By: Amber McDowell, Associated Press Writer
(AP) The “quasi-hypnotic influence” of television in the United States has fostered a complacent nation that is a danger to democracy, former Vice President Al Gore said this week.
Gore, speaking on “Media and Democracy” at Middle Tennessee State University (MTSU) in Murfreesboro, told attendees that the decline of newspapers as the country’s dominant method of communication leaves average Americans without an outlet for scholarly debate.
“Our democracy is suffering in an age when the dominant medium is not accessible to the average person and does not lend itself most readily to the conveyance of complex ideas about self-governance,” Gore said. “Instead, it pushes toward a lowest common denominator.”
Gore said the results of that inaccessibility are reflected most prominently in the changed priorities of the country’s elected officials, who think that debating important issues is “relatively meaningless today. How do they spend their time instead? Raising money to buy 30-second television commercials.”
Students and members of the community filled the 235-seat auditorium for Gore’s appearance, and several hundred more watched his speech on a big-screen monitor set up in the building’s lobby. It was the first of two lectures that Gore has scheduled at MTSU as part of the “American Democracy Project for Civil Engagement,” an effort to start a national discussion on the “vigor of the national democracy.”
Students at 200 college campuses across the country also watched Gore’s speech via satellite and asked the former vice president questions by calling a toll-free number.
Gore, who has taught several classes at MTSU, put on his professor’s hat for much of the lecture, giving attendees a history lesson on the origins of communication and democracy — from the first evidence of complex speech 60,000 years ago to the invention of the printing press to the eventual evolution of media as it is known today and it’s role in a free society.
Gore said democracy in the United States flourished at the height of the newspaper era, which “empowered the one to influence the many.” That changed with the advent and subsequent popularity of television, he said, noting that the average American watches four hours of television a day.
“What does it do to us that has relevance to democracy? Does it encourage passivity? Is it connected to the obesity epidemic? … If people are just staring at a little box four hours a day, it has a big impact on democracy,” he said. Gore said a remedy to television’s dominance may be the Internet, a “print-based medium that is extremely accessible to the average person.”
“We have to choose to rehabilitate our democracy in part by making creative use of these new media and by insisting within the current institutions of our democracy that we open up access to the dominant medium,” he said.
MTSU student Stephanie Elvey, 20, a junior from Blacksburg, Va., said Gore “touched on a lot of the views of people who are uneasy with the complacency” of the American public. “I believe the media feeds into that complacency because it instills fear in people, makes them believe the government will take care of the problem. Mostly, people just don’t know what’s going on,” she said. “People need to be aware of how to make their voice heard.”