Jul 1 2007

Al Gore, Smartypants

New book full of big words, pundits complain

Reading the coverage of Al Gore’s new book, The Assault on Reason, the line elite media have developed was impossible to miss: Gore’s a smartypants! His ideas may be good or bad, but the point is, he’s a laughingstock.

Even those inclined to dislike Gore might be put off by the kind of condescension expressed by, for example, the Washington Post’s Dana Milbank, whose May 30 article was headlined, “Is It Wise to Be So Smart?” Milbank offered the sort of hypothetical that’s meant to be damning:

Imagine the Iowa hog farmer cracking open Assault on Reason, and meeting Abraham Lincoln, Thomas Paine, John Kenneth Galbraith, Walter Lippmann, Johannes Gutenberg, John Stuart Mill, Thomas Jefferson and Marshall McLuhan—all before finishing the introduction.

Readers understand, of course, it isn’t Milbank himself who’s too stupid to understand historical references; he’s just looking out for those farmers. As it happens, Abraham Lincoln and Thomas Jefferson were both hog farmers who would have been surprised to find that illiteracy was a prerequisite for the profession. But then, knowing that would make Milbank look like some sort of a nerd.

The New York Times’ David Brooks took a similar tack May 29, offering a not-at-all confusing sentence as an example of Gore’s “pomposity” before launching an attack on what he called the book’s “simplistic pseudoscience”—though the source of Brooks’ own scientific bona fides are not made clear, and perhaps someone whose last book was titled On Paradise Drive: How We Live Now (and Always Have) in the Future Tense might not have been the best choice to critique clumsy writing.

No one is really served by media’s recourse to caricature, as if the public required cartoons to keep track of political players, but sometimes the promotion of an established “storyline” is allowed to overtake even elementary journalistic principle. The Washington Post ran an op-ed (6/10/07) by Weekly Standard editor Andrew Ferguson attacking Gore for using a questionable quote from Abraham Lincoln.

“You can’t really blame Al Gore for not using footnotes in his new book, The Assault on Reason,” Ferguson’s piece (headlined “Fact Check”) began.

It’s a sprawling, untidy blast of indignation, and annotating it with footnotes would be like trying to slip rubber bands around a puddle of quicksilver. Still, I’d love to know where he found the scary quote from Abraham Lincoln that he uses on page 88.

Actually, Gore’s book contains 20 pages of endnotes—including one citing the disputed quote in question to The Lincoln Encyclopedia—forcing the Post to issue a correction (6/12/07) for a column premised on a “fact” that could have been checked by simply reading to the end of the book.

In a subsequent column (6/17/07), Post ombud Deborah Howell quoted Ferguson as being “mortified” over the error, but rather than acknowledge any responsibility on the paper’s part, Howell attempted to marginalize the whole thing, introducing the story, “Al Gore partisans were furious about a piece by Andrew Ferguson. . . . ” Sure—only someone in the tank for Gore would care about a little thing like that.

Corporate media’s strangely prioritized line was summed up in the Washington Post’s May 27 review, which said The Assault on Reason was “like much of what Gore has said over the years, essentially truthful. It is also the apparent product of a man desperate to display his erudition at every possible moment, appropriate or not.” There may be plenty of reasons to dislike Al Gore, but it’s a sad day when the media suggest that an ability to think in multi-part sentences ought to be counted among them.