Al Gore’s ‘Current TV’ Debacle

Exclusive: Current TV’s core failure was the choice by its founder Al Gore to avoid political conflict in 2005 when President George W. Bush was near the height of his powers. That act of cowardice made the “progressive” network largely irrelevant to the biggest battles of the last decade, says Robert Parry.

By Robert Parry

Al Gore’s soon-to-be-defunct Current TV should serve as a case study for American progressives on how not to construct a media outlet. It was a failure in nearly all respects, with possibly its only lasting contribution the fact that its sale to Al Jazeera may finally give that important media voice from the Islamic world a foothold in the United States.

The biggest error committed by Gore and his partner Joel Hyatt occurred at Current’s founding in 2004-05 when the project intentionally ducked what was then the most important fight underway for the future of America, whether President George W. Bush’s strategy for a permanent Republican majority would go unchallenged.

Former Vice President Al Gore, a founder of Current TV. (Photo credit: algore.com)

Gore specifically swore off any political leanings for the new network, vowing that it would be an “independent voice” focused on the 18-to-34 demographic by giving them “a voice they recognize and a view they recognize as their own.” The idea was to present an MTV with a little more social conscience.

Gore and Hyatt also located their new network in San Francisco, a pleasant place to live but, frankly, a news backwater, 3,000 miles away from – and three hours behind – the news centers of New York and Washington. In placing its headquarters in the Bay Area, Current TV followed the tendency of other progressive outlets to choose that gentler location at the rear rather than to fight it out in the trenches on the front lines.

So, as the American people were facing one of the most severe threats to their political future – a brazen strategy by Karl Rove and other Republican operatives to seize total control and to veer the country off in a violent and cruel right-wing direction – the former Vice President and Democratic standard-bearer from 2000 consciously sought to avoid political conflict for his fledgling network.

Even if that had been a sound business strategy, which it wasn’t, it represented an act of cowardice. In 2005, when Current went on the air, the American people desperately needed a courageous voice to challenge Bush’s abuses of power, including his neoconservative war of aggression in Iraq and his assault on fundamental constitutional protections, such as the right of habeas corpus and prohibitions against “cruel and unusual punishments,” i.e. torture. Bush and the Right also were contemptuous about the science of global warming and other reality-based threats.

Not only could Gore’s network have engaged aggressively on those political battle fronts, it could have provided important historic information, including evidence about broader Republican abuses of political power, from the days of Sen. Joe McCarthy through President Richard Nixon to the crimes of Ronald Reagan and George H.W. Bush, such as their tolerance of cocaine trafficking by the Nicaraguan Contra rebels.

Gore also could have demonstrated a meaningful independence by showing how Democrats contributed to those and similar offenses during the post-World War II years by commission and omission. [For details, see Robert Parry's America's Stolen Narrative.]

Indeed, a youthful audience might have found such evidence revelatory and useful in assessing what is needed to put U.S. politics back on a sound course. Certainly, these young people would have gotten a better sense of the battle they’re in, against a power structure that won’t simply budge because of some idealistic mini-documentaries about caring for the planet.

The All-Powerful Bush

It may seem odd today, since President George W. Bush is widely reviled as a dismal failure, a politician not even welcome at the Republican National Convention. But eight years ago, he headed a fearsome political juggernaut that scared many people into silence, especially anyone who wished to maintain “credibility” within the mainstream.

So, it was left to a handful of underfunded Internet sites, including our own Consortiumnews.com, to explain what was happening within the U.S. political structure, to challenge the conventional wisdom on the Iraq War, and to provide the necessary historical context on how the country had lost its way. In those crucial years, Gore’s Current TV siphoned off millions of dollars in scarce media money while producing very little that was cutting edge regarding the fight for America’s political future.

Ironically, it was an outlet of General Electric, a founding member of the Military-Industrial Complex, that seized on the media opening that Gore had disdained.

MSNBC, another struggling cable outlet, had tried for a while to out-fox Fox News from the Right. In the run-up to the Iraq War in 2003, MSNBC dumped the popular Phil Donahue, who had dared to allow some anti-war voices on his talk show. Then, during the invasion, MSNBC produced glowing propaganda videos of American troops “liberating” Iraq, just like Fox was doing.

MSNBC, like other mainstream outlets, carefully censored out images of dead Iraqi civilians and wounded children at overflowing hospitals, so as not to dampen the jingoistic hysteria that was considered ratings gold. However, MSNBC executives soon learned that Fox had cornered the market on conservative viewers, leaving the wannabe super-patriots at MSNBC looking for another strategy.

That strategy emerged through the singular voice of Keith Olbermann, a former sports broadcaster who transformed his MSNBC show “Countdown,” which premiered almost at the same time as the Iraq War, into must-see TV for Americans uneasy about the direction that Bush was taking the country.

Though a temperamental personality, Olbermann demonstrated the courage to take on the Bush administration and Fox News – and showed that his pugnacious though erudite style could work even amid the political conformity that dominated the early-to-mid part of the last decade. Every night, Olbermann chided Bush’s triumphant “Mission Accomplished” declaration by counting how many days the war had continued after that moment of bravado.

Olbermann’s ratings success convinced NBC Universal to expand its liberal-oriented evening programming, making MSNBC a counterpoint to Fox News and leaving CNN’s attempts at “even-handedness” looking wimpy and irrelevant.

Repeated clashes with management led Olbermann to depart MSNBC in January 2011, but his legacy was lasting and profound. By then, Bush was considered one of the worst presidents in U.S. history, the Iraq War was acknowledged to be a disaster, and MSNBC was the clear choice for millions of Americans tired of Fox’s right-wing propaganda and CNN’s phony “balance.”

It was only after Olbermann left MSNBC – and after the ugly trench warfare with the Bush-Rove-Fox machine was largely over – that Gore and Current TV decided to abandon their MTV-with-a-conscience format and opt for more hard-edged political programming. Current hired Olbermann to head its news division and to continue hosting his show, but he quickly grew alienated by the poor production values and left in a huff in March 2012.

The hard truth about Gore’s Current TV is that it missed its historic moment, a chance to truly fight for America’s political future. Gore and the network thought they could do good by not engaging the powerful forces that were intent on crushing the nation’s progressive tendencies and its democratic principles.

The idea was that Current could distance itself from such nastiness both politically and geographically, getting as far from the Washington Beltway as possible and focusing on the positive, not the negative.

That was a gross miscalculation, a failure of political courage and business acumen. Current will now disappear from America’s media landscape having accomplished very little and with very few lamenting or even noticing its departure.

Investigative reporter Robert Parry broke many of the Iran-Contra stories for The Associated Press and Newsweek in the 1980s. You can buy his new book, America’s Stolen Narrative, either in print here or as an e-book (from Amazon and barnesandnoble.com).

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34 comments on “Al Gore’s ‘Current TV’ Debacle

  1. Eric Bischoff on said:

    I see it differently. Last I read Current was a small but profitable channel that generated $24M yearly profit. A success story as far as I am concerned. Free Speech TV, another TV Channel based in San Francisco and a true voice of the progressives, I believe operates on a $5M budget. All that is needed is for Americans to stop being so dumb and illiterate and stop buying and believing the Mainstream BS propaganda of which Fox is the leader and expand their horizons a little. Al Jazeera is really the BBC’s abandoned foreign offices. By adding Current they are getting US penetration. Time Warner should be ashamed of themselves. The irony of it all is that in America today you can get more truth and journalistic honesty from watching RT Russian TV!

    • Joe Sexton on said:

      Now TWC will probably cancel RT! Diversity is not what they want, when it comes to seeing ourselves as others see us. The fantasy must be preserved. Total Republican rule and only FOX News on TV is where “they” want to take us.

  2. charles sereno on said:

    You said it — “All that is needed is for Americans to stop being so dumb and illiterate and stop buying and believing the Mainstream BS propaganda of which Fox is the leader and expand their horizons a little.”
    Current TV threw away an opportunity to change that and was no “success.” Did you read the article?

    • Silvergirl on said:

      After the Supreme Court intervened, stopped the recount and appointed bush president, what exactly was Mr. Gore supposed to do? Raise an army and storm the court? The case before the Supreme Court was Bush v Gore – meaning bush initiated the action. He did that because the Florida court ruled in Gore’s favor – allowing the recount was to proceed. Do you understand now?

  3. matt carmody on said:

    Wimp. Just like he walked away from the unconstitutional interference into the 2000 election by the Supreme Court instead of calling for nationwide street demonstrations to protect elections.
    Gore was a venal politician, always posing as the ultimate liberal while cutting deals behind closed doors that ruined this country, especially in the environmental arena.
    Gore is a total fraud.

  4. In the early days of Current, I watched, hoped, and was disappointed. As of the last few months, I was encouraged. Many of the “news” shows have been great.
    Sometimes I watch my “lefty” shows such as Liberally Stephanie and the Young Turks., for a little relief from “mainstream media” and trying to get all points of view anywhere I can. I get both humor and serious talk from the analysis on Current. I do watch MSNBC but find they too try to hard to be more balanced. For a little intellect and seriousness, I watch Rachael Maddow.
    I don’t mind a bit Al Jazeera owning Current if they leave the “lefties” in place.
    Disclaimer here: I am way past the age group for whom they were aiming, way past.

  5. The sale to al Jazeera seems to come at a strange time; in the past months, there have been reports that the CIA has become involved with it. Al Jazeera has been a prime source of disinformation about Libya and now Syria, supporting, as it does, rebellion against two popular leaders who opposed US Neoconservative views about markets and Israel.

  6. Ken Kellett on said:

    This all just makes me sad. I will continue to watch Cenk and Stephanie and Bill Press and Governors Granholm and Spitzer, but the Right-Wing Bullshit Machine just acquired a new reason to cast doubt on Currnent: ‘It’s owned by Arabs’ or some such horse manure.

    I’ll try to remain hopeful, but the country is locked in a vise of lies and this doesn’t help. The billionaires are totally winning the class war because they own the media.

    • Bill Dekking on said:

      Ahh yes “It’s owned by Arabs’ or some such horse manure. but don’t forget fox is owned by an Australian and an Arab prince, just so you don’t forget. We
      can always hope that al Jazeera will counter the right wing BS by retaining what little progressive content that remains

  7. Michael Caddell on said:

    And now we see that the FCC is preparing to relax their restrictions on cross ownership of media outlets in “markets.” If there is any truth that Murdoch is planning a buy-out of the Chicago Tribune and the Los Angeles Times as floating around now, it could be another disaster for intelligent news gathering. See: http://www.avaaz.org/en/stop_murdoch_us_b/?bdBoHcb&v=20651

    • Gayle Hales on said:

      I appreciate your nod to the FCC. They have been allowing consolidation since Reagan and now we have a true propaganda machine.
      SHOULDN’T WE BE ASKING WHY THE ATTORNEYS GENERAL NO LONGER ENFORCE THE ‘FAIRNESS DOCTRINE’?
      It’s a joke that we have diversity in information. How many companies now own the majority of the media? I believe it to be just 5. How is that diversity? It strikes me that it’s pure fascism.

  8. John Puma on said:

    Waiting excitedly for Issa to fire up a very splashy investigation by his Oversight and Government Reform Committee of Gore for his the sale of a media station to A-R-A-B-S … booga, booga.

  9. Mad Adam on said:

    GO KEITH!

  10. Mad Adam on said:

    (I miss your honesty and your sense of humor.)

  11. leftover on said:

    What was apparent to me, a long time Olbermann watcher, when KO showed a willingness to be as tough on Obama as he was on Bush the Younger, MSNBC pushed him out. There was a glimmer of hope that by acquiring Olbermann, Current would be willing to push the boundaries of the set by the corporate media secular clergy. That glimmer faded quickly.

    Now that Al Jazeera has acquired Current, it might be possible for Olbermann to return to cable and reclaim a strong internet presence. I think Olbermann would be better suited in a dedicated news (or sports) environment than a “feature” or “entertainment” venue like Viacom or AMC. And Al Jazeera has the resources to produce the type of product Olbermann wants to be a part of…and withstand any backlash.

    Love him or hate him, KO always drew a crowd. He demonstrated principles and integrity during his stay at MSNBC. I think Al Jazeera would be lucky to get him.

    • David G on said:

      I think The Young Turks ably continued in that independent spirit. Cenk is still the only person on TV I have ever seen speak the obvious truth that Obama is a right-winger.

      I hope the new AlJazeera America continues TYT and Elliot Spitzer, though I have no reason to think they will. Keeping Spitzer would be a good strategic move for them since, while he is a fairly strong voice on Wall St. kleptocracy stories and some other issues, he is (I believe) still as pro-Israel as you are expected to be in U.S. media and politics, and thus would be good defensive ammo for AlJazeera when they have “anti-Israel/anti-Semite/pro-Terror” thrown at them.

  12. Al Jazeera ia a welcomed addition to the news media. Offering a fresh outlook to what really is going on in Saudi Arabia. I can’t wait to start watching their programming.

  13. jack mc neill on said:

    Let this be a lesson to us all: not everyone is cut out to be a broadcaster, and journalism is a skill, not a hobby………………

  14. Hillary on said:

    Al Gore is a disgrace to America , politics, intelligence and the male gender.
    .
    Why ? Because he gave the election to G.W.Bush the worst US President ever.
    .
    A wimp of the highest order then giving out the “balanced” news etc.
    .
    Keeping the people “calm” is the American Mantra it seems and all will turn out well in the end.
    .
    al Jazeera may well be CIA but it will at least show what Arab countries are suffering as a result of the “US democracy at the barrel of a gun” is like for the men women and children in so many countries today.

  15. both Granholm and Spitzer are political figures who may still have political ambitions. I would not be surprised if they bug out feeling that it would kill their future plans to be an’employees’ of an Arab owned enterprise. ON the positive side it may be a polite opening for Olberman to reappear.

  16. Darwin26 on said:

    Gore omg ~ he’s not a Progressive and neither are Stephanie Miller, Bill Press, Young Turks, ~ if they supported Obama-Crypto-fascist for Pres then they are NOT Progs, they are Centrists.
    Best to get rid of your Tee Vee ~ cause there is nothing coming out of Hollywood ‘cept info/news/mercials for big bucks ~ better to get your news from the net ~ glean and verify.

  17. Lantern Rogue on said:

    The farce that is mainstream media is quite evident when you look at how the last presidential debates were handled. The MSM presented the two corporate backed candidates as the only viable choice while shutting out 4 candidates who were on enough ballots to mathimatically win the electoral vote. The last time a third party candidate was in the presidential debates, he called it right. That was Ross Perot when he said NAFTA was going to be a giant sucking sound as jobs left the US. Can’t have anyone pointing out the emporer wears no clothes. RT hosted the 4 third party candidate debates.

  18. incontinent reader on said:

    One way to encourage some diversity might be for the A-G, FCC and FTC to tighten their enforcement efforts, and move to reduce media concentration (and, to the extent necessary, for Congress to change the law to increase the regulatory power of these agencies). For example, the FCC might begin to pull licenses from the five or six firms that currently control the market, doing so on a regional basis, and instead make them available to independently owned unaffiliated stations. While Congress and the Administration may lack the courage or will to force the issue, it would level the playing field and could make a real difference.

    Re: Al Jazeera, Jerry is right, and in fact, after email accounts of a number of Al Jazeera journalists were hacked, the emails disclosed journalist dissatisfaction with the official line and management’s (i.e. the Qatari ownership’s) suppression of reports about the infiltration of outsiders and weapons into Syria to disrupt demonstrations being held at the time and provoke violence. Recall that there were unidentified snipers firing at civilians.
    (See: http://english.al-akhbar.com/node/4941 and: http://therealnews.com/t2/index.php?option=com_content&task=view&id=31&Itemid=74&jumival=8106
    As a result, Al Jazeera’s BBC trained journalists were forced to become MAIs and MIAs (“made as instructed” and “missing in action”)- i.e., propagandists- at the risk of being fired.

    As for Gore, he was not strong, and one wonders whether 9/11 would have occurred (maybe, maybe not) and/or turned out much differently with Gore and Cheney-lite (i.e., Joe “Mr Israel” Lieberman) as VP. Don’t forget the flawed investigation and rush to enact antiterrorist legislation after the Oklahoma City Bombing. See, for example Brigidier Gen. Benton Partin’s report pointing out serious flaws in the investigation, but that Congress ignored: http://whatreallyhappened.com/RANCHO/POLITICS/OK/PARTIN/okm.htm) And, it was Joe Biden who had sponsored anti-terrorism legislation in February, 1995, two months prior to the Oklahoma City bombing, legislation that was the predecessor to the USA Patriot Act. See: http://news.cnet.com/8301-13578_3-10024163-38.html?tag=newsLeadStoriesArea.0

    Regardless, one suspects a Gore Administration would have been an extension of Clinton’s, and not unlike that of Obama. Nice talk, a few social reforms and, yes, a focus on global warming, but more of the same Clinton foreign policy- e.g., as pursued with Yugoslavia, or, with the hundreds of our CIA-funded madrassas training mercenary terrorists to fight in the Balkans, Caucasus and Central Asia- with Turkey our prime partner in the exercise, and a Turkish imam, Fethullah Gulen, the front man. (See, for example, Sibel Edmonds’ commentary at: http://www.boilingfrogspost.com/2011/01/11/additional-omitted-points-in-cia-gulen-coverage-a-note-from-‘the-insider’/ )
    (Maybe, that’s why Hillary, after her hubby’s extensive experience with it, thought she knew what she was doing playing with the same thugs and Turkish and Saudi/GCC partners.

    Furthermore, Gore’s Democratic allies, including Joe Lieberman, Joe Biden, Dianne Feinstein, Chuck Schumer, and Carl Levin, have been as dismissive of civil liberties, and as strong proponents of the national security state, our numerous wars and their policy of endless war on terror, as his hardline Republican counterparts, so much so that one lacks confidence that he himself would have been any better.

    • Good points ‘IR’. I’ve had similar thoughts and noted-before (ie; in response to Mr Parry’s posts regarding the 2000 election) that it’s not at all clear that Gore would’ve been any much better than W, much as it hurts me to say that about a Democrat. While he wouldn’t have been as proactive at initiating conflicts, he probably would’ve been ‘rolled’ by the Republicans as much as Obama is, and the Reps would have found plenty of nefarious enterprises to drag him into. I listened to Gore’s book recently and he TALKS a good game, but — remembering his VP years with Clinton — I can’t help feeling he’s more patrician than progressive in his ACTIONS.

  19. JC Williams on said:

    Al Jazeera just seems like a BBC outlet. It is actually a propaganda arm of the the government of Emir of Qatar. While it started out with a surprisingly progressive agenda ,as soon as it became successful and demonstrated market share, it was co-opted.

  20. jo6pac on said:

    The part I always loved about said location was they couldn’t stream anything out of the building do to its location in SF. So much for the 18 to 35 market.

    I agree with JC Willaims in that Al Jazzeera has fallen to the ranks of the bbc, npr, and pbs. There won’t be much good about this but may be they can make some money selling ads.

  21. mattcarmody on said:

    Anyone looking for a good book on Gore’s true self should checkout Al Gore: A User’s Manual by Alexander Cockburn and Jeff St. Clair. http://www.amazon.com/s/ref=nb_sb_noss?url=search-alias%3Daps&field-keywords=al+gore+a+user%27s+manual
    Everything Gore does is done to advance Al Gore

  22. preinsko on said:

    I feel so betrayed by the FCC.p wich is supposed to do what is good for the people not themselves. One of the commissioners (Baker) who brokered the Comcast / GE / MSNBC deal left the FCC and took a job with Comcast. That alone should have nullified the deal. BTW that tidbit was never reported by anyone other than print mefia. Radio stations drop progressive talk in favor of sports hmm male dominated much? Thank God for streaming so I can still hear progressive voices; but it may cost too much later. MSNBC has RW shills now and doesn’t educate enough, there are people who do not believe that we used to have a surplus. MSNBC could easily regute that premise; butbthey don’t. Current TV shows are speaking truth to power and they make you think; but they were too late to the party. As for Gore he disappointed me in 2000 so what else is new and he is a political coward. I fear for my country, we are going the way of third world countries it is frightening.

  23. Sharon on said:

    It’s not true that FCC Commissioner Baker’s move to Comcast was only reported in print media. Amy Goodman on Democracy Now, the REAL NEWS program, reported Baker’s shameless slide into Comcast. I watch Amy on Link TV, which has been a true progressive voice in media.

  24. gregorylkruse on said:

    Though the MSNBC lineup (sans Matthews)is still better than the others, it has been better. They all have been tamed into reporting on a select set of stories and using a stable of regulars so that if you see one, you have seen them all. Maddow has become so pedantic as to cause anxiety, and O’Donnell seems to be trying to keep me hanging until the really good part at the end, which is after my bedtime. They got their audience and now they are working at putting them to sleep.

  25. The real story here is the degree to which newspapers, Radio stations, TV networks, book publishing houses, and now the bigger and more lucrative web sites have become investment targets with which international trans-national corporations buy and trade back and forth like so many baseball cards. This is an old story as far as newspapers, radio is concerned, yet few really confront the core issue here.

    When there is no regulation of vertical and horizontal monopolies and every businesses enterprise is reduced to an accounting of it’s assets, that is, what is the market value of the land said company owns, the value of its factories, product lines, buildings, flying routes, circulation base or market share the very original reason for doing said business is reduced to a secondary consideration by the vulture investors who loot these companies and then hire yes men to run them.

    The Hostess Twinkies debacle is one of thousands upon thousands of like stories going back to the 1970s.

    This behavior is bad enough, but like insult added to insult the debt the investing class piles up buying all these companies is usually forced back on the original company or even worst sold to chumps managers of pension funds across the globe. Leaving the pension funds or the original company with the eventual lose and debt.

    Yet somehow the boardroom members and Wall Street Hedge Funds and private equity funds that engineer all these deals can sack and destroy countless companies and still manage to walk away with millions and millions in pay packages all underwritten by funny paper of Wall Street bailed, which in turn got bailed out by the biggest chump in the world: the American Tax payer.

    If the company is question somehow manages to survive the poor bastards who work there can look forward to wage cuts, layoffs and a endless work life of an increased work load and maybe a 2% raise every 8 years or so and that is the up side.

    The evidence is all around us, or the results are, twenty million long term un-employed and another 6 to 8 million or so, who long for a full time jobs.

    It matters little at this point who buys Current TV, I doubt very much any form of independent journalism that it once might have represented, taking in mind Mr. Parry’s insight on how it dropped the ball time and time again really matters in the larger scheme of things at this late point in time.

    The real story here it is yet again just another chapter of a trans-national conglomerate buying yet another baseball card which we can rest assured the FCC and SEC will not block, any more than the fact Clear Chanel still owns about 700 radio stations.

    Be thankful there are still is small eco-system of struggling web site like Consortium News, Democracy Now, Common Dreams and a handful of others, because unless we all support them they too may go the same route as the American newspaper industry driven out of existence because well, because the titans of industry made a conscience decision to NOT save them — with any kind of sensible business model, because the super rich have always viewed independent newspapers owned at the local level as the enemy.

  26. Stahl N on said:

    The prevailing sentiment of The New Left as found here seems to be sniveling. Those living as I do in the heart of Goreland have long maintained that Gore’s essential problem was fecklessness. No principle to profound to be jettisoned. In that sense he’s basically an honorary Kennedy. BTW DB’s Fox still beats MSNBC 2 to 1 and sometimes beats CNN/MSNBC combined. As I occasionally have to tell my compadres here on The Right: you are the 1%. O-man’s ratings were tiny compared to his competitors and he is mentally ill which you think would sell better. See you in the trenches.