Al Gore blasts TV; says marketplace of ideas is dead

Al Gore, Tipper Gore and their son Albert are seated at my table across from me. Now Al is at the podium.

Gore: I used to be the next president of the United States. In 1972 I was a graduate of an API seminar of investigative reporters. It was pre-Watergate, and I was working for the Tennesean. I will never forget it — the main reason is the other young investigative journalists that were there.

We spent the time discussing whether investigative reporting was dead. The best evidence was that Woodward and Berstein had done great work on the Watergate story but nothing was happening. I’ve written my speech down and I’ll share it.

I came here today because I believe in the purposes of the conference — and because I truly believe American democracy is facing a great danger — a danger hard to describe in words. It is no longer possible to ignore the strangeness of our public discourse. I know I’m not the only that feels that something has gone terribly wrong in the way the market place of ideas functions.

I wonder how many of you have remarked that American has entered an alternate universe. I thought for example that it was an aberation when 3/4 of American reported Saddam was responsible for 9/11. Here we are now and 1/3 to 1/2 still believe that. It’s strange. At first I thought the OJ Simpson trial was just an unfortunate excess of our television media. But now with the perspective of time we know it was a prelude to today’s obsessions.

Third examples. Are Americans still torturing helpless prisoners? Does it feel normal that American citizens don’t express outrage? Does it feel right that we don’t have any discussions on it. Or, if the gap between rich and poor is widening and low income people are getting strined, why is apathy increasing among us. That seems strange.

Or — on the eve of the invasion of Iraq, Robert Byrd (D-WV) asked why the senate chamber was empty. The decision under consideration turned out to be a faithful one. Even if you believe this was a wise policy, Sen. Byrd’s question is valid. He was saying in effect — here we are on eve of war and nobody is talking about it. That’s strange, isn’t it? Aren’t we supposed to have viorous debate? Those of us that served in the Senate could volunteer answers, The Senate was silent because senators have come to feel that what they say doesn’t matter. And it was empty because senators were in fun raisers trying to find money for 30-second television ads.

In the aftermath of Katrina there was a vividness and clarity to the public discourse. There was a time when America’s public discourse was vivid and clear. The Founders used words with astonishing precision. Their faith in representative democracy rested on the faith of an informed citizenry and they tried to protect the marketplace of ideas.

Their world was dominated by the printed word. The U.S. in its first half century knew nothing but the world of print. They spoke in paragraphs. They could not imagine that America’s public discourse would consist of anything but words in print.

Today, newspapers are hemoraging readers. Reading itself is in sharp decline. The republic of letters has been invaded and occupied by other media. It is television that still completely dominates the flow of information. Americans now watch television an average of 4 hours and 28 minutes, second only to Japan. That’s almost 3/4 of the discretionary time Americans have.

The Internet is a formidable new medium — exciting, dynamic and hopeful, but it still does not hold a candle to television. People are simultaneously watching television while they are online.

The most prominent casualty of television was the marketplace of ideas. It’s not that we don’t share ideas, but the public forum has been grossly distorted beyond recognition. It is this that accounts for the current strangeness.

The reality of public debate was considered central to democracy. The public forum was where the people held the government accountable. The three chracateristics of this marketplace of ideas were these:

– open to every individuals with no barriers for entry, save literacy.
– the faith of ideas depended on an emergent meritocracy of ideas. Those judged to be good, rose to the top.
– the accepted roles of discoursed assumed participants had to search for general agreement.

What resulted was a startling development — knowledge mediated. The demonstration was a form of communication developed in the 1960s — manly to capture the interest of television. There is virtually no exchange of ideas in television. That’s what Current TV is trying to do. It’s important to know that the lack of exchange on television, it’s a rigged market that excludes the public.

The movie “Network” proved to a prophecy. The news divisions which used to be seeing as serving a public interest are now advancing the larger agenda of corporations: fewer reporters, more dependance on handouts, less independence etc. The journalists today are probably more skilled than ever, but they are not allowed to do the job they’ve been trained for.

I teach at Middle Tennessee. One of my colleagues, a conservative Republican made a comment that was misinterpreted as being critical of the U.S. The student called a radio host who put the word to other hosts. Within two hours, the president of the university had a stack of messages demanding the professor be fired immediately. That kind of routine activity inspires a climate of fear — facts become battlegrounds. Questions of truths as a philosopher once said, become questions of power.

The U.S. press was found to be the 27th freest press in the world — that too seems strange to me. The coverage of political campaigns focuses on the horse race and little else. One of the things red and blue state Americans agree on is that they don’t trust the news media.

The subjugation of news by entertainment leads to disfunctional journalism that fails to inform them people. And when they are not informed, they cannot hold the government accountable. The main form of communication between politicians and the public are now the 30-second ads.

I’m trying to work in TV to re-create a multiway conversation. It may well be that the public would also benefit by changes in policy. We are succeding by reaching out and asking people to co-create our network. The purpose is a better informed public.

Current TV relies on the Internet for video streaming for video-created content. We also rely on the Internet to discuss programing with our viewers.

I want to close with the two things I learned about Internet:

1. As exciting as it is, it still lacks what TV has; because of packet-switching architecture and reliance on wide-variety of connections, it still does not support the real-time mass distribution of video. As higher bandwith connections expand, the Web’s capacity to carry TV will improve. But, it is television — for the remainder of this decade and the next — that will be the prime medium of communication. Democracy is at great risk.

2. We must ensure Internet is open and accesible to all citizens. We cannot take this future for granted. We must be prepared to fight for it. Some of the forces that destroyed the TV marketplace are interested in taking over the Internet. We must assure this medium develops in the mold of the original marketplace of ideas.

> The Media Center blog has links to others blogging and podcasting the conference. Check them out here.

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