WHAT LIBERAL MEDIA?
The Truth About Bias and the News
By Eric Alterman
Basic. 322 pp. $25
Everyone knows that conservatives win when they play hardball. But they also win at softball. Among congressional staff in Washington, the hallowed summer tradition of softball games on the National Mall is, in many ways, a microcosm of the larger political struggle between liberals and conservatives. Liberals let everyone play, even if it means benching their home-run hitters while the guy who whiffs every pitch gets a turn. Conservatives pick their nine strongest players and send everyone else out to buy beer. Liberals often have four or five women on the field. Conservatives play only the required three and sometimes even insist that different rules apply to women. Liberals have such fierce team names as Jeffords' Vermont Saps or the Daschle Prairie Dogs. Conservative teams are more likely to follow the lead of the Helms Hitmen.
To borrow a favorite Bush administration phrase, it's an unlevel playing field out there for liberals. And nowhere is this more true than in the world of media, as Eric Alterman makes devastatingly clear in his new book, What Liberal Media? The Truth About Bias and the News. In this detailed and comprehensive examination of nearly every facet of the American news-commentary industry, Alterman presents an impressive refutation of the liberal-media myth.
Television, where chatter abounds and objectivity is for sissies, is the headquarters of the "punditocracy," as Alterman called it in his 1992 book, Sound & Fury. Here, "[U]nabashed conservatives dominate, leaving lone liberals to offer themselves up to be beaten up by gangs of marauding right-wingers, most of whom voice views much further toward their end of the spectrum than does any regularly televised liberal." The FOX News Channel -- which has now replaced CNN in so many dental and airport waiting areas that its takeover of public discourse seems nearly complete -- is simply the most brazen of the many networks dominated by conservative hosts and commentators.
Although Alterman acknowledges that the field is a bit more level in print media, he seems to take more offense over instances of bias in that more honorable medium. In fact, he devotes significant space to laying out a case against The Washington Post's venerated David Broder, who is almost universally admired for his "alleged ability to ignore ideological blinders and bluster and speak to what is understood to be the common-sense 'middle ground' of American politics." Yet Alterman's contention that Broder's writing often reflects a clear bias -- perhaps not a political bias, but an establishment bias -- is compelling and disturbing. After all, no one needs to write a book to argue that Ann Coulter and G. Gordon Liddy are kooks. But Alterman's examination of bias in the work of Broder and Howard Kurtz and "even The New Republic" should raise some liberal eyebrows.
Even so, taken individually, many of the issues raised in Alterman's book may seem like nothing new. He builds on the work of such media scholars as Robert Entman, Marvin Kalb and Thomas Patterson, as well as his own previous reporting as a media critic for The Nation. and MSNBC.com. Although the point is worth making again, Alterman is not the first to argue that much of the media is characterized not by political biases but by more subtle leanings: economic and class biases, race and gender biases, a preference for negative stories or "soft" news or scandals.
By drawing together all of these pieces into one book, however, Alterman produces a powerful effect. While liberals have been politely pretending that their opponents are playing by the same rules, the game has changed. The worlds of news and commentary -- once so distinct -- have merged. Print columnists and television hosts are no longer journalists by training but are instead just as likely to come from the worlds of politics or lobbying or, as in the case of a few blond, leggy fembots generously labeled "GOP strategists," from nowhere at all.
What Liberal Media? implicitly raises two important questions that are left unanswered. (This is not a weakness of the book, which accomplishes a worthy goal. It is instead an indication of how much work is yet to be done on the topic.) First, what can or should liberal journalists do to counter the conservative media industry? And, secondly, what impact have multiple media biases had on news consumers? In his review of the book for Salon, David Talbot scornfully suggests, "Liberal journalists need to spend less time mulling over the big ethical questions at the Kennedy School and the Aspen Institute, and more time thinking about how to engage and energize their audience." There's no reason why they can't do both. The big ethical questions about how voters have been affected by changes in the media -- particularly with regard to news coverage -- are important.
Are there implications for readers or viewers who believe they are consuming balanced news coverage that may in fact reflect a specific ideological slant? Throughout the book, Alterman refers to the rightward shift of the American political and communications spectra. How has that influenced public discourse in the United States? Is the press corps' role as proxy for the public jeopardized by an administration that so strictly limits access to information? Or by a collective press mentality that functions as an extension of the White House press office? Or by a cooperative arrangement with the Pentagon that places correspondents within military units?
In those softball games on the Mall, our heavy hitters may have fewer chances at bat, but they can still score when they step up to the plate. Eric Alterman has done the equivalent here. And who knows? With John Podesta spearheading a new liberal think tank, Al Franken writing his own book on media bias and Democratic leaders from Bill Clinton to Al Gore to Tom Daschle publicly taking up the issue, maybe we can get a rally going.
Amy Sullivan is currently pursuing a doctorate in sociology at Princeton University. She is the author of
Political Aims, a weblog.