The liberal media myth: Eric Alterman's angry and outspoken alternate universe

Eric Alterman is angry. He’s angry over the “stolen” 2000 election, angry about President Clinton’s impeachment, angry at the Bush White House, angry at Congress. Most of all, he’s angry about the media, which he feels has been complicit in the whole mess.

He’s even angry enough to say, in a recent Esquire magazine interview, that he wishes Rush Limbaugh “would have gone deaf.” Referring to the conservative radio host’s battle with a rare hearing disorder, he said, “I shouldn’t say that, but on behalf of the country, it would be better without Rush Limbaugh and his 20 million listeners.”

It is these decidedly illiberal views — the stifling of opinions not like his own, and a resentment that a market even exists for conservative views — that the proudly liberal Alterman brings to the debate over media bias in What Liberal Media?

What Liberal Media? The Truth About Bias and the News
By Eric Alterman
322 pages • $25
Basic Books

The media may not be as liberal as it once was. Both The Washington Post and The New Republic have moved rightward of late, especially in regard to war with Iraq. Conservatives certainly have more friendly outlets catering to them than they’ve ever had.

But Alterman, a columnist for The Nation, sets out to prove that the “liberal media” is no more than a myth, and that in fact the media relies on fundamentally conservative assumptions. He says this myth “empowers conservatives to control debate in the United States to the point where liberals cannot even hope for a fair shake anymore.”

Granted, Fox is now the most watched cable news channel. Limbaugh attracts almost 15 million listeners a day. Between web bloggers, old-guard magazines like National Review, new entries like The Weekly Standard and the success of conservative think tanks and their media relations teams, a veritable conservative alternative media has emerged.

All this does not disprove the liberalism of the media, as Alterman asserts, but rather underscores it. The trend is a market response to a public desire. For the audience of the three nightly newscasts, plus PBS, CNN, NPR, The New York Times and The Los Angeles Times, to name only a few, still dwarf that of the “right-wing” media — and they are still largely liberal.

Somewhat more troubling is that Alterman brings to the debate ideological baggage of his own. Bias is of course a relative question, dictated largely by an observer’s own place on the political spectrum.

About this Alterman leaves little doubt. Look at how he identifies some of the people he writes about: The Democratic Leadership Council is “neoconservative,” New York Gov. George Pataki (R) is “conservative,” radio shock jock Howard Stern is lumped in with “movement conservatives.” Michel Martin, the liberal foil for George Will on ABC’s “This Week,” is “nonpartisan,” while The Wall Street Journal’s token liberal Al Hunt is a “token moderate.”

From this perspective, it seems unlikely that any media outlet could live up to Alterman’s ideals. (Do they still publish Pravda?)

Nevertheless, Alterman charges up the hill, even as he concedes that “the vast majority” of “elite journalists” are “pro-choice, pro-gun control, pro-separation of church and state, pro-feminism, pro-affirmative action and supportive of gay rights.” He also “tend[s] to believe that on many social issues, conservatives have a case” for their media criticisms.

So where’s the bias? Well, for one, he writes, “elite journalists” are “privileged” in income and status, which skews their perspective on economic issues.

But which comes first, the privilege or the elite status? Cub reporters earn far less than “elite” reporters, but most cub reporters occupy the same ideological territory. Surveys routinely show that the vast majority of journalists vote for Democrats, elite or not.

Then Alterman turns to media consolidation as the culprit (The Man made me do it!). He argues that since the AOL/Time Warner merger, for instance, a reporter at Time is less likely to criticize AOL. Perhaps, but one issue in several thousand does not a conservative make. Plus, what about all the other media conglomerates who can’t wait to savage AOL in print?

As is made clear in his introduction, the author writes largely to discredit recent bestsellers by Bernard Goldberg and Ann Coulter that chastise the media for its leftist slant. Alterman’s chief criticism is that these books are shoddily sourced and researched.

True, Alterman wins the footnote contest, but even his work is hastily assembled. Several proper names are misspelled, he confuses “red states” with “blue states” in one instance, and in another associates conservative activist Grover Norquist with the National Taxpayers Union, an organization with which he has no affiliation.

Alterman nevertheless does score some points with his arguments and research, but they’re premises for a different conclusion. He notes several cases where right-wing pundits have gotten their facts wrong. He points out how some of the stories that embarrassed Al Gore during the 2000 campaign were misrepresented. He laments the decline of proper sourcing.

Fine. But this proves only that there are poor reporters out there, on both sides. Even his criticism that “Bush charmed his press plane and Gore repelled his” doesn’t prove his point. He readily admits he has “no evidence…reporters prefer a conservative Republican to a centrist Democrat in the White House.”

Too much of the book is devoted to opinion journalism. Pundits of course occupy a key place in the journalistic world, and often drive the debate. Moreover, as Alterman notes, there is now no shortage of conservative opinion for those who seek it. The evening talking-head shows are dominated by it. Even ostensibly liberal papers give plenty of inches to conservative commentators (The New York Times notwithstanding). Perhaps they see it as a way to provide another perspective without actually balancing their news coverage. Perhaps they feel guilty.

But this matters little. The point of media criticism from the right has always been to force objectivity in reporting, not about the way papers set up their editorial pages, or the content in journals of opinion. Consumers of ideological opinion seek it out precisely because it is ideological. For that reason, it has less power to sway than supposedly nonbiased reporting, which often makes its way into the zeitgeist as “the truth.”

Alterman is so critical of opinion, in fact, that he seems to take issue with journalists’ holding any bedrock assumptions or values at all, or even recognizing that they belong to the society on which and for whom they report.

He excoriates “Meet the Press” host Tim Russert for wearing a red, white and blue ribbon in the days after Sept. 11. When ABC News President David Westin told a Columbia University class that as a journalist, he should not take a position on whether the Pentagon was a legitimate target, Alterman called his subsequent apology “dispiriting.”

This stems from his utterly non-mainstream perspective, which keeps rearing its head in this book. In an almost comically outdated caricature of Republicans, he says they “pledged fraternities and secret societies in college and drank martinis dressed in Brooks Brothers button-downs, instead of smoking pot and traveling to Dead concerts in jeans and t-shirts like any normal college kid.” You see, one must occupy a place in the countercultural caravan to be “normal.”

Perhaps recognizing this, Christopher Hitchens, one of the liberals Alterman calls a “hardline conservative,” resigned from The Nation last year. In his resignation letter, he wrote: “When I began work for The Nation over two decades ago, [founder] Victor Navasky described the magazine as a debating ground between liberals and radicals, which was, I thought, well judged. In the past few weeks, though, I have come to realize that the magazine itself takes a side in this argument, and is becoming the voice and the echo chamber of those who truly believe that John Ashcroft is a greater menace than Osama bin Laden.”

This is the side from which Alterman hails, where nearly everyone is to the right. It is a difficult place from which to judge objectivity.

Poll: Public finds left bias in most media outlets

Conventional wisdom with respect to the “liberal media” remains largely intact, according to a recent Gallup poll.

According to the poll, conducted Feb. 17-19, 45 percent of adults view the media as “too liberal,” while 15 percent call it “too conservative.” 36 percent say it’s “just about right” and 4 percent have no opinion.

Not surprisingly, these numbers vary according to a respondents’ self-identified political philosophy. Among conservatives, 63 percent say the media is too liberal, but only 18 percent of liberals say the same. 43 percent of self-identified moderates say it’s too liberal, compared to 14 percent who say it leans too much to the right.

A more interesting picture emerges, however, when asked if the media is biased toward either party. 20 percent of adults said it favors Republicans, while 23 percent said it favors Democrats. 46 percent had no opinion. Perhaps in a reflection of who’s in the White House, in 2000, a similar Gallup survey revealed that the public thought Democrats were favored in the media, 29 percent to 15 percent, over Republicans.

The public’s confidence in the Fourth Estate continues to be weak. 58 percent of respondents think the media is “often inaccurate,” with 39 percent saying “news organizations get the facts straight.”

The survey of 1,002 national adults has an error margin of plus or minus 3 percentage points.

— J.D.