Al Gore and Inventing the Internet

Date: Tue, 17 Oct 2000 22:53:47 -0700
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From: Phil Agre 
To: "Red Rock Eater News Service" 
Subject: [RRE]Al Gore and the Internet
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Who Invented "Invented"?:
Tracing the Real Story of the "Al Gore Invented the Internet" Hoax

Phil Agre

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.


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:



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

  "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

(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

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.


  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

  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 suppose
d 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

  ... 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

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.,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

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
as 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

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.

Last modified: Thu Oct 19 12:13:40 PDT 2000