Gore and the Media

By The Intersection | June 27, 2011 11:54 pm

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.

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Comments (8)

  1. Mike2561

    You do realize that Gore is only worried about “climate change” because it lines his pockets, correct?

  2. Chris Mooney

    @1 that’s just as bad as the left wing narrative that claims that climate change denial is all bought and paid for by corporations.

  3. James Hrynyshyn

    Chris: @1’s comment is hardly comparable to the left-wing narrative about denialism. The former has absolutely no basis in fact. The latter is just a naive generalization of an established fact.

  4. Chris Mooney

    Yes, ok. The more I hear corporations blamed all the time, the more I think it really misses something essential.

  5. Johnny

    …the failure of the media to direct adequate attention to the issue, and to call out paid propagandists and discredited phony scientists.

    As a Denier, I agree, except its the warmists’s side’s phony scientists and propaganda I think the media has not done a good enough job of calling out.

    —-

    Chris you should be well familiar with the idea that we as humans are more interested when someone says something against their “side” and that we don’t expect.

    When Mark Lynas joined those criticizing Greenpeace and the IPCC for co-writing a report together, he was attacked by the climate change hawk community, specifically Bob Ward. Everyone else who said the same thing on the denier side was ignored.

    Gore said something against his side. Its like a ballplayer criticizing a teammate vs a commentator.

    If Gore really wanted to get the right kind of attention, he’d announce he’d go Gandhi. If he sold his mansions and gave away his fortune to live and preach a low carbon lifestyle, then people would pay attention. Otherwise he’s just a rich man calling for the poor to sacrifice.

    The real problem with criticizing Obama is who is your alternative? If the Democrats won’t help the Greens, nobody will.

    That’s the issue the greens are scare to talk about. What happens if the Republicans ignore them and Democrats just pay them lip-service?

  6. TTT

    The real problem with criticizing Obama is who is your alternative? If the Democrats won’t help the Greens, nobody will. That’s the issue the greens are scare to talk about

    No, the issue “greens” are scared to talk about are runaway methane release from undersea deposits and melting permafrost, or the notion that even the worst IPCC figures are underestimates, or the very real potential that *nothing* can prevent whatever bad effects are coming, or other things that are, y’know, on point to this topic. It’s only one side that ignores the data–that ignores the issue itself–to fixate on ego-based trivia. “OMG Obama doesn’t like us”? This has been a serious issue for 30 years.

    If Gore really wanted to get the right kind of attention, he’d announce he’d go Gandhi. If he sold his mansions and gave away his fortune to live and preach a low carbon lifestyle, then people would pay attention. Otherwise he’s just a rich man calling for the poor to sacrifice.

    No, he’s a rich man pointing out basic principles of chemistry and physics, and his wallet does not make chemistry go away. This is the perfect embodiment of the original complaint by Gore, Fallows, our hosts here, and all serious and responsible thinkers: there are some people you simply can’t discuss facts and issues with, because for them it is far more relevant to discuss personalities, preferably in the most emotive and sentimental manner possible. Facts are only true if they come from the guy they want to have a beer with.

  7. Emmett Dickie

    Couldn’t agree with you more TTT, thank you for saying that.

  8. Incredulous

    #4 Chris Mooney

    “Yes, ok. The more I hear corporations blamed all the time, the more I think it really misses something essential”

    Yes it does. It misses the fact that the corporations are only working within the rules that our elected representatives have set out for them. The politicians make some catchy title like “The Save the World Act” which is full of loopholes, exemptions, and grandfathering for their buddies to do the opposite and the public eats it up because they were told that it actually *would* save the world. It all gets hidden in the footnotes and fine print. Honestly, who can actually read the thousands of pages of legalese where up means down and left means right and the lawyers can’t even agree on what some means. We have had it for years.

    Just like when they were bailing out the banking industry and the bankers turned around and wrote their own bonuses from it. The rules were specifically written to allow it. Nobody just handed over a blank check and said “Do something with it.” The only thing that stopped part of it was the public outrage when people caught on.

    Both parties have been doing it for years and we keep electing the same jerks because they kick back a little to their own districts. Unfortunately, we have been disenfranchised by the ruling parties. If we elect someone that isn’t “one of them” they get blocked from the process by the party leadership. We are not going to make any progress until we get rid of both the Republican Party and the Democratic Party as they operate now.

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