The Assault on Reality, Part II

It’s not just the mainstream media that’s attacking Al Gore and his new book -- more off-beat sources are making the same misinformed arguments.

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Hello everybody. This column is a companion piece, or a kind of sequel, to my column in The Nation yesterday, “The Assault on Reality.” The column deals with the mainstream media’s continuing character assassination campaign against Al Gore, focusing primarily on The Washington Post and The New York Times op-ed page—with special attention to Maureen Dowd. I also give a nod to ABC News, but the topic needed more space devoted to it, particularly Diane Sawyer’s nutty interview.

Sawyer demanded of Gore, “If Iraq had nothing to do with 9/11, the president took us into a war he didn’t have to. Three thousand Americans and countless Iraqis died unnecessarily. Are you saying, in this book and this morning, that Americans—3,000 of them—died unnecessarily?”

Hello. Diane? That’s exactly what he’s saying. Although the reality is, of course, far worse. Three thousand Americans have died and the result is that we’ve created more terrorists; killed more innocent Iraqis; tortured some more; made the world hate us; strengthened Osama bin Laden, Iran, and Syria; and taken our eye off and dropped the ball on genuine threats. They died because the Bush administration has proven dishonest, incompetent, extremist, unwilling to admit error, and impervious to reality all at once. (Read the book for goodness’ sake!) Virtually everyone admits this now, including the U.S. intelligence agencies charged with the job of assessing the impact of the invasion and many of the generals who planned and fought the war. Nearly 70 percent of Americans think the war was a catastrophic error. So what, Diane, is the point of your playing “gotcha” on the basis of a Fox-News style propaganda talking point?

What’s more, as my Media Matters colleague Eric Boehlert has pointed out of Terry Moran’s nutty Nightline report where he asked Gore if The Assault on Reason was “the book [Gore] wanted to write after the 2000 election,” this would be quite a trick given the fact that “most of the events discussed in the book (the war with Iraq, the abuses at Abu Ghraib, corporate tax cuts, etc.) hadn’t even occurred yet.” Yes, the question is logically impossible, but still, I’ll bet you’re not surprised.

I didn’t have any space in “the Assault on Reality: Part I” to examine David Brooks’ New York Times column either—the column in which he terms Gore “a radical technological determinist “ who “reacts to machines” and “lays out a theory of history entirely driven by them.” According to Brooks, “Gore’s imperviousness to reality is not the most striking feature of the book. It’s the chilliness and sterility of his worldview. Gore is laying out a comprehensive theory of social development, but it allows almost no role for family, friendship, neighborhood, or just face-to-face contact. He sees society the way you might see it from a speaking podium—as a public mass exercise with little allowance for intimacy or private life. He envisions a sort of Vulcan Utopia, in which dispassionate individuals exchange facts and arrive at logical conclusions.”

Suffice it to say, I read Gore’s book pretty carefully and I have no idea what the heck Brooks is talking about. It’s easy, I suppose, to make such accusations when you don’t provide any evidence. And Brooks provides precisely none. I understand the problem with space limitations in an 800-word column, but in such a case the analysis at least needs to ring true. In reading Brooks, I literally could not recognize the same book I read. I can only conclude that Brooks’ column was far more about David Brooks than about the book he purported to assess. And with Al Gore—as indicated above—that’s par for the course.

Outside the mega-media corporations, I found a similar unwillingness to confront Gore’s complex arguments. Most writers for sources thought to be a bit more offbeat than The Post, The Times, and ABC/Disney found it difficult to address Gore’s complaint about the growing trend toward tabloidization of what were once serious news services. I recently noticed Chris Lehmann, for instance, doing party reporting for The New York Observer—a publication that leads the pack in mixing up serious news with tabloid-style gossip—complaining that Gore did not have the courage to blame Americans themselves for being “boobs.”  He continues, “We will swallow any lie fed us, and ask for more; it’s a wonder, to borrow Bob Dylan’s line, that we still know how to breathe.” And because “No national politician wants to make that argument. And so Al Gore blames the messenger—i.e., the media, and first and foremost, the reliably hateful medium of television.”

Taking a similar tack in Slate, a web magazine that prides itself on its commitment to counter-intuitivity, Jack Shafer also concludes that Gore was too cowardly to tell the truth. He writes:

In condemning Britney-obsessed reporters and readers, Gore takes the easy route. If he possessed any real courage in his conviction that news coverage of the frivolous blocks the discussion of serious “issues,” he’d attack sports coverage. Sports capture a billion times the attention that celebrities do and probably swallow 20 percent of the news budget of dailies. The reason Gore gives sports coverage a bye while castigating Britney coverage is simple: Sports fans talk back—loudly—and folks who crave entertainment-news coverage are too embarrassed to defend their innocent diversion.

I don’t know who has the loonier argument: Gore, who believes that some forms of entertainment are deleterious to the nation’s well-being…

Both of these arguments assume that the authors are somehow “braver” than Gore, and yet they are interestingly also evidence-free. That doesn’t make them necessarily false, but it does put them on the defensive against a book that—now famously, thanks to Andrew Ferguson and the folks at The Washington Post—contains 273 endnotes spread across 20 pages. 

To be fair, Lehmann’s argument is itself almost impervious to evidence. Yes, the American people are largely ignorant of basic facts about the world and are therefore easily misled. But has this not always been the case? If so, then why has this particularly group of leaders proven able to do more misleading—tougher on truth—than any before it? And why have they gotten away with it for so long when Nixon was forced to resign for less and Clinton was actually impeached for lying about a private matter? In other words, what’s new? Lehmann cannot say.

I found Shafer’s argument similarly silly. Yes, newspapers and media corporations devote a great deal of time and attention to sports, but this does not have the effect of crowding out or corrupting ‘real’ news. Sports is a separate domain and one that actually supports the publication and dissemination of important news because it attracts advertising and expands the revenue base of these corporations without compromising the “news hole.” What’s more, as with Lehmann’s argument, it has ever been thus. But the Paris Hilton problem has metastasized in recent years.

Thomas Patterson of Harvard’s Kennedy School of Government did a study of U.S. news media from 1980-1999 and found the following:

  • News stories that have no clear connection to policy issues have increased from less than 35 percent of all stories in 1980 to roughly 50 percent in 2000.
  • In the early 1980s, taking all news outlets into account, approximately 25 percent of news stories had a moderate to high level of sensationalism compared with nearly 40 percent in 2000.
  • Stories that include a human-interest element accounted for less than 11 percent of the stories in the early 1980s; that number has more than doubled (26 percent) since then.
  • Crime and disaster stories made up about 8 percent of the news reporting in 1980; they make up more than 13 percent in 2000.

The period in question during Patterson’s study looks like a golden age compared with the present. As the folks at the Project for Excellence in Journalism inform us of the June 7 and 8, 2007 news coverage, “On the June 7 CBS nightly newscast, correspondent Bill Whitaker reported that ‘a fed-up public is going ballistic’ after learning of Hilton’s medical release after only three days in jail.” (The Hilton story made all three major network newscasts). Noting that Al Sharpton was among those adding his voice to protest this “celebrity injustice,” Whitaker declared that “from the blogosphere to the legal sphere, criticism of Paris is burning.” Next came MSNBC: Declaring “here’s Paris Hilton now,” anchor Contessa Brewer abruptly cut away from a discussion of the retirement of Joint Chiefs of Staff Chairman Peter Pace to the scene at Hilton’s home as she prepared for her ride back to court.”

According to PEJ’s News Coverage Index from June 3-8, Paris was the fifth-biggest story. On cable it was the third biggest, and on radio the forth. Still Paris was a piker compared to the equally “famous for, um, what, exactly?” Anna Nicole Smith. According to PEJ, during Feb. 8 and 9, “coverage of Anna Nicole Smith’s death made up roughly 60 percent of the morning news shows (with ABC taking the lead), which was approximately 30 times the coverage received by the Iraq war on these programs, and 55 percent of the cable coverage, with MSNBC taking the prize with 59 percent. (MSNBC gave the war seven percent of its time, while Fox and CNN offered viewers 15 percent and 16 percent respectively.)”

You can blame the cupidity of the American people for those numbers. Or you can blame their obsession with sports. But the fact is, the mainstream media are failing the nation and skirting the responsibilities visited upon them by the special status conferred by the First Amendment—to say nothing of the fantastic tax advantages and free access to the public airwaves so many of them receive. Al Gore did his best to tell the truth about this transformation and to try to explain it with the complexity that the problem demands. Yet rather than admit or even address his arguments, the media have by and large responded with character assassination and self-refuting self-defenses. It’s almost too perfect.

Now, back to your latest Paris news…

Eric Alterman is a Senior Fellow of the Center for American Progress. His weblog, “Altercation,” appears at, and his seventh book, Why We’re Liberals: A Political Handbook for Post-Bush America, will appear early next year.


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