Something struck me as a bit reductionist about Al Gore’s critique of the media in his new book, The Assualt on Reason. But before I got a chance to put my thoughts together, Chris Lehman at the New York Observer beat me to the punch.
Gore believes our downfall began when we moved from print to broadcast. As he puts it in his book, “The replacement of an easily accessible, print-based marketplace of ideas with a restricted-access, television-based realm has led to a radical transformation of the nature and operation of the marketplace of ideas in the United States.” The medium of TV just doesn’t allow for the kind of engagement and back and forth that print—and, Gore believes, the Internet—do. In addition to dumbing us down, the former Veep also points to research that says that television makes our brains jumpy, playing around with our panic centers so that we can be easily riled up on false pretense. Lehman doesn’t buy either of these.”TV footage can be harrowing or trivializing; Mr. Gore wants it to be both at once,” Lehman writes. Television could either traumatize us constantly, focusing on the deaths of the Anna Nicole Smiths and Laci Petersons of the world; or it could just numb us into submission. But, it’s hard to see how it could do both simultaneously. Plus, Lehman adds, this marketplace of ideas that Gore laments losing has always had its exploiters, its evil characters who motivate people’s worse nature—and that was true long before the television was invented.
Lehman has his own simple idea for why political debate has become stunted: he thinks we’re just plain stupid. I’m not quite ready to accept this theory either. But at least it doesn’t take half a book to explain.