, weighed in that he, in
  fact, invented the paper clips that "bind us together as a nation",
  and his office hinted that their man might be the fifth Beatle.
  House Majority Leader Dick Armey wanted everyone to know that he
  invented the interstate highway system.

  Then, last week on a visit to Iowa, the veep revealed other unknown
  facets of his past.  He had been a small-business man and a home
  builder, Gore said, and he had lived on a farm learning to slop the
  hogs, to plow a "steep hillside" with mules and "take up hay all day
  long in the hot sun".

  Gore, the son of a senator, grew up in Washington, D.C., attended
  prep school there, went to Harvard and was, briefly, in the
  home-building business before becoming a reporter in Nashville in
  1973.  He was only 28 when he was elect ed to Congress in 1976 and
  has been in public life ever since.

The "Gore as exaggerator" pattern is fully developed in this passage.
It is the first of the "Internet" stories in Nexis to use harsh
language -- "bizarre" -- and to engage in psychoanalysis -- "midlife".
It states clearly (and, again, falsely) that Gore claimed to have
"invented the Internet", and it repeats the false information that
the Internet had been invented in 1969.  It then sandwiches this
misleading material between two other false entries in the "Gore
exaggeration" canon -- the "Love Story" myth and the equally false
claim that Gore had lied when he claimed to have performed onerous
chores on the family farm in Tennessee.  This is ten days out from
Wired News' original report.

Nexis records no further development of the story before Wired News'
third report, on 3/23/99.  This report begins as follows:

  WASHINGTON -- Al Gore's timing was as unfortunate as his boast.
  Just as Republicans were beginning to eye the 2000 presidential race
  in earnest, the vice president offered up a whopper of a tall tale
  in which he claimed to have invented the Internet.

  http://www.wired.com/news/politics/0,1283,18655,00.html

Here Wired News, following the pattern that had emerged in the media
over the previous ten days, clearly states that Al Gore "claimed to
have invented the Internet", and furthermore refers to this supposed
claim as "a whopper of a tall tale" -- a lie.  This article repeats
the false story about Gore's having claimed credit for "Love Story",
citing the Washington Times.  It then repeats the false story that
Gore had wrongly claimed to have worked on a farm, citing the New York
Post.  The 3/23/99 article does not mention any of the support for
Gore that had been offered by the Internet's scientific leadership;
the only supporting statement that it quotes, and then refutes, is
Eleanor Clift's mistaken assertion that Gore had coined (as opposed to
later popularizing) the phrase "information superhighway".  In fact,
nothing in the article is supportive of Gore, and its tone is well
captured by the following sentence:

  Yet the Republicans missed a perfect opportunity to respond to
  Gore's fabrication.

Against this background it becomes possible to judge Wired News' new
article of 10/17/00.  The Wired News reporter lay claims to being

  ... the first reporter to question the vice president's improvident
  boast, way back when he made it in early 1999.

It quotes some of the subsequent mockery at Gore's expense, and then
says this:

  ... Are the countless jibes at Al's expense truly justified?  Did he
  really play a key part in the development of the Net?

  The short answer is that while even his supporters admit the vice
  president has an unfortunate tendency to exaggerate, the truth is
  that Gore never did claim to have "invented" the Internet.

This is the first time that Wired News has made such a statement.
It does not mention that its article of 3/23/99 had not only stated
the contrary, but had characterized Gore's supposed claim as a lie.

  During a March 1999 CNN interview, while trying to differentiate
  himself from rival Bill Bradley, Gore boasted: "During my service
  in the United States Congress, I took the initiative in creating the
  Internet."

Observe that the loaded word "boast[ed]" has appeared twice.

  That statement was enough to convince me, with the encouragement of
  my then-editor James Glave, to write a brief article that questioned
  the vice president's claim.

The original 3/11/99 article was no more brief than typical Wired News
articles.  In fact it provides extensive commentary on Gore's Internet
record, some of which I summarized above.

  Republicans on Capitol Hill noticed the Wired News writeup and
  started faxing around tongue-in-cheek press releases -- inveterate
  neatnik Trent Lott claimed to have invented the paper clip -- and
  other journalists picked up the story too.

As the record above shows, Trent Lott claimed (facetiously) to have
"created" the paper clip.  The word "invented" was introduced by
reporters in glossing Lott's claim.  Wired News thus continues to
conflate "created" and "invented", even though it has just admitted
the contrary.  We have also seen how most of the "other journalists"
repeated false and misleading information that probably came from the
original Wired News article and the Republican press releases that
were based on it.

  My article never used the word "invented", but it didn't take long
  for Gore's claim to morph into something he never intended.

The original 3/11/99 article did not use the word "invented".  That
word first appeared two days later.  But the Wired News article of
3/23/99, as already mentioned, did use the word.  Wired News has not
chosen to refute this false claim until 19 months after its original
false and misleading articles, when the election is three weeks away,
other commentators have come forward to refute the falsehood, and Al
Gore's reputation has been nearly destroyed by the snowballing lie
that Wired News -- despite what it now says -- is responsible for
having set in motion.

  The terrible irony in this exchange is that while Gore certainly
  didn't create the Internet, he was one of the first politicians
  to realize that those bearded, bespectacled researchers were busy
  crafting something that could, just maybe, become pretty important.

This passage is obscenely disingenuous, given that the three previous
articles on the subject by this Wired News reporter are relentlessly
negative and never gave Gore the slightest credit for creating the
Internet.

  In January 1994, Gore gave a landmark speech at UCLA about the
  "information superhighway".

The 3/11/99 and 3/23/99 articles had labored to deprive Gore of credit
for this phrase.

  Many portions -- discussions of universal service, wiring classrooms
  to the Net, and antitrust actions -- are surprisingly relevant even
  today.  ...

The phrases "terrible irony", "landmark", and "surprisingly relevant"
depart radically from the uniformly negative and polemical tone of the
earlier articles.

Despite all of this, the bulk of the 10/17/00 article is, like the
earlier articles, principally concerned with criticizing Gore.  Yet
whereas those articles had been ferocious in denying Gore any credit
on any front, the latest article ventures a much weaker thesis:

  But it's also difficult to argue with a straight face that the
  Internet we know today would not exist if Gore had decided to
  practice the piano instead of politics.

This is not the position that Gore expressed, and Wired News does not
indicate who does argue for it.  It is, however, a fair gloss of the
passage from Vint Cert quoted above from the 3/21/99 Washington Post:

  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 to it
  and related research areas by the vice president in his current role
  and in his earlier role as senator.

In a sense Wired News' new, downscaled contention is trivially true:
in the alternate world where Gore played piano, a doppleganger might
have arisen to see the new networking technology coming, appreciate
its importance, popularize a theme such as "information superhighway",
do the political groundwork to fund its development, and so on.  But
this scenario also makes clear why Wired News' new contention is so
weak: as the statements of the various Internet scientific leaders
have made clear, these were indispensible functions that someone had
to serve.  In this particular world that person was Al Gore.  Wired
News' campaign of distortions effectively deprived Al Gore of the
substantial credit that he deserves in creating the most important
technological invention of the last twenty years.

The overall assessment of Wired News' performance on this story
must be negative.  Its original article was harshly polemical and
misleading on several counts.  Its second, short article was part
of the emerging and misleading media consensus.  Its third, much
longer article was also harshly polemical, falsely asserts that Al
Gore claimed to have invented the Internet, and wraps up this false
assertion with two additional false assertions about Gore that it
recycled from the conservative press.  None of these articles was
remotely balanced or fair, and none of them reported a single scrap
of positive information about Gore's contribution, except to portray
it in a negative light.  Finally, Wired News' most recent article
is misleading about the contents of the earlier articles and grossly
disingenuous in the way that it supplies positive evaluations that
were entirely missing from the earlier articles.

Wired News' articles about Al Gore and the Internet did not simply
contribute an urban myth to American culture.  They were part and
parcel of a hysterical campaign of character assassination against
an innocent man based on lies and distortions.  This campaign should
bring disgrace to Wired News and all of the other media organizations
that were part of it.  It should also cause sober reflection on the
corrupt state of public discourse in this country.

end