Climate change, Gore, and politics over substance

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.”