Kurtz faulted media for depicting Gore as “exaggerator” but omitted his own role

In his May 22 “Media Notes” column, Washington Post media critic Howard Kurtz wrote that in contrast to current media reports portraying former Vice President Al Gore as “a heroic figure,” Gore “got terrible coverage” during his 2000 presidential campaign, adding that Gore “was depicted as an Internet-inventing exaggerator who sighed during the debates and needed a consultant to steer him to an earth-toned wardrobe.” Kurtz, however, did not mention his own contribution to this depiction of Gore -- misrepresenting Gore's statement about his role in creating the Internet and falsely claiming that Gore “suggest[ed] he discovered the Love Canal disaster.”

Kurtz wrote in his May 22 column:

Al Gore, non-candidate for president of the United States, is suddenly drawing such warm coverage that you wonder whether climate change is melting the hearts of journalists who once portrayed him as a cold fish.

I mean, the guy is being portrayed as a heroic figure saving the planet, with the only outstanding question whether he will heed the call of the masses and run for the job he failed to win in 2000.

What's really striking is that the ex-veep got terrible coverage during that campaign, when he was depicted as an Internet-inventing exaggerator who sighed during the debates and needed a consultant to steer him to an earth-toned wardrobe. Afterward, Gore was savaged for losing an election that was widely viewed as winnable.

At the time, however, Kurtz himself propagated the image of Gore as an “exaggerator.” In an October 15, 2000, Washington Post article, Kurtz, along with columnist Terry M. Neal, wrote:

Gore entered the fall campaign with considerable baggage because of his involvement in the 1996 campaign finance abuses, symbolized by the Buddhist temple event that he insisted he didn't know was a fundraiser.

His clumsy comments about how he had played a role in creating the Internet and suggesting he discovered the Love Canal disaster made him the butt of late-night comedians. He even got tagged with exaggerations that weren't his fault -- Gore never claimed he and his wife were the models for the book “Love Story” but instead referred to an article in which author Erich Segal was misquoted as saying so.

Kurtz and Neal's reference to the “Love Story” controversy as an example of “exaggerations that weren't his fault” suggests that Gore's “comments about how he had played a role in creating the Internet and suggesting he discovered the Love Canal disaster” were exaggerations and were, in fact, Gore's fault.

Kurtz and Neal's mention of Gore's “comments about how he played a role in creating the Internet” was a reference to Gore's 1999 statement, “During my service in the United States Congress, I took the initiative in creating the Internet,” which the Republican Party distorted into a claim that he “invented the Internet” -- a distortion that many in the media then treated as fact and have continued to cite in recent months, as Media Matters for America has documented.

In characterizing Gore's comments as “clumsy” -- rather than noting the media's role in propagating the falsehood that Gore claimed to have invented the Internet -- Kurtz and Neal also ignored Gore's role as a major supporter of the technological research that helped convert the military communications system Arpanet into what is now the Internet. In his August 22, 2000, column, Chicago Tribune metro columnist Eric Zorn wrote:

In June 1986, back when there were fewer than 5,000 network host sites (there are tens of millions today) available to a comparative handful of knowledgeable users, Gore, then a senator from Tennessee, introduced the Supercomputer Network Study Act in response to fears in the research community that the U.S. was dangerously lagging in this area.

Then in October 1988, Gore introduced the National High-Performance Computer Technology Act. After it died, he reintroduced it in May of the following year. It called for more ambitious funding to improve and expand the connections between universities, libraries and other institutions. Both before and after the act passed in 1991, Gore spoke frequently of “the information superhighway,” a phrase he is widely credited with coining and that recalled the key role his late father, also a U.S. senator, played in building (figuratively, of course!) the interstate highway system.

Computer scientist Vinton Cerf, sometimes called “The Father of the Internet," was co-designer of the communications protocol that forms the backbone of the Internet and a pioneer in the academic/military computer networks from which the Internet sprung. In a statement sent to me Monday by MCI WorldCom, where he is now senior vice president of Internet Architecture and Technology, Cerf wrote:

“Gore's support for the research agencies ... helped to shape the development of the NSFNET -- a national network with international connections that took up where its predecessor, the ARPANET, left off. ... By the mid-late 1980s, then-Senator Gore had become a visible proponent of NSFNET, which enthusiasm and insight continued and grew with his election to the Vice Presidency. For having seen the potential in these technologies, and for having pursued and argued for legislation and administration support for research in these areas ... I think it is entirely fitting that the Vice President take some credit for helping to create an environment in which [the] Internet could thrive."

As Colorado Media Matters noted, on his Daily Howler weblog, Bob Somerby wrote that, in a September 1, 2000, speech to the American Political Science Association, then-House Speaker Newt Gingrich (R-GA) said that “Gore is the person who, in the Congress, most systematically worked to make sure that we got to an Internet”:

GINGRICH: In all fairness, it's something Gore had worked on a long time. Gore is not the Father of the Internet, but in all fairness, Gore is the person who, in the Congress, most systematically worked to make sure that we got to an Internet, and the truth is -- and I worked with him starting in 1978 when I got [to Congress], we were both part of a “futures group” -- the fact is, in the Clinton administration, the world we had talked about in the '80s began to actually happen.

In a September 22, 2000, article, the Los Angeles Times noted Gingrich's remarks, reporting: “Newt Gingrich, the former speaker of the House and a Republican who is no friend of the Gore campaign, said earlier this month, 'Gore is the person who, in the Congress, most systematically worked to make sure that we got to an Internet.' ”

In their October 2000 article, Kurtz and Neal also inaccurately asserted that Gore “suggest[ed] he discovered the Love Canal disaster,” a claim first made in December 1, 1999, articles in The Washington Post and The New York Times and partially retracted in a correction printed in the Post's December 7, 1999, edition and the Times' December 10, 1999, edition. However, the allegation was cited by the media throughout the 2000 campaign to describe Gore as an “exaggerator.” From the Post's December 1, 1999, article:

“I found a little place in upstate New York called Love Canal,” he said, referring to the Niagara homes evacuated in August 1978 because of chemical contamination. “I had the first hearing on that issue.”

Gore said he first became aware of the problem when a young girl in Tennessee wrote to him about a mysterious illness that had befallen her father and grandfather. Although few remember his hearings on that site in Toone, Tenn., Gore said his efforts made a lasting impact. “I was the one that started it all,” he said.

Gore's shorthand description of Love Canal -- and his failure to note that the hearings he chaired came a few months after President Jimmy Carter declared the neighborhood a disaster area -- were reminiscent of earlier attempts to embellish his role in major events.

In reality, Gore didn't say “I was the one that started it all” -- a fact that was clear as early as the December 1, 1999, broadcast of MSNBC's Hardball, which played a clip of Gore saying:

GORE: I found a little place in upstate New York called Love Canal, had the first hearing on that issue in Toone-Teague, Tennessee. That was the one you didn't hear of, but that was the one that started it all. We passed a -- a major national law to clean up hazardous dump sites, and we had new efforts to stop the practices that ended up poisoning water around -- around the country. We've still got work to do, but we've made a huge difference, and it all happened because one high school student got involved.

As Media Matters has also documented, in a February 27 column, Kurtz's Post colleague Richard Cohen faulted “some of my colleagues” who “caricatured” Gore during the 2000 campaign “as a serial exaggerator, a fibber, a pretender -- the guy who invented the Internet, who was the model for the novel (and movie) 'Love Story,' who applied one too many coats of passion to that kiss he delivered to his wife, Tipper, at the Democratic National Convention in 2000.” But like Kurtz, Cohen also failed to acknowledge his own contributions to this caricature of Gore.