The question of the day is who has Pinocchio's nose, the one that grows longer with every lie he tells. Jim Nicholson, chairman of the Republican National Committee, is trying to graft the nose on Al Gore and Rupert Murdoch's New York Post has been foremost in obliging. More or less every day, it runs a caricature of Al with Nose in a sequence of scoreboxes, each purporting to document "Al's Lies". By Saturday, they were up to No 14.
Nicholson's rhinoplasty is as deft as a blindfold party kid trying to pin a tail on a donkey. You would not expect a Bush campaigner to be fastidious about fib and fact, and the New York Post makes no pretence of being impartial, but what is surprising is how Nicholson's faxes have infiltrated coverage in mainstream press and television. Its editors and writers would blanch at the suggestion that they are recycling Republican propaganda. That is how it seems to the Democrats, but the paranoia is misplaced. What is happening is professional deformation.
The American press gets locked into Story Mode Syndrome (SMS) much more than the more varied, more cantankerous British press; and then awkward facts that would spoil a story line are flotsam on a surging tide. Now everyone is busy parsing Gore as a self-aggrandising liar. With the speed and proliferation of media in the electronic age, the old standards of checking have lapsed. By three or four news cycles, a minor piece of misreporting can incrementally morph into a monster, and checking its genealogy is like trekking back to the source of the Zambesi. Bring the snake bite serum for the following four.
1. The internet.
Everyone in America knows that Gore claimed to have invented the internet. Only he never did make that claim. "Invention" suggests a solo effort in a laboratory. What Gore said was different: "During my service in the United States Congress I took the initiative in creating the internet". Gore was indeed in the forefront of legislative initiatives to create the internet. Columbia University's James Traub, who chaired the computer science and telecommunications board, says: "Al Gore was perhaps the first political leader to grasp the importance of networking the country . . . At the time he was a senator from a fairly small south-eastern state and I was amazed at his national vision." Gore followed through in eight years as vice-president; back then, the mockery was for talking about some nonsense called "an information superhighway". Those who reported Gore as claiming invention might argue they were paraphrasing. But the media echo chamber guarantees further distortion. "Vice-President Gore tells a reporter the internet was his idea. Nice try, Al." (Wired magazine)
2. Love Story.
The Boston Globe's Walter Robinson and Ann Scales attacked Gore's veracity: "He has also said that he and his wife, Tipper, were the models for the movie Love Story, only to be contradicted by the author, Erich Segal." Their source was Time magazine. Trouble is, Gore never made that claim and Segal never contradicted him. Chatting on the press plane about movies for a couple of hours, Gore had simply remarked to two Time magazine writers on a newspaper interview in which Segal had described Al and Tipper as his models for the movie. True. The Tennessean did so report, but it misquoted Segal, who had told the reporter he based only the male in the movie on Gore. So Segal's "contradiction" was a correction for a newspaper, not Gore. Segal noted: "Al attributed it to a newspaper. Time thought it was more piquant to leave that out." End of story? Not a bit. Heavyweight commentators seized on Love Story to lash Gore for "inflating his past", "bragging" and "prevaricating".
3. The farm boy.
"My father taught me how to clear land with a doubleheaded axe . . . how to plough a steep hillside with a team of mules." Nicholson faxed the celebrity press corps that Gore was lying because he was really brought up in the posh Fairfax Hotel in Washington. In fact, as even critical biographers confirm, Gore's Dad did make him spend long tough summers doing backbreaking chores on the family farm.
4. The Love Canal.
Visiting Concord High School in New Hampshire, Gore urged the students not to be cynical about politics. He said he had been stimulated to hold hearings on toxic waste at Toone, Tennessee, and the Love Canal, New York, by a letter from a high school student. "It all happened because one high school student got involved." The Washington Post and the the Washington Times turned that into Gore saying: "I was the one that started it all." It continues to be recycled as a "typical" Al Gore lie.
Yes, there is a nose that is getting longer every day but it doesn't belong to Gore . . .
© Guardian Newspapers Limited 2000
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