In his best-selling book The Assault on Reason, Al Gore name-checks Jürgen Habermas, Noam Chomsky, and I.F. Stone, digresses into the peculiarities of human brain chemistry, and, as expected, explains the intricacies of atmospheric science. He is, The Washington Post's Eugene Robinson recently wrote, "too ostentatiously smart to be elected president." And as his book makes clear, he thinks the rest of us are hopelessly dumb.
Gore argues that the average American is in an advanced state of political torpor, induced by a profit-mad mass media. By way of illustration, he offers this folksy—if bizarre—anecdote: "When I was a boy growing up on our family farm in the summers," he writes, off-handedly acknowledging that he wasn't, in fact, a year-round farm boy, "I learned how to hypnotize chickens." The former Vice President would render the birds "entranced and completely immobile" by forcing his quarry to follow the path of his finger. "It turns out that the immobility response in animals is an area that has received some scholarly attention, and here is one thing that scientists have found: the immobility response is strongly influenced by fear." The American news consumer, therefore, is something akin to a frightened chicken.
Lamenting a surfeit of "electronic images that can elicit emotional responses," Gore is deeply concerned "about the potential for exploitation of the television medium by those who seek to use it to manipulate public opinion in ways that bypass reason and logic." With the national media controlled by a handful of corporations, he fears that "money and the clever use of electronic mass media could be used to manipulate the outcome of elections." The rise of cable news and talk radio has seen "media Machiavellis" flood the airwaves with "propagandistic electronic messaging"—and the hypnotized chickens are none the wiser.
To bolster this point, Gore repeatedly references the now-notorious post-9/11 poll that found 70 percent of Americans believed Saddam Hussein was involved in the attacks. Gore traces this belief to the flag-waving, chest-thumping jingoism of post 9/11 media coverage—the climate of fear nurtured by the administration and stoked by a compliant news media. There is likely something to this, but Gore should be careful in assigning blame. Fox News is doubtless guilty of nakedly partisan journalism, but is it, as Gore suggests, responsible for our politically benighted citizenry?
Probably not. A 2004 Zogby poll found that half of New Yorkers believed the Bush administration had "foreknowledge of the impending 9/11 attacks and 'consciously failed' to act." (Is this the fault of Amy Goodman?) And such historical misperceptions aren't without precedent. Consider that in 1985, a mere 10 years after the end of the war, fully 66 percent of American adults couldn't identify if Washington supported North or South Vietnam.
According to Gore, if we could only squeeze Paris and Nicole out of the media cycle, and tune all television sets to C-Span, Americans might not have consented to the Iraq War. As he sees it, our legislators signed onto war largely because the plebs weren't paying attention: "The Senate was silent on the eve of the war because senators don't feel that what they say on the floor of the Senate really matters that much anymore…" Well, perhaps not, but a vote to authorize war surely does.
If Americans are at the mercy of an omnipotent media doing corporate and government bidding, who are we to trust? The Assault on Reason isn't unclear on this point. Television news has had a deleterious affect on the news consumer, Gore says—except when it hasn't. As he acknowledges, the outrages at Abu Ghraib and the "horrifying pictures" from Vietnam have "help[ed] facilitate shifts in public sentiment." And he generously praises Moveon.org's community activism, and its organization of political "house parties." But if it is "propagandistic electronic messaging" that so offends him, then why not also mention Moveon.org's house party showings of Robert Greenwald's anti-Wal-Mart film?
What this means, of course, is that television stations like Current TV (which he co-owns) and films like An Inconvenient Truth (in which he stars) are cracking good fun, full of unmolested "reason," while the hyenas of AM radio should be actively combated. Money is pernicious in the hands of Rupert Murdoch, owner of the New York Post, The Weekly Standard, and Fox News, but less so in the hands of Joan Kroc, who bequeathed $225 million of her fortune to National Public Radio. Knees knock and boots shake when Clear Channel lards its schedule with right-wing radio hosts—whom Gore, shockingly, calls "fifth columnists"—but less so whenClear Channel launches a handful of left-leaning stations, determining that progressive talk is simply "good business."
And while not coming out explicitly in favor of renewing the odious Fairness Doctrine—though his family's history of cultural interventionism doesn't inspire confidence—Gore hints that it might be worth revisiting. Once upon a time, Gore explains,radio was a "one-way medium" controlled by the wealthy; that is, until the "defenders of democracy" required "safeguards" like the Fairness Doctrine, which "ensured that differing points of view were included in programming."
Gore is on firmer ground when bemoaning "the culture of fear" that has flourished since the World Trade Center attacks, though his argument is seriously undermined when, in the next breath, he asserts that "American democracy is now in danger" because of a corrupted "marketplace of ideas."
The Assault on Reason reestablishes Gore as America's premier besserwisser and moral scold: the politician who both warns that we are scaring people to death and argues that Manhattan will soon be submerged beneath the Atlantic. But contrary to Gore's eschatological narrative, the American media landscape is robust, thanks, in part, to technological innovation. To suggest otherwise is just cheap fear-mongering.
Michael C. Moynihan is an associate editor of reason.