Al Gore: We need to restore American democracy’s immunity to blatant falsehoods

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JUDY WOODRUFF: Now: Has faith in the power of reason fallen victim to modern politics?

Ten years after its original publication, former Vice President Al Gore has updated his book “The Assault on Reason.” Its new subtitle is telling: “Our Information Ecosystem: From the Age of Print to the Age of Trump.”

I sat down with him this afternoon, and started by asking about the sharp criticisms he made in the original version against then President George W. Bush.

AL GORE, Former Vice President of the United States: My criticisms were not mainly aimed at any individuals, including President George W. Bush or Vice President Cheney, but rather the way in which our democratic conversation has been degraded over the last several decades.

And I would say the same thing about President Trump. For me, the most serious problem is how our nation became so vulnerable to the assertion of blatant falsehoods that drive policy and are not corrected by the so-called immune system of democracy, a free press and a free democratic discourse.

And I think we have a huge systemic problem that we have largely ignored. When our founders created America, it was in the age of the printing press, when individuals could freely join the conversation. And that robust, democratic dialogue more often than not lifted up the best available evidence and asserted what was more likely to be true than not.

Now we have things that are obviously false, leading us to war, leading us to deny people health care, leading us to ignore the climate crisis. We have to restore the integrity of the democratic conversation.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Well, back when you first wrote the book, you were pretty optimistic, you wrote, that the Internet would be an open — an opportunity for the kind of discourse that you would like to see.

AL GORE: Yes.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Has it turned out that way?

AL GORE: Not as quickly as I had hoped, that’s for sure.

I still do have hope, however. If you look at the way all of the new reform movements dedicated to the public interest are living and thriving on the Internet, I do think there is still some considerable hope that the full participation of individuals in that conversation of democracy can once again restore the integrity of the way our democracy works.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Well, you write about that in the book, in the update, but you also say that you think it’s wrong to go after President Trump as the principal cause of the.

But, as you well know, there are others out there who are saying he is, because — a principal cause, because of the language we have heard from him about how many people showed up at the inauguration, about how many electoral votes that he had.

AL GORE: Yes. Yes.

JUDY WOODRUFF: So, why is he not part of your focus, a main part of your focus?

AL GORE: Well, he is, and I don’t defend any of that.

I just think that a much more important part of the problem we face, which was evident 10 years ago and is even more evident now, is that the way we share information among ourselves as American citizens has been radically transformed.

We don’t have — the line between news and entertainment has almost dissolved, where ratings now have a big impact on what kinds of stories are covered and not stories.

And when you talk about President Trump, the cable networks turned over so many hours of prime time to him. Why? Because he was entertaining, but also because it drove ratings. And that is different from what the news media is supposed to focus on.

JUDY WOODRUFF: But how much responsibility does he bear for what’s going on?

AL GORE: Well, I mean, I think that asserting that former President Obama wasn’t born in the United States was just the height of irresponsibility, of course. And he corrected that one.

There are others that have yet to be corrected.

JUDY WOODRUFF: You met with President Trump during the transition in New York, and you have written about — you have said you have been in touch with him since then. What’s your take on him?

AL GORE: Well, what is the Latin phrase, sui generis? He’s one of a kind.

(LAUGHTER)

AL GORE: I think — like a lot of people, I’m still trying to figure out exactly what he represents in American politics.

But, if nothing else, he represents a way for tens of millions of people who were desperate for change to just turn the table over and say, we want to start over again.

But it is a challenge for our democracy. It definitely is. But, again, the remedy has to be devoting enough attention to restoring the way we make collective decisions in this country.

JUDY WOODRUFF: And you’re saying that can be done with a — even with a president like Donald Trump, who is as outspoken as he is and who makes the controversial statements that he does?

AL GORE: I hope so.

We’re less than two months into this experiment, and people are already reaching conclusions. But, you know, George Orwell once wrote that a false belief sooner or later collides with physical reality, usually on a battlefield.

That’s what happened with the invasion of Iraq, and we’re still bogged down there. That is what would happen if the Congress passed this pending health care bill that would knock so many millions of people out of coverage and raise the expenses of so many others.

That’s a physical reality that can’t be finessed with words and falsehoods.

JUDY WOODRUFF: What is your take on the man the president chose to head the Environmental Protection Agency, Scott Pruitt, who, by the way, just last week said he doesn’t agree that carbon dioxide is a primary contributor to climate change?

(LAUGHTER)

AL GORE: I know.

And that’s a perfect example of the problem that I’m describing in “The Assault on Reason.” Again, at some point, a false belief collides with physical reality.

We are seeing every night on the television news now a nature hike through the Book of Revelation. These climate-related extreme weather events have convinced the vast majority of people that the scientists have been right for a long time. We have to address this.

But putting someone in the EPA who denies even the most basic scientific truth about this, you know, it’s — the old cliches are, you can say the Earth is flat, but it doesn’t mean you’re going to fall off the edge.

JUDY WOODRUFF: You’re saying the news media can do its job and not be accused on a regular basis of being fake news, as this president does?

AL GORE: Yes, fake news has been around as long as news has been around.

But, again, the issue is, how vulnerable are we to it? How can the immune system of democracy, which is not only the news media, but also the free speech we all enjoy and the way we make decisions collectively, how can that better protect us against blatant untruths that are repeated over and over again?

JUDY WOODRUFF: Are you continuing to have conversations with President Trump?

AL GORE: Well, I’m not talking about any dialogue with him, direct or indirect.

I hope that our country remains in the Paris agreement. But we face a climate crisis now that is the most serious challenge our civilization has ever confronted. And the greatest country in the world has to remain a part of this unprecedented global agreement to deal with it.

JUDY WOODRUFF: And you’re telling him that?

AL GORE: Well, again, I’m not commenting on my communications, because I want to have more.

JUDY WOODRUFF: All right, we will leave it there, former Vice President Al Gore.

The book is “The Assault on Reason,” out with a 10-years-later update.

AL GORE: I thank you, Judy.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Thank you very much.

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