Look out, Rupert, here comes … Al?
Since deciding not to make another race for the White House in 2004, former Vice President Al Gore has been devoting considerable time to another dream, one he shares with many Democrats these days creating a media enterprise that could challenge the dominance of conservative voices in cable television and talk radio. Numerous sources in Hollywood and Washington tell TIME that Gore has been quietly sounding out potential financial backers for a cable television network. Separately, Gore has helped arrange meetings between key Hollywood figures and a wealthy Chicago couple who have publicly announced plans to invest $10 million in a liberal radio network.
What role Gore himself would play in any of these ventures is still far from clear. "He can pull out at any time," says one associate who has spoken to him about the concept. "He can say, 'This isn't my deal.' But he's interested." Gore has been exploring and encouraging several types of possibilities in recent months, and consulting closely with Joel Hyatt, the founder of Hyatt Legal Services, a nationwide chain of low-cost, storefront legal clinics. (Hyatt ran for Senate from Ohio in 1994, unsuccessfully seeking the seat that was vacated by the retirement of his father-in-law, Howard Metzenbaum.) One entertainment industry source who met with Gore and Hyatt earlier this year said that, at that time, part of what they envisioned was youth-oriented programming, "putting video cameras in the hands of kids." Another source close to Gore and Hyatt says the venture would not resemble a traditional cable news outlet, but would be "something totally different in concept and format."
Gore is also making his influence felt in other ways in Hollywood, a place where he has not always been warmly received. When the former Vice President attended the Sundance Film Festival in Park City, Utah, earlier this year, he arranged a series of private meetings with politically oriented entertainment industry figures. One session was with a handful of people from the Environmental Media Association, a group that promotes the idea of incorporating environmentalist story lines into movies. "He was very interested in what we are doing, because he is very interested in media," says Debbie Levin, the group's executive director.
Gore has also been helpful to Chicago venture capitalists Sheldon and Anita Drobny, who announced in February that they planned to fund a liberal radio network to counterbalance such conservative commentators as Rush Limbaugh. Several sources said Gore has helped introduce the Drobnys to such Hollywood political forces as producer-director Rob Reiner. Comedian Al Franken, author of the book "Rush Limbaugh is a Big Fat Idiot," is considering hosting a show on the Drobnys' network, and added that the couple has approached Gore to do regular essays. Anita Drobny declined to comment about any venture involving Gore, telling TIME: "I'm not at liberty to say anything about that. As far as Vice President Gore, you'll have to call him to ask him about his project and what they are doing." Gore and Hyatt did not respond to repeated requests for an interview.
Gore has long been interested in the nexus between politics and media. His 99-page senior thesis in college was titled "The Impact of Television on the Conduct of the Presidency, 1947-1969." Before running for Congress in 1976, Gore worked as a newspaper reporter for the Nashville Tennessean.
The ascendancy of conservative outlets such as Rupert Murdoch's Fox News Channel and particularly such ratings powerhouses as commentator Bill O'Reilly have been a growing source of frustration for Democrats. And while liberal commentators such as former Texas Agriculture Commissioner Jim Hightower have made a stab at syndicated talk shows, they have by and large been unsuccessful. In March, the MSNBC cable news network canceled Phil Donahue's talk show after a disappointing six-month run against The O'Reilly Factor. However, some liberals point to the success of Hillary Clinton's just-released memoir as evidence that a marketplace exists for their viewpoint.
Gore has shared their frustration. In an interview last December with the New York Observer, he described the conservative outlets as a "fifth column" within the media ranks that injects "daily Republican talking points into the definition of what's objective."
"The media is kind of weird these days on politics, and there are some major institutional voices that are, truthfully speaking, part and parcel of the Republican Party," Gore said. "Fox News Network, The Washington Times , Rush Limbaugh there’s a bunch of them, and some of them are financed by wealthy ultra-conservative billionaires who make political deals with Republican administrations and the rest of the media."