Media Matters

The Bias Bully

A special look at Eric Alterman's book.

By 6.9.03

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A special review of Eric Alterman's
What Liberal Media? The Truth About BIAS and the News
(Basic Books, 322 pages, $25).

So Eric Alterman shoves off in his leaky little vessel, its bold mission to neutralize the conservative attack on the liberal media by the likes of Bernard Goldberg and Ann Coulter. He dips his oar and comes up with this:

Republicans of all stripes have done quite well for themselves during the last five decades fulminating about the liberal cabal/progressive thought-police who spin, supplant, and sometimes suppress the news we all consume. Indeed, it's not only conservatives who find this whipping boy to be an irresistible target. Dwight David Eisenhower received one of the biggest ovations of his life when, at the 1952 Republican convention, he derided the "sensation-seeking columnists and commentators" who sought to undermine the Republican Party's efforts to improve the nation.

What's wrong with that statement?

For starters, the sloppy, nonfactual history. The GOP convention Alterman describes -- the one in which likable Ike, then more than three years out of the White House, lambasted the pundits, much to the delight of the assembled Goldwater delegates -- actually took place in the Year of Our Lord Nineteen Hundred and Sixty-Four.

That was on page one.

On page two he writes that smart conservatives don't really "believe their own grumbles." He cites James Baker, who avowed that he couldn't find reason to complain about the media. And Pat Buchanan, who "found that he could not identify any allegedly liberal bias against him during his presidential candidacies."

Sigh. To put it bluntly, the ever-avuncular Baker, during his heyday, was the most famous press-stroker in Washington. He's not going to start complaining now that he's got memoirs to sell and speaking fees to collect.

As for Buchanan -- please. The man who's spent the last decade trying to redefine conservatism as populist isolationism was running against the first President Bush. The media pumped him. If he doesn't understand the dynamic, I do. When, in August 1992, as editorial director of the Orange County Register, I called on President Bush to decline a re-election bid, ABC News sent a limo to deliver me to its Los Angeles studio, there to make my case on Nightline. For the rest of the campaign season the world's media -- and I do mean the world's media -- trooped through my Santa Ana office as if I were an oracle. My 15 minutes were up on Election Day.

Was I or some mysterious force on my behalf "working the ref," as Alterman quotes a GOP operative of admitting he does, the idea being to "cow" the liberal media into not being so liberal? Of course not, but note how the premise of this notion accepts a dominantly liberal media.

The story line was not hard to discern. I was the influential editorialist from Southern California's most notoriously conservative county. If I expressed opposition to the Republican president -- importantly, I wrote a fortnight before the national convention -- then the president was in trouble, as indeed he was. He needed California, which meant he depended on the electoral heft of Orange County. The next day Al Gore swept into town, announcing he wanted to visit the place where that marvelous editorial was published, never mind that the editorial heaped special scorn on the Clinton/Gore ticket.

So, sure, conservatives have enjoyed success by clobbering the media, or by using the media as they used them, but Alterman doesn't begin to grasp why. They've enjoyed success as ju-jitsu masters: by using the dominant media culture's left-of-center weight against itself. Hilariously, Alterman, media critic for the loony left magazine, The Nation, spends much of the rest of his text arguing that the media aren't truly liberal because they don't buy into his own extreme form of liberalism.

JUST WHO IS ERIC Alterman, anyway? Apart from his gig at The Nation, he is the author of an insignificant biography of Bruce Springsteen as well as a tirade against the punditocracy, in which he tries out his thesis that the conservative cast of the nation's op-ed pages disproves the notion the mainstream media tilt left. He is, or was, a friend of George Stephanopoulos, whose coattails didn't seem to lift him to more prominence. He's shown up as a talking head occasionally, but his tic of smacking his lips while interrupting seems to have won him few return invitations.

Oh well, at least he's smarter than Michael Moore.

He once contributed a column to Worth magazine, but now rails against business journalists in general. He associates business journalists with the political right, which careful observers know to be preposterous. They gave too much of a pass to Enron, he complains (not without some merit), and they slept as the Internet "bubble" grew huge in front of their faces (again, not entirely wrong). But he himself gets two things whoppingly wrong.

First, the problem of moral hazard, a product of regulation, eludes him. Enron, he believes, along with, say, the reportorial staff of the Los Angeles Times, gave us the California energy crisis. His mind, along with, say, the reportorial staff of the Los Angeles Times, is so uncomplicated that the connection between California's merely partial deregulation and a consequent distortion of incentives can't be seen. "Deregulation" did it to us, he and, say, the reportorial staff of the Los Angeles Times believe.

But Alterman's syllogism would, one presumes, place the reportorial staff of the Los Angeles Times within the dominant media. Therefore, said reportorial staff, were it not tilting to the left, would regularly and accurately blame a legislative "deregulatory" half-measure, rather than "deregulation," for the state's energy woes. In fact, the opposite is true.

Secondly, though he's right that the Internet "bubble" did burst, he uses that as a synecdoche for what he believes was the evaporation of the "new economy." Too many business journalists did kneel before this Internet-supported monster, which traded in information. But, sorry, Eric, the "new economy" -- though there ought to be a better name for it -- keeps on chooglin'; the burst bubble didn't obliterate it. The hyped companies, those without real value, were shaken out, leaving the best ones to keep building. That likely will remain beyond Alterman's ken even as his own punditocratic efforts grow even more integrated with the information economy. It's no accident he now writes an online "blog" for MSNBC.com.

Alterman never really worked on a newspaper, if you trust his dust-jacket bio. It shows. Of course, he lectures reporters on proper journalistic procedure, even though he commits mistake after factual mistake. (We'll pass over the multiple spelling and grammatical errors; how far Basic Books has fallen!) He seems to think, for example, that Irving Kristol and William Simon created the American Enterprise Institute in the 1980s in order to turn the media conservative. He seems to think, verging on conspiracy theory, that they succeeded.

He also betrays an ignorance of newspaper organizational structure, keeping alive the leftist notion that a concentration of corporate ownership denies diversity of thought and keeps the major newspapers rightwing. I wonder if he's set foot in a newsroom. In most of America's newsrooms, "diversity" and "civic journalism" -- the idea that reporters and editors set the agenda for community life -- reign supreme. Like college presidents who abdicate to their faculty senates, publishers have long since abdicated to their editors, most of whom are drearily left of center.

As I write, Editor & Publisher magazine, the "bible" of the industry, reports its survey that two-thirds of the nation's newspapers oppose President Bush on Iraq. Now, there's an inconvenient fact for Alterman's thesis.

Weirdly, Alterman actually refutes his own thesis. On page 107, he writes: "From my own perspective as an urban, East Coast liberal who is surrounded by others who hold views not unlike my own, I am certainly prepared to believe that members of the elite media transmit liberal views in the guise of objective reporting on occasion." He goes on to explain that these attitudes are shaped, not by a political agenda, but by the social class in which journalists find themselves -- a class that, you guessed it, happens to be liberal.

This is a new argument, made again recently by the New York Times's newest op-ed writer, Nicholas Kristoff, who (a) discounted charges of liberal media bias while (b) explaining away the sneering attitude journalists take toward evangelical Christians, an attitude he rues, as a trope of the more educated class of which journalists are a part. In other words, "We're not biased … but our biases are shaped by our class."

Did anyone ever explain to these guys that social determinism tends to be an idea of the Left?

YOU MAY IGNORE MUCH of this book, much of it a tendentious rehashing of liberal themes: Clinton was ambushed by the right-wing conspiracy, which also, working through the Florida legislature and the Supreme Court, stole the election from the infinitely honorable, honest and better qualified Al Gore. What's this got to do with liberal bias? Well, the "cowed" media, afraid of being called liberal, just weren't behaving as the classic investigative "watchdogs" they were meant to be.

That's the closest he gets to the gravamen of the conservative complaint, namely that journalists let their biases slip into allegedly straight reporting. Mostly he imagines himself nobly debunking the liberal media charge by inveighing against conservative columnists and talk-show hosts, who provide welcome balance to smug straight-newspeople whose idea of acting as "watchdog" means watchfully finding social issues that government, by growing, can solve. These folks have long since stopped growling at government growth and coercion.

Alterman's leaky little launch took on way too much water in the first chapter. But don't miss the last pages, in which he theorizes -- mirroring rightwing pamphleteers of the Birch persuasion -- that the media reflexively follow the dictates of a powerful cabal of conservative activists and misanthropic millionaires, "the Conintern." Like the Birchers whose theories were always "documented," Alterman proudly offers lots and lots of meaningless footnotes, sometimes citing himself.

If, being an astute American, you know the media tilt left, then maybe, just for the sake of mirth, you should indulge the through-the-looking glass experience of Alterman's last pages. But you should know that, somewhere, a news producer or bureau chief is thanking Alterman, and all his footnotes, for de-"cowing" him. Which was Alterman's purpose.

Alterman actually gives the game away in his acknowledgments. He credits the idea and even the title of his book to Todd Gitlin, the Sixties radical who, as president of Students for a Democratic Society, wanted to overturn the reviled liberal order and supplant it with far-left ideology. Gitlin nowadays is everywhere cited in the mainstream media, with nary a reference to his activism, as a scholarly Sixties authority. No more needs be said about this book.

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About the Author

K.E. Grubbs Jr. is director of the National Journalism Center and editor of TheReporter.us