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When Claims Become Facts

By Andy Alexander

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.

By Andy Alexander  | August 14, 2009; 3:22 PM ET
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These oft-repeated falsehoods about Al Gore that the media mindlessly echo are evidence supporting the principal truths that Charles Pierce explains so well in his book "Idiot America: How Stupidity Became a Virtue in the Land of the Free":

The First Great Premise: Any theory is valid if it sells books, soaks up ratings, or otherwise moves units.

The Second Great Premise: Anything can be true if someone says it loudly enough.

The Third Great Premise: Fact is that which enough people believe. Truth is determined by how fervently they believe it.

As the events of this month are showing only too well at town-hall meetings on health care reform nationwide, this is the environment we have allowed to flourish. Has lazy journalism been a contributing factor? You betcha.

Posted by: Viewfinder | August 14, 2009 6:03 PM | Report abuse

Thank you for addressing the common distortions of Gore's actual statements, Mr. Alexander! However, imho you should make it more clear that as Vice President, Gore really was one of the most important supporters, if not the main one, of expanding arpanet from a digital network for special interests into the internet, serving the public, that we know today. And that Love Story author Erich Segal admitted that part of his Oliver Bartnett character was based on his friend Al Gore.

Sry, I don't want to be nitpicking, but as I see it your blog posting falls a bit short and won't receive full approval from the Daily Howler's Bob Somerby. The Howler still trumps all corporate media accounts as the most factually correct report on this issue. However, bonus points to you for honestly trying, Mr. Alexander!

Posted by: Gray62 | August 15, 2009 6:22 AM | Report abuse

"But after a tech writer said that Gore took “credit” for the Internet, Republican opponents then said he claimed to have “invented” it."

Speaking of shoddy journalism, is there any basis for this claim. We all know the liberal media want to blame Republicans for everything, but this claim is baseless.

Since Alexander knows that the "invented" claim started with Republicans, he should be able to cite which Republicans did so. It is clear that this claim was pulled out of thin air.

Posted by: bobmoses | August 15, 2009 7:11 AM | Report abuse

bobmoses, once again your opinion shows that you are seriously uninformed about the issue you're talking about. Why don't you google before posting comments, in order to save you from embarassment? If you had done so, you would have found this:

"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."

Posted by: Gray62 | August 15, 2009 9:19 AM | Report abuse

The Republicans distorted and misrepresented so much about Al Gore, and not only did the media fail to make that clear they WENT RIGHT ALONG WITH IT!

At the same time they were portraying George Bush as the good ol' boy you'd like to have a beer with. They failed to show those aspects of Bush which would have let the American people realize clearly how totally unfit he was in intellect and character for the presidency.

Because of this I am convinced that the irresponsible discrepancy in the coverage of the two candidates had a lot to do with giving us the disaster that was the Bush administration.

Posted by: debpet732 | August 15, 2009 1:50 PM | Report abuse

"The lesson for The Post is that "facts" can sometimes be little more than well-established myths. They need to be dislodged -- for good."

Lessons learned are of no value if action is not taken. What action does The Post plan to take to combat the present day myths. For example, on 28 July in a Post op-ed Martin Feldstein claimed President "Obama has said that he would favor a British-style 'single payer' system in which the government owns the hospitals and the doctors are salaried but that he recognizes that such a shift would be too disruptive to the health-care industry."

Small problem: That is a myth. As far as I know no correction or clarification of that error has been made. Maybe that would be one place to start. I'm sure Fred Hiatt would be delighted to take that on.

Posted by: georgesmathers | August 15, 2009 3:05 PM | Report abuse

The one theory that's always right and one theory that's always wrong. If you leave an arsonist go long enough, there will eventually be nothing to burn down.

Posted by: Dermitt | August 15, 2009 6:58 PM | Report abuse

Since it's sunday, pls let me go off topic, Mr. Alexander. Like ANY GIVEN SUNDAY (© Oliver Stone), doesn't let me access the page "Opinion Home", and instead automagically redirects me to "Outlook". Since this is the only page where the Ombudsman's blog is linked, this is a major inconvenience. Once again, I only got here by clicking "Opinion Home" and then on the red cross stopping the loading of the page real quick.

Just try it for yourself, Mr. Alexander. Here's the link for "Opinion Home":

See? Always redirected to Outlook! But only on sundays! Idiotic.
Could you, as the ombudsman of the Post, pls convince the web editors to stop that nonsense? If they want to show the "Outlook" page as the default for the Opinion category on Sundays, fine. But if readers deliberately click on "Opinion Home", they want to get there, and not be redirected. Hell, is this so hard to understand???

Posted by: Gray62 | August 16, 2009 8:04 AM | Report abuse

One more point regarding my rant above: Maybe the misguided approach of the web editors is related to the misleading titles of the pages. See, the REAL opinion homepage is called "Opinions". "Opinions home", on the other hand, should be more correctly called "Opinions/Columns" or something like that. Then it would be clear that those should be two different pages. And then it would be no problem if the opinion homepage, and only it, would redirect to "Outlook" on sundays.

And also, it would be good if the Ombudsman's blog would also get a link at the Ombudsman's column, and your personal page with the biography, Mr. Alexander. This would enable more readers to find it. And doesn't WaPo want more traffic?

Damn, I'm really wondering why readers have to point out such obvious problems with the website. Doesn't the Post have at least one person who is responsible and cares for the usability of the online content?

Posted by: Gray62 | August 16, 2009 8:18 AM | Report abuse

Gray62 -

You think that's aggravating? Try clicking on "Metro" and then "local." Headlines are repeat within headlines - articles are repeated down the page - crime stories are frequently under the "education" sub-head (although the quality of public education offered to D.C. students is often criminal - but that's also off topic.)

The answer to the question posed in your last sentence is, apparently, no.

Posted by: waterfrontproperty | August 16, 2009 9:45 AM | Report abuse

OOps... got that reversed click "local" then "metro."

And another thing (while we're at it) scroll down the home page to "more local headlines." Can we have local news there and not sports? Sports has its own sub-head. Not enough reporters to give us four or five non-rehashed news stories? Or just to lazy to cover the local beats?

Posted by: waterfrontproperty | August 16, 2009 9:56 AM | Report abuse

And here we see how the press has become nothing but a willing tool for those who want to spread misinformation. "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" Really? Isn't that supposed to be the "reporters" job? Your know, to find out what's real, and tell the readers?

Oh that's right, "reporters" no longer try to tell the readers what's actually true or not, they just tell you what someone says. To tell them what's true, would be to pick a side in a debate, and be biased right? Just leave the actual fact checking up to the readers, whom the press somehow thinks has the ability to investigate these claims better than their reporters. .
Couple that with the fact that so much of the parer is now "opinion" and hence not considered subject to journalistic ethics, and the post has become nothing more than a propaganda tool for politicos. Just one more nail in the coffin of newspapers. With standards like this, I almost can't wait for them to die.

Posted by: TheCaptainDamnIt | August 16, 2009 7:13 PM | Report abuse

Do you mean that someone is actually questioning the Washington Post's habit, along with most of the rest of the corporate-controlled press, of simply repeating some Republican campaign attack smear as if it were fact?

Stop the presses.

Good article.

This is a glimmer of hope, that inflated right wing campaign attacks aren't just parroted without scrutiny.

"I took the initiative in creating the Internet" by the way, didn't mean "I created it", even in the wildest misinterpretation.

Given the context, of him being a United States Senator who pushed the development of the Internet, it clearly meant that he took the initiative in helping others to "create" it.

The way this right wing smearing works, any statement anyone makes at any time can be trumped up into nonsense (e.g. "living will consultations being covered by insurance" becomes "death panels deciding the fate of grandma").

The crucial factor is whether the news media like the Post just parrots the right wingers without scrutiny, since that's where a simple statement, twisted by some Republican campaign stragegist into something absurd and evil, becomes fact in the public mind.

Posted by: BillEPilgrim | August 17, 2009 1:00 AM | Report abuse

Mr. Alexander,

So the solution to lazy factless "journalism" is to tut-tut the staff, and then blame the victim? How 'bout this crazee idear? Maybe the lazy, good for nothing "journalists" could actually, I dunno...look up the facts first? Call something a lie when it is factually a lie?

Just saying.

Posted by: janowicki | August 17, 2009 9:58 AM | Report abuse

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