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Politics: The Assault on Reason

American public discourse is increasingly "vulnerable to the kind of rope-a-dope strategies that Exxon Mobil and their brethren have been employing for decades now," argues Al Gore.

MAY 21, 2007 by Faiz Shakir, Nico Pitney, Amanda Terkel, Satyam Khanna, and Matt Corley
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POLITICS

The Assault On Reason

American public discourse is increasingly “vulnerable to the kind of rope-a-dope strategies that Exxon Mobil and their brethren have been employing for decades now,” argues Al Gore. For example, a recent survey of 21 nations found that Americans are “among the least anxious” about global warming, “even though their nation is the top source of greenhouse gases.” In a ranking of 34 countries, the United States ranks near the bottom in the public acceptance of Charles Darwin’s mainstream theory of evolution. Nearly half of the public still believes that Saddam Hussein was responsible for the 9/11 attacks, despite unequivocal refutations of that claim. In his new book, The Assault on Reason, which will be released tomorrow, Gore explains “why logic and reason and the best evidence available and the scientific discoveries do not have more force in changing the way we all think about the reality we are now facing.” He sharply criticizes the television media for covering trivial excess and politicians for alienating the public, many of whom believe “that no one in power listens to or cares what they think.” American democracy “is in danger of being hollowed out,” writes Gore. “In order to reclaim our birthright, we Americans must resolve to repair the systemic decay of the public forum.”

THE ‘WELL-AMUSED AUDIENCE’: Americans watch television for an average of four hours and 35 minutes each day, which is 90 minutes more than the average in the rest of the world. But much of this viewing time is devoted to coverage of “serial obsessions,” such as the Michael Jackson trial and the Laci Peterson tragedy. Gore warns that the “well-informed citizenry” is in danger of becoming the “well-amused audience.” Only one in four Americans can name more than one of the First Amendment freedoms, but more than half can name at least two members of the Simpsons cartoon family. On Aug. 17, 2006, a federal judge in Michigan issued “a sweeping rebuke of the once-secret domestic-surveillance effort the White House authorized following the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001.” The ruling was “a significant blow to Mr. Bush’s attempts to expand presidential powers.” Yet on that day, the evening news programs on all three television networks devoted significantly more airtime to the JonBenet Ramsey case. According to an analysis by The Progress Report, in the most egregious instance, NBC devoted 15 times more airtime to the JonBenet story. Similarly, on March 2, The Progress Report found that MSNBC and Fox News devoted more coverage to Anna Nicole Smith — three weeks after her death on Feb. 8 — than they did to the multiple developments involving the neglect and deplorable conditions at Walter Reed military hospital. Fox News’s John Gibson, who offered continuous coverage of Smith’s death, attacked reporters who were ignoring the story to focus on the Iraq war as “snobs.” Even bodies such as the U.S. Senate “don’t feel that what they say on the floor of the Senate really matters that much…because the news media seldom report on Senate speeches anymore,” notes Gore. Both ABC and CBS even ignored former deputy attorney general James B. Comeys recent Senate testimony of what NBC Nightly News anchor Brian Williams May 15 “called a rare glimpse of a high-level, late-night power struggle over the National Security Agency’s warrantless domestic wiretapping program.”

BARRING CITIZEN VOICES: “In the world of television, the massive flows of information are largely in only one direction, which makes it virtually impossible for individuals to take part in what passes for a national conversation,” writes Gore in The Assault on Reason. Ordinary citizens are now trying to purchase short ads to express their views on television. For example, in 2004, MoveOn.org attempted to buy an ad for the Super Bowl broadcast “to express opposition to Bush’s economic policy, which was then being debated by Congress. CBS told MoveOn that ‘issue advocacy’ was not permissible. Then, CBS, having refused the MoveOn ad, began running advertisements by the White House in favor of the president’s controversial proposal. So MoveOn complained, and the White House ad was temporarily removed.” Yet as Gore notes, the Bush administration then complained, and CBS reinstated the White House ad but still refused to air the MoveOn ad. More recently, CBS fired Iraq war veteran Gen. John Batiste as a consultant after he appeared in a VoteVets ad criticizing the Iraq war. A CBS spokeswoman argued that the network’s consultants are barred from engaging in “advocacy.” Yet it continues to employ Brookings Institute scholar Michael O’Hanlon — who has advocated on-air in favor of Bush’s escalation — and Nicolle Wallace, a former White House communications aide and staffer for Sen. John McCain’s (R-AZ) presidential campaign who has repeatedly aired pro-Bush administration and pro-McCain positions.

RIGHT WING ATTACKS GORE AS A ‘BOOB’: Right-wing pundits have already gone after Gore and The Assault on Reason, lobbing personal attacks rather than reasoned critiques. Macsmind.com, a blog which provides “conservative commentary,” called Gore an “uninformed and downright ignorant boob.” EconoPundit.com said that Gore’s book “has the same level of economic sophistication as pre-WWII arguments about Jewish bankers causing WWI.” The conservative American Thinker magazine argues that Gore must have had a ghostwriter, but admittedly couldn’t find any proof.

SAVE THE INTERNET: Whereas television often suppresses public debate, Gore believes that the Internet encourages it. He writes that it “has extremely low entry barriers for individuals. It is the most interactive medium in history and the one with the greatest potential for connecting individuals to one another and to a universe of knowledge … It’s a platform, in other words, for reason.” While the majority of the major television networks ignored Comey’s testimony, blogs continue to cover it. Online watchdogs are holding the media accountable for responsible reporting. Presidential candidates are increasing their presence on the web, with several candidates allowing users to interact with each and give feedback to the campaigns. Ordinary citizens are able to submit questions to candidates during presidential debates. But as Gore warns, there is still just a “very small number of broadband network operators” who have an “an economic incentive to extend their control over the physical infrastructure of the network to leverage control of Internet content. If they went about it in the wrong way, these companies could institute changes that have the effect of limiting the free flow of information over the Internet in a number of troubling ways.” Help Save the Internet by telling Congress to preserve net neutrality here.

UNDER THE RADAR

IRAQ — U.S. EMBASSY TO BE LARGEST AND MOST EXPENSIVE TO DATE: The new U.S. embassy to Iraq being built inside the Green Zone in Baghdad is “destined, at $592 [million], to become the biggest and most expensive US embassy on earth when it opens in September,” the Guardian reports. The compound at 104 acres, an area roughly the size of the Vatican, will “include 27 separate buildings and house about 615 people behind bomb-proof walls.” In addition, the U.S. Ambassador to Iraq, Ryan Crocker, will enjoy a 16,000 square foot “high-security home” complete with a pool and gym. Critics fear, however, “that the compound will not be large enough to house hundreds of diplomats and military personnel likely to remain in Iraq for some time” and that the embassy will “become an enormous, heavily targeted white elephant.” Such fears were compounded twice in recent days as a mortar attack interrupted British Prime Minister Tony Blair’s Saturday meeting with Iraqi leaders and again this morning as a mortar struck the Iraqi parliament. One former diplomat in Iraq asked, “What kind of embassy is it when everybody lives inside and it’s blast-proof, and people are running around with helmets and crouching behind sandbags?

CONGRESS —  REID PLANS TO BLOCK BUSH’S RECESS APPOINTMENTS DURING AUGUST VACATION: Weary of President Bush using recess appointments to bypass the Senate confirmation process during Congress’s August vacation, Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-NV) has a plan to deny him the opportunity, according to U.S News. “Reid will call the Senate into session just long enough to force the [president] to send his nominees who need confirmation to the chamber.” Reid’s plan is to “hold a quickie ‘pro forma’ session every 10 days, tapping a local senator to run the hall.” Bush has an established track record of using recess appointments to sneak controversial figures past the Senate without confirmation. In 2005, Bush installed John Bolton as U.S. ambassador to the United Nations with a recess appointment after an unsuccessful “grinding five-month battle” to gather support for Bolton’s confirmation. This past April, Bush named Republican fundraiser and Swift Boat Veterans for Truth financier Sam Fox as U.S. ambassador to Belgium after the Senate had “derailed” his nomination. Hans von Spakovsky, who was described yesterday by McClatchy as “a key player in a Republican campaign to hang onto power in Washington by suppressing the votes of minority voters,” was placed by Bush on the Federal Elections Commission via a recess appointment in Jan. 2006.

CONGRESS — NO CONFIDENCE VOTE REFLECTS INCREASING BIPARTISAN PRESSURE FOR GONZALES TO RESIGN: In the wake of a no confidence vote proposed by Sens. Charles Schumer (D-NY) and Dianne Feinstein (D-CA), Attorney General Alberto Gonzales is under increasing pressure to resign due to his handling of the U.S. attorneys controversy. According to Schumer and Feinstein, the goal of the nonbinding resolution is “to express what senators of both parties have said for weeks: that Gonzales has become too weakened to run the department.” Underlying the importance of the no confidence resolution, Sen. Arlen Specter (R-PA) called the vote a “rare” and “very forceful, historical statement.” He predicted that “before the vote is taken that Attorney General Gonzales may step down.” “More than a century ago one was leveled against a sitting president. I think historically that is something which Attorney General Gonzales would like to avoid. The most important thing, though, is the inability of the department now to function,” Specter said. In response, Sen. Mitch McConnell (R-KY) threatened a “mystery resolution” that would be introduced by Gonzales supporters to counter the no confidence vote. But such a resolution may be hard to come by, as support for Gonzales has waned, with at least six Senate Republicans calling on Gonzales to resign. The no confidence vote is already gaining bipartisan support. Schumer told the Washington Times on Friday that the vote “would draw support from at least 60 senators.” Despite the quickly declining support for Gonzales, the White House remains steadfast in its support for him, stating last week that Gonzales’ confidence “will not ebb and flow with this President.

THINK FAST

“Two intelligence assessments from January 2003 predicted that the overthrow of Saddam Hussein and subsequent U.S. occupation of Iraq could lead to internal violence and provide a boost to Islamic extremists and terrorists in the region.” They will be released as part of the “Phase II” Senate report on pre-war intelligence.

In an op-ed, Govs. Arnold Schwarzenegger (R-CA) and Jodi Rell (R-CT) say it “borders on malfeasance” for the Bush administration “to block the efforts” of their states to reduce global warming pollution. “For the last 16 months,” the EPA has refused to sign off on state plans to enact tailpipe emissions standards.

Incoming Prime Minister Gordon Brown reportedly plans to cut British troop numbers in Iraq from 7,000 to 2,000 over the next 12 months, and have all troops removed by spring 2008.

“Since the British military began allowing homosexuals to serve in the armed forces in 2000, none of its fears — about harassment, discord, blackmail, bullying or an erosion of unit cohesion or military effectiveness — have come to pass. … The biggest news about the policy, they say, is that there is no news. It has for the most part become a nonissue.”

25 percent: The number of Americans who say “things in the U.S. are going in the right direction. … That is about the lowest level of satisfaction detected since the survey started in December 2003.”

“As Iraq’s government compiles a record of failure, the Bush administration is under growing pressure to intervene to rearrange Baghdad’s dysfunctional political order, or even install a new leadership.” Echoing Jim Hoagland, one U.S. official calls it the “eternal temptation for the Americans.”

“The average price of self-serve regular gasoline hit a record high of $3.18, rising more than 11 cents over the past two weeks, according to a nationwide survey released Sunday.”

“A suicide bomber blew himself up Sunday in a crowded market in eastern Afghanistan, killing 14 people and wounding 31,” one day “after a suicide bomber in northern Afghanistan killed three German soldiers and seven bystanders.”

“After an initially tepid reception from policymakers, the recommendations of the Iraq Study Group are getting a second look from the White House and Congress, as officials continue to scour for bipartisan solutions to salvage the American engagement in Iraq.”

And finally: “Inspired by Tony Snow and Bob Schieffer’s battle of the bands last week, MSNBC’s ‘Countdown with Keith Olbermann’ held a ‘D.C. Idol’ contest to let viewers vote for their favorite vocal moment by a politician. The winner, announced Friday, was Bill Clinton with his version of ‘Imagine’ from Israel. Clinton won with 38 percent, besting the likes of John Ashcroft’s ‘Let the Eagle Soar’ and Karl Rove’s ‘MC Rove.'”

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GOOD NEWS

Stanford University is supporting a shareholder resolution calling on ExxonMobil to do a better job of reducing greenhouse gas emissions.”

STATE WATCH

CALIFORNIA: Trade unions are providing hope and steady employment for former gang members.

MICHIGAN: The state is seeing its worst financial situation “in decades.”

IMMIGRATION: Report indicates that the renewed vigor of hate groups in America is “[e]nergized by the rancorous national debate on illegal immigration.”

BLOG WATCH

THINK PROGRESS: Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-KY) threatens mystery “resolution” to match “no confidence” vote for Attorney General Alberto Gonzales.

FITNESS FOR THE OCCASION: Activists attempt to prevent the University of Massachusetts from giving an honorary degree to President Bush’s former chief of staff Andrew Card.

LIBERAL OASIS: Fox News’s Chris Wallace misrepresents former Deputy Attorney General James Comey’s testimony.

MY TWO SENSE: Tell LendingTree.com not to support CNN host Glenn Beck’s racist and bigoted views.

DAILY GRILL

“And I think having a personal relationship makes that, quite frankly, much easier always to deliver bad news.”
— Attorney General Alberto Gonzales, 5/19/07

VERSUS

QUESTION: Do you recall a time when you (were) in there and said, “Mr. President, we can’t do this?”
GONZALES: Oh, yeah.
QUESTION: Can you share it with us?
GONZALES: No.
— Associated Press, 5/19/07