Al Gore at the Wang Center Boston

The second event of the 2009 Speaker Series: Live & Uncensored featuring former Vice President Al Gore in conversation with Boston Globe reporter Susan Milligan at the Wang Center was uneventful throughout most of the evening until Miligan became stuck on several questions regarding the (self) importance and likely downfall of newspapers in their current form. While this diversion didn't diminish the entire evening, it struck me as odd and uncalled for. (I wasn't able to Twitter this event, so quotations will be even more paraphrased than usual as I was taking notes with a Sharpie, on the back of an envelope, in the dark, in my terrible handwriting.)

Al Gore was introduced by Boston Phoenix Founder and Publisher Stephen Mindich, who called him 'The truly elected President in the 2000 election' and asked the audience to imagine what might have been had Gore been allowed to serve. Gore who went to college in Boston began his remarks by praising the Wang Center and saying, "They just don't build them like this anymore." From this, he launched into a quasi stand-up routine telling multiple jokes about his time after the White House. This wasn't the boring Al Gore described by the media in the 2000 election.

He was funny, knowledgeable, and informative and spoke for about 25 minutes, giving example after example of how the climate crisis plus the economic crisis have lead directly to the security crisis. And how all 3 can be mitigated by beginning to address energy issues. Gore restated his goal of 100% renewable energy in the US in 10 years and said, "I need your help...This is your challenge...Political will is a renewable resource." I cynically wondered if Gore's humor and deliberate speaking style wasn't a reaction to years of being stung by the media as boring, wooden, and a serial exaggerator and then I chastised my cynical self for being a jerk.

It should have been clear from the first question which direction the night was headed, but I say that with the benefit of hindsight because at that point, Miligan hadn't begun to lose the crowd. The question was some version of "Have you been able to change more because you didn't become President." Gore amicably spoke for a few minutes, essentially answering, "Uh, no, President would have been better."

Regarding nuclear power, Gore says he remains skeptical, but not reflexively opposed and said his concern stems from the fact that rogue weapons programs typically grow out of legitimate nuclear power programs. On whether going green is a luxury, Gore's first sentence was about the need for jobs channeling Van Jones, but stopping short of saying we can't afford NOT to go green.

It was at this point, in my mind, that Miligan began getting squirrely, asking a question about bailing out the auto industry with so much unbridled disdain that Gore began his answer, "If I had known this was a touchy subject." This setting off a sputtering denial of bitterness in which Miligan used the word bitter a bitter 12 dozen times. The entire time, neither Gore nor Miligan noted the irony of castigating the autos while ignoring the bank bailouts (both of whom, it could be argued, have suffered from an enormous lack of personal responsibility).

Gore answered a question on whether lack of personal responsibility is more to blame than deregulation by connecting Democracy and capitalism since their birth in the same year of 1776. Gore said, "I like the market, but we have a right to make laws."

When asking Gore's opinion on Obama, Miligan quipped "Careful, he might fire you like he did Rick Wagoner." (I think this was supposed to be a dig at Obama overreaching, but it was confused by Miligan's earlier attacks about the auto industry, making Miligan seem willing to attack everybody). Gore said, "Well, he can't fire me" and "I think he's doing a great job."

Miligan then asked Gore, a former journalist himself, his opinion on the crisis facing newspapers around the country. Gore's answer appeared to be that Americans are watching too much TV with time they used to spend reading the newspaper. And then there was a follow up. And then another. And then an attack on 'the blogs' and their veracity, and their lack of posting corrections, which is about the time my eyes filled with a white light and my ears a rushing noise. And I can't obviously connect the theme of the talk to this, but about 10 minutes before the evenings abrupt end and 10 minutes after Miligan's self-important rant, people started leaving in 2s and 3s until entire rows were pocked with empty seats.

One question from one reporter to a man who could have been President (but also a former reporter) strikes me as relevant and Gore's head is stuffed full of interesting examples of successes on the internet, but Miligan broke the first rule of interviewing (and giving toasts, incidentally) in that she made the interview about her. Instead of Bostonians filing out of the Wang enthusiastic about making a difference on climate change, they ambled out listlessly wondering who they had paid to see. It was similar to Ann Coulter vs Bill Maher when hecklers attempted to interrupt the evening in a 'look-at-me' bid for attention, except tonight it was Susan Miligan attempting to curry pity and Al Gore was too polite to tell her off. This is the second bad moderator in a row for the speaker series, and I hope Charlie Rose is better for Karl Rove vs James Carville.

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16 thoughts on “Al Gore at the Wang Center Boston

  1. Mike Saunders

    “(I wasn’t able to Twitter this event, so quotations will be even more paraphrased than usual.)”

    ???

    Aaron, as they have for centuries, pen and paper still work just fine for capturing quotes. So does typing into a laptop. Losing the ability to send tweets in real-time shouldn’t compromise the newsgathering process.

    That’s what leads to the generally fallacious argument that blogging and “pro-am” coverage of news is a lesser quality.

    (Full disclosure: I’m currently a Globe multimedia guy and I’ve met Susan Milligan twice.)

  2. Joanne

    I could not agree more and wonder how Susan Milligan got the gig (was she a last minute subsitute?).

    If Ms. Milligan was worried about her job security before last night, she should really be worried now. Her ad nauseam harping on the demise of the newspaper industry drove my husband and I to the door at 9:45. As she argued the superiority of newspaper reporting over internet news and blogs, she showed all of the preparation and finesse of an elementary school debate club president. The car industry? There is plenty to blame on senior management, but up until $4/gallon gas, consumers were still buying SUVs (it takes at least three years to redesign). Saying that Obama could fire Gore? Too absurd to be funny.

    How about thoughtful questions about Mr. Gore’s opinions on Cap & Trade? Biofuels? Healthcare? Taxes?

    Vice President Gore was gracious and thoughtful and deserved better. And so did the audience.

  3. Lenore

    I was totally disgusted with Susan Milligan’s lack of professionalism and outright snippy tone of voice throughout the entire interview. I felt embarrassed for Mr. Gore but he was gracious even in the face of ridiculous and unrelated line of questioning. I really hope Ms. Milligan loses her job sooner rather than later and am dumbfounded as to HOW IN THE WORLD she was selected.

  4. aaron Post author

    Mike,
    Thanks for your comment. I added “as I was taking notes with a Sharpie, on the back of an envelope, in the dark, in my terrible handwriting” to clarify what I had intended to be a warning not to quote my quotations. I understand that the way it was worded originally could lead to confusion and allow the reader to assume I’m entirely tech-reliant (which, I actually am, just not in this case).

  5. APik

    I once watched a video of Noam Chomsky giving a talk in Cambridge. I’m not his biggest fan, but when some jerks tried to take over the talk by asking questions about some other topic and shouting, Chomsky asked everyone for a show of hands — “Who wants to talk about what this guy wants to talk about?”

    Nobody raised their hands and the dude left. I wish Al Gore could have done that for Milligan.

  6. Jennifer

    Too bad Al Gore had to be intereviewed by Miss Milligan, who obviously has no interest in climate control, the effects of global warming or what Al Gore had to say about tying in all 3 present crisis. I doubt she realized that there were paying people who wanted to hear what Al Gore had to say on climate control and not about the demise of the newpaper. Maybe next time Al Gore will travel with Jon Stewart!

  7. Susan

    She really did seem like a last minute substitute. The only research and preparation that she may have done was to ask what colour the flowers would be, so she could match her suit and look nice on stage. The demise of the newspaper in its current form is the least of her problems. It really is a shame that we all woke up this morning thinking about Susan Milligan instead of the environment!

  8. Elena

    This article was way too polite to Susan Milligan. She stole the show last night – by making a complete fool of herself. To his credit, Mr. Gore ran circles around her intellectually and handled himself with extreme grace in an obviously uncomfortable situation (as usual).

  9. RJ

    I completely agree. Milligan ruined what could have been an amazing and inspiring evening. I have no idea how she was selected as moderator. She pushed her own agenda, and was infuriating. I could rant on and on about her, as I did after the show last night, but this article sums it up nicely. IMO, it was a wasted opportunity to interview such an accomplished person.

  10. Christine

    Thanks for this recap. I was there but started to zone out partway through Milligan’s questions about the demise of newspapers.

    “Miligan broke the first rule of interviewing (and giving toasts, incidentally) in that she made the interview about her.” Mindich, I’d argue, was guilty of that too – I thought he said more about the Phoenix/Boston After Dark than was really necessary in his intro.

    It did end abruptly, didn’t it? That was weird. And did I miss it, or was Milligan never introduced? I didn’t know who she was.

    But it was a treat to hear Gore in the first part of the evening. Glad I got to go.

  11. Rob

    I would say that the evening would have been better with no moderation at all. Mr. Gore was entertaining for the first half hour. But when the Q&A section started, it seemed like they were two friends at a Starbucks rather than a serious reporter asking hard questions.

    There was no questioning like, “What if in the next ten years we don’t see these climate changes that you outlined?”. If we had a series of tougher questions, it would have made the night much more entertaining and I would have taken Ms. Milligan more seriously.

    I think they need to step away from the Globe and start getting guys who are more forward thinking in the way the news is delivered. Maybe a reporter from Politico.com who realize the live channel is more effective at reaching masses than printing paper. Clearly they have a solution that goes beyond the printed word. Perceptions like Ms. Milligan’s regarding her industry is the problem why newspapers can’t evolve. It’s poor us rather than building new channels, changing revenue models. Mr. Gore made mention to the Music Industry evolving their revenue models from CDs to online MP3s via iTunes. The reality is most bands now make money from touring more frequently. Newspapers need to find their tour…

    I have no doubt Charlie Rose debate will be ten times better.

  12. Maple

    Milligan was a horrible moderator. Sitting in front of her is a former Vice President, Nobel Peace Prize winner and an Oscar winnee, and she spend the last 15-20 minutes about print newspapers. Although interesting, it became completely self-serving when she continued to ask follow up questions until the very end.

    She squandered an opportunity to tap into such a great mind, by stumbling on questions, and editorializing while asking VP Gore a question. (It’s bad when the interviewee comments on the moderator’s bitterness) She squandered the audience’s opportunity to truly experience the depth, wealth of knowledge VP Gore has regarding climate change and the future. Thank goodness that we had 45 minutes of opening comments before the moderator portion.

  13. Chris

    I totally agree that the review is awfully polite to the hack-job that Milligan did on-stage. In full disclosure I have worked in the media for some time now (I was not working at the show; I was there on my own) and have worked in newspapers, so I was interested in the discussion, but this was not the forum. We have one of the greatest minds of our generation and instead Milligan opted to ask questions she could have well asked backstage after the show. A single question about the demise of newspapers and what it means for the future of media would have sufficed. But her harping on the topic, her poor candor and her inability to dodge the spotlight was appalling. To give a blanket “and this is why newspapers are failing” statement is unfair to what is a brilliant (but sorely lagging) industry. More suitably, Milligan was a disastrous and outright disappointing pick for this particular venue.

  14. Claire

    I couldn’t agree more with your summation of the interviewer’s performance. What a waste of a great opportunity. I became more and more frustrated not only because of the endless self-absorbed questions about the decline of newspapers but because her questions were not concise. We spent way too much time listening to her ramble to a point which ate up a lot of the time we could have been listening to the speaker we paid to see. I wanted to hear about climate change, you know, the subject for which Al Gore won all the awards that were mentioned. Al Gore tried to bring the subject back around to climate change a couple of times and then appeared to give up. Very frustrating.

    Al Gore did make one comment I disagreed with. In speaking about the economic collapse, he said (paraphrased) 99% of the blame goes to the regulators who weren’t watching those guys run off with the store. I think that’s too harsh given the way that regulators have been underfunded and legislation passed which hamstrings them over the years since at least the late 90′s. Like many players, they deserve a slice of this pie, but not that big a wedge.

  15. GoreFan

    Why did I buy tickets to see Al Gore? To hear one of the world’s most informed speakers talk about climate change. Doesn’t he have a new book to promote? It was hardly mentioned. I didn’t get what I expected.

    Why was that Globe reporter chosen? Why not Beth Daley, the environmental reporter? Why not Ross Gelbspan?

    I assume that most of the audience wanted to hear his ideas on HOW we can solve the climate crisis. He spent a good deal of time talking about the evidence of climate change around the world, but I wanted to hear how he thinks we’re going to stop global warming.

    Gore is a natural speaker – bright, funny, charming – unlike his stiff demeanor on the campaign trail. I could have listened to him speak for another hour (about climate change policy). Too bad Ms. Milligan wasted so much time – she was the wrong choice. And the way it ended so abruptly was very unprofessional.

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