Former Vice President and unsuccessful presidential candidate Al Gore has a new book called “The Assault on Reason.” In it he blasts the mainstream media, particularly television and radio, for what he describes as an obsession with the superficial, trivial and sound bite-oriented coverage of the political process. According to the New York Times, Gore’s primary contention is that “logic, reason and truth seem to play a sharply diminished role in the way America makes important decisions.” As examples, Gore describes the failure of the Bush administration to see the “clear warnings” of a real terrorist threat before 9/11. He also says the president is “out of touch with reality,” and calls the Bush White House “extremely incompetent and weak.”
Gore argues that it is the current media climate consumed by 30-second political television ads and our addiction to pithy sound bites that are big contributors to the problem. Gore passionately argues that our democracy is in serious trouble because citizens are poorly informed, don’t vote, and are overly cynical about politics. Further, he says television news has allowed public figures to manipulate public opinion and impede citizen participation on serious issues.
Gore is on a press tour making his case. A couple of weeks ago, he appeared on “Good Morning America” with Diane Sawyer, who had the nerve to ask him if he was trying to lose weight and whether that was a sign that he might be looking to make another run at the White House. An irritated Al Gore (who gets irritated easily) said, “I think, you know, millions of Americans are in the same struggle I’m in on that. But listen to your questions. The horse race (focusing on whose ahead), the cosmetic parts of this– Look, that’s all understandable and natural, but while we’re all focused on Britney and K-Fed and Anna Nicole Smith and all this stuff, meanwhile, very quietly, our country has been making some very serious mistakes that could be avoided if, we the people, including the news media, are involved in a full and vigorous discussion of what our choices are.”
More recently, Al Gore made many of the same attacks on the media in an in-depth interview on “Countdown with Keith Olbermann” on MSNBC. As usual, Gore was articulate, filled with facts and seemingly more passionate than he ever showed in the 2000 presidential campaign. He does raise some legitimate points of those in the media who are obsessed with celebrity and image and the so-called “horse race.”
However, what Al Gore continues to misunderstand is the importance of the human piece of the equation when it comes to connecting with the American public. Much of this happens through the media, especially television. Gore attacks radio in his book, saying that it contributed to the rise of power of such people as Stalin and Hitler. He says that radio allowed these charismatic but clearly brutal dictators to capture the attention and imagination of the masses to pursue clearly disastrous goals. He argues now that television is doing something similar. Yet, he says that the Internet promotes what he calls a “more open communications environment” which will promote a more productive public dialogue.
Here’s the rub—my gut tells me that Al Gore really hates television because he’s not that good when he’s on it. Gore often comes across as the exacerbated kid who is the smartest student in the class but has to make sure that everybody knows it. He tells you you’re wrong just because you disagree with him. He also discounts the importance of the messenger being as important as the message. Simply put, Al Gore is a terrible messenger, even when he has compelling logic and facts to back him up. And as I said, he can be irritating, and it is hard to imagine having a beer or a cup of coffee with him. One reason Gore lost in 2000 was because he acted in a way that turned off many voters. We saw it in the televised debates and interviews and in his 30 second spots that never connected on an emotional or personal level.
Television is not bad in itself. It’s how we use it that matters. So since Gore doesn’t connect on TV, it must be bad in his mind. The Internet doesn’t require the same degree of personal face-to-face connection, so it’s ironic that Al Gore thinks this medium is the best we have to offer.
But television can be used for good as well. Dr. Martin Luther King connected with millions of Americans because of his passion, his conviction, and his ability to communicate through the media— more specifically television— and changed the course of American civil rights. Countless other public figures have learned to communicate through television. Some of them have used these skills to pursue positive ends, and others clearly not. The fact that Al Gore turns many people off with his style is not a minor point. Style does matter, but so does substance. It’s a delicate balance. The problem with Al Gore’s mostly logical argument is that he ignores the style piece of the equation and figures if he inundates you with enough facts, you are going to surrender and say “Ok Al, you’re right. I’m an idiot, tell me what I should do.”
But the art of persuasion doesn’t work that way. People don’t work that way. Al Gore’s attack on the mainstream media is somewhat legitimate, particularly when he talks about our obsession with celebrities and our over simplifying complex issues for the sake of ratings. Yet, the role that we in the media play is much more complex than Al Gore gives us credit for. I sense that Gore would be a lot more understanding and supportive of television news plays if he were better at it. But he’s not and that’s a shame, because he does have some compelling ideas (particularly on global warming) even if he’s really irritating when he’s sharing them.
Write to Steve Adubato at firstname.lastname@example.org.