I recently finished reading Eric Alterman’s “What Liberal Media,” his screed against what he considers the rightward tilt of today’s news media. While I’ve generally not been a fan of Alterman’s (he wrote a very pedestrian book about Bruce Springsteen, and his blog, Altercation, sucks), I was surprised by how much I enjoyed, and was persuaded by, his media book.
I found his arguments well-argued and well-supported even when I didn’t agree with them, which is much more than I can say for the book “What Liberal Media” is billed as a rebuttal to, Bernard Goldberg’s “Bias.” (Alterman also takes aim at Ann Coulter’s “Slander,” which I confess I have not read.)
Before and after reading either book, my opinion about the left or rightward tilt in the media has remained pretty much unchanged: the media is extremely large and by no means monolithic, and therefore slamming “the media” as “liberal-leaning,” “conservative-leaning,” “responsible for Columbine,” or any other such blanket condemnations is silly and counter-productive- if one reporter or one newspaper does something stupid or unfair, it’s their fault, not “the media’s” fault.
Furthermore, I’ve long looked at bias as in the eye of the beholder: to a conservative, conservatism is fair, unbiased, and correct while the same is true of liberalism to a liberal. That’s how people on the right can claim to honestly look at Fox News Channel as “unbiased,” while those on the left can do the same with the New York Times.
While the idea of an “East Coast Elite Liberal Media With Their Cocktail Parties, Etc.” began as an anti-Semitic canard that was advanced by Nixon and others, it’s not without grains of truth. But as even Goldberg concedes, the bias of the New York Times, CNN, and the Jennings/Rather/Brokaw axis is more a matter of elitism than politics- of course their coverage leans to the left- but in a way that is more inadvertant than conspiratorial. As opposed to Fox News Channel, which was founded for the express purpose of injecting conservative bias into the national media.
Indeed, Alterman’s book is at its best when describing the almost brilliant synergy in play among the Republican Party and various conservative media outlets, talk radio hosts, political activists, and think tanks (in a great piece in the Boston Phoenix this week, Dan Kennedy calls this the GOP Attack Machine). Alterman describes in detail how “liberal” media outlets are always inviting conservatives on for “balance,” whereas conservative news organizations don’t even bother with such efforts.
Alterman’s argument isn’t without its share of blind spots, however: The author completely discounts the considerable influence in national discourse of NPR, as well as the alternative press, and he ignores the influence the very liberal Times has on other media outlets nationwide. He also stretches considerably in slapping the “conservative” label on any journalist (from Howard Kurtz to David Broder) with a habit of quoting any Republican in a non-negative light. And if the Republican media juggernaut has as much power as Alterman says it does, it doesn’t explain how Democrats ever win elections. There are also quite a few spelling errors (the author spells Gregg Easterbrook’s name three different ways), and in two different sections he confuses which ones are “red states” and which are blue.
In a way, Goldberg and Alterman are both right. While “Bias” was a poorly written screed in which proving liberal media bias took a backseat to mean-spirited potshots at the author’s former boss Dan Rather, he did make some valid points in regards to ridiculous ways in which people in network newsrooms are out of touch with their audience. Alterman makes the opposite argument even more convincingly, but obviously did much more research- his book consists of nearly 20 pages of endnotes, compared to Goldberg’s zero.
Reaction to the books will likely fit along ideological lines: Fox News watchers will prefer “Bias,” with New York Times devotees favoring “What Liberal Media.” As a social liberal with some neocon leanings, I say the tie goes to the better-written, more intelligent book, and that undoubtedly is Eric Alterman’s.