Political Animal


June 22, 2011 4:30 PM Climate change, Gore, and politics over substance

By Steve Benen

James Fallows had an interesting item this afternoon, noting the “Why Americans Hate the Media” thesis, and highlighting a case study that came into focus today.

Al Gore’s new essay in Rolling Stone, about impending climate disasters, is mainly about the failure of the media to direct adequate attention to the issue, and to call out paid propagandists and discredited phony scientists. That’s where the essay starts, and what it covers in its first 5,000 words. The second part, less than half as long, and much more hedged in its judgment, is about the Obama Administration’s faltering approach on climate change. But of course the immediate press presentation on the essays has been all “OMG Gore attacks Obama!” For instance at Slate, TPM, NY Mag, the AP, and the Atlantic’s own Wire site. […]

Yes, the news value here is Gore-v-Obama; yes, that’s part of the story. But the theme I tried to lay out in that essay is that the media’s all-consuming interest in the “how” and “who’s ahead” of politics, and “oh God this is boring” disdain for the “what” and “why” of public issues, has all sorts of ugly consequences. It makes the public think that politics is not for them unless they love the insider game; it makes the “what” and “why” of public issues indeed boring and unapproachable; and as a consequence of the latter, it makes the public stupider than it needs to be about the what and why.

After writing several thousand words on the crisis itself, Gore actually praised President Obama, lauding the fact that the White House “included significant climate-friendly initiatives in the economic stimulus package he presented to Congress during his first month in office. With the skillful leadership of House Speaker Nancy Pelosi and committee chairmen Henry Waxman and Ed Markey, he helped secure passage of a cap-and-trade measure in the House a few months later. He implemented historic improvements in fuel-efficiency standards for automobiles, and instructed the Environmental Protection Agency to move forward on the regulation of global-warming pollution under the Clean Air Act. He appointed many excellent men and women to key positions, and they, in turn, have made hundreds of changes in environmental and energy policy that have helped move the country forward slightly on the climate issue. During his first six months, he clearly articulated the link between environmental security, economic security and national security — making the case that a national commitment to renewable energy could simultaneously reduce unemployment, dependence on foreign oil and vulnerability to the disruption of oil markets dominated by the Persian Gulf reserves. And more recently, as the issue of long-term debt has forced discussion of new revenue, he proposed the elimination of unnecessary and expensive subsidies for oil and gas.”

In the next paragraph, however, Gore wrote, “But in spite of these and other achievements, President Obama has thus far failed to use the bully pulpit to make the case for bold action on climate change.”

On CNN’s political page right now, well below a top-of-the-page piece about Bristol Palin’s memoir, CNN’s headline reads, “Gore: Obama has ‘failed.’”

As Fallows put it, “The reaction to Gore’s essay illustrates the pattern: from his point of view, it’s one more (earnest) attempt to say ‘Hey, listen up about this problem!’ As conveyed by the press, it’s one more skirmish on the ‘liberals don’t like Obama’ front, and one more illustration of the eyes-glazing-over trivia and details about melting icebergs and scientific disputes.”

Steve Benen is a contributing writer to the Washington Monthly, joining the publication in August, 2008 as chief blogger for the Washington Monthly blog, Political Animal.


Post a comment
  • troglodyte on June 22, 2011 4:58 PM:

    This passage from Gore's article highlights the irony of Steve's post:

    Even writing an article like this one carries risks; opponents of the president will excerpt the criticism and strip it of context.

  • Kuji on June 22, 2011 5:00 PM:

    I usually avoid cnn - it's no better than National Enquirer half the time. And yeah, Bristol Palin's plug for her memoir is political news? I'm sure she has interesting things to write about just like her mom - but any plug for her book should probably be under another section of the website. Like Entertainment or something.

  • TR on June 22, 2011 5:01 PM:

    Watching CNN on this right now: "GORE BLASTS OBAMA ON ENVIRONMENT" with dramatic tease and lots of sensationalism, which is undercut by the reporter Joe Johns who says "Gore writes 7000 words and lambasts the media, and then at the very end adds some criticism of the president as well."


  • fbacon2 on June 22, 2011 5:15 PM:

    Which is why I was upset with Gore when i first saw that story over at TPM. If someone with that much experience couldn't predict that his message would get lost in the media narrative, then it's his mistake. If you write a book about the end of reason, don't be surprised when your thesis is proven.

  • nick1936 on June 22, 2011 5:18 PM:

    does Gore think that a Repuk would do any better? he should have the good nanners to go away he won the election in 2000 but instead of calling for a total recount in Florida he blew it

  • Mimikatz on June 22, 2011 5:28 PM:

    The media folks probably just skimmed the part about the media to get to the good parts about Obama. They probably didn't really hear what Gore was saying if they did read it, just like they couldn't understand Stephen Colbert's criticisms in his piece at the Correspondents' Dinner or Jon Stewart's criticisms. They are too shallow and easily bored to bother, plus Al Gore is fat, and climate is such a downer. Who wants to read that their own children are Generation Toast and they really shouldn't be flying all over the place.

  • Elizabelle on June 22, 2011 5:32 PM:

    "If you write a book about the end of reason, don't be surprised when your thesis is proven." fba at 5:15 p

    Oh God, that is so true.

    Haven't read the RS article yet, but Gore should realize that the media noise industrial complex will twist just about anything he wants to get across.

    They're out for controversy, which sells.

    And anything Joe Johns said was lost due to the headline "Gore blasts Obama on environment." That is what was advertised and what will be remembered.

    So sad.

  • shrink2 on June 22, 2011 5:32 PM:

    President Obama has thus far failed to use the bully pulpit to make the case for bold action, except in Libya and Afghanistan.

  • SecularAnimist on June 22, 2011 5:42 PM:

    Of course the media is ignoring Gore's excoriation of the media's coverage of anthropogenic global warming -- which he likens to the behavior of the phony "referees" of professional wrestling. The media NEVER discusses such criticisms of itself, and it is quite right to take the media to task on that score.

    Having said that, Gore's criticism of Obama's failure to lead on global warming -- which is an existential threat not only to the USA but to the human species -- is much, much stronger than Steve Benen's article suggests. It is not just an incidental afterthought to his essay, and it is newsworthy. Reporting on it is NOT putting "politics over substance".

    And by the way, it is ironic that Steven Benen himself just about NEVER reports on global warming, or the actions of Obama or the Congress regarding it -- unless and until there is something to say about the "politics", as in this case.

    Please read Gore's actual essay. It is powerful.

  • DAY on June 22, 2011 6:03 PM:

    Perhaps Gore is savvy enough to know that the way to get the media to focus on an issue to is to create "controversy" about it.
    - or maybe not.

  • Stephen Stralka on June 22, 2011 6:38 PM:

    On the other hand, maybe Gore knew exactly how the media would react. It does seem like he at least is more concerned about the crisis than the politics, and if putting a little more pressure on Obama helps, why the hell not? He can at least get CNN talking about climate change.

  • DNS on June 22, 2011 11:22 PM:

    The morning after Waterloo:
    "Bonaparte Snippy with Aide de Camp"

  • beejeez on June 23, 2011 9:53 AM:

    Regardless of the merits of Gore's criticism, CNN's headline on the story is a completely irresponsible distortion, as bad as those movie ads with misleadingly excerpted review blurbs. I'm a copy editor who lost his job when my newspaper folded, and it infuriates me that a major network and news organization has this level of hackitude at its top level.

  • square1 on June 23, 2011 4:43 PM:

    I am completely not surprised that our miserable media would ignore Gore's criticism of their behavior.

    WRT Obama, if anything, Gore went too easy on him.

    In the real world, problems are either solved or they are not solved. Only politicians think that they deserve credit and praise for "addressing" problems.

    Obama has either proposed policies to SOLVE the problem of climate change or he hasn't. And I would define a solution as being a set of policies that will hold greenhouse gases at an acceptable level.

    Using that definition, the Obama administration has never proposed a solution to the problem. I don't mean that he hasn't gotten a solution enacted. I mean that he hasn't proposed a solution.

    Now, in fairness to Obama, climate change has always been an area where he has, quite frankly, sucked. This isn't an area, like the individual health insurance mandate, collective bargaining, or civil liberties, where Obama said something radically different on the campaign trail than he now does while in office. Obama has ALWAYS been pretty lousy on climate change.

    Indeed, it was the support for "clean coal" by both Obama and Hillary during the primaries that kept people floating Gore's name up until the convention. The fact is that, if you've been paying attention and consider climate change to be the most serious existential threat to our civilization we face, Obama should have been scaring you from the word go.

    If I can fault Gore for anything, it is for his failure to lead on an issue that he ostensibly considers to be critical even when he should have known that Obama was not going to deliver policies that Gore would find acceptable. If you want something done right, you have to do it yourself.

  • Dancer on June 23, 2011 6:39 PM:

    PULLLEEEEZE...HuffPO, and all other blogs I check into presented the same meme in their headlines and did little better explaining/enhancing the story in the body of their pieces...it's ALL about the SCARAH STRATEGY (Look at ME!)...there IS little or no actual journalism alive and well in 'merica today...it's a BUSINESS, member...

  • Kane on June 24, 2011 5:18 AM:

    This week the media narrative is that the LGBT community is angry with President Obama. Last week it was progressiv­es who are disgruntle­d with President Obama and his administra­tion. The week before that the narrative was that those on Wall Street are upset with Obama. The week before that the narrative was that African Americans are upset with Obama. And the week before that the narrative was that Jewish Americans might not be as supportive of Obama as they once were.

    If someone from any group offers criticism of Obama, it is sure to be noted and reported and given a narrative of looming doom for Obama. It's the continuation of the prevalent narrative of the 2008 presidential campaign where every issue was raised as a potential problem for Barack Obama.

  • Hamilton Richards on June 28, 2011 8:03 AM:

    It's no excuse, but a possible explanation for the media's misbehavior in this instance is its fixation on news. The nasty fate awaiting civilization at the end of the route we're on is old news, Gore praising Obama is just what you'd expect (and therefore not news), and of course no criticism of the media could possibly be news. That leaves only Gore's few words of mild criticism, so that's what the herd of journalists notices and focuses on.

    To keep global warming in the media requires continually casting it as some form of news. For doing just that in his RS article, Gore deserves some credit.

  • Michael North on June 28, 2011 10:45 AM:

    This is as much an issue with the liberal *bloggers* as with the media. It was all over the blogs, too. As for the media sources sited above, Slate and TPM have a distinctly liberal slant. That's often fine, but their bias shows far more often than it should.

  • Rockyspoon on June 29, 2011 6:47 PM:

    I find it amusing when the Left feeds on the Left. That's a fitting retribution to the inane arguments that cycle back and forth without solving anything anytime, anywhere. What happened to Koyoto? What happened to Global Warming? What is happening to the sun that makes the NSO say we're in for at least 20 years of brittle cooling? Finding that CO2 isn't the culprit everybody thought it was should begin the eviceration of the AGW movement--and none too soon; there's no way a "green" environment using windmills, solar panels or biodiesel will solve our problems.

  • bill on June 30, 2011 9:47 AM:

    On CNN radio yesterday: "Lindsey Lohan was released from rehab today." I shit you not.

  • bill on June 30, 2011 9:55 AM:

    Rocky, what is this "finding that CO2 isn't the culprit everybody thought it was" of which you speak? I must have missed that memo, along with the 99 percent of scientists who would disagree with you.