Al Gore Meets Leonard Shelby

May 21, 2007

Each decade gets the journalism movie it deserves. In the 1970s, the key journalism movie was All the President’s Men. In the 1980s, it was Absence of Malice. In the 1990s, it was The Paper.

But in the first decade of the 21st century, the defining journalism movie isn’t even about journalism or newspapering. It’s Memento, the story of Leonard Shelby, a man who has been rendered incapable of forming new memories, and forgets anything that happened more than 15 minutes earlier. This makes him vulnerable to manipulation as he goes about trying to get revenge against the man who killed his wife. First he kills a drug dealer because of false evidence planted by a snitch, then he kills the snitch because of false evidence planted by the drug dealer’s girlfriend. And yet he has no memory of either killing, and continues thinking of himself as a righteous avenger even as he drives around in the car ad clothing of one of his victims. I’m sorry if this spoils anything for you, but the movie’s been out for a while, and if you’re still puzzling over the plot, maybe you’ll be grateful for the help.

Eric Pooley of Time magazine could certainly use some help. Because, as Bob Somerby demonstrates over at The Daily Howler, Pooley’s friendly article about Al Gore appears to have been written in a Leonard Shelbyesque limbo. Pooley in 2007 is ready to exonerate Gore of the ridiculous, constantly refuted and endlessly rebooted charge that he claimed to have invented in the Internet. Somerby, blessed with a long memory and ready access to archived articles, addresses the question of how Gore got slapped with that charge in the first place. Turns out it was because of mindless pack journalism practiced by people such as . . . Eric Pooley!

To his credit, Pooley self-corrected in August 2000 . . . but very few of his colleagues did. They kept reciting this Standard False Claim until they’d sent Bush to the White House. Clinton’s blow jobs had been very troubling—and his chosen successor just mustn’t succeed! So they spent two years mouthing all manner of tripe. Today, they say it was bogus.

Today, the Standard Story has changed a bit—you’re permitted to know that Gore never said it. What you still can never be told: It was the mainstream press corps which fed you this tale—and sent George Bush to the White House. Somehow, that part keeps slipping their minds as they tell you their new, improved tale: Al Gore never said he invented the Net. We’re not sure how that gained traction.

If Al Gore does succumb to the blandishments of admirers and run for reelection to the presidency, watching and reading the campaign coverage will have the same surrealistic air of the scene in Memento where Leonard, discovering a bloodied-up man sitting bound and gagged in his closet, pulls off the gag and asks, “Who did this to you?” To which the man replies, “You did.”

Looking back on the way the press helped Bush sell his sleazy war in Iraq, and the adolescent tone of the coverage that helped diminish Gore and Kerry while pumping up the stature of our pipsqueak president, I’d say we’re all in the same position as that guy in the closet.


2 Responses to “Al Gore Meets Leonard Shelby”

  1. Eric Pooley Says:

    Steven, I like Bob Somersby’s blog, but what he has written about my coverage of Al Gore doesn’t hold up. There’s nothing wrong with my memory, and I didn’t ride with the pack in 2000. I didn’t write that Al Gore claimed to have ‘invented’ the Internet. In portraying me that way, Bob moves very smoothly from HIS paraphrase – “invent” – to the phrase I did use in March 200, when I said that by the way Gore “talked about his very real technology accomplishments,” he “managed TO CALL HIMSELF the father of the Internet.” (My emphasis in caps.) This was merely accurate – the words Gore used, “took the initiative in creating the Internet,” gave the clear impression that he was claiming parentage. That’s all I said.

    As others kept harping on this phrase in the following months, however, I did come to feel that Gore was getting unfair treatment. So in the summer of 2000, as the exaggerations and misrepresentations about Gore mounted, I decided to write a story trying to set the record straight. You quote Bob calling it a “self-correction.” It was not. Here’s what I wrote in August 2000:

    …many of the well-known examples of Gore’s stretching the truth are themselves stretches. He never claimed to have “invented” the Internet; he said that in Congress he “took the initiative in creating the Internet,” an unfortunate way of saying he sponsored the bill that bankrolled the transformation of a Defense Department computer network into the Internet we know today. Nor did he claim to have discovered the Love Canal toxic-waste crisis; he was misquoted on the subject, but the newspaper corrections didn’t get the same play as the original charge. That’s not to say Gore doesn’t exaggerate; he does. But plenty of other people in his line of work do too. “It is not an unknown phenomenon,” he notes dryly, “for politicians to tell the voters what they’ve done and, in the process, try to put the best face on it.”

    There’s no contradiction between what I wrote in March 2000 and August 2000. Both are accurate, though I agree that the second was a fuller andf better treatment of the subject. But when you say “Pooley in 2007 is ready to exonerate Gore,” that’s just silly. I carefully set the record straight at the height of the 2000 campaign.

  2. Steven Hart Says:

    Thanks for your note. I’ll forward it on to Somerby, though I expect you’ve already been in touch.

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