QUANTIFYING A LIE. The new print issue of the Prospect features a disagreement in the letters page between Todd Gitlin and Alan Abramowitz over the question of just how often the meme "Al Gore claimed he invented the Internet" appeared in the American media during the 2000 campaign. Since the media�s war on Gore is something I�ve written about before for the Prospect, I thought I�d settle this dispute.
(Before we get there, of course, let�s just make it clear: Al Gore never said he invented the Internet. In an interview with CNN on March 9, 1999, he said, �During my service in the United States Congress, I took the initiative in creating the Internet.� This comment was plainly about his service in the Congress in the 1980s, when Gore was in fact the chief advocate for providing the funding that would transform the Internet from a tiny network linking a few university research facilities into the benevolent provider of shopping opportunities and Paris Hilton videos we enjoy today.)
In his review of Eric Boehlert�s Lapdogs: How the Press Rolled Over for Bush, Gitlin quoted Boehlert saying that �more than 4,800� news stories during the 2000 campaign made reference to the phony Gore-invented-the-Internet meme. In his letter to the Prospect, Professor Abramowitz says, �a Lexis-Nexis search reveals only 19 mentions of the 'Gore-invented-the-Internet' charge in major American newspapers between January 1, 2000, and Election Day.� Responding, Gitlin writes: �when I did [a search] just now, Lexis-Nexis turned up neither 4,800-plus entries, nor the 19 that Professor Abramowitz found, but 445.�
They�re obviously not doing the same search. The meme is captured in the phrase �invented the Internet� -- in 2000, it showed up in jokes, in Republican ads, and in numerous asides from reporters. So the best search would simply be on stories mentioning Al Gore, and using the phrase �invented the Internet,� with both present and past tense covered. The complete search string should be �Al Gore and (invent the Internet or invented the Internet)�.
We�ll search both the Lexis-Nexis �All News� file, which includes everything there is, and "Major Papers," and we'll search just in 2000, as they did, and also go back all the way to Gore�s original CNN interview in March 1999. The results:
- Major papers, January 1, 2000 to November 2, 2000: 503
Major papers, March 9, 1999 to November 2, 2000: 740
All news, January 1, 2000 to November 2, 2000: 1724
All news, March 9, 1999 to November 2, 2000: 2625
How did Abramowitz come up with his number? My suspicion is that he actually searched on the phrase �Gore invented the Internet,� and perhaps limited his search to "Major Papers."
The point always to come back to is this: First, Gore made a perfectly accurate statement that was twisted by Republicans into something he never said; second, the lie about Gore was taken by reporters as a symbol of what they already believed to be true about Gore; third, it was then repeated so many times that everyone just assumed it to be true; and finally, it had a severe impact on Gore�s electoral fortunes. I�ve done analyses of 2000 opinion data, and after you control for party identification and race, the strongest predictor of vote choice was not any issue, but whether voters thought each candidate was honest. They thought Gore wasn't, and that Bush was. How quaint it all seems.
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