Tuesday, September 5, 2006 - The Progress & Freedom Foundation Blog

Al Gore on Media & Democracy

Former Vice President Al Gore had some rather passionate things to say about democracy and the role of media in it during the recent Edinburgh International Television Festival. "Democracy is under attack," he told the crowd. "Democracy as a system for self-governance is facing more serious challenges now than it has faced for a long time. Democracy is a conversation, and the most important role of the media is to facilitate that conversation of democracy. Now the conversation is more controlled, it is more centralized."

Apparently, Mr. Gore wants us to believe that democracy is dying and that the blame for it falls on "controlled, centralized" media. I guess such apocalyptic rhetoric helps grab attention for your cause but, in reality, such comments are completely off that off-the-mark and bear no relationship with reality whatsoever.

As I pointed out in my most recent book, Media Myths: Making Sense of the Debate over Media Ownership, this sort of Chicken Little, "sky-is-falling" rhetoric that Gore and other media critics are fond of employing is completely unfounded and based almost solely on appeals to emotion instead of logic and facts. Modern media critics like Gore conveniently ignore the solid factual record of stunning technological change and market evolution, which dramatically illustrates how much better off citizens and consumers are today than in the past. Indeed, far from living in a world of centralized, top-down, monolithic media -- as we once really did have in this country and world -- today's media environment is highly decentralized, bottom-up and atomistic.

Think about the sheer diversity of modern media for a moment. Citizens enjoy more news and entertainment options than at any other point in American history or human civilization. If there is a media diversity problem today it is that citizens suffer from "information overload" because of all the choices at their disposal. The number of information and entertainment options has become so overwhelming that many citizens struggle to filter and manage all the information they can choose from on any given day.

Mr. Gore and his fellow media critics have their rhetoric, but here are the facts if they care to consider them. If you take a snapshot of the media marketplace circa 1970 versus today, here's what you'll find (and you can find the verification for all these factoids in Chapter 1 of my book):

* In 1970, we only had a few TV channel options to choose from that were affiliated with just 3 primary networks. Today, by contrast, the "big 3" have given way to 6 major networks but they have still lost market share to cable and satellite options. 85% of households now subscribe to cable or satellite television. As a result, Americans have an average of 102 TV channels available to them today. (And don't forget about Internet-based TV options that are now proliferating thanks to sites like YouTube and Google Video).

* The number of radio stations in the U.S. jumped from just 6,751 in 1970 to 13,476 by the end of 2004. Moreover, satellite radio penetration continues to grow faster than any other technology in the history of consumer electronics. (And don't forget about Internet radio and online music options, which continue to explode).

* In 1970, there were no truly national newspapers. Today, citizens across the nation can increasingly find The Wall Street Journal, The New York Times, and the USA Today in their communities, sometimes even delivered right to their front-door. And local "community papers" are experiencing a wonderful rejuvenation in recent years, many of which are free-of-charge. (And don't forget the Internet and all the online sources of global, national and local news now at our fingertips).

* According to the Magazine Publishers of America, there were 17,254 magazines produced in 2003, up from 14,302 in 1993. And that's thousands more than what was available in 1970. A magazine now exists for virtually ever human interest and hobby imaginable. (And the vast majority of today's magazines have a corresponding website).

* Video games, a non-existent form of entertainment in 1970, represents a massive $10 billion sector today. Millions of people now interact online together and explore new worlds that would have been unthinkable just a decade ago.

* Mobile phones, PDAs, digital cameras & camcorders, and other portable devices have made information instantly accessible no matter where humans are on this planet. According to the CTIA, there are 219 million cell phone subscribers in America today. And, increasingly, those subscribers network with each other wirelessly via the Internet in addition to traditional cell phone networks.

Oh, by the way, did I mention the Internet? Of course I did, but let me say more because this is where the critique leveled by Gore and other media critics is so fundamentally misguided. What makes our modern media marketplace so amazing is precisely its highly democratized nature. Media has become "WE-dia;" millions of humans are responsible for self-generating news and entertainment these days. The beauty of modern media technologies such as the Internet, web pages, blogs and podcasting is that they give every man, woman, and child the ability to be a one-person publishing house or broadcaster and to communicate with the entire planet, or even break news of their own. In this new "individualized, on-demand media world," Wonkette blogger Ana Marie Cox argues that, "There will be more voices and more places to hear them. Our options will grow -- and have grown -- beyond changing the channel: Now we can start one." As Michael Lewis, author of Next and The New New Thing, quips: "Technology [has] put afterburners on the egalitarian notion that anyone-can-do-anything."

Consider, for example, the impact of online journalist Matt Drudge's "Drudge Report" and its role in leaking the Clinton-Lewinsky scandal, eventually leading an impeachment proceeding of President Bill Clinton. Or how about the role of blogs in the downfall of former Senate Majority Leader Trent Lott? Bloggers and other "citizen journalists" not report important news and have broken the traditional chokehold that "mainstream media" had on reporting news. And consider the conversation we have on blogs, other websites, social networking sites, e-commerce sites, or even via e-mail and instant messaging.

Is this not democracy at it's finest? This is about as far removed from the "controlled, centralized" world that Al Gore paints as you can get. Indeed, broadly speaking, by all objective historical standards, deliberative democracy has never been more vigorous than it is today. Citizens engage in passionate debate (perhaps TOO passionate at times!) thanks to the Internet, blogs, and all the other new media outlets and technologies out there.

When the critics like Mr. Gore are faced with the solid factual record supporting the thesis that media diversity and opportunities are thriving like never before, they often shift the debate into what I call the "neo-conspiratorial, puppet-master theory of mass media domination." That is, they like to argue that a handful of corporate media executives sit in their offices each day attempting to influence the thoughts of the American public by dictating what each of their news divisions reports. Think I'm exaggerating? Here's what Al Gore said during his recent speech: "Questions of fact that are threatening to wealth and power become questions of power. And so the scientific evidence on global warming -- an inconvenient truth for the largest polluters -- becomes a question of power, and so they try to censor the information."

What a load of bunk. Seriously, Gore hasn't had any problem getting the word out about global warming or his new documentary, "An Inconvenient Truth," which has already become third-highest grossing documentary released in U.S. history! If the puppet-masters are trying to "censor the information," they are doing a really bad job of it.

And who might some of the puppet-masters be who Gore fears might censor his movie or global warming information? How about big bad Rupert Murdoch and News Corp.? Well, guess what, Rupert and News Corp. produced and distributed "The Day After Tomorrow" last year, which is probably the single biggest piece of global warming propaganda ever made. Or how about a movie like "Syrianna," which was distributed by media giant Time Warner? If the big bad media overlords are really so powerful and intent on quashing dissenting views, how did these movies get out the door? Moreover, how did Al Gore's documentary become the third highest grossing documentary of all-time!? Likewise, how did Michael Moore's "Fahrenheit 9/11" become the #1 grossing documentary of all-time, or "Bowling for Columbine" become #4? Or how did a documentary like "Super Size Me" get any distribution?

What we can conclude from this is that either (a) there are some seriously incompetent puppet-masters / information gatekeepers out there!; or, (b) Al Gore's thesis is wildly off-the-mark because information / entertainment is getting wider distribution than ever before and, as a result, media has never been more decentralized and democratic in human history. Clearly, I believe in the latter. And if I STILL haven't convinced you, then I want you to do me a favor and visit these three sites:

1) Internet Archive "Wayback Machine": The "Wayback Machine" offers 55 billion Web pages archived from 1996 to the present. The site notes http://www.archive.org/about/faqs.php that it "contains almost 2 petabytes of data and is currently growing at a rate of 20 terabytes per month. This eclipses the amount of text contained in the world's largest libraries, including the Library of Congress. Does that sound "controlled, centralized" information to you? Are a handful or companies creating or controlling all this stuff? I don't think so.

2) Wikipedia: 1.3 million entries in multiple languages (and growing every day). Again, where's the control and centralization when millions of people can come together and create a wonderful free resource like this?

3) "I Want Media": No site better catalogs just how much the media universe has changed in recent years. The sheer volume of activity that the headlines on site summarizes should tell you something. But the substance of those headlines is what is really important. Subscribe to this site and enjoy watching the media revolution unfold on a daily basis like I do.

Browse these sites and ask yourself who is right: Al Gore and the media Chicken Littles, or those who believe that the media revolution is real and transforming democracy for the better with each passing day.

posted by Adam Thierer @ 10:53 AM | Mass Media