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Al Gore’s Golden Years


His work in green tech has been less successful. Gore joined Kleiner Perkins Caufield & Byers with fanfare in 2007. A Kleiner partner, John Doerr, had been around at the start of the Internet and made a fortune betting on Google and Amazon and Netscape. Partly based on the near-deafening buzz over An Inconvenient Truth, Doerr was betting that the next big thing was green technology, and by the time Gore came onboard, KP had raised $600 million to invest.

But as an investment, green tech has lagged. The downturn in the economy hit the sector hard. Kleiner Perkins invested in some 60 companies, and thus far, only two have had liquidity events—either been acquired, merged, or gone public. Kleiner Perkins’s green business has damaged Doerr’s reputation as a visionary—but Gore, though he’s still a partner, has focused his energies elsewhere.

It makes sense that another of the things he wanted to reform was the media. A certain bitterness was a catalyst. During his presidential campaign, the media fixed on a caricature of him as a supercilious Ivy League egghead. “They focused on the sighs,” he tells me, “not the substance.”

After the election, Gore talked over the media’s problems with a friend and co-combatant and came up with a grander diagnosis. “The media was a dysfunctional oligopoly, and there was no real journalism left,” explains Joel Hyatt, an entrepreneur who was co–national finance chair of the Democratic National Committee in 2000. “It was less about ‘They screwed us’ than ‘This is bad for democracy.’ ”

So, in 2003, Gore and Hyatt decided to launch their own cable-TV station. It wasn’t, at first, a matter of leveraging Gore’s political capital to launch a liberal response to Fox. “I thought it would be much more important to do something disruptive, transformational, that would link the Internet with the television medium and, in the process, empower individual citizens to get back into the mix,” Gore tells me, his dense explanation bringing to mind why he couldn’t always grab people even when championing their cause. “The essential insight was, look, there are all these very low-cost, very high-quality consumer video cameras out there now. Why not see if we can make television by asking people to contribute?”

Current TV, as it was to be called, would rely partially on user-generated content—even user-generated ads—which could be bold, personal political statements, with the added advantage of also being cheap. It would, he says in Gorespeak, “catalyze the emergence of … a multi-way conversation on television that brought out creativity and political passions.” He adds, “That was a thrilling idea for me.”

In 2003, in the days before YouTube, this seemed a pretty radical idea—but as a business proposition, it wasn’t so outlandish. A cable station doesn’t need viewers, at least to start; it requires distributors like Time Warner Cable, Comcast, and DirecTV, which pay for the right to carry programming from ESPN, CNN, or, perhaps, Current.

At the time, Gore and Hyatt had NWI (Newsworld International), a cable station based in Canada, in their sights. NWI had few viewers but possessed valuable distribution deals that piped it into 17 million homes (producing an estimated $25 million a year in revenue).

The problem was those deals expired within a couple of years, and without extensions NWI was worth very little. NWI’s largest distributor was DirecTV—and Rupert Murdoch was in the process of buying a controlling share in it, subject to FCC approval.

Murdoch’s Fox News had virtually campaigned against Gore in 2000—and Gore had every reason to detest him. Instead, Gore invited Murdoch to his class at Columbia journalism school in 2001. “I want to understand what the hell you’re doing,” he told Murdoch. He questioned the oligarch in front of the class. “There were no punches pulled,” Gore tells me. “I asked what I wanted to know: ‘Do you interfere with your editors?’; ‘do you select journalists and editors because of their ideological disposition?’ ” It seems a banal exercise. Gore pressed Murdoch to admit the obvious: that he uses his media as ideological weapons. But Gore was satisfied to hear Murdoch’s straight talk. And the relationship came in very handy.

In the fall of 2003, when Gore and Hyatt needed Murdoch, a meeting was arranged by Gary Ginsberg, who had worked for Gore and then for Murdoch.

Murdoch had no interest in Gore’s plan to upend the media paradigm. But Gore’s timing was excellent. “Rupert is a smart guy,” Gore tells me. “This was a great opportunity for him to demonstrate that he was not interested in consolidating his control of DirecTV just to launch an ideological jihad.” As proof, “he could say, ‘Hey, I put Al Gore’s channel on.’ That was something that would work for him. It would certainly work for me.”


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