The Assault on Reason
The Assault on Reason
by Al Gore
Penguin Press, HK$208
Ever wondered why 50 per cent of the American population voted for George W. Bush in two successive presidential elections? According to The Assault on Reason, the latest book by Al Gore, it's because the US news media has become so facile that Americans no longer have access to the information they need to make informed political decisions. Worse, citizens have become so tied up with celebrity news and other distractions that they have stopped participating in their own democratic system.
Gore puts a strong argument in The Assault on Reason, which is roughly divided into two halves. The first explores the decline of the US news media, and comes down heavily against television. Most Americans get their news from TV, and it simply isn't doing a good job of getting them relevant information, the former US vice-president argues.
The second part details how the Bush administration has exploited and exacerbated citizens' democratic failings for its own benefit. Both parts are impressive, but the first is more interesting. That's because the political manipulations of the Bush White House have already been covered in books such as State of Denial and American Theocracy.
Gore's thesis runs thus: government 'for the people by the people' demands the participation of its citizens for it to work effectively. To participate, citizens must have access to good quality news information so they can make the right decisions at election times. Most Americans watch four hours of TV a night and get all their news from it. TV networks today are more concerned about scoring good ratings for news than treating it as a public service, as they used to. So most news broadcasts in the US consist of audience-pleasing human-interest stories and celebrity gossip. As a result, people are ignorant and, come election time, have nothing to base decisions on.
All this is true. Visitors to the US are often shocked by American news broadcasts. The networks lead with stories about a local fire, or - as this writer can attest - a cat trapped in a building. Celebrity news, such as the Paris Hilton debacle, is given precedence over politics, which is covered quickly and without depth. International news is erratic and brief, and there is little investigative journalism or analysis. Even CNN - which is different from the superior CNN International - spends much time on human interest stories. Americans just aren't getting any information about current affairs.
The Bush administration realised this early on, says Gore, and exploited it to its own ends. As the Fourth Estate has failed in its duty to act as a political watchdog, Bush and Co know that few Americans are aware of the details of their policy decisions. Most government decisions go unreported and few are discussed on TV. So the administration has carte blanche to do as it wishes without fear of effective opposition. The Bush cabal is so closed, adds Gore, that even Congress doesn't know much about what it's doing.
The administration has also helped foster a climate of intimidation in the media - Gore gives specific examples - and paid some journalists to report its own line. It's a sorry state of affairs.
But it gets worse. Not only are Americans underinformed, they are apathetic, says Gore. On the occasions when the news media does investigate a political scandal concerning the administration - mainly because it is too big to be ignored - the American public just doesn't care. Gore cites how the president broke the law by allowing the National Security Agency (NSA) to spy on American citizens without first gaining a warrant. This was clearly illegal, says Gore. But there was no public outrage when it was reported. Worse, Congress - which is meant to act as a check on the executive branch of government - quietly passed a law that made the president's actions legal.
Gore cleverly makes The Assault on Reason more than a work of Bush bashing. In part two, he analyses the actions of the administration in the context of the US constitution - and proclaims them unconstitutional.
The constitution mandates separation of the three branches of government - the executive, judiciary and Congress - as well as the participation of the people.
Bush has overstepped the mark by concentrating all the power in the executive branch, and the Founding Fathers would be horrified.
So what's to be done? It's a difficult problem, writes Gore.
It's a given that Americans should watch TV less and read more serious newspapers. But that isn't likely to happen. Gore believes the internet is a good way of citizens both arming themselves and participating in the political process. But he claims that, any way you look at it, it's going to be a struggle to get American democracy back on track.