Whose Media Is Gored?

Where Al Gore's TV channel went wrong


There are two things I should say upfront about Current TV, the Al Gore–chaired channel that debuted last week. The first is that I haven't watched it. Or, at least, I haven't watched it the way it's supposed to be watched. I called my local cable company to see if they were going to add it to their lineup, and the fellow on the other end of the telephone seemed surprised to learn that the channel existed. ("Al Gore?" he asked. "The guy who was vice president?") Now, Comcast isn't the world's most efficient company; it's entirely possible that the channel will appear here tomorrow and that no one bothered to tell the people who answer the phones. But for now my only option is to go to Current TV's website and view its programming there.

The second thing I should say is that watching the website is almost certainly preferable to watching the actual channel. Current TV's format owes a lot to early MTV: There are short documentaries, not unlike videos, and there are announcers who tell us what we're seeing, not unlike VJs. Watching these clips on the website, I not only get to choose what I want to see and skip what doesn't interest me, but I get to avoid those announcers altogether. That has to be an improvement. According to Salon's Heather Havrilesky, the hosts not only "introduce each segment with inane, bubbly comments that make it sound far more fluffy and empty than it is, but they reappear after each segment to sum up their feelings about what happened. This is why we know that watching a pod about dating in Iran makes former Miss USA Shauntay Hinton realize 'how lucky I am to be free to do what the hell I wanna do! Yeah!'…As a result, tuning in to Current TV sometimes feels like going to see a moving documentary with a semiliterate preteen who insists on recasting the entire story in the shallowest of terms the second the credits start to roll." Havrilesky also notes that the channel keeps running the same content over and over, a problem the website offers only if you expressly request it.

Some of the clips are pretty good—like Adrian Baschuk's Tensions, an interesting bit about a journalist who got shot by a SWAT cop while he covered Miami's FTAA demonstrations. Some of them are pretty vapid—like Gabriel Cheifetz's Battleground Minnesota, in which amateur rappers conduct useless interviews with Minnesota politicians. (Imagine a straight version of Ali G.) But the whole thing is a far cry from the outfit's earnest rhetoric. Gore has described his channel as a forum for "grass-roots storytellers," but a more accurate description comes from the media critic Douglas Rushkoff, an early participant in the project who has written a cutting critique of what it became. "What was once envisioned as a bottom-up alternative to the propaganda-rich conglomerate network news," he writes, "has instead emerged as a kind of MTV-News, without the news." We've been known to criticize Rushkoff's work here at Reason, but we'll give credit where it's due: He's written a sharp account of how Current went off the rails.

"Gore said he thought that the Internet and DVmedia were finally at the speeds and prices that could enable some sort of participatory, streaming newsmedia project," Rushkoff remembers. "The philosophy seemed to go even deeper than that: If people, young people in particular, can experience news gathering and news storytelling as a participatory act, they would come to understand that interpreting the world around them was a collective proposition. Instead of simply absorbing the interpretations of others, they would come to recognize that they, too, were capable of having and sharing a perspective." The group didn't even have to start a TV channel to accomplish this, Rushkoff writes—the initial idea was to build something more like "meetup.com than MTV."

According to Rushkoff, the focus changed when the group bought a cable channel. "On the first broadcast day, one of the hosts said it all: 'send us your tapes, and if we think it's cool and relevant, we'll put it on the air.' If they think so. Because they're the arbiters of cool and relevant. And who are 'they'? Former programming executives from other TV stations."

Well said. I'm left with two questions, though.

First: I appreciate the thought that ventures like this belong online rather than on television. But then why make a special project of it at all? We already have a place where "people, young people in particular, can experience news gathering and news storytelling as a participatory act." It's not on the Internet; it is the Internet. Rushkoff suggests the Current crowd could have created a website "where people can post text, photos, or video, and where collaborative filtering could be used to select front-page pieces." But that's what the blogosphere already is, with the difference that everyone gets to pick his own front page as well.

Rushkoff does mention a proposal to create "media cafes in different American cities where people could come and learn how to write or produce essays and segments"—sort of a mainstream version of Indymedia. That could be genuinely different, especially if those cafés are embedded in already existing libraries, community centers, and schools. But putting up yet another Internet portal? That's replicating a revolution, not leading it.

As I read about this top-heavy effort to rebuild something that had already emerged from the ground up, I kept thinking of the Digital Entertainment Network, a short-lived, super-expensive child of the dot-bust era. My colleague Matt Welch worked there for a few weeks in 1999 and wrote a widely circulated memoir of the experience for the Online Journalism Review; he described a dysfunctional but extremely well-compensated corporate hierarchy that kept changing its business model, touted itself as "a cross between CNN and MTV for the Internet Generation," and didn't understand the Web well enough to recognize why you might link to other people's sites. ("I don't think we need to be sending people away from our site! I don't think that's how we make money!") What I didn't remember, until Matt kindly reminded me, was that the self-infatuated guru atop the Digital Entertainment Network was a Channel One veteran named David Neuman. Neuman's current job? He's programming director for Current TV.

"The Neuman formula for news," Matt tells me, "is tart up the anchors, make 'em younger and younger, give them the 'lingo,' and BAM! you'll succeed. It's inherently top-down and pandering, instead of bottom-up and participatory, and it was one of many obvious flaws that sunk DEN."

If you're hoping that this channel is going to be different, think back to Miss USA's thoughts about "how lucky I am to be free to do what the hell I wanna do! Yeah!"

Question two: Did Rushkoff really expect any better from Al Gore? Neuman clearly bears much of the responsibility for what Current became, but there's a reason his ideas resonated with the former veep. I'm reminded of something Virginia Postrel wrote about Gore, back when the man was running for president: 

His favorite metaphor is "distributed intelligence."… But Gore's idea of distributed intelligence does not in any way endorse the significance of dispersed, local knowledge.

To the contrary, Gore imagines society as a giant computer system, using massively parallel processing to attack a single problem. In such a system, he explained in a 1996 speech to the American Association for the Advancement of Science, "When a problem was presented, all the processors would begin working simultaneously, each performing its small part of the task, and sending its portion of the answer to be collated with the rest of the work that was going on. It turns out that for most problems, this approach is more effective." (Actually, massively parallel processing isn't good for most problems, but that's a messy real-world detail.)

As a metaphor for society, this analogy suggests that someone in charge decides what the problem is and parcels out tasks to individuals. Individuals do not choose their own problems and purposes or respond to the needs and desires of other dispersed individuals. Asked by [Nicholas] Lemann to apply this idea to government, Gore imagined members of Congress bringing information from their districts to "assemble it at the center, in the Capitol building." 

Replace those congressmen with television executives, and it sounds a lot like Current TV. Indeed, if you want to understand the difference between Al Gore's social vision and a true flowering of freedom, all you have to do is compare the TV channel he created to the Internet he didn't.