The media's assault on reason

››› ››› ERIC BOEHLERT

How hard is it to figure out if a book has footnotes? When it comes to Al Gore's new, national bestseller, The Assault on Reason (Penguin Press, May 2007), it's trickier than you think for some disdainful members of the Beltway press corps.

How hard is it to figure out if a book has footnotes? When it comes to Al Gore's new, national bestseller, The Assault on Reason (Penguin Press, May 2007), it's trickier than you think for some disdainful members of the Beltway press corps.

On June 10, The Washington Post published an opinion column by Andrew Ferguson about Gore's new book. Personally, I give The Assault on Reason high marks as a spot-on, truth-telling critique of the Bush administration, as well as for the insightful concern Gore expresses about the fragile state of American democracy. Or, "what passes for a national conversation," as Gore puts it.

Not surprisingly though, Ferguson, an editor at the Rupert Murdoch-owned Weekly Standard, disliked the book, waving it off as "a sprawling, untidy blast of indignation."

What was embarrassing for both Ferguson and the Post was that in the very first sentence of his column, Ferguson made a whopping error when he condescendingly observed that The Assault on Reason had no footnotes. (The book is such a mess, footnotes would have been of no use, he suggested.) The problem, according to Ferguson, is that without footnotes readers have no way of checking the sources for the many historical quotes Gore uses in the book, including one on Page 88 from Abraham Lincoln that Ferguson would "love to know where [Gore] found."

In fact, if Ferguson had simply bothered to look, every one of the nearly 300 quotes found in The Assault on Reason is accompanied by an endnote with complete sourcing information, including the quote on Page 88 that Ferguson focuses on. The endnotes consume 20 pages of the book.

But such is life for Al Gore when dealing with the Beltway press, where his vociferous critics cannot be bothered with the simplest fact-checking task, while oblivious media outlets such as the Post print up the errors.

Of course the thick irony here is that Gore's book laments the state of our crumbling national dialogue, yet it's the press that often deliberately dumbs down and interrupts our "conversation of democracy." Gore doesn't often explicitly connect the dots in his book, but the press remains a culprit throughout.

For instance, Gore writes extensively about the culture of fear that developed following the terrorist attacks on 9-11:

The single most surprising new element in America's national conversation is the prominence and intensity of constant fear. Moreover, there is an uncharacteristic and persistent confusion about the sources of that fear; we seem to be having unusual difficulty in distinguishing between illusory threats and legitimate ones.

The sad fact is that the media have played a central role. Everyone remember the Great Duct Tape Scare of 2003?

Gore also decries the fact that the Bush administration misled Americans about Saddam Hussein's alleged stockpile of weapons of mass destruction. But the White House had lots of help in spreading that phony prewar tale, including The New York Times' Judith Miller to the whole Fox News team, to name just a few.

Gore does offer a specific critique of television and blames it for polluting the national conversation. Too much Anna Nicole Smith and Britney, says Gore. And of course he's right. The cable news nervous breakdown that was broadcast last Friday afternoon when Paris Hilton was taken back to jail simply proved Gore's point, and specifically that it's journalists who are driving the celebrity-as-news obsession, not news consumers. (MSNBC producers were heard screaming when Hilton first emerged from her home in handcuffs on Friday.) In the 24 hours after Friday's news broke, "Paris" was mentioned nearly 800 times on CNN, Fox News, and MSNBC, combined. That same day, Gen. Peter Pace, who oversees the war in Iraq, resigned as chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff. His name was mentioned fewer than 100 times by the three cable news channels, according to TVEyes.com.

But the problems extend far beyond celebrity-obsessed cable news channels. Proof of the broken system? Just look at the Beltway media's reaction to Gore's book release. Thanks to the likes of ABC News, The New York Times, and The Washington Post, the coverage has, at times, been comically shallow, small, and dishonest. That's what's wrong with our "national conversation."

And Gore has the 2000 campaign scars to prove it, having suffered some of the most egregious media cheap shots in modern political history. (Inventing the internet, anybody?) Indeed, it's no exaggeration to say Gore is out on book tours today instead of sitting in the Oval Office because of the wildly dishonest press coverage he received during that presidential campaign, in which he was depicted as a stiff, phony bore who lied.

That lazy narrative still sticks to this day. Time magazine, in an otherwise flattering profile, recently wrote of Gore, "He was never quite the wooden Indian his detractors made him out to be in 2000 (nor did he claim to have invented the Internet), but he did carry himself with a slightly anachronistic Southern formality that was magnified beneath the klieg lights of the campaign."

See, it was the klieg lights that doomed Gore in 2000, not the dishonest journalists, who actually doubled as the unnamed "detractors" referenced by Time.

And in a recent New York Times Magazine profile, James Traub wrote that in 2000 Gore "was, to all appearances, an unhappy guy running against a happy guy; and Americans like their presidential candidates to be happy." Unhappy? Of course, when Gore lip-locked his wife on national television at the Democratic convention in an unexpected display of unbridled joy, the pundits descended to probe and dissect the smooch, before dismissing it as a likely calculated ruse.

It seems Gore has been cursed with the life sentence of suffering newsroom fools gladly. Indeed, much of the Beltway media's response to The Assault on Reason was depressingly predictable and dim-witted. As Bob Somerby noted at his weblog, The Daily Howler, "It's obvious how it's going to go as the press corps pretends to discuss Al Gore's book. Gore has said our discourse is broken -- and our pundits are going to rush out to prove it."

Appearing on ABC's Good Morning America, Gore was forced to suffer through an extended sit-down with host Diane Sawyer, who, like so many of Gore's recent interviewers, appeared only interested in talking about whatever presidential aspiration he may or may not have. First question: "OK. You're not gonna tell me again that you have no plans to run, are you? Tell me this morning." (FYI, it's telling that during an hour-long conference call with prominent liberal bloggers during his book tour, not once was Gore asked about his White House hopes. Instead, the bloggers actually engaged Gore on the substance of his book, as well as the day's current events. How quaint.)

Later, Sawyer, reciting GOP talking points regarding anyone who questions the failed war in Iraq, tried to set a word-game trap for Gore:

SAWYER: And another point you say, "If Iraq had nothing to do with 9-11, the president took us into a war he didn't have to. Three thousand Americans and countless Iraqis died unnecessarily." Are you saying, in this book and this morning, that Americans -- 3,000 of them -- died unnecessarily?

GORE: See, that's the kind of buzzword approach: "Is it an unnecessary death?" No. Those who serve our country are honored in memory and those who are still serving are always honored. That's not the question. There is hardly anybody in America left, Diane, who doesn't believe that it was a terrible mistake to invade a country that didn't attack us.

And then there was this dopey back-and-forth between Gore and Nightline's Terry Moran, who really has no idea how modern politics works in America; an awkward fact Gore was forced to (politely) highlight:

MORAN: So, if this fall, a sufficient number of Democrats came to you and said, "This is your moment. We needyou. The country needs you."

GORE: Well, I'm not -- I -- it doesn't happen that way anymore.

MORAN: It has.

GORE: You know, 100 years ago, there were times when something like that happened. It hasn't happened in, in the last century or so, and that's just not the way our political system works now.

At another point, Moran, who like so many journalists was determined to portray The Assault on Reason as a bitter, anti-Bush screed, asked Gore if it was "the book you wanted to write after the 2000 election?" (i.e. payback). But how on Earth could Gore have wanted to write this book right after 2000 if most of the events discussed in the book (the war with Iraq, the abuses at Abu Ghraib, corporate tax cuts, etc.) hadn't even occurred yet?

Meanwhile, over at ABC.com, Jake Tapper analyzed The Assault on Reason. Busy portraying Gore as a Michael Moore-type radical (as if Moore's ideas are radical), Tapper theorized that, although there is no mention of it in the book, Gore would probably support impeaching Bush and Vice President Dick Cheney. Gore, in fact, does not support impeachment, which, of course, is why Gore did not write about impeaching Bush or Cheney in his book.

Bottom line: Gore was trying to have a debate about democracy while Sawyer, Moran, and Tapper were inserting words into his mouth, asking silly questions, and analyzing what he did not write in his book. And that was just ABC News.

At The New York Times, conservative columnist David Brooks ridiculed Gore for writing a book that Gore did not actually write. Brooks described Gore's utopia as a machine-driven world that is without emotion, family or friends: "He envisions a sort of Vulcan Utopia, in which dispassionate individuals exchange facts and arrive at logical conclusions." Suffice it to say that Brook's mocking description bears no resemblance to The Assault on Reason. Then again, Brooks has been making stuff up about Gore for years, so why stop now?

The same goes for his colleague Maureen Dowd. Like clockwork, she typed up a derisive, trivia-based column to greet Gore's new book. Believe it or not, she thought the most telling facts about The Assault on Reason were that A) Gore's image does not appear on the cover; and B) Gore's author photo on the jacket dates from the 1990s. And neither reflected well on Gore. According to Dowd, the lack of photo on the cover revealed Gore's pretensions about the book, while his dated author photo revealed his vanity. (Ridiculing The Assault on Reason in the Sunday Times of London, Andrew Sullivan also stressed very high up in his review that Gore's face does not appear on the book cover. Sullivan and Dowd literally critiqued packaging.)

Meanwhile, The Washington Post, embracing rampant anti-intellectualism, fretted that Gore was too smart. (Or he was acting too smart.) And the paper despised him for it. Reviewing The Assault on Reason for the Post on May 30, Alan Ehrenhalt, whom the Post described as an "intellectual," leveled a personal attack on Gore in the review's second sentence, complaining that he "annoy[s] the maximum possible number of people." (Ehrenhalt offered no proof for that attack.)

He belittled Gore for including too many quotes from the likes of Louis Brandeis, Edmund Burke, Aristotle, Thomas Jefferson, John Donne, and the German philosopher Jurgen Habermas. (All the quotes showed that Gore was "desperate to display his erudition.") Ehrenhalt then concluded by noting, "The Assault on Reason is a serious work by an intelligent man with an incurable habit of calling more attention to himself than to the ideas he wishes to communicate."

So Gore was guilty of "calling attention to himself" by not putting his image on the cover of the book and by filling The Assault on Reason with quotes from other people? You figure it out, because it makes no sense to me.

Three days later, while covering a local speech and book signing, the Post's Dana Milbank literally made fun of Gore for even discussing topics of historical importance, such as the Enlightenment and the Information Age. Milbank wrote that "Professor Gore" kept pompously reminding attendees that he was "the smartest guy in the room." Yet Milbank's mocking article provided no proof to back up that assertion. Instead, the article included quotes from people in the audience who said Gore was the smartest person in the room.

In The Assault on Reason, Gore correctly laments that we cannot have intelligent, informed national debates. Yet the sad fact remains there are Beltway press players who devote much of their time and energy to ensuring that those debates cannot take place. Hopefully Gore will write a book about them some day.

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