For most conservatives, liberal media bias is a self-evident truth. For most on the left, it's a right-wing Big Lie. Last year, two bestsellers made the conservative case: Bernard Goldberg's Bias and Ann Coulter's Slander. (Much more solid—and much less hyped—was William McGowan's 2001 book Coloring the News.) Now comes the counterpunch from the left: What Liberal Media?, by Eric Alterman, who claims the media today are really slanted in favor of the right, partly because they've been cowed by complaints of left-wing bias.
The "so-called liberal media," to use Alterman's phrase, have greeted the book warmly: The Los Angeles Times' reviewer called it "a well-documented, even-tempered and witty answer, I might say antidote, to such toxic recent bestsellers" as Bias and Slander. No less predictably, conservatives have dismissed What Liberal Media? as a ludicrous attempt to deny the obvious. As Bill O'Reilly put it to Alterman on The O'Reilly Factor, "You're living in the land of Oz."
Full disclosure: I've crossed swords with Alterman myself. In a 2002 column for MSNBC.com, Alterman included me in a list of "reflexively" pro-Israel pundits, even though I had never written about the Middle East. After I responded in my Boston Globe column, Alterman claimed that the listing was "based on [his] overall impression of [my] columns" and was, in any case, supposedly vindicated ex post facto by the views expressed in my response. Later, he grudgingly apologized.
Many reviewers have congratulated Alterman on his voluminous endnotes. So has Alterman himself: "For you Goldberg/Coulter fans, those little numbers are called 'footnotes,'" he sneered in an exchange on National Review Online. "They allow other people to check your work."
True enough. Let's do some checking.
Alterman writes that, to accuse the media of hyping racism, "McGowan took refuge in a New Yorker report by Michael Kelly that argued that the church burnings in the U.S. South in 1996 were not racially motivated. In fact, a Columbia Journalism Review editor dissected and discredited this report of Kelly's, which McGowan ignored." The endnote oh-so-conscientiously provides the URL for the Columbia Journalism Review story. But the lengthy article, a survey of Kelly's career as he was appointed editor of The New Republic, devoted only two short paragraphs to the New Yorker church burning story. Kelly's piece was criticized for a possibly unfair jab at President Clinton but described as "otherwise strong." Meanwhile, a look at Coloring the News shows that the New Yorker article is only one of five sources cited by McGowan.
As "the best illustration of the power ofthe far right to draw the mainstream into its web of lies," Alterman cites the purported savaging of David Brock, a conservative attack dog turned penitent liberal, after the publication of his memoir Blinded by the Right: The Conscience of an Ex-Conservative. "The attack on Brock," he writes, "was picked up by…Timothy Noah in the allegedly liberal Slate, who first called the apostate conservative a liar on the basis of having read a CNN transcript." Alterman claims that when the transcript proved to be wrong—Brock was accused of falsely claiming that he had never appeared on Fox News to discuss his book, but he had actually said "Fox prime time"—Noah "scored Brock instead for telling the truth 'not very loudly.'"
Actually, Noah "scored" Brock for muddying the question of whether he had been on Fox (see slate.msn.com/id/2064849). More important, he never called Brock anything on the basis of the CNN transcript. His column "David Brock, Liar" (slate.msn.com/id/2063759) predated the CNN show; it dealt with likely falsehoods in Brock's book and an outright lie in a letter to The Washington Post.
Fact checking aside, what about the big picture? Alterman's argument goes something like this: Most "establishment" journalists aren't as liberal as they're made out to be, and anyway it doesn't matter because they bend over backward to be fair, and anyway it's the owners who call the shots. (On the last topic, his faith is unshaken by his subsequent discussion of the dissonance between The Wall Street Journal's conservative editorial page and its news section.)
Alterman acknowledges 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," and that coverage of these issues tends to reflect these views. While Alterman contends that the media lean right on economic issues such as free trade, his chapter on the subject makes no mention of tax cuts, privatization, or regulation.
Alterman is clearly right when he says that the "liberal media" are not nearly as self-consciously ideological as, say, National Review or Fox News, and that liberal journalists are far more likely to see themselves as neutral observers rather than as political players. Yet this hardly disproves the key contention of Bias: that many journalists who consider themselves neutral are blithely unaware of their own biases.
And even here, Alterman's account is heavily skewed. The New Republic is treated as not-really-liberal because of its hawkish foreign policy, despite its fairly consistent liberalism on economic issues and its Democratic partisanship. Meanwhile, Bill O'Reilly is treated as an undiluted right-winger despite his support for abortion rights, gun control, and environmental regulations. Salon is credited with ideological openness because it publishes some conservatives; Fox News gets no such credit for featuring liberal and leftist commentators.
Rattling off the names of some 25 right-wing television pundits, Alterman rhetorically inquires, "Who among the liberals can be counted upon to be as ideological, as relentless, and as nakedly partisan as George Will, Bob Novak, Pat Buchanan…?" Let's see: Democratic hatchet man James Carville, perhaps? CNN leftist Julianne Malveaux?
Though billed as a rebuttal to conservative anti-media broadsides, What Liberal Media? offers little direct response to the "toxic recent bestsellers." Alterman takes a few jabs at misstatements in Bias and Slander, mostly citing other people's already published critiques. His analysis of Coloring the News is almost entirely a rehash of a negative review in The Washington Monthly.
This is not to say the conservative critiques aren't seriously flawed. Goldberg's valid arguments—e.g., that the media sometimes sacrifice facts to political correctness in covering homelessness and similar issues—are marred by overwrought rhetoric and rancor over his break with CBS. Coulter is basically the right's (much slimmer) Michael Moore. Even McGowan is not above fudging the context of some quotes.
To some extent, of course, bias is in the eye of the beholder. We are more likely to notice things that irk us; thus, Alterman is exercised over the rough treatment of Al Gore during the 2000 campaign but oblivious to the rough treatment of Newt Gingrich after the Republican takeover of the House. Alterman expresses dismay that Coulter and Rush Limbaugh get away with venomous remarks about liberals, while Goldberg cites some pretty venomous remarks Nina Totenberg and other liberals have made about conservatives.
Right-wing diatribes against the "liberal media" often have an unpleasant whiff of whining. In this respect, Alterman isn't all that different from his targets. At one point he notes that he "earned a grand total of about $500 working as a liberal journalist" between 1982 and 1984, while the young and then-conservative David Brock had access to a well-funded right-wing support network. (Alas, poor Eric: He had to make do with a Carnegie Endowment internship and a fellowship at the World Policy Institute.) Alterman gleefully cites William Kristol's admission that liberal media bias "was often used as an excuse by conservatives for conservative failures." Then he proceeds to blame right-wing influence over the media for the Clinton impeachment, the outcome of the 2000 elections (including the Florida fiasco), and the Democrats' poor performance in 2002.
Media critic, critique thyself.