What Liberal Media? by Eric Alterman
What Liberal Media? The Truth About Bias and the News
by Eric Alterman
Basic. 322 pp. $25.00
Eric Alterman, the vociferous media critic of the Nation and an online commentator for MSNBC.com, has for years now been peddling a pretty straightforward theory about the American press. It is, he believes, under the control of venal, expanding corporations, and its best-known practitioners are either conservative fat cats spoon-fed by corporate interests or others so intimidated by those interests that they will not contest the right-wing agenda. The public face of the whole arrangement is a new media elite—Alterman dubs it the “punditocracy”—dominated by the likes of George Will, William Kristol, Morton Kondrake, and Bill O’Reilly.
In What Liberal Media?, Alterman has extended his basic analysis still further. As his subtitle (“The Truth About Bias and the News”) explicitly suggests, he is taking aim at works like Bernard Goldberg’s Bias: A CBS Insider Exposes How the Media Distort the News, Anne Coulter’s Slander, and other broadsides arguing that the national press is in fact dominated by a liberal media elite. Nonsense, says Alterman. The idea of a liberal-controlled media is no more than a “useful myth,” propagated by conservatives to conceal the extent to which they themselves have come to gain control. Indeed, he writes, “Liberals are fighting a near-hopeless battle in which they are enormously outmatched by most measures.”
Worse, the liberals have largely capitulated: thanks to the “conservative colonization of the so-called ‘center’ ” of American political debate, “even the genuine liberal media [are] not so liberal” any longer. Alterman points not just to the roster of conservative commentators on Fox, MSNBC, and CNN but to the supposed transformation of the once-liberal New Republic (the Nation‘s competitor) into a conservative mouthpiece and the alleged rightward trend of the New York Times and the Washington Post. How else explain what Alterman characterizes as the press’s obsessively upbeat reports on the booming dotcom economy of the 1990’s, or its failure either to foresee such disasters as the Enron fiasco or aggressively to pursue conflict-of-interest allegations involving the Bush White House and the Texas oil industry? Even more sinister, today’s conservatized media fully acquiesced both in the impeachment of President Bill Clinton and in the Supreme Court judgment that upheld the presidential election of George W. Bush—two actions that Alterman considers illegal and unconstitutional.
Alterman’s bilious book may provide a certain entertainment value for spectators of the East Coast media mud-wrestling circuit. But the striking thing about his arguments is how pallid and contradictory they are. While expatiating at length about the rise of populist commentators on cable TV, he is forced to concede that broadcast news, which was the object of Bernard Goldberg’s analysis in Bias, still enjoys ten times the audience of all the major cable-news networks combined. He resolves this glaring inconsistency by asserting, without any real supporting evidence, that “[w]hile a great number of people do not actually watch those [cable] shows, the rest of the media does, and that gives them a degree of influence well beyond their numbers.” Well, maybe, and maybe not—but in neither case have we learned anything about the actual bias, if any, of broadcast news.
Similarly with Alterman’s contention that “even the genuine liberal media,” in particular the Washington Post and the New York Times, are “not so liberal” these days. From the pages of the “allegedly liberal” Washington Post he offers selected citations from Howard Kurtz, the paper’s media critic, whom Alterman accuses of “flacking for Bush.” As for the Times, Alterman adduces a one-time complaint by Howell Raines, now (but not then) the paper’s executive editor, to the effect that Times reporters were too infatuated with then-presidential candidate Bill Clinton.
Occasionally, if inadvertently, Alterman even provides evidence against himself. Thus he writes that, on social issues, “the overall flavor of elite media reporting favors gun control, campaign-finance reform, gay rights, and the environmental movement.” Then he adds, lamely: “but I do not find this bias as overwhelming as some conservative critics do.” Only right-wing bias, apparently, counts as real bias.
If “bias” turns out to be a slippery concept for Alterman, “liberal” is made of India rubber. Basically, what he seems to mean by the term is someone like himself—which is to say, not so much a liberal, the label he incessantly and misleading applies to himself, as a committed leftist. True, Alterman is careful to distinguish his politics from that of others farther to his Left—for example, Alexander Cockburn, whose column in the Nation once offered spirited defenses of Leonid Brezhnev and the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan—but he conspicuously prides himself on the acolyte relationship he once enjoyed with the late I.F. Stone, Old Left muckraker par excellence, as well as his friendship with the New Left sociologist-journalist Todd Gitlin. The latter, indeed, is singled out as the major intellectual influence on his book: “I calculate my debt to [Gitlin] as unpayable.”
The effect of Alterman’s skewed political taxonomy is to push almost everybody in the media to the Right: with leftists like Stone, Gitlin, and Alterman himself reconfigured as liberals, liberals can be conveniently relabeled as conservatives, and conservatives fingered as right-wingers or extreme right-wingers. In an interesting bit of dialectics, Alterman even describes the middle-of-the-road political columnist David Broder as a conservative because Broder calls himself a “centrist.”
Alterman does have one thing right: there is indeed a much more energetic conservative voice in the U.S. national media than there was a quarter-century ago. But this is not because of some covert takeover by Rupert Murdoch or Richard Mellon Scaife. It is because of the widespread, decades-long recoil, including among many liberals, from the excesses of the New Left. Nor is evidence of this recoil limited to the media, which if anything adjusted to it only slowly and belatedly. Ever since the days of Jimmy Carter, the radicalized version of liberalism that gained so deep a hold during the Vietnam war, and that lives on as the “liberal” ideal in the perception of Eric Alterman, has been on the defensive in American electoral politics. There is no other way to explain the election and especially the re-election of Bill Clinton, who, for all his contortions, evasions, and dissimulations, was able to present himself successfully to the voting public as an anti-New Left, anti-McGovernite Democrat.
In short, liberalism has not been mugged by a conservative-driven conspiracy; it is still struggling to recover from the mugging that leftists like Alterman, and their allies who to this day control significant strongholds within the Democratic party, are hoping to administer one more time. Anyone still needing to be convinced of the New Left’s lingering grip has only to watch a rerun of the most recent debate among the current crop of Democratic presidential contenders—with or without critical comments from any member in good standing of the vast right-wing punditocracy.