When Claims Become Facts
Sometimes things get repeated so often they become facts – even if they’re not exactly true.
That was a point made by Post reader Jock Friedly after he read a delightful first-person essay in yesterday’s Post. It was written by attorney Edward McNally, who'd grown up with Hollywood director, producer and screenwriter John Hughes. McNally made reference to Washington as “a town where Vice President Al Gore faced cynicism not only for claiming to have invented the Internet, but also for claiming to have been a role model for Ryan O’Neal’s character in the movie 'Love Story.'”
Not so, Friedly wrote me. He said the Post piece “repeated as fact two long-disproved claims about Al Gore.”
Over the past decade, The Post has joined other media organizations in making repeated references to Al Gore's claim of having “invented” the Internet. Some have been qualified (“Gore's alleged claim” or "the urban legend that Al Gore once said" or "Al Gore, whom Republicans tarred in 2000 as someone who claimed to have discovered"). Others have been mere humorous mentions. And at least two said flat out that the assertion is wrong and Gore never made such a claim.
Still, as Wednesday’s essay attests, sometimes it has been stated without question.
The Gore-Internet legend stems from a March 1999 interview with CNN’s Wolf Blitzer. Gore, then vice president, was asked how he hoped to distinguish himself from New Jersey Sen. Bill Bradley in the race for the Democratic presidential nomination. “I’ll be offering my vision when my campaign begins,” he said, adding that “it will emerge from my dialogue with the American people. I’ve traveled to every part of this country during the last six years. 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 and environmental protection, improvements in our educational system.”
Gore never claimed he “invented” the Internet, and supporters later said he was simply referring to his well-established work in fostering the development of technology while in Congress. But after a tech writer said that Gore took “credit” for the Internet, Republican opponents then said he claimed to have “invented” it. Soon, critics were citing it as evidence that Gore was a self-promoting exaggerator. Late-night comics built jokes around it. “Invent” had stuck, and couldn’t be dislodged from the public’s mind.
Similarly, much has been written to debunk the notion that Gore claimed to be a role model for the Ryan O’Neal character in the movie “Love Story,” based on the best-selling book by author (and Gore friend) Erich Segal. The origins of this assertion are more complicated. As dissected years ago on The Daily Howler Web site, Gore had mentioned a newspaper story that made the assertion. The New York Times detailed the origins in a December 1997 article that traced it to a story in a Tennessee newspaper. Like the "invented the Internet" claim, political opponents seized on this one as evidence of Gore's supposed penchant for exaggeration.
The Times story also made clear that Gore did not move quickly to correct the notion that the wildly popular book and movie had been based loosely on him and his wife, Tipper.
And that might be a lesson for those who want to prevent claims from becoming fact: Move quickly, and forcefully, to set the record straight.
The lesson for The Post is that "facts" can sometimes be little more than well-established myths. They need to be dislodged -- for good.
Posted by: Viewfinder | August 14, 2009 6:03 PM | Report abuse
Posted by: Gray62 | August 15, 2009 6:22 AM | Report abuse
Posted by: bobmoses | August 15, 2009 7:11 AM | Report abuse
Posted by: Gray62 | August 15, 2009 9:19 AM | Report abuse
Posted by: debpet732 | August 15, 2009 1:50 PM | Report abuse
Posted by: georgesmathers | August 15, 2009 3:05 PM | Report abuse
Posted by: Dermitt | August 15, 2009 6:58 PM | Report abuse
Posted by: Gray62 | August 16, 2009 8:04 AM | Report abuse
Posted by: Gray62 | August 16, 2009 8:18 AM | Report abuse
Posted by: waterfrontproperty | August 16, 2009 9:45 AM | Report abuse
Posted by: waterfrontproperty | August 16, 2009 9:56 AM | Report abuse
Posted by: TheCaptainDamnIt | August 16, 2009 7:13 PM | Report abuse
Posted by: BillEPilgrim | August 17, 2009 1:00 AM | Report abuse
Posted by: janowicki | August 17, 2009 9:58 AM | Report abuse
The comments to this entry are closed.