[Paleopsych] Algore: The dumbing down of democracy

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Mon Oct 10 01:07:26 UTC 2005

Remarks by Algore as prepared
Associated Press / The Media Center
October 5, 2005
[Thanks to Pen Name Withheld for this.]

I came here today because I believe that American democracy is in grave danger. 
It is no longer possible to ignore the strangeness of our public discourse . I 
know that I am not the only one who feels that something has gone basically and 
badly wrong in the way America's fabled "marketplace of ideas" now functions.

How many of you, I wonder, have heard a friend or a family member in the last 
few years remark that it's almost as if America has entered " an alternate 

I thought maybe it was an aberration when three-quarters of Americans said they 
believed that Saddam Hussein was responsible for attacking us on September 11, 
2001. But more than four years later, between a third and a half still believe 
Saddam was personally responsible for planning and supporting the attack.

At first I thought the exhaustive, non-stop coverage of the O.J. trial was just 
an unfortunate excess that marked an unwelcome departure from the normal good 
sense and judgment of our television news media. But now we know that it was 
merely an early example of a new pattern of serial obsessions that periodically 
take over the airwaves for weeks at a time.

Are we still routinely torturing helpless prisoners, and if so, does it feel 
right that we as American citizens are not outraged by the practice? And does 
it feel right to have no ongoing discussion of whether or not this abhorrent, 
medieval behavior is being carried out in the name of the American people? If 
the gap between rich and poor is widening steadily and economic stress is 
mounting for low-income families, why do we seem increasingly apathetic and 
lethargic in our role as citizens?

On the eve of the nation's decision to invade Iraq, our longest serving 
senator, Robert Byrd of West Virginia, stood on the Senate floor asked: "Why is 
this chamber empty? Why are these halls silent?"

The decision that was then being considered by the Senate with virtually no 
meaningful debate turned out to be a fateful one. A few days ago, the former 
head of the National Security Agency, Retired Lt. General William Odom, said, 
"The invasion of Iraq, I believe, will turn out to be the greatest strategic 
disaster in U.S. history."

But whether you agree with his assessment or not, Senator Byrd's question is 
like the others that I have just posed here: he was saying, in effect, this is 
strange, isn't it? Aren't we supposed to have full and vigorous debates about 
questions as important as the choice between war and peace?

Those of us who have served in the Senate and watched it change over time, 
could volunteer an answer to Senator Byrd's two questions: the Senate was 
silent on the eve of war because Senators don't feel that what they say on the 
floor of the Senate really matters that much any more. And the chamber was 
empty because the Senators were somewhere else: they were in fundraisers 
collecting money from special interests in order to buy 30-second TVcommercials 
for their next re-election campaign.

In the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina, there was - at least for a short time - 
a quality of vividness and clarity of focus in our public discourse that 
reminded some Americans - including some journalists - that vividness and 
clarity used to be more common in the way we talk with one another about the 
problems and choices that we face. But then, like a passing summer storm, the 
moment faded.

In fact there was a time when America's public discourse was consistently much 
more vivid, focused and clear. Our Founders, probably the most literate 
generation in all of history, used words with astonishing precision and 
believed in the Rule of Reason.

Their faith in the viability of Representative Democracy rested on their trust 
in the wisdom of a well-informed citizenry. But they placed particular emphasis 
on insuring that the public could be well-informed. And they took great care to 
protect the openness of the marketplace of ideas in order to ensure the 
free-flow of knowledge.

The values that Americans had brought from Europe to the New World had grown 
out of the sudden explosion of literacy and knowledge after Gutenberg's 
disruptive invention broke up the stagnant medieval information monopoly and 
triggered the Reformation, Humanism, and the Enlightenment and enshrined a new 
sovereign: the "Rule of Reason."

Indeed, the self-governing republic they had the audacity to establish was 
later named by the historian Henry Steele Commager as "the Empire of Reason."

Our founders knew all about the Roman Forum and the Agora in ancient Athens. 
They also understood quite well that in America, our public forum would be an 
ongoing conversation about democracy in which individual citizens would 
participate not only by speaking directly in the presence of others -- but more 
commonly by communicating with their fellow citizens over great distances by 
means of the printed word. Thus they not only protected Freedom of Assembly as 
a basic right, they made a special point - in the First Amendment - of 
protecting the freedom of the printing press.

Their world was dominated by the printed word. Just as the proverbial fish 
doesn't know it lives in water, the United States in its first half century 
knew nothing but the world of print: the Bible, Thomas Paine's fiery call to 
revolution, the Declaration of Independence, our Constitution , our laws, the 
Congressional Record, newspapers and books.

Though they feared that a government might try to censor the printing press - 
as King George had done - they could not imagine that America's public 
discourse would ever consist mainly of something other than words in print.

And yet, as we meet here this morning, more than 40 years have passed since the 
majority of Americans received their news and information from the printed 
word. Newspapers are hemorrhaging readers and, for the most part, resisting the 
temptation to inflate their circulation numbers. Reading itself is in sharp 
decline, not only in our country but in most of the world. The Republic of 
Letters has been invaded and occupied by television.

Radio, the internet, movies, telephones, and other media all now vie for our 
attention - but it is television that still completely dominates the flow of 
information in modern America. In fact, according to an authoritative global 
study, Americans now watch television an average of four hours and 28 minutes 
every day -- 90 minutes more than the world average.

When you assume eight hours of work a day, six to eight hours of sleep and a 
couple of hours to bathe, dress, eat and commute, that is almost three-quarters 
of all the discretionary time that the average American has. And for younger 
Americans, the average is even higher.

The internet is a formidable new medium of communication, but it is important 
to note that it still doesn't hold a candle to television. Indeed, studies show 
that the majority of Internet users are actually simultaneously watching 
television while they are online. There is an important reason why television 
maintains such a hold on its viewers in a way that the internet does not, but 
I'll get to that in a few minutes.

Television first overtook newsprint to become the dominant source of 
information in America in 1963. But for the next two decades, the television 
networks mimicked the nation's leading newspapers by faithfully following the 
standards of the journalism profession. Indeed, men like Edward R. Murrow led 
the profession in raising the bar.

But all the while, television's share of the total audience for news and 
information continued to grow -- and its lead over newsprint continued to 
expand. And then one day, a smart young political consultant turned to an older 
elected official and succinctly described a new reality in America's public 
discourse: "If it's not on television, it doesn't exist."

But some extremely important elements of American Democracy have been pushed to 
the sidelines. And the most prominent casualty has been the " marketplace of 
ideas" that was so beloved and so carefully protected by our Founders. It 
effectively no longer exists.

It is not that we no longer share ideas with one another about public matters; 
of course we do. But the "Public Forum" in which our Founders searched for 
general agreement and applied the Rule of Reason has been grossly distorted and 
"restructured" beyond all recognition.

And here is my point: it is the destruction of that marketplace of ideas that 
accounts for the "strangeness" that now continually haunts our efforts to 
reason together about the choices we must make as a nation.

Whether it is called a Public Forum, or a "Public Sphere" , or a marketplace of 
ideas, the reality of open and free public discussion and debate was considered 
central to the operation of our democracy in America's earliest decades.

In fact, our first self-expression as a nation - "We the People" - made it 
clear where the ultimate source of authority lay. It was universally understood 
that the ultimate check and balance for American government was its 
accountability to the people. And the public forum was the place where the 
people held the government accountable. That is why it was so important that 
the marketplace of ideas operated independent from and beyond the authority of 

The three most important characteristics of this marketplace of ideas were:

1) It was open to every individual, with no barriers to entry, save the 
necessity of literacy. This access, it is crucial to add, applied not only to 
the receipt of information but also to the ability to contribute information 
directly into the flow of ideas that was available to all;

2) The fate of ideas contributed by individuals depended, for the most part, on 
an emergent Meritocracy of Ideas. Those judged by the market to be good rose to 
the top, regardless of the wealth or class of the individual responsible for 

3) The accepted rules of discourse presumed that the participants were all 
governed by an unspoken duty to search for general agreement. That is what a 
"Conversation of Democracy" is all about.

What resulted from this shared democratic enterprise was a startling new 
development in human history: for the first time, knowledge regularly mediated 
between wealth and power.

The liberating force of this new American reality was thrilling to all 
humankind. Thomas Jefferson declared, "I have sworn upon the alter of God 
eternal hostility against every form of tyranny over the mind of man."

It ennobled the individual and unleashed the creativity of the human spirit. It 
inspired people everywhere to dream of what they could yet become. And it 
emboldened Americans to bravely explore the farther frontiers of freedom - for 
African Americans, for women, and eventually, we still dream, for all.

And just as knowledge now mediated between wealth and power, self-government 
was understood to be the instrument with which the people embodied their 
reasoned judgments into law. The Rule of Reason under-girded and strengthened 
the rule of law.

But to an extent seldom appreciated, all of this - including especially the 
ability of the American people to exercise the reasoned collective judgments 
presumed in our Founders' design -- depended on the particular characteristics 
of the marketplace of ideas as it operated during the Age of Print.

Consider the rules by which our present "public forum" now operates, and how 
different they are from the forum our Founders knew.

Instead of the easy and free access individuals had to participate in the 
national conversation by means of the printed word, the world of television 
makes it virtually impossible for individuals to take part in what passes for a 
national conversation today.

Inexpensive metal printing presses were almost everywhere in America. They were 
easily accessible and operated by printers eager to typeset essays, pamphlets, 
books or flyers.

Television stations and networks, by contrast, are almost completely 
inaccessible to individual citizens and almost always uninterested in ideas 
contributed by individual citizens.

Ironically, television programming is actually more accessible to more people 
than any source of information has ever been in all of history. But here is the 
crucial distinction: it is accessible in only one direction; there is no true 
interactivity, and certainly no conversation.

The number of cables connecting to homes is limited in each community and 
usually forms a natural monopoly. The broadcast and satellite spectrum is 
likewise a scarce and limited resource controlled by a few. The production of 
programming has been centralized and has usually required a massive capital 
investment. So for these and other reasons, an ever-smaller number of large 
corporations control virtually all of the television programming in America.

Soon after television established its dominance over print, young people who 
realized they were being shut out of the dialogue of democracy came up with a 
new form of expression in an effort to join the national conversation: the 
"demonstration." This new form of expression, which began in the 1960s, was 
essentially a poor quality theatrical production designed to capture the 
attention of the television cameras long enough to hold up a sign with a few 
printed words to convey, however plaintively, a message to the American people. 
Even this outlet is now rarely an avenue for expression on national television.

So, unlike the marketplace of ideas that emerged in the wake of the printing 
press, there is virtually no exchange of ideas at all in television's domain. 
My partner Joel Hyatt and I are trying to change that - at least where Current 
TV is concerned. Perhaps not coincidentally, we are the only independently 
owned news and information network in all of American television.

It is important to note that the absence of a two-way conversation in American 
television also means that there is no "meritocracy of ideas" on television. To 
the extent that there is a "marketplace" of any kind for ideas on television, 
it is a rigged market, an oligopoly, with imposing barriers to entry that 
exclude the average citizen.

The German philosopher, Jurgen Habermas, describes what has happened as "the 
refeudalization of the public sphere." That may sound like gobbledygook, but 
it's a phrase that packs a lot of meaning. The feudal system which thrived 
before the printing press democratized knowledge and made the idea of America 
thinkable, was a system in which wealth and power were intimately intertwined, 
and where knowledge played no mediating role whatsoever. The great mass of the 
people were ignorant. And their powerlessness was born of their ignorance.

It did not come as a surprise that the concentration of control over this 
powerful one-way medium carries with it the potential for damaging the 
operations of our democracy. As early as the 1920s, when the predecessor of 
television, radio, first debuted in the United States, there was immediate 
apprehension about its potential impact on democracy. One early American 
student of the medium wrote that if control of radio were concentrated in the 
hands of a few, "no nation can be free."

As a result of these fears, safeguards were enacted in the U.S. -- including 
the Public Interest Standard, the Equal Time Provision, and the Fairness 
Doctrine - though a half century later, in 1987, they were effectively 
repealed. And then immediately afterwards, Rush Limbaugh and other hate-mongers 
began to fill the airwaves.

And radio is not the only place where big changes have taken place. Television 
news has undergone a series of dramatic changes. The movie " Network," which 
won the Best Picture Oscar in 1976, was presented as a farce but was actually a 
prophecy. The journalism profession morphed into the news business, which 
became the media industry and is now completely owned by conglomerates.

The news divisions - which used to be seen as serving a public interest and 
were subsidized by the rest of the network - are now seen as profit centers 
designed to generate revenue and, more importantly, to advance the larger 
agenda of the corporation of which they are a small part. They have fewer 
reporters, fewer stories, smaller budgets, less travel, fewer bureaus, less 
independent judgment, more vulnerability to influence by management, and more 
dependence on government sources and canned public relations hand-outs. This 
tragedy is compounded by the ironic fact that this generation of journalists is 
the best trained and most highly skilled in the history of their profession. 
But they are usually not allowed to do the job they have been trained to do.

The present executive branch has made it a practice to try and control and 
intimidate news organizations: from PBS to CBS to Newsweek. They placed a 
former male escort in the White House press pool to pose as a reporter - and 
then called upon him to give the president a hand at crucial moments. They paid 
actors to make make phony video press releases and paid cash to some reporters 
who were willing to take it in return for positive stories. And every day they 
unleash squadrons of digital brownshirts to harass and hector any journalist 
who is critical of the President.

For these and other reasons, The US Press was recently found in a comprehensive 
international study to be only the 27th freest press in the world. And that too 
seems strange to me.

Among the other factors damaging our public discourse in the media, the 
imposition by management of entertainment values on the journalism profession 
has resulted in scandals, fabricated sources, fictional events and the 
tabloidization of mainstream news. As recently stated by Dan Rather - who was, 
of course, forced out of his anchor job after angering the White House - 
television news has been "dumbed down and tarted up."

The coverage of political campaigns focuses on the "horse race" and little 
else. And the well-known axiom that guides most local television news is "if it 
bleeds, it leads." (To which some disheartened journalists add, "If it thinks, 
it stinks.")

In fact, one of the few things that Red state and Blue state America agree on 
is that they don't trust the news media anymore.

Clearly, the purpose of television news is no longer to inform the American 
people or serve the public interest. It is to "glue eyeballs to the screen" in 
order to build ratings and sell advertising. If you have any doubt, just look 
at what's on: The Robert Blake trial. The Laci Peterson tragedy. The Michael 
Jackson trial. The Runaway Bride. The search in Aruba. The latest twist in 
various celebrity couplings, and on and on and on.

And more importantly, notice what is not on: the global climate crisis, the 
nation's fiscal catastrophe, the hollowing out of America's industrial base, 
and a long list of other serious public questions that need to be addressed by 
the American people.

One morning not long ago, I flipped on one of the news programs in hopes of 
seeing information about an important world event that had happened earlier 
that day. But the lead story was about a young man who had been hiccupping for 
three years. And I must say, it was interesting; he had trouble getting dates. 
But what I didn't see was news.

This was the point made by Jon Stewart, the brilliant host of "The Daily Show," 
when he visited CNN's "Crossfire": there should be a distinction between news 
and entertainment.

And it really matters because the subjugation of news by entertainment 
seriously harms our democracy: it leads to dysfunctional journalism that fails 
to inform the people. And when the people are not informed, they cannot hold 
government accountable when it is incompetent, corrupt, or both.

One of the only avenues left for the expression of public or political ideas on 
television is through the purchase of advertising, usually in 30-second chunks. 
These short commercials are now the principal form of communication between 
candidates and voters. As a result, our elected officials now spend all of 
their time raising money to purchase these ads.

That is why the House and Senate campaign committees now search for candidates 
who are multi-millionaires and can buy the ads with their own personal 
resources. As one consequence, the halls of Congress are now filling up with 
the wealthy.

Campaign finance reform, however well it is drafted, often misses the main 
point: so long as the only means of engaging in political dialogue is through 
purchasing expensive television advertising, money will continue by one means 
or another to dominate American politic s. And ideas will no longer mediate 
between wealth and power.

And what if an individual citizen, or a group of citizens wants to enter the 
public debate by expressing their views on television? Since they cannot simply 
join the conversation, some of them have resorted to raising money in order to 
buy 30 seconds in which to express their opinion. But they are not even allowed 
to do that.

Moveon.org tried to buy ads last year to express opposition to Bush's Medicare 
proposal which was then being debated by Congress. They were told "issue 
advocacy" was not permissible. Then, one of the networks that had refused the 
Moveon ad began running advertisements by the White House in favor of the 
President's Medicare proposal. So Moveon complained and the White House ad was 
temporarily removed. By temporary, I mean it was removed until the White House 
complained and the network immediately put the ad back on, yet still refused to 
present the Moveon ad.

The advertising of products, of course, is the real purpose of television. And 
it is difficult to overstate the extent to which modern pervasive electronic 
advertising has reshaped our society. In the 1950s, John Kenneth Galbraith 
first described the way in which advertising has altered the classical 
relationship by which supply and demand are balanced over time by the invisible 
hand of the marketplace. According to Galbraith, modern advertising campaigns 
were beginning to create high levels of demand for products that consumers 
never knew they wanted, much less needed.

The same phenomenon Galbraith noticed in the commercial marketplace is now the 
dominant fact of life in what used to be America's marketplace for ideas. The 
inherent value or validity of political propositions put forward by candidates 
for office is now largely irrelevant compared to the advertising campaigns that 
shape the perceptions of voters.

Our democracy has been hallowed out. The opinions of the voters are, in effect, 
purchased, just as demand for new products is artificially created. Decades ago 
Walter Lippman wrote, "the manufacture of consent was supposed to have died out 
with the appearance of democracy, but it has not died out. It has, in fact, 
improved enormously in technique. Under the impact of propaganda, it is no 
longer plausible to believe in the original dogma of democracy."

Like you, I recoil at Lippman's cynical dismissal of America's gift to human 
history. But in order to reclaim our birthright, we Americans must resolve to 
repair the systemic decay of the public forum and create new ways to engage in 
a genuine and not manipulative conversation about our future. Americans in both 
parties should insist on the re-establishment of respect for the Rule of 
Reason. We must, for example, stop tolerating the rejection and distortion of 
science. We must insist on an end to the cynical use of pseudo studies known to 
be false for the purpose of intentionally clouding the public's ability to 
discern the truth.

I don't know all the answers, but along with my partner, Joel Hyatt, I am 
trying to work within the medium of television to recreate a multi-way 
conversation that includes individuals and operates according to a meritocracy 
of ideas. If you would like to know more, we are having a press conference on 
Friday morning at the Regency Hotel.

We are learning some fascinating lessons about the way decisions are made in 
the television industry, and it may well be that the public would be well 
served by some changes in law and policy to stimulate more diversity of 
viewpoints and a higher regard for the public interest. But we are succeeding 
within the marketplace by reaching out to individuals and asking them to 
co-create our network.

The greatest source of hope for reestablishing a vigorous and accessible 
marketplace for ideas is the Internet. Indeed, Current TV relies on video 
streaming over the Internet as the means by which individuals send us what we 
call viewer-created content or VC squared. We also rely on the Internet for the 
two-way conversation that we have every day with our viewers enabling them to 
participate in the decisions on programming our network.

I know that many of you attending this conference are also working on creative 
ways to use the Internet as a means for bringing more voices into America's 
ongoing conversation. I salute you as kindred spirits and wish you every 

I want to close with the two things I've learned about the Internet that are 
most directly relevant to the conference that you are having here today.

First, as exciting as the Internet is, it still lacks the single most powerful 
characteristic of the television medium; because of its packet-switching 
architecture, and its continued reliance on a wide variety of bandwidth 
connections (including the so-called "last mile" to the home), it does not 
support the real-time mass distribution of full-motion video.

Make no mistake, full-motion video is what makes television such a powerful 
medium. Our brains - like the brains of all vertebrates - are hard-wired to 
immediately notice sudden movement in our field of vision. We not only notice, 
we are compelled to look. When our evolutionary predecessors gathered on the 
African savanna a million years ago and the leaves next to them moved, the ones 
who didn't look are not our ancestors. The ones who did look passed on to us 
the genetic trait that neuroscientists call "the establishing reflex." And that 
is the brain syndrome activated by television continuously - sometimes as 
frequently as once per second. That is the reason why the industry phrase, 
"glue eyeballs to the screen," is actually more than a glib and idle boast. It 
is also a major part of the reason why Americans watch the TV screen an average 
of four and a half hours a day.

It is true that video streaming is becoming more common over the Internet, and 
true as well that cheap storage of streamed video is making it possible for 
many young television viewers to engage in what the industry calls "time 
shifting" and personalize their television watching habits. Moreover, as higher 
bandwidth connections continue to replace smaller information pipelines, the 
Internet's capacity for carrying television will continue to dramatically 
improve. But in spite of these developments, it is television delivered over 
cable and satellite that will continue for the remainder of this decade and 
probably the next to be the dominant medium of communication in America's 
democracy. And so long as that is the case, I truly believe that America's 
democracy is at grave risk.

The final point I want to make is this: We must ensure that the Internet 
remains open and accessible to all citizens without any limitation on the 
ability of individuals to choose the content they wish regardless of the 
Internet service provider they use to connect to the Worldwide Web. We cannot 
take this future for granted. We must be prepared to fight for it because some 
of the same forces of corporate consolidation and control that have distorted 
the television marketplace have an interest in controlling the Internet 
marketplace as well. Far too much is at stake to ever allow that to happen.

We must ensure by all means possible that this medium of democracy's future 
develops in the mold of the open and free marketplace of ideas that our 
Founders knew was essential to the health and survival of freedom.

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