by Jon Winsor
Chris wrote last week that Gore was “operating, big time, in liberal enlightenment mode.” This is true, no doubt. Gore himself seems aware of a mismatch between the way he communicates and the demands of the media environment, saying, “I don’t think I’m very good at some of the things that the modern political system rewards and requires,” and that the way the system operates presents “real problems for a politics based on reason.”
But Gore can still have some excellent points to make about that system. As James Fallows wrote last week:
Al Gore’s new essay in Rolling Stone, about impending climate disasters, is mainly about the failure of the media to direct adequate attention to the issue, and to call out paid propagandists and discredited phony scientists. That’s where the essay starts, and what it covers in its first 5,000 words. The second part, less than half as long, and much more hedged in its judgment, is about the Obama Administration’s faltering approach on climate change. But of course the immediate press presentation on the essay has been all “OMG Gore attacks Obama!”
…Yes, the news value here is Gore-v-Obama; yes, that’s part of the story. But the theme I tried to lay out in that essay is that the media’s all-consuming interest in the “how” and “who’s ahead” of politics, and “oh God this is boring” disdain for the “what” and “why” of public issues, has all sorts of ugly consequences. It makes the public think that politics is not for them unless they love the insider game; it makes the “what” and “why” of public issues indeed boring and unapproachable; and as a consequence of the latter, it makes the public stupider than it needs to be about the what and why.
The reaction to Gore’s essay illustrates the pattern: from his point of view, it’s one more (earnest) attempt to say “Hey, listen up about this problem!” As conveyed by the press, it’s one more skirmish on the “liberals don’t like Obama” front, and one more illustration of the eyes-glazing-over trivia and details about melting icebergs and scientific disputes.
Remember Jon Stewart’s argument, that the real bias of the mainstream media is not “liberal” but in favor of conflict and sensationalism. Hmmmm.
Fallows had an interesting discussion in his 1996 essay “Why Americans Hate the Media” (which he refers to above). He describes political reporters as taken completely by surprise when Clinton delivered what they considered to be overly-wonky speeches–which then got sky high ratings from the public. The assumption among reporters, says Fallows, is that the public is interested in the clash between political personalities–when in reality the public is much more interested in the policies affecting their lives than reporters give them credit for. The clash of personalities, Fallows argues, is often a thing that turns off the public—both to the media and politics.
If Fallows is right that the public is more interested in issues, and that the tabloid-style political reporting under-serves them, then Gore is justified in arguing that the press often obstructs a more reason-based politics. A better political media would focus less on the superficial clash of personalities, would discuss specific concerns (like climate change), and would give some context when those concerns are mentioned. Such a media would dwell less on Al Gore’s “acting skills” as Paul Krugman put it in a New York Times column, and more on the candidates’ grasp on how they would actually govern the country.
Of course, in politics and communication about policy issues, figures like Gore should never assume that what they say will be given the right context by the media “referees.” If they did, then indeed, they would be in the grips of a naïve Enlightenment ethic. But that doesn’t mean an effort can’t be made to motivate journalists to live up to their calling as empirical, public-minded truth tellers, as opposed to producers of tabloid-like material. Arguably, this light-on-substance, tabloid-style reporting has contributed to the success of the emotional, Manichean style of politics that conservatives have developed over the past few decades, which doubtless contributes to public ignorance on science issues.
So arguing that reporters do their job, and making arguments for what that job should be, seems reasonable. How receptive reporters are to this message is another matter altogether. (Remember this Diane Sawyer interview? Al Gore might as well have been a game show contestant as opposed to a former vice president and book author.)
Of course, we shouldn’t trick ourselves into thinking that changing the media environment is the only thing in the way of good, science-based policy, just like we shouldn’t trick ourselves into thinking education would be a panacea. But that doesn’t mean political reporting isn’t ripe for criticism, or that this kind of criticism couldn’t be part of the overall solution of getting an informed public on contentious issues like climate change.