Friday, May 25, 2007

Al Gore on The Daily Show

Al Gore was the guest on Comedy Central's The Daily Show with Jon Stewart Thursday night, talking about his new book, The Assault on Reason, and discussing the breakdown of the "conversation of democracy" because we have shifted from reasoned arguments and serious discussion to sound bites and 30-second TV ads.

Here's the annotated transcript of the interview, for the purpose of facilitating that "conversation":
Jon Stewart: Welcome back. My guest tonight, a former Vice President of the United States, and a former Presidential candidate, his new book is called The Assault on Reason. Please welcome to the show Al Gore.

[humorous banter elided; watch the video via the embedded link above]

Stewart: The book is called The Assault on Reason; has something happened to Reason that I haven't heard about? What's going on?

Al Gore: Well, Reason had it coming. Yeah, logic, reason, facts play less of a role now in the way we make decisions in America, and that's really what the invasion of Iraq has in common with the climate crisis. In both cases, there were all these facts, all this evidence, enough to convince any reasonable person that, hey, by the way, Saddam Hussein was not the one responsible for the attack on 9/11, so maybe [audience cheers] maybe we shouldn't have withdrawn most of our troops from the search in Afghanistan, where Osama bin Laden was, to invade a country that did not attack us. And in the same way, all the scientists tell us that, hey, the climate crisis is the most serious that we've ever faced, and yet our official policy in the country is still that, you know, we're not going to do anything serious about it, and there are lots of other similar examples.

Stewart: How is reason — you know, you lay out that case and people say that's very reasonable. So how is it that, as a group, we continue to go, "Ah, I see: let's do the unreasonable thing"? What is it about the arguments, and why then are the people not using reason doing so much better arguing than the reasonable people? Even in the Senate, you have people — you know, they were just saying, we're going to, the Senate and the House are going to send a bill to the President, it's gonna stop the war and do the thing, and just recently they went, "Ah, you know what? Forget it, let's just go away for the weekend."

Gore: Well, you know, before the vote to go to war in the first place in Iraq, our longest-serving Senator, Senator Robert Byrd of West Virginia, stood in an empty chamber, and he said "Why is this Senate silent? Ominously silent?" There was no effort to lay out the pros and cons, and in fact that was the case. I think the answer to his question is, People don't care that much any more about what's said on the floor of the Senate because the news media doesn't cover it any more —

Stewart: You haven't seen C–SPAN 5.

Gore: — and the Senators are often not there, because the system that we have now makes them feel like they have to go out and spend all their time raising money to buy 30-second television commercials, because that's the principal way that political dialogue takes place now. And when you have a conversation that's still mainly over television, it's a one-way communication. The average American is watching television 4½ hours a day —

Stewart: Although we have great respect for you, and that in no way insinuates that it's not a good use of your time. [cheers] It is a passive medium.

Gore: Yes, and my position is that all television is bad except my network, current_ TV, and The Daily Show, and whatever show I happen to be watching at the time.

Stewart: Exactly.

Gore: But in all seriousness, the television news programs have probably spent a lot more time on Britney Spears' shaving her head, and Paris Hilton going to jail, and Anna-Nicole Smith's estate lawyers and Joey Buttafuoco, and all this stuff, than they have spent giving us the facts — for example, telling us before the invasion of Iraq, that actually Iraq had nothing whatsoever to do with the attack of 9/11.

Stewart: You keep coming back to this: Iraq had nothing to do with 9/11?

Gore: It's shocking, isn't it? 70% of the American people were convinced at the time of the vote that Saddam Hussein was primarily responsible for the attack, 50% still think he was involved with the attack.

Stewart: But isn't that because — I think the reason that always strikes me that that is because the people that want you to believe something are actively manipulating information, and the people whose responsibility it is to filter through that manipulation, don't seem to be doing that. Is that where the disconnect is?

Gore: I think that's part of the problem. I think that the boundary between entertainment and news has been blurred — not on this show!

Stewart: Why are you looking at me? [pause] You know what's sad? On this show, I've actually blurred the line between entertainment and entertainment. We gotta take a commercial break, but when we come back, tell me what is actually wrong, and you can even use my name if you want to. We'll be right back with Al Gore.

[commercial break]

Stewart: Welcome back. We're talkin' to Al Gore.

Gore: I want to say something about your show.

Stewart: Please, say something about our show.

Gore: I want to say something about your show, and not just to flatter you, but it makes a point. I know that there are a lot of people here who feel the way that I do [audience cheers], that actually if you want to get through a lot of the nonsense and get to the heart of what the most important news of the day is, this is really one of the places to go to get the straight story, and it's ironic. I mean, it's true, it's true, Jon. You know, back in the Middle Ages — this'll sound a little weird, high-fallutin', but — the court jester was sometimes the only person who was allowed to tell the truth without getting his head cut off, and in the current media environment, making jokes about serious stuff is about the only way you can get past the —

Stewart: Let me ask you something: that's a compliment, right?

Gore: You're in this book!

Stewart: Thank you. Let me ask you this, though: why is it that the news media — and they're clearly being manipulated by government, by other — why don't they push back just as hard? In terms of, why do they feel that they have to be symbiotic with government? Why do they feel they have to be in a close, mutual relationship?

Gore: First of all, the networks have made the news divisions part of the cash-generating machine, and they have to meet the bottom line, first and foremost. That didn't used to be the case. The line between entertainment and news, as I said earlier, has been blurred badly, and also they can be intimidated. For example, in the run-up to the Iraq War, a lot of politicans, but also a lot of newscasters, were actually scared that they would be branded as unpatriotic —

Stewart: — or lose access —

Gore: — or lose access, or lose ratings. Some of the businesses that advise television networks on how to build their ratings, advised them point-blank, do not put on opponents to this invasion of Iraq, because the others are waving the flag and saying, "Let's go."

Stewart: But isn't the Internet, then, the great equalizer? The Internet is a much more populous — they're the ones that can generate the momentum that put these opposing viewpoints and these other truths into the marketplace, and by keeping that momentum up, isn't the Internet then maybe the counterbalance?

Gore: It is the single greatest source of hope that we will be able to fix what ails the conversation of democracy. And yes, for all its problems and excesses and abuses, and there are a lot of them —

Stewart: Porn.

Gore: Not just that, but the Internet has low entry barriers for individuals, who are then able to join the conversation. And even now, even though it's not at the point where it can really seriously compete with television, even now, the television broadcasters are getting feedback over the Internet that blows the whistle on them. If the Internet had been as strong 6 years ago as it is now, maybe, maybe there would've been a lot more attention paid to the real facts, and we would not have had our troops stuck over there in the middle of a civil war.

Stewart: I'm with you: I blame the Internet. [laughter] Hey, wait a minute!

The Assault on Reason: it's really a fascinating book, and between that and Inconvenient Truth, you need to write something funny. This is really.... Something about five dogs that go to heaven. Al Gore!

[commercial break]

Stewart: Hey, everybody, that's our show. For those of you at home who wonder sometimes, like, hey, what happens when they run out of time, what didn't they get to, what did they miss? Here's what we didn't get to: I was going to say to Al Gore, "Are you running for President? And if you're not running for President you can prove it by putting this hat [a beer helmet] on." Because clearly, somebody who's running for President is not going to do this, and I thought we'd have a great funny thing there, and then he started making so much sense I was like, "Nah, fuck it," and so that's our show; here's your Moment of Zen.
Reporter Jim Axelrod, CBS News: The phrase you just used, "a different configuration in Iraq" that you'd like to see, is that a "Plan B"?

President George W. Bush: Uhhh, we'll, let's see, actually, I would call that [pause] a plan recommended by Baker–Hamilton, so that would be a "Plan B–H."
[Full text of the press conference is available on the White House website; search for "config" to find the quoted passage.]
I can't help remarking on how much more comfortable Gore looks in public speaking than he did just a few short years ago. Still and all, to get an idea of what's really going on, beyond what The Daily Show brings you, you need a variety of sources, including places like Al Jazeera, C–SPAN, MSNBC's Countdown with Keith Olbermann, and a big dollop of PBS.

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