However, rather than treating this distinction as a minor point of legitimate confusion, the news media concluded that Gore had willfully lied. In doing so, however, the media repeatedly misstated the facts, insisting that Segal had denied that Gore was the model for the lead male character.
In reality, Segal had confirmed that Gore was, at least partly, the inspiration for the character, Barrett, played by Ryan O'Neal in the movie. Some journalists seemed to understand the nuance but still could not resist disparaging Gore's honesty.
For instance, in its attack on Gore over the Love Canal quote, the Boston Herald conceded that Gore "did provide material" for Segal's book, but the newspaper added that it was "for a minor character." [Boston Herald, Dec. 5, 1999] That, of course, was untrue, since the Barrett character was one of Love Story's two principal characters.
Inventing an Invention
The media's treatment of Gore's Internet comment followed a similar course. Gore's statement may have been poorly phrased, but its intent was clear: he was trying to say that he worked in Congress to help develop the modern Internet. Gore didn't claim to have "invented" the Internet, which carried the notion of a hands-on computer engineer.
Gore's actual comment, in an interview with CNN's Wolf Blitzer that aired on March 9, 1999, was as follows: "During my service in the United States Congress, I took the initiative in creating the Internet."
Republicans quickly went to work on Gore's statement. In press releases, they noted that the precursor of the Internet, called ARPANET, existed in 1971, a half dozen years before Gore entered Congress. But ARPANET was a tiny networking of about 30 universities, a far cry from today's "information superhighway," a phrase incidentally widely credited to Gore.
Though Gore never uttered the word "invented," the Republicans and the press corps simply began using the word as if he had.
As the media clamor arose about Gore's supposed claim that he had "invented" the Internet, Gore's spokesman Chris Lehane tried to explain. He noted that Gore "was the leader in Congress on the connections between data transmission and computing power, what we call information technology. And those efforts helped to create the Internet that we know today." [AP, March 11, 1999]
There was no disputing Lehane's description of Gore's lead congressional role in developing today's Internet. But the media was off and running. Whatever imprecision may have existed in Gore's original comment, it paled beside the press distortions of what Gore clearly meant. While excoriating Gore's phrasing as an exaggeration, the media engaged in its own exaggeration.
In a different world, you might have thought that the journalists who committed these professional violations would have paid a serious price, especially after exit polls showed that widespread doubts about Gore's honesty drove many citizens to vote for Bush and thus set the stage for Bush's catastrophic presidency.
But that isn't the world we live in. Indeed, it has often been the honest and courageous journalists -- those who take on the truly difficult stories and do them well -- who get severely punished, sometimes seeing their careers and livelihoods taken away from them as happened to Gary Webb. [See Consortiumnews.com's "The Warning in Gary Webb's Death."]
Those who run with the herd and make grievous journalistic errors usually face no punishment at all. In fact, those reporters and pundits typically get rewarded. For instance, Chris Matthews still hosts "Hardball," with the hour-long show now broadcast twice on weekday evenings on MSNBC.
Both Seelye and Connolly continued at their respective newspapers, covering important stories. For instance, Connolly handled the high-profile health reform battle for the Post and became a regular commentator on Fox News. (She is now a private consultant on health-care issues.)
For her part, Seelye is back on the campaign trail in 2012, where ironically she has encountered another controversy around a quote -- although this time she is protecting a Republican candidate from his actual words rather than castigating a Democratic candidate for something he never said.
Cross-posted from Consortium News