A big howdy and welcome to Al Gore, who with a 7,200-word feature (“Climate of Denial: Can Science and the Truth Withstand the Merchants of Poison?”) in the new Rolling Stone has joined the press-critic racket.
Although the primary target of Gore’s piece is the press corps, his pen wanders, giving his article the flow of several op-eds about separate topics stitched front-to-end like the victims of The Human Centipede. Gore begins complaining about press coverage of global warming but then marbles his essay with a couple of history lessons and sections complaining about campaign-finance regulation, the economic crisis, the number of hours people watch television, and the “powerful special interests” who have “rigged” the political game. I needed two cups of strong coffee and a tap from a cattle prod to finish it: Your dosage may vary.
Assuming you witnessed the 2000 campaign, I don’t have to reprise Gore’s views about those powerful special interests that have rigged the political game. Nor do I need to summarize his ideas about global warming, seeing as his Oscar-winning documentary and best-selling books have flooded the public consciousness. But Gore’s media criticism deserves a second look—and pointers—should he decide to join the ranks of the press critics permanently.
Pointer No. 1: Vilify your enemies by name.
Gore’s criticism is hopelessly vague. He blames the press for covering global warming like a professional wrestling referee—working from a script to boost viewership—but then gives no examples. He bitches about “extremist ideologues” but names none. He denounces “large carbon polluters” who finance “pseudoscientists” but doesn’t name either.
The entire piece names just one corrupt news organization: the Fox News Channel. Yes, it’s always fun to cane the Fox News Channel for its crimes, but Gore doesn’t have the goods. Instead of citing a “refereed” news story broadcast by Fox, he quotes from an email from a Fox News Washington Managing Editor Bill Sammon, which Media Matters uncovered in December. In the email, Sammon instructed his reporters to question the “veracity of climate change data.” Elsewhere, Gore maintains Fox News was one of the “hyperactive cheerleaders” for the Iraq War. (He names no others.) That’s it!
The only other news organization named—the New York Times—gets a brownie point when mentioned. In 1991, the Times published a leak from a coal-industry planning document describing the industry’s scheme to “reposition global warming as theory” and not fact. Gore doesn’t provide a link to the piece. Here it is.
Pointer No. 2: If you’re going to champion “science and reason,” something Gore does repeatedly in his piece, you must not avoid inconvenient truths (sorry!) that challenge your thesis.
For example, Fox News Channel’s corporate parent, News Corp., boarded the let’s-stop-global-warming bus four years ago and now claims to be carbon-neutral. So what does it mean that Fox News opposes the global warming argument but the company that owns Fox News—and its CEO, Rupert Murdoch—embraces it?
Pointer No. 3: If you’re going to cite survey results, put them in context.
Gore writes, “The average American, meanwhile, is watching television an astonishing five hours a day. In the average household, at least one television set is turned on more than eight hours a day.”
Those numbers sound horrific, as if the news twisters are pouring garbage into viewers’ brains one-third of every day. But how many times have you walked into a room in which a television was playing to no audience at all? How often have you walked into a TV room and found the one person sitting paying no attention to the set? Nielsen tabulates those televisions as “watched.” For many people, a steadily humming television fills the background, not the foreground. Nielsen provides a less scary TV statistic from a 2009 study in this PDF: In 2009 the average primetime viewership was a mere 1 hour and 12 minutes a day for individuals. And that includes time-shifted viewing via a DVR or other device.
Pointer No. 4: Never bring up Fox News without noting how relatively small its audience is.
Yes, Fox News attracts the largest audiences of any news network. On June 21, for example, O’Reilly attracted 3 million viewers and Hannity 2.1 million, winning their time slots in cable news (source: Nielsen via Mediaite). But in a country of 311 * million, that audience is small potatoes. (Sidebar: Edward Jay Epstein reports in Adweek that every Fox News rating success benefits CNN because “more cable systems need to retail CNN for a semblance of balance.”)
Pointer No. 5: Never call the kettle black.
If you’re going to be a press critic and a press mogul simultaneously, you should probably mention this in your press criticism. Gore, chairman of the lefty-liberal news channel Current, doesn’t mention this fact in the body of his Rolling Stone piece.
Gore recently hired Keith Olbermann, who moved his Countdown news and talk show from MSNBC to Current. I like Olbermann as much as the next guy. He’s fun to watch and he knows how to write. But Olbermann is an opinion journalist who donates to Democratic campaigns. If you called Olbermann an ideologue, as David Carr does, you’d be right. I have no problem with ideological journalists. I watch a lot of ideological television and read from an assortment of ideological journals. Nor do I have problem with Gore being an ideologue. But he’s at a severe handicap if he wants to denounce ideologues for being ideologues at the same time he’s an ideologue.
Pointer No. 6: Make sure your quotations are accurate.
In his Rolling Stone piece, Gore quotes a “philosopher” who wrote, “The conversion of all questions of truth into questions of power has attacked the very heart of the distinction between true and false.”
The quotation from Theodor W. Adorno, a Frankfurt School Marxist, reads in its entirety, “The conversion of all questions of truth into questions of power, a process that truth itself cannot escape if it is not to be annihilated by power, not only suppresses truth, as in earlier despotic orders, but has attacked the very heart of the distinction between true and false, which the hirelings of logic were in any case diligently working to abolish.”* [The text Gore dropped is set in italics.]
This quotation is one of Gore’s favorites. It appears—properly abbreviated with an ellipsis—in his book Our Choice: A Plan to Solve the Climate Crisis.(I approve of recycling favorite quotations. It always helps me hit my deadline.)
Pointer No. 7: If you have something to say, say it well.
If Gore hopes to impress readers, he had better start writing better than he does in “Climate of Denial.” Give a look at this flabby sentence:
The best available evidence demonstrates beyond any reasonable doubt that the reckless spewing of global-warming pollution in obscene quantities into the atmospheric commons is having exactly the consequences long predicted by scientists who have analyzed the known facts according to the laws of physics.
I really like that last bit, “according to the laws of physics.”
Say, maybe Al can persuade Keith to give him writing lessons!
Changing the subject only slightly, a hearty welcome to a genuine press critic, Erik Wemple, whose Washington Post blog about the news media started today. Follow him at @ErikWemple. Send email and writing advice to firstname.lastname@example.org and inspect my Twitter feed for extremist ideology. Jillian Moreno provided research assistance for this article. (Email may be quoted by name in “The Fray,” Slate’s readers’ forum; in a future article; or elsewhere unless the writer stipulates otherwise. Permanent disclosure: Slate is owned by the Washington Post Co.)
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Correction, June 28, 2011: The original version of this piece chided Al Gore for publishing an incomplete quotation from Theodor W. Adorno. But its “correction” of Gore was incorrect. The complete quotation is now in the piece. It also misstated the population of the United States. It is 311 million. (Return to the corrected sentence.)