What’s the difference between Al Gore and the Unabomber? The Unabomber knows he’s not the President.
EARLY WORKING DRAFT
Some of you may remember the “Al Gore / Unabomber Test”, which is no longer available at several sites. Please send a link if you find it. Short of that, I’ll simply sum it up like this: there were six quotes from Al Gore’s book Earth In The Balance, and six from “Unabomber” Ted Kaczynski’s Manifesto. The task set before you was to determine from which tract the eco-freak quote was pulled. I failed miserably. So did everybody else. The meaningful statistical difference between average real score and random answers score was nothing.
Why do I bring this up now? Eco-Freak Al Gore has gotten his face back in the news again, and this time the media is listening, because this time, he is talking about the media.
According to Former Senator and failed Presidential Candidate Al Gore, on the eve of the nation’s decision to invade Iraq, Senator Robert D. Byrd, (D-WV) stood on the Senate floor and asked, “Why is this chamber empty? Why are these halls silent?” Well, I wanted to see that quote in its context. Had the indestructible Senator and former Klan Kleagle simply wandered onto the floor of the Senate late one night, alone? I googled that entire quote. Nothing.
I googled this: “Why is this chamber empty?” and got six results, all of which referred to Gore’s supposed quote of Byrd in Gore’s 06 October speech. I googled this: “Why are these halls silent?” and was rewarded with seven results, all of which referenced the same Gore speech, except for two. One was Al Gore speaking at the 17 September Plenary Luncheon Session of the Clinton Global Initiative Inaugural Meeting. The other was Al Gore giving the opening remarks at, oddly enough, the 15 April Gore Center Open House.
It appears that the Senator from West Virginia never said that. Perhaps there is a record of this, but Google is unaware of it. My own charms pale. It did occur to me, however, that perhaps the Senator has a habit of saying these things upon opening any door. Entering his bathroom, the Senator flips on the light and thunders, “Why are these chambers empty?” Upon opening the refrigerator, he peers forlorny at the half-stick of butter and asks, “Why are these halls silent?”
PerhapsMr. Gore has fabricated the source. At best, he has misrepresented the facts. How interesting, then, that he takes TV Media to task for its misrepresentations and falsehoods. He gave a speech at something called the WeMedia Conference to the effect that our Republic requires a healthy exchange of ideas to function as intended by the framers of the Constitution, but that broadcast media is inherently incapable of supporting this exchange. This is due to the centralized control of the broadcast media by rich people who do not want their own views shouted down by mere plebes. So despite decades of television, print media is still where democracy functions. Fair enough. In the “prepared” version of Gore’s speech on October 6th as “reported” by the AP, which simply cribbed the Gore press release, misspellings and all, he establishes his position that the print media is the cornerstone of our democracy.
Mr. Gore cited three requirements for this “Marketplace of Ideas”:
- First, that it is freely accessible to all, for both listening and being heard.
- Second, that the relative merit of ideas be established through an open market mechanism, wherein good ideas receive attention and grow more popular, whereas bad ideas are ignored and wither to ignominy.
- Third, that all participants understand their “unspoken duty to search for general agreement”.
So Mr. Gore feels that the free, unencumbered exchange of ideas is critical to maintaining a genuine democracy. Hear, hear! I could not agree more.
Web logs (“blogs”) are widely read, and freely authored and contributed to by any person with an opinion and some motivation. There is a neo-luddite argument that “blogging” takes specialized technical knowledge, but we can dispense with that argument by pointing out that a printing press requires far more specialized knowledge, and far more funding to operate.
Mr. Gore says, “Inexpensive metal printing presses were almost everywhere in America”. Really? To the same extent that internet-connected PCs are currently everywhere in America? Of course not. Besides which, a printing press generates a finite number of copies, which must be physically held to be read. So his idyllic days of the printing press actually provided less opportunity to publish and fewer chances to read the public voice.
Al Gore has described the internet application of blogging perfectly in his treatise of printed matter as a necessary condition for real democracy. He does not address the internet or the current fact-on-the-ground functioning marketplace of ideas directly. Instead, he correctly points out that television is the dominant medium, that it is a one-way conduit, and that it is unfit, by way of incapability, of supporting a participatory national discourse. However, having simply and quickly pointed out the shortcomings of television, he then fights this straw man for thousands of words. He wants to prop up this unsuitable mode of discourse by applying little band-aids of submitted video and internet-powered reviews of programs. Later, he reaches over to science for an explanation of why fixing television is the proper course. Without giving away the farm just yet, it rests upon the habitual Clinton/Gore/Clinton assumption that they know better than we do what is best for us. I call this their First Controlling Theme–more on that later.
We return now to his egalitarian model of free press access for all, and his rejection of the big-money control over public discourse:
So, unlike the marketplace of ideas that emerged in the wake of the printing press, there is virtually no exchange of ideas at all in television’s domain. My partner Joel Hyatt and I are trying to change that – at least where Current TV is concerned. Perhaps not coincidentally, we are the only independently owned news and information network in all of American television.
It is important to note that the absence of a two-way conversation in American television also means that there is no “meritocracy of ideas” on television. To the extent that there is a “marketplace” of any kind for ideas on television, it is a rigged market, an oligopoly, with imposing barriers to entry that exclude the average citizen.
That doesn’t sound very egalitarian, does it? He is going to fight the power of the rich who control television networks by…being rich and controlling a television network? Perhaps this is why he doesn’t simply throw his lot in with the bloggers: he is in financial competition with “the internet”, as he is a newly-entrenched member of the broadcast media.
There is, however, one form of broadcast media which is fairly egalitarian, which is democratic enough to sustain the Republic, and that is radio. Talk radio. Why the difference? Allow me to speculate. Anybody can contribute to talk radio by calling in just as anybody can contribute to public access TV. The big difference is this–people are accustomed to speaking into electronic devices such as telephones, and can do so in a manner which does not send the audience shrieking to change channels. 99% of talk radio is in fact done over the telephone. From a production standpoint, I’ll wager that it is much easier to maintain a given level of quality on talk radio than on public access TV. I don’t want to sound cruel, but public access TV has always made me long for silence. So public access TV chases away viewers, whereas talk radio attracts listeners as well as phone participants. Therefore radio, through talk tadio, can function as the medium of exchange in a marketplace of ideas a way the television, even through public access, cannot. And it does, swimmingly.
You would therefore be justified in anticipating Mr. Gore’s eager support of radio unfettered by controlling regulation and such shibboleths as “equal time” provisions. Sadly, you would be mistaken. Mr. Gore instead says:
One early American student of the medium wrote that if control of radio were concentrated in the hands of a few, “no nation can be free.”
As a result of these fears, safeguards were enacted in the U.S. — including the Public Interest Standard, the Equal Time Provision, and the Fairness Doctrine – though a half century later, in 1987, they were effectively repealed. And then immediately afterwards, Rush Limbaugh and other hate-mongers began to fill the airwaves.
Wait a minute! Didn’t he just say that controlled debate is no debate, and that the rough-and-tumble marketplace of ideas would sort out the good ideas from the bad, the popular from the merely populist, the sustainable from the impractical? Didn’t Al Gore just say that Government control of the media is a blow to democracy, and that people will decide for themselves what they will tolerate and what they will support?
Of course he did. So how does he get away with saying that the FCC deregulation of content in 1987 is a bad thing?
This is the last line of the Executive Summary of
Cato Policy Analysis No. 270, their look at the 1987 FCC deregulation:
Specifically, the volume of informational programming increased dramatically immediately after controls were ended–powerful evidence of the potential for regulation to have a “chilling effect” on free speech.
That’s pretty straightforward, and it is the exact point Mr. Gore made in the first two quotes. Here’s how it works: I don’t much care for Rush Limbaugh. I listen sometimes, but it gets pretty thick, so usually, do not listen. Voila! The unregulated marketplace of ideas saves the day. Of course, if you view the American people as sheep, unthinkingly led by whoever controls the media, that’s a different story, and we will return to that later his his SECOND CONTROLLING THEME.
What’s more, if you look again at his quote above, you may notice a non sequitur. Liberation of radio from the control of a few does not necesarily follow from a requirement that opposing viewpoints be granted equal time. These two things may in fact be opposed themselves! If one requires that equal time be given, then somebody must do that giving, and now we have mandated a gatekeeper. Somebody must now stand by during the exercise of free speech, stopwatch in hand, checklist of ideologies at the ready. Equal Time provisions are well-suited to a two-party system, and not to a three-party system, an n-party system, or a numberless collection of individuals with an uncategoriable array of points of view. Equal Time provisions are quite well suited to concentrating control of radio in the hands of a few.
Meanwhile, look at this:
Among the other factors damaging our public discourse in the media, the imposition by management of entertainment values on the journalism profession has resulted in scandals, fabricated sources, fictional events and the tabloidization of mainstream news. As recently stated by Dan Rather – who was, of course, forced out of his anchor job after angering the White House – television news has been “dumbed down and tarted up.”
WOW. He spins this whopper so hard that it actually comes back and hits him. He complains of “scandals, fabricated sources, fictional events and the tabloidization of mainstream news”, all of which Dan Rather is guilty of, and immediately cites Dan Rather as a victim of government meddling in the media.
I’m treating this paragraph in depth to counter the knot of untrue statements. This pack of, uh, statements is a well-constructed defense-in-depth, a loose cluster of mutually supporting half-truths and outright lies with overlapping fields of fire. A little “de-construction” is in order:
- Scandals: The Dan Rather and Mary Mapes “Sixty-First Minute” Scandal certainly counts as a mainstream media scandal.
- Fabricated Sources and Fictional Events: Perhaps Al Gore was thinking of Jayson Blair. But he mentioned Dan Rather, whose own scandal was all about fabricated sources and fictional events.
- Tabloidization of Mainstream Media: Who has forgotten Dan Rather’s “The Fleecing of America” segment, an often sensational, tabloid view of government waste? Not I. Perhaps Al Gore.
- “Forced out of his job…”: So long as this refers to “fired for embarassing the company”, I have no quarrel with it. But in the context of “…after angering the White House…” it certainly looks like “Karl Rove got rid of Dan Rather.”
In fact, one of the few things that Red state and Blue state America agree on is that they don’t trust the news media anymore.
Gee, Al, I wonder why that is.
Let’s now take a minute to collect some of the threads of this incipient argument.
First off, Al Gore professes to believe that a marketplace of ideas is the cornerstone of our democracy. I agree. He defines three key requirements for such a forum: that it be freely accessible for both speaking and listening to all comers, that the ideas in the mix are evaluated on their merit, and that everybody agrees to eventually agree, or at least try. Well, two out of three “ain’t bad”, and I’m even inclined to give him half credit for the last one. I don’t recall hearing anywhere else that some unspoken assumption or secretive general rule required all participants in the marketplace of ideas to seek a consensus.
The nice thing about a Republic is that you don’t need to generate a unanimous opinion; no consensus is required. All you need is a majority where it counts, and usually, that in turn requires a majority in a majority of places. I think that the point he wishes to make is that the participants are expected to behave in a civil fashion, but that is pretty much covered by the second requirement–if ideas rise or fall on their merits, then people are already behaving themselves pretty well.
What Mr. Gore is describing is clearly a society of basically literate, informed people. Of course, in the marketplace of ideas, those people will be informed differently** FIND THE DAMNED QUOTE about our national conversation being ruined by the evilweb!
Clearly, the purpose of television news is no longer to inform the American people or serve the public interest. It is to “glue eyeballs to the screen” in order to build ratings and sell advertising.
And it really matters because the subjugation of news by entertainment seriously harms our democracy: it leads to dysfunctional journalism that fails to inform the people. And when the people are not informed, they cannot hold government accountable when it is incompetent, corrupt, or both.
One of the only avenues left for the expression of public or political ideas on television is through the purchase of advertising, usually in 30-second chunks. These short commercials are now the principal form of communication between candidates and voters. As a result, our elected officials now spend all of their time raising money to purchase these ads.
That is why the House and Senate campaign committees now search for candidates who are multi-millionaires and can buy the ads with their own personal resources. As one consequence, the halls of Congress are now filling up with the wealthy.
Just like the Founding Fathers, who were poor to a man. No wait, they were nearly rich to a man! Politics in the United States has always been a rich man’s game. As our “deferential society” has given way to an increasingly egalitarian one, the distinction and privilege of coming from the right kind of family has disappeared. What is left is the fact that money still buys things in a capitalist society, and is no longer masked by the expectation that our social beters will govern for us. I quote here from an excellent book, and one which I highly recommend that Mr. Gore read at his earliest convenience, Decision at Philadelphia by Christopher Collier and James Lincoln Collier. And in this context, the last sentence becomes especially juicy.
Moreover, the United States in 1787 was for more rigidly stratified than it is today. It was, to use the historians’ term, a “deferential” society, in which the populace granted certain people offices and power by right of birth. In most communities there existed a small group of men who were more or less automatically elected to legislatures, judgeships, and the like. This establishment included large landowners, like Washington and Jefferson, wealthy merchants and shippers, lawyers, and in the North, ministers and theologians. There was room for bright young men to rise into it, so that there were always a few lowborn men in public office. But as often as not, the people in control of the United Staets were born to their stations and went on to college to prepare themselves for their roles.
This situation was not resented nearly to the degree that it would be today. The top people saw themselves as the natural leaders of their communities, and the plain people, in general, agreed with them. The belief was still widely held if not always expressed, that the “lower orders” were somehow different creatures from “the gentry”. The ordinary people viewed their “betters” much the same way as many Americans today look on the celebrated writer or television anchorman, as somebody somehow larger than life, wiser, possessed of a special knowledge or even insight handed down from above.
Ah, but the veneer comes away so quickly! The book was published in twenty years ago, about events two hundred years before that. The nation had clearly changed when the authors wrote. It has clearly changed since then, as well. Back in 1986, we had not had our fill of Rather, Jennings, and Brokaw. They were respected. Back then they were respectable.
Of course, I need not go into all that’s wrong with broadcast media these days–for that you may go to the Media Research Center, RatherBiased, or NewsBusters
Campaign finance reform, however well it is drafted, often misses the main point: so long as the only means of engaging in political dialogue is through purchasing expensive television advertising, money will continue by one means or another to dominate American politic s. And ideas will no longer mediate between wealth and power.
And what if an individual citizen, or a group of citizens wants to enter the public debate by expressing their views on television? Since they cannot simply join the conversation, some of them have resorted to raising money in order to buy 30 seconds in which to express their opinion. But they are not even allowed to do that.
Moveon.org tried to buy ads last year to express opposition to Bush’s Medicare proposal which was then being debated by Congress. They were told “issue advocacy” was not permissible. Then, one of the networks that had refused the Moveon ad began running advertisements by the White House in favor of the President’s Medicare proposal. So Moveon complained and the White House ad was temporarily removed. By temporary, I mean it was removed until the White House complained and the network immediately put the ad back on, yet still refused to present the Moveon ad.
The advertising of products, of course, is the real purpose of television. And it is difficult to overstate the extent to which modern pervasive electronic advertising has reshaped our society. In the 1950s, John Kenneth Galbraith first described the way in which advertising has altered the classical relationship by which supply and demand are balanced over time by the invisible hand of the marketplace. According to Galbraith, modern advertising campaigns were beginning to create high levels of demand for products that consumers never knew they wanted, much less needed.
The same phenomenon Galbraith noticed in the commercial marketplace is now the dominant fact of life in what used to be America’s marketplace for ideas. The inherent value or validity of political propositions put forward by candidates for office is now largely irrelevant compared to the advertising campaigns that shape the perceptions of voters.
Our democracy has been hallowed out. The opinions of the voters are, in effect, purchased, just as demand for new products is artificially created. Decades ago Walter Lippman wrote, “the manufacture of consent…was supposed to have died out with the appearance of democracy…but it has not died out. It has, in fact, improved enormously in technique…under the impact of propaganda, it is no longer plausible to believe in the original dogma of democracy.”
Like you, I recoil at Lippman’s cynical dismissal of America’s gift to human history. But in order to reclaim our birthright, we Americans must resolve to repair the systemic decay of the public forum and create new ways to engage in a genuine and not manipulative conversation about our future.
Americans in both parties should insist on the re-establishment of respect for the Rule of Reason. We must, for example, stop tolerating the rejection and distortion of science. We must insist on an end to the cynical use of pseudo studies known to be false for the purpose of intentionally clouding the public’s ability to discern the truth.
I titled this post Al Gore Steps In It, and the paragraph above is where he does so with the most vigor, and it relates to his book. I confess I never actually read the book. I thumbed through it, I glanced and skimmed, I kept trying to, but I just could not. So at the risk of judging a book by a cover, I will ask the reader to indulge me as I have judged the book by its cover, the title, the cringe-worthy subtitle, the author’s name, a general sense upon skimming, and two words that have stayed with me for over a decade, “appropriate technology”.
According to Mr. Gore, we are all supposed to stop having children. Okay, we are supposed to stabilize the world’s population. It’s the same thing. Like all hard-core “environmentalists”, Al Gore wants you dead. It’s not malice; it’s just that if you were no longer here, he would be one step closer to his goal.
Also, we should cease our use of electricity. Stop that! We should each have a great stinking compost heap under the kitchen window, and ride a generator-bicycle in order to make toast. This is what he refers to as “appropriate technology”. Would you live like that?
It is at times like this that I am reminded of the proof that socialism doesn’t work–primitive cultures pass through a phase which can be described as socialism. They get over it at about the same time they start wearing simple textiles. They also use appropriate technology, but thus is just another passing phase. Nobody wants to live like that, and human history has proven that we will use violence to prevent having to live like that. So Mr. Gore wants the government to require us, to compel us to live like that. This is why the Second Amendment exists.
…stop tolerating the rejection and distortion of science…an end to the cynical use of pseudo studies known to be false…
Here’s a few sentences of a review of Mr. Gore’s terrifying book from C-SPAN’S BOOKNOTES: REVIEWS :
“Gore seems to have bought into every worst case scenario that the lunatic envirocommunist movement has dreamed up. Boldly flouting every piece of real scientific evidence available to us, he accepts as a given that we face impending crises in the areas of overpopulation, food supply, global warming, water shortage, species extinction, and so on ad nauseum. Of course, he frequently contradicts the portrait he himself paints of the gravity of his litany of woes; on the one hand decrying the very possibility of climactic change, on the other pointing out that massive strides in our cultural development have often been precipitated by such changes.”
I don’t know all the answers, but along with my partner, Joel Hyatt, I am trying to work within the medium of television to recreate a multi-way conversation that includes individuals and operates according to a meritocracy of ideas. If you would like to know more, we are having a press conference on Friday morning at the Regency Hotel.
We are learning some fascinating lessons about the way decisions are made in the television industry, and it may well be that the public would be well served by some changes in law and policy to stimulate more diversity of viewpoints and a higher regard for the public interest. But we are succeeding within the marketplace by reaching out to individuals and asking them to co-create our network.
The greatest source of hope for reestablishing a vigorous and accessible marketplace for ideas is the Internet. Indeed, Current TV relies on video streaming over the Internet as the means by which individuals send us what we call viewer-created content or VC squared. We also rely on the Internet for the two-way conversation that we have every day with our viewers enabling them to participate in the decisions on programming our network.
I know that many of you attending this conference are also working on creative ways to use the Internet as a means for bringing more voices into America’s ongoing conversation. I salute you as kindred spirits and wish you every success.
I want to close with the two things I’ve learned about the Internet that are most directly relevant to the conference that you are having here today.
First, as exciting as the Internet is, it still lacks the single most powerful characteristic of the television medium; because of its packet-switching architecture, and its continued reliance on a wide variety of bandwidth connections (including the so-called “last mile” to the home), it does not support the real-time mass distribution of full-motion video.
And finally, so what if the internet, currently, does not support video as well as television. That is not an inherent property of the fact that it is packet-switched. That is an emergent property of limited bandwidth. For example, I watched Christopher Hitchens kick the manure out of George Galloway live, online, and blogged back and forth with some folks I know in realtime. I have very good bandwidth. There is no reason to think that in perhaps five years’ time, there will be no such effect, and we will look back on Mr. Gore’s remarks as quaint. Of course, one hopes his entire Television venture will be remembered as quaint, if at all, in a much shorter period of time. Well, we’ll see.
Make no mistake, full-motion video is what makes television such a powerful medium. Our brains – like the brains of all vertebrates – are hard-wired to immediately notice sudden movement in our field of vision. We not only notice, we are compelled to look. When our evolutionary predecessors gathered on the African savanna a million years ago and the leaves next to them moved, the ones who didn’t look are not our ancestors. The ones who did look passed on to us the genetic trait that neuroscientists call “the establishing reflex.” And that is the brain syndrome activated by television continuously – sometimes as frequently as once per second. That is the reason why the industry phrase, “glue eyeballs to the screen,” is actually more than a glib and idle boast. It is also a major part of the reason why Americans watch the TV screen an average of four and a half hours a day.
It is true that video streaming is becoming more common over the Internet, and true as well that cheap storage of streamed video is making it possible for many young television viewers to engage in what the industry calls “time shifting” and personalize their television watching habits. Moreover, as higher bandwidth connections continue to replace smaller information pipelines, the Internet’s capacity for carrying television will continue to dramatically improve. But in spite of these developments, it is television delivered over cable and satellite that will continue for the remainder of this decade and probably the next to be the dominant medium of communication in America’s democracy. And so long as that is the case, I truly believe that America’s democracy is at grave risk.
The final point I want to make is this: We must ensure that the Internet remains open and accessible to all citizens without any limitation on the ability of individuals to choose the content they wish regardless of the Internet service provider they use to connect to the Worldwide Web. We cannot take this future for granted. We must be prepared to fight for it because some of the same forces of corporate consolidation and control that have distorted the television marketplace have an interest in controlling the Internet marketplace as well. Far too much is at stake to ever allow that to happen.
We must ensure by all means possible that this medium of democracy’s future develops in the mold of the open and free marketplace of ideas that our Founders knew was essential to the health and survival of freedom.
IF Mr. Gore were actually committed to preserving the marketplace of ideas, he would be defending the blogosphere and the online infrastructure in general from the myriad legal and meta-market forces which threaten to bring the whole structure down. Several nations wish to take control of the root DNS system, currently administered in America. This would lead to balkanization (which may be unavoidable at some point, but that is hardly a safe assumption), and would subject the entire system to the vagaries of censorship and propoganda. Currently, China can block Chinese residents from seeing certain things, and can block us from seeing some things in China. North Korea has a complete digital embargo in place (except for a few government types, and a handful of very strange expats living there). But what they cannot do is screw up traffic between the US and, say Taiwan, or redirect all visitors at www.birkenstock.com to wvvw.b1rkenstock.com, which will then assault your machine, and turn all your ones into zeroes. Or something. But they could if they had the root DNS servers.
This is but one threat the the online marketplace of ideas. As a primairly text medium, the blogosphere is today’s Roman ForumHe should be all over this. I haven’t heard him say anything about it. Why are these halls silent?
Mr. Gore, you see, does not think you are smart enough to filter your own news from the internet. Even when discussing your television-watching habits, does he mention likes or dislikes, preferences or pet peeves? No, he goes straight to a (presumably) scientific explanation of why you, pathetic reflex-bound idiot that you are, cannot bear to look away from the flickering blue tube. No wonder he wants you dead. But your death has been difficult to engineer, so he bides his time while his CurrenTV scheme comes to fruition. You love television, says Mr. Gore, because you were made to, and you are powerless to do aught but worship at its pedestal, burning precious electricity in a most inappropriate manner. It is your God, says Al Gore, and he is its one true prophet.