What Liberal Media? The Truth About Bias and the News by Eric Alterman

“The most basic problem faced by American journalists, both in war and peace, is that much of our society remains unaware, and therefore unappreciative, of the value of the profession’s contribution to the quality and practice of our democracy.”
— Eric Alterman, What Liberal Media?

The image of the “hack,” the gruff, curmudgeonly, cigar-chomping, semi-alcoholic journalist of yesteryear who battered away mercilessly on his typewriter and rubbed everybody the wrong way (especially the societal elite, who saw no profession as unworthy as journalism) has all but vanished. What happened? It wasn’t that along ago when this particular breed ran amok, and enjoyed a special knack for twisting and turning noses. Gradually, as members of the more privileged and educated classes joined journalism’s folds, the same elite that mocked the shabby newsmen decided to enter their ranks as well, thereby establishing it as one of the most revered and respected professions today.

Along with this newfound respect came power, and lots of it. Print led to radio, which led to television, which led to the Internet, and so on. The media slowly but surely began to control much of what we see and hear every day. And along with power came great privilege. The barriers that once divided journalists from politicians, for example, have been removed, as many journalists today not only socialize with the politicos, but also enter the field themselves (and vice versa). In addition, given political allegiances, a clear line has been drawn in the sand: you’re either a right- or left-winger, so pick your political position and report accordingly.

For years, the idea of a “liberal media” has held sway, largely as a result of almighty powerful institutions such as the New York Times and the Washington Post who enjoyed a reputation for shaking the foundations of government (and in the case of the latter, were largely responsible for ending the presidency of Richard Nixon). But things have changed considerably, as conservatives have progressively filtered through the mainstream and now enjoy an even greater presence than the liberal press.

What liberal media, indeed? That is the intriguing question that author and seasoned journalist Eric Alterman asks in his expansive and excellent book, What Liberal Media? The Truth About Bias and the News which painstakingly dissects the myth surrounding the notion of an influential “liberal media” which pervades (and molds) so many aspects of American society.

Psshah. The right has emerged as the powerful force to be reckoned with, to such an extent that many long-standing traditional liberal media institutions have kowtowed to the overwhelming wave of the anti-liberal backlash, and allowed serious doses of conservatism to course through their customarily liberal veins

As Alterman explains:

Given the success of Fox News, the Wall Street Journal, the Washington Times, New York Post, American Spectator, Weekly Standard, New York Sun, National Review, Commentary, and so on, no sensible person can dispute the existence of a “conservative media.”

And there are so many others: the mind-bogglingly popular Matt Drudge (whose false reporting inspired a libel suit by Sid Blumenthal), the unnecessarily vicious Ann Coulter, Bernard Goldberg (as a result of his tremendously popular book Bias), Rush Limbaugh (talk radio is unquestionably the main stomping ground of conservatives), George Will, Charles Krauthammer, and the current phenomenon that is Fox’s Bill O’Reilly.

Alterman doesn’t deny the existence of a liberal media, but describes it as: “. . . tiny and profoundly under-funded compared to its conservative counterpart. . . .” He then offers an interesting fact: what few liberal media institutions that exist feel obliged to hire conservatives in their midst in an effort to “include the views of the other guy.” Hence, the peculiar appearance of the conservative Tucker Carlson at New York magazine; the appointment of (the now deceased) “Clinton/Gore hater” Michael Kelly as the Washington correspondent for the New Yorker; and the featured writings of the likes of David Horowitz and Christopher Caldwell on the liberal web magazines, Slate and Salon. Interestingly, the reverse isn’t true: when does a liberal writer ever crowd the pages of, say, the National Review? Not too often.

More interestingly, the author makes a case for the schizophrenic loyalties of the media who praise a political figure one day and damn him the next. The “so-called liberal media” can no longer be relied upon to support politicians and presidents with whom they share political views. Nowhere was this more apparent than during the Clinton presidency. Clinton, initially a media darling, went from enjoying favored status to being butchered by both conservatives and liberals on every policy for which his administration was responsible, finally culminating in the Monica Lewinsky fiasco. As Alterman writes: “The level of hostility directed at Clinton by the punditocracy bigfeet was truly a wonder.”

During the 2000 presidential campaign, the same critical eye was turned upon Gore, while George W. Bush managed to get away with far less scrutiny. (Compare, for instance, the level of media hysteria over the Whitewater issue versus the brushing aside of Bush’s Harken Oil dealings.) Even journalists representing the liberal media appeared to prefer Bush’s amiability and joking around to Gore’s cut-and-dry “issues focused” rhetoric. Alterman quotes journalist Richard Wolffe who, in regard to Bush, that “he charmed the pants off of us.” In particular, Frank Bruni of the New York Times was especially partial to Bush, and given the Times’s power, it’s inevitable that so many other papers, television stations and such took their cues from the Times and followed suit.

The tragedy of 9/11 especially helped Bush, in that the press became ever more reluctant to criticize the administration. (The current issue of weapons of mass destruction in Iraq — or specifically, the lack thereof so far — could prove interesting and worthwhile to watch as the media decides whether to downplay the issue or demand that the administration prove solid evidence to back their claims.) In a post-9/11 world, criticism can be misconstrued as un-American, thereby paving the way for a media that needs to check itself in an effort to avoid ruffling patriotic feathers — a grave danger, since objectivity is after all — supposedly– the cornerstone of a fair and unbiased media. But as Alterman has proved, perhaps we are naïve in thinking as such.

The author has meticulously interpreted all aspects of the media, offering chapters devoted to print, radio, and the punditocracy, in addition to providing solid arguments to support his thesis. The only area, unfortunately, which lacks clear scrutiny is the way in which media institutions report and prioritize world news — an important addition which would further shed light on the current state of American journalism and the tastes of the American public. Otherwise, What Liberal Media? is an astonishingly clever read, brilliantly written by a member of that oh-so-dying breed, the “liberal press,” who has devoted himself to providing an understanding for the rest of us about the how’s and why’s of the news with which we are bombarded every day.