Al Gore and Tom Friedman think we're paying attention to the wrong things.

Media criticism.
May 23 2007 6:20 PM

Blame Britney First

Al Gore and Tom Friedman think we're paying attention to the wrong things.

Clouds blotting out the sun. Click image to expand.
What's blotting out the sun?

Al Gore and Thomas L. Friedman have co-discovered what ails our country. It's national inattention to the most important issues.

Gore blamed the obsession with celebrity culture for the republic's poor condition earlier this week on Good Morning America. Talking to Diane Sawyer, he accused both the people and the press of focusing on "Britney and K-Fed and Anna Nicole Smith and all this stuff, meanwhile, very quietly, our country has been making some very serious mistakes that could be avoided if we the people, including the news media, are involved in a full and vigorous discussion of what our choices are."

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Maureen Dowd showcases Gore's critique in her New York Times column today. Just across the op-ed page, Dowd's colleague Friedman advances a notion similar to Gore's as he paraphrases an idea contained in The First Campaign, WashingtonianEditor at Large Garrett M. Graff's forthcoming book. Friedman writes that "9/11, and the failing Iraq war, have sucked up almost all the oxygen in this country—oxygen needed to discuss seriously education, health care, climate change and competitiveness," and for that reason we must get out of Iraq as soon and as cleanly as possible—lest we "lose Iraq and America."

Gore is right to fault celebrity news for blotting out coverage of climate change, health care, immigration, and international relations in such policy journals as People, Star, In Touch, and US Weeklyand on such public-affairs programs as Access Hollywood, Entertainment Tonight, and E! News. But a more generous definition of the press—one that includes daily newspapers, weekly magazines, general-interest TV news, and the Web—would find Gore's argument lacking. By my back-of-the envelope estimate, your average big-city daily carries more news about immigration (or other significant issue du jour) in one day than it does about every celebrity on the planet in a full week.

In condemning Britney-obsessed reporters and readers, Gore takes the easy route. If he possessed any real courage in his conviction that news coverage of the frivolous blocks the discussion of serious "issues," he'd attack sports coverage. Sports capture a billion times the attention that celebrities do and probably swallow 20 percent of the news budget of dailies. The reason Gore gives sports coverage a bye while castigating Britney coverage is simple: Sports fans talk back—loudly—and folks who crave entertainment-news coverage are too embarrassed to defend their innocent diversion.

On to Friedman: Leaving aside for a moment his view that we should put 9/11 and Iraq behind us so we can debate more the more important, oxygen-deprived issues, what proof exists that a great national debate about one issue suffocates all others? Dial the history clock back 40 years and you find a contentious, voluble, and violent debate about the Vietnam War that, in comparison, makes the current Iraq discussion look like a knitting party on Seconal and vodka. Yet during the Vietnam era, the public and politicians found time and space to squabble over civil rights, the environment, Medicare, and missile defense, just to name a few topics, and Congress passed major legislation on all of them.

I don't know who has the loonier argument: Gore, who believes that some forms of entertainment are deleterious to the nation's well-being, or Friedman, who seems oblivious to the miracle of human multitasking. As a student of history, he should appreciate that wicked fights over a Single Major Issue often accelerate the pace of other debates.

I take that back. Friedman makes the loonier argument.

******

But Friedman would make a better president. If he runs, who should be his running mate? Send nominations to slate.pressbox@gmail.com. (E-mail may be quoted by name unless the writer stipulates otherwise. Permanent disclosure:Slateis owned by the Washington Post Co.)

Jack Shafer was Slate's editor at large. You can follow him on Twitter or email him at Shafer.Reuters@gmail.com.

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