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 attempts to explain “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.”
- Americans are less informed as the media keep the attention on serial obsessions. 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 March 2, 2007 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. 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.”
- In too many cases, the voices of individual citizens are lost as information flows in one direction. “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 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.
- As the internet grows into a place for all citizens to have their voices heard, net neutrality must be preserved. 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.