Gore in the Funhouse

Former Vice President Albert Gore Jr. offered an ambitious plan last Thursday in Washington, DC for solving the climate crisis, as well as the economic and security perils associated with America’s dependence on foreign oil. Gore noted that America’s growing economic insecurity is driven in part by high gas prices, and that, “just two days ago, 27 senior statesmen and retired military leaders warned of the national security threat from an ‘energy tsunami’ that would be triggered by a loss of our access to foreign oil, and also the undeniable warming the planet is currently undergoing.”

Gore mused that, “When we look at all three of these seemingly intractable challenges at the same time, we can see the common thread running through them, deeply ironic in its simplicity: our dangerous over-reliance on carbon-based fuels is at the core of all three of these challenges—the economic, environmental and national security crises. We’re borrowing money from China to buy oil from the Persian Gulf to burn it in ways that destroy the planet. Every bit of that’s got to change.”

Gore’s proposal to develop technologies that would free the United States from dependence on carbon-based energy sources within a decade, in favor of renewable energy sources, has the scope of building an atomic weapon or putting a man on the moon. He closed his speech with the challenge: “We must now lift our nation to reach another goal that will change history. Our entire civilization depends upon us now embarking on a new journey of exploration and discovery. Our success depends on our willingness as a people to undertake this journey and to complete it within 10 years. Once again, we have an opportunity to take a giant leap for humankind.”

Despite the urgency of Gore’s plan, the Project for Excellence in Journalism found that only 3 percent of the week’s news coverage focused on energy and global warming, compared to 27 percent of coverage which focused on the 2008 presidential campaign. A Lexis-Nexis search of major newspapers for the week (July 13 to July 20) finds 69 mentions of Gore’s speech (“Gore” and “oil,” along with “Gore” and “climate” both yield 69 results), compared to say, 277 mentions of the New Yorker’s controversial Obama cover. (“New Yorker” and Obama yield 277 results).

The 3 percent of coverage that Gore’s speech did receive both repeated and amplified many common points of confusion with global warming policy. The Fox program “America’s Election Headquarters” invited on an expert on climate policy to answer the question: “OK, no offense, without putting us all to sleep, how is he going to [meet the 10-year challenge]?” Later, on “Hannity and Colmes,” discussion focused on the question of whether Gore was a “hypocrite” for riding in an air-conditioned SUV. They called the segment, “Al Gore a Hypocrite on Environment.” Michael Steele, filling in for Sean Hannity, insisted that the “one thing that can begin to get us on that road to independence” is to “drill, baby, drill.” (For more on the offshore drilling flim-flam, see our recent column “Drilling Deep to Mislead on Oil Prices.”)

James Pinkerton on Fox News Watch ignored the content of Gore’s speech entirely, and blamed the former vice president for the energy crisis, saying, “Al Gore won the energy debate over the last seven years. We have no drilling, and gas is $4 bucks a gallon. Surprise, surprise. What the media need to do is reconcile the fact that the American people want more energy production.” Meanwhile, CNN’s Fox Wanabee Glenn Beck, a global warning denier, dismissed Gore’s “wild allegations” and “unchallenged fear-mongering.” And on MSNBC, “strategist” John Feehery had this to say: “[H]e promised sharply higher energy prices for everybody in the next 10 years.” Most of the rest of Feehery’s discussion focused on speculation about Gore’s political ambitions.

Conservatives eager to misinform themselves about the contents of Gore’s challenge were obviously offered a rich array of choices. But even the more credible mainstream media outlets made several key errors in discussing Gore’s goal and climate policy as a whole. On “Meet the Press,” for instance, Gore faced questions from Tom Brokaw, who demanded to know, “Where does that money come from for a new president who is facing a $400 billion deficit, has two wars going on, needs an economic stimulus if it’s a Democrat, as Obama has outlined—we have a housing crisis in this country—and probably diminished tax revenues?” A not unreasonable question, but one that, nevertheless, fundamentally confuses the nature of Gore’s proposal. As Gore himself pointed out, that number is a mix of both public monies and private investment, and one that would undoubtedly yield significant revenues, as any smart investment naturally does. What’s more, as Gore also pointed out, at least as much will be spent on oil and coal over the next 10 years as supply shrinks for those fuels and demand increases.

Brokaw also offered any number of questionable assertions regarding the current state of political reality. He argued, for instance, that, “There have been no major, sweeping initiatives coming out of this Democratic-controlled Congress.” When Gore pointed out that it was impossible to reach 60 votes on such a policy, Brokaw offered the rejoinder that, at least, “you can put it on the agenda and try to move the country,” which is just naïve and silly and ill-befitting someone with Brokaw’s experience in politics. What’s more, Brokaw appeared awfully interested in getting Gore to attack Hillary Clinton for her support for a gas tax holiday, which Gore opposes, which was odd, since Clinton is out of the race for president. And Brokaw insisted on discussing what he termed to be the “devastating effect on Main Street and especially on rural America,” as if current policies are somehow designed for their benefit.

Gore’s conclusion that America’s reliance on foreign oil is tied to an array of economic, national security, and climate problems was itself misunderstood by the media. The headline on ABCnews.com read, “Gore: Climate Crisis More Dire Than Terrorism.” Correspondent Claire Shipman asked Gore in an interview, “Do you think that right now, climate change is as much a threat to our country as terror?” In the first place, the question makes no sense. In the second, it purposely ignores the connection between the two issues that Gore explicitly discussed in his speech.

The crucial point here is not about Al Gore or even about America’s energy crisis or its environmental crisis; it is about our ability as a nation to discuss, and ultimately come to terms with, the problems we face as a society. It’s true that Gore laid out a daunting challenge, but those who disagree with his prognosis have an obligation to put forth an alternative—one that is based on evidence and is consistent with the scale of the problem. Instead, all we get is mindless chatter—a combination of content-less happy talk and ideologically driven fundamentalism.

The threat will not disappear because we choose to ignore it and mock those who take it seriously. This response is the equivalent of unilateral disarmament against a foe as deadly as any this country has faced since the end of fascism. But to most of the mainstream media, it’s just another cause to smirk and snark and congratulate themselves for their own cleverness.

Eric Alterman is a Senior Fellow at the Center for American Progress and a Distinguished Professor of English at Brooklyn College, and a professor of journalism at the CUNY Graduate School of Journalism. His blog, “Altercation,” appears at http://www.mediamatters.org/altercation. His seventh book, Why We’re Liberals: A Political Handbook for Post-Bush America, was recently published by Viking.

George Zornick is a New York-based writer.