Among the many problems facing the Democratic Party, according to former Vice President Al Gore, is the state of the American media.
“The media is kind of weird these days on politics, and there are some major institutional voices that are, truthfully speaking, part and parcel of the Republican Party,” said Mr. Gore in an interview with The Observer. “Fox News Network, The Washington Times , Rush Limbaugh-there’s a bunch of them, and some of them are financed by wealthy ultra-conservative billionaires who make political deals with Republican administrations and the rest of the media …. Most of the media [has] been slow to recognize the pervasive impact of this fifth column in their ranks-that is, day after day, injecting the daily Republican talking points into the definition of what’s objective as stated by the news media as a whole.”
Mr. Gore has been airing his views during a nationwide promotional book tour that marks his re-emergence in public life after a self-imposed exile following his loss in the 2000 Presidential election. Now, as Mr. Gore considers another Presidential campaign, he’s determined to confound his ponderous image by unveiling a new Al Gore-one who doesn’t hesitate, as he puts it, to “let ‘er rip.”
Hence his controversial criticisms of President Bush’s foreign policy, and his surprise announcement in favor of a government-run universal health-care system. And hence, in a phone interview with The Observer , his extensive criticism of the media, which is hardly a conventional way of launching a national political campaign.
Actually, Mr. Gore may have little reason to hide his views about the media, for his re-emergence, while generating a massive amount of attention, has also inspired ridicule from commentators of all ideological persuasions. Conservatives seemed delighted by his return, remembering his awkward candidacy in 2000, and many liberals have been quite frank in wishing that he would simply disappear.
But Mr. Gore has a bone to pick with his critics: namely, he says, that a systematically orchestrated bias in the media makes it impossible for him and his fellow Democrats to get a fair shake. “Something will start at the Republican National Committee, inside the building, and it will explode the next day on the right-wing talk-show network and on Fox News and in the newspapers that play this game, The Washington Times and the others. And then they’ll create a little echo chamber, and pretty soon they’ll start baiting the mainstream media for allegedly ignoring the story they’ve pushed into the zeitgeist . And then pretty soon the mainstream media goes out and disingenuously takes a so-called objective sampling, and lo and behold, these R.N.C. talking points are woven into the fabric of the zeitgeist .”
And during a lengthy discourse on the history of political journalism in America, Mr. Gore said he believed that evolving technologies and market forces have combined to lower the media’s standards of objectivity. “The introduction of cable-television news and Internet news made news a commodity, available from an unlimited number of sellers at a steadily decreasing cost, so the established news organizations became the high-cost producers of a low-cost commodity,” said Mr. Gore. “They’re selling a hybrid product now that’s news plus news-helper; whether it’s entertainment or attitude or news that’s marbled with opinion, it’s different. Now, especially in the cable-TV market, it has become good economics once again to go back to a party-oriented approach to attract a hard-core following that appreciates the predictability of a right-wing point of view, but then to make aggressive and constant efforts to deny that’s what they’re doing in order to avoid offending the broader audience that mass advertisers want. Thus the Fox slogan ‘We Report, You Decide,’ or whatever the current version of their ritual denial is.”
“We understand that Gore is frustrated,” said R.N.C. spokesman Kevin Sheridan. “He’s the leader of a party without a message. But if he thinks that the Republican National Committee can control the American media, then perhaps he needs a break from the book tour.”
Fox spokesman Rob Zimmerman said, “We won’t dignify this with a response.”
A spokesman for The Washington Times didn’t return calls for comment. Rush Limbaugh was traveling and not available for comment.
A Left Hook
Of course, some of the harshest criticisms of Mr. Gore have come from distinctly non-conservative quarters. Mr. Gore seemed particularly stung, for example, by an op-ed written by Frank Rich of The New York Times , suggesting that his new spontaneity was a charade. “When people write a line like one that I read this morning-quote, ‘People do not change,’ period, end quote-well, there’s a difference between learning from experience and self-reinvention,” Mr. Gore said. “People do change, particularly in America. If you don’t learn from the experiences you have in life, then you’re not trying very hard, and if you don’t make mistakes, you’re not human …. If people who make their living criticizing anybody and everybody want to add me to their list, that’s all right. Hell, they’ve got to make a living.”
Democrats sympathetic to Mr. Gore frequently maintain that “political insiders”-the media, big donors, professional politicians-paint an overly pessimistic picture of his viability as a candidate and suggest that his position has been strengthened by the party’s poor showing in the midterm elections several weeks ago. “There are all these people in the party who have been adamant that we need a fresh face,” said Joe Andrew, who headed the Democratic National Committee during the Clinton administration. “I think a lot of those people are taking another look at Al Gore now, saying that, ‘Well, at least there’s someone out there with big ideas, who looks good on TV, who looks more comfortable with himself.’ I think it’s simply a fundamental reaction to the sense that he is a serious candidate with serious ideas.”
But while Mr. Gore has a solid core of support, many Democrats do want a fresh face to take on George W. Bush in 2004. The same formal and informal polls that show Mr. Gore with substantially larger backing than any other Democratic hopeful also show that a great many donors, opinion makers and party leaders are uncommitted-and leaning toward Anyone But Gore.
It’s possible that no amount of criticism will keep Mr. Gore out of the race, but there’s little question that “Gore fatigue” already has become a rallying point for his potential opponents. “At this point, people are uniformly looking for a different face and a different agenda, an agenda that requires a backbone,” Vermont Governor Howard Dean, a potential Democratic contender, told The Observer.
Asked about Mr. Gore’s efforts to make a fresh start as a straight-talking, independent-minded Democrat, Mr. Dean said, “I think it will be kind of a tough job for someone who was a sitting Vice President to call himself an outsider.”
Mr. Gore acknowledged his image problem among powerful Democrats, and that the onus will be upon him to recapture the loyalties of those who supported him in 2000. “Maybe I bear the blame for some of it,” he said. “I haven’t been very good about calling all of the insiders over the last two years, and maybe some of them have a beef with me because of that. I know they have been courted assiduously by some of the others who are considering a run for the White House, and it may be that some of them have already signed up with other people. If I do decide to run again, I think there’s a lot of support, but I’d also have to work really hard to get a bunch of them committed back to me.”
Mr. Gore also reckoned that he would have to prove himself all over again to key political and media players. “I’m well aware that the political insiders and political-journalism community have a considerable amount of influence, and even though I’m stronger at the grassroots level, I think that if I did run again, I would have to convince those two groups that I’ve learned enough in the last couple of years to run a better campaign than I did last time. I don’t think that there’s a thing that I could say and no words I could choose that could accomplish that-the way to convince them would be in actually doing it.”
For now, Mr. Gore can only attempt to explain what motivates the ceaseless lampooning he continues to face from America’s columnists and commentators. “That’s postmodernism,” he offered. “It’s the combination of narcissism and nihilism that really defines postmodernism, and that’s another interview for another time, if you’re interested in it.