Tuesday, May 29, 2007

Mr. Al Gore on the Daily Show

No, no links. Search for it on youtube yourselves, you Intellectual-Property-violating scoundrels!

Al Gore was chatting with Jon Stewart on the Daily Show a few nights ago about "The Assault on Reason," his newest book. (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Assault_on_Reason)

Now, Gore is smart. He's an emotionless robot, but he's sharp, and did a lot of work during the Clinton years (especially the first term, or so I am told). So when he says that major news media isn't doing a good job of covering the news and that the way our society processes our information is based more on fear and ideology than facts, it's a good idea to listen.
News, of course, is now a commercial business focused on the bottom-line. Corporations have to be sensitive to the market, and the market seems to demand news that appeals to emotions, confirms their views, involves a lot of heated arguments, and follows a narrative format. It's sad to think that some day news might become a soap opera, with stories about the US and Iran clashing over Iraq as opposed to news laying out the details of our discussion with Iran.
The problem, though, is that Stewart called the internet an "equalizer" and Gore seemed to agree. As an economist, we can explain this clearly: Stewart and Gore believe that the institutions of media, rather than the people watching them, are the problem, and that the internet allows us to bypass the institution: information can get to the people without being distorted.
This argument is flawed. The reason television news is so popular is because networks define niches and successfully target them with interesting marketing ploys. The problem isn't that corporations are profit-seeking; the problem is that the people want entertainment and not news. Therefore, arguing that the internet will be a better source of information for the people is baseless, as the problem IS the people.
The internet does, of course, have unique advantages. It can carry a larger number of news networks, meaning more niches can be filled; therefore, Nazis can get their own website in the same way that Republicans get Fox News. I do wonder if this is what Gore and Stewart meant by making the internet out to be some sort of great savior?
The same biases that exist in TV news exist in internet news...actually, even more so. Pundits are, of course, naturally biased to be making extreme claims (http://www.economist.com/blogs/freeexchange/2007/02/trailing_the_truth.cfm) and Cass Sunstein's "Infotopia" offers a very good summary of current research that concludes that the internet blogosphere is heavily Balkanized into conservative and liberal camps.

That Balkanization, though, enables precisely what Stewart and Gore may actually desire: A place where "wrong" views aren't allowed and people aren't allowed to discuss things that Gore and Stewart think aren't important. A very elitist view, no?

This post is in no way a criticism of Al Gore's book. It is a criticism of the idea that internet is the best source of information because news media is terrible and doesn't allow discussion of good ideas.

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