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Sorting out the truth
From remarks by Al Gore and Bill Clinton to a new book by Eric Alterman, the myth of liberal media bias is finally being challenged. Has the pendulum swung — or do we all now live in the Savage Nation?
BY DAN KENNEDY

Alterman comes to Harvard

NATION MEDIA COLUMNIST and MSNBC.com blogger Eric Alterman says that when he appears at bookstores to promote What Liberal Media?, his audience usually consists of fellow liberals who have already accepted his argument that the elite media are influenced far more by the right than by the left.

On Tuesday he spoke to a different audience entirely — fellow journalists — which, he said, represented another kind of challenge. "I do think most journalists believe ... that the media are liberal," he said, speaking in a packed room at the Joan Shorenstein Center on the Press, Politics and Public Policy, at Harvard’s Kennedy School.

His goal, he added, was not to persuade journalists that they should take liberal positions. Rather, it was to help them recognize the onslaught of conservative pressure to which they are subjected on an everyday basis so that they are better equipped to stand up to it.

But despite walking into a crowd that might be skeptical of his views — what reporter, after all, wants to be accused of conservative bias? — Alterman faced a polite, respectful audience that didn’t really challenge any of his arguments. Maybe it was because it was Harvard. Maybe it was because the liberal-media-bias shtick has become so frayed that it no longer packs the wallop that it used to. Indeed, as Alterman writes in his book, conservatives themselves, such as William Kristol and Pat Buchanan, have admitted that charges of bias were never more than a useful tool with which to pressure the media into seeing things their way.

Among those in the audience was liberal humorist Al Franken, who, according to his introduction by Shorenstein Center director Alex Jones, is working on a book of his own, to be titled Lies and the Liars Who Tell Them. (The subtitle, Franken deadpanned, will be A Fair and Balanced Look at the Right.) Alterman all but invited Franken to jump in, but Franken, perhaps not wanting to cut into Alterman’s moment, retained a respectful silence.

Alterman has a reputation for combativeness — not a bad thing, given the wimpy state of modern liberalism. On Tuesday, he told his audience, "Conservatives are very well represented at Harvard, including in the president’s office." That shot at Lawrence Summers drew a few ooooohs, which led Alterman to joke that of course he didn’t actually mean the president himself.

He took on National Public Radio, that alleged bastion of media liberalism, saying, "How long would you have to listen to NPR before you would hear a show called Labor Watch?" As for why the Fox News Channel, with its much smaller audience, seems to be more influential than NPR, he explained, "NPR is like a James Taylor concert. Fox News is like a Led Zeppelin concert." For good measure, he admitted he rarely listens to NPR, saying, "I hate that voice that they have."

He blasted the "egregious suck-up journalism toward big business in the 1990s."

He criticized the media’s coverage of the 2000 Bush-Gore contest. "All we learned," he said, "was that Gore is a liar and Bush is a dope." In fact, he added, Bush isn’t a dope and Gore isn’t a liar — and Gore, in particular, was so unfairly tarnished by the "liar" label that even Alterman didn’t realize until later the extent to which Gore had been smeared with falsehoods.

But he also damned Al Gore with faint praise, answering a question about Ralph Nader this way: "I’m supposedly blinded by my animus toward Ralph Nader and my love for Al Gore. I don’t love Al Gore. In fact, I don’t even like him all that much. I just liked him better than the alternative."

And he explained MSNBC’s decision to give a talk show to right-wing hatemonger Michael Savage thusly: "It gives MSNBC no pleasure to hire a caveman like Michael Savage. They’re not proud of it. They don’t want to have dinner with him. But they think that’s where the money is."

— Dan Kennedy

NO ONE KNEW IT at the time. But last November 26 may have marked the peak of unchallenged, unbridled influence on the part of the conservative media.

Mainstream news organizations, cowed by George W. Bush’s post-9/11 popularity, were quiescent as the president celebrated his victory in the midterm elections and made plans for an unpopular war. The Fox News Channel had triumphed in the world of cable news, pugnaciously asserting Republican talking points as though they were gospel, all the while claiming to be "fair and balanced." Screeds charging the media with liberal bias, such as Bernard Goldberg’s Bias: A CBS Insider Exposes How the Media Distorts the News (Regnery Publishing, 2001) and Ann Coulter’s Slander: Liberal Lies About the American Right (Crown, 2002), rocketed up the bestseller charts.

Then, on November 27, the media landscape shifted — imperceptibly at first, but with a force that has since gathered momentum. It was on that day that the New York Observer published an interview with Al Gore in which the former vice-president told the truth about the media and their ideological loyalties. "The media is kind of weird these days on politics, and there are some major institutional voices that are, truthfully speaking, part and parcel of the Republican Party," Gore told the Observer, citing Fox, the Washington Times, and Rush Limbaugh’s radio program. Gore described how conservative talking points come to be accepted as fact: "Something will start at the Republican National Committee, inside the building, and it will explode the next day on the right-wing talk-show network and on Fox News and in the newspapers that play this game, the Washington Times and others. And then they’ll create a little echo chamber, and pretty soon they’ll start baiting the mainstream media for allegedly ignoring the story they’ve pushed into the Zeitgeist. And pretty soon the mainstream media goes out and disingenuously takes a so-called objective sampling, and lo and behold, these RNC talking points are woven into the fabric of the Zeitgeist."

Want an example? Gore didn’t mention it, but how about the grotesquely exaggerated charges, amplified and repeated incessantly on Fox, that Democratic senator Paul Wellstone’s funeral had turned into a Bush-bashing political rally? Despite credible denials from those who were there, the conservative media kept goosing it in the days before the election, driving up turnout and in all likelihood throwing the Senate to the Republicans.

It wasn’t immediately evident that Gore’s remarks had changed anything. But they had. Suddenly, a mainstream politician was saying what left-leaning organizations such as Fairness and Accuracy in Reporting and Web sites such as the Daily Howler had been saying for years: that the whole notion of liberal media bias was a crock. And that conservative media outlets, though vastly outnumbered by the allegedly liberal mainstream, pushed partisan arguments so relentlessly that they had disproportionate influence on public discourse.

In short order, Gore’s remarks gained traction. In December, the cautiously liberal Washington Post columnist E.J. Dionne — in a piece headlined the rightward press (a play on "The Wayward Press," as the legendary mid-century press critic A.J. Liebling’s New Yorker column was called) — quoted Bill Clinton as contrasting an "increasingly right-wing and bellicose conservative press" with "an increasingly docile establishment press."

That docility was never more apparent than when racist Senate majority leader Trent Lott made a characteristically racist remark. The mainstream media, disinclined to go after conservatives, tried to give Lott a good leaving-alone — until they were shamed into action by bloggers on both the right (Andrew Sullivan) and the left (Josh Marshall). Soon, a conservative icon fell.

In February, the New York Times reported that well-heeled Democratic supporters intend to create a liberal talk-radio network to compete with the likes of Limbaugh, Sean Hannity, Bill O’Reilly, and the loathsome newest star of talk radio, Michael Savage. Savage (real name: Michael Weiner), a onetime herbalist turned right-wing hatemonger, tried to defuse a campaign by gay activists to keep him off MSNBC by opening his first show last Saturday with footage of a cop, apparently a lesbian, telling him, "I’m kind of one of those cropped-hair women, but I still love you."

But here’s how Savage, in a January 14 rant, characterized those who oppose Bush’s Iraq policy: "If you scratch the surface of the predominant motif of those in the antiwar movement, and I don’t say all by any means, a goodly portion of the men are homosexuals, a goodly portion of the women are lesbians — I look at the cars going by which say no war in iraq, and believe me, I know what I’m talking about. And, of course, the guys in Hollywood who are antiwar are generally impotent. That’s my opinion."

GORE’S CRITIQUE has not become accepted wisdom. Nor is it likely to for some time, if ever. The modern charge of liberal media bias goes back to Richard Nixon’s vice-president, Spiro Agnew, who, playing Charlie McCarthy to William Safire’s Edgar Bergen, denounced the media as liberal "nattering nabobs of negativism." Conservatives have carefully nurtured this untruth throughout the intermittent decades. Indeed, the newfound (at least to the mainstream) notion that the media have a conservative bias was immediately attacked by Washington Post columnist Michael Kelly — who, during a recently ended stint as editor of the Atlantic Monthly, moved that venerable bastion of liberalism considerably to the right — and by Boston Globe columnist Jeff Jacoby, who smugly asserted that liberals will fail on talk radio because the medium thrives on "ideas." Really? See Savage, Michael, op. cit.

But the point is not that liberals are suddenly winning the argument. It is, rather, that at long last the public is beginning to hear a coherent critique of conservative media bias. Polls show that the public believes the media favor liberals, which is unsurprising given that that’s what they’ve been told over and over again. And it’s not likely to change any time soon. But now, at least, there’s some competition in this marketplace of ideas. And given that a half-million more people voted for Gore than Bush in the 2000 election, there may be a substantial audience willing to consider the conservative-bias argument.

Which is why, of all these developments, perhaps the most important is the publication of a new book, What Liberal Media? The Truth About Bias in the News (Basic Books), by Eric Alterman, the media columnist for the left-liberal Nation and a blogger for MSNBC.com. The "bias" in his subtitle refers to the charge of liberal media bias in general and to Bernard Goldberg’s aforementioned tedious, poorly argued book in particular (see "Don't Quote Me," News and Features, January 18, 2002), although he dispenses with the latter in a few pages. As to the former, Alterman — by sheer accumulation of evidence — mounts a devastating assault on the notion that the news media are in bed with liberals and Democrats.

Other than the depth of detail Alterman offers, there’s nothing here that should surprise anyone. Yet, given the sturdiness of the liberal-media-bias shibboleth, his thesis undoubtedly will be a surprise to many. In brief, Alterman argues that conservatives have used the liberal-bias model — indeed, he quotes prominent conservatives such as William Kristol and Pat Buchanan as admitting it was never much more than a handy cudgel — to "work the refs"; that is, to demand that the media bend over so far backward in an attempt to be fair that they end up favoring conservatives over liberals.

Wisely, Alterman concedes that the mainstream media are broadly liberal, especially on social and cultural issues such as reproductive choice, gay rights, and attitudes toward religion. But at the same time, Alterman observes, the media are overwhelmingly moderate to conservative on economic policy, as contemptuous of organized labor and the anti-globalization movement as, say, the average CEO. They are heavily influenced by the interests of their corporate owners, self-censoring so efficiently that top-down decrees are entirely unnecessary — which means that actual examples of corporate censorship are rare. "The reporter, the editor, the producer, and the executive producer all understand implicitly that their jobs depend in part on keeping their corporate parents happy," Alterman writes.

Alterman also observes that the pundit ratio of any mainstream media outlet, whether it be the op-ed page of the New York Times, the commentaries on NPR, or the talking heads on the networks’ Sunday-morning chat shows, are far more balanced with conservatives than the conservative media are with liberals. The same allegedly liberal journalists who voted for Clinton and Gore made their careers by tormenting them — in Clinton’s case about oral sex, in Gore’s case about nothing, really, except that they didn’t like him. Their revulsion reached a peak after the election, when the entire pundit class called on Gore to concede the presidency even though he’d won the popular vote and had good reason to believe he’d won Florida as well.

What Liberal Media? does a good job of explaining a little-understood engine behind conservative bias: the world of book publishing, think tanks, and punditry funded by the likes of the right-wing financier Richard Mellon Scaife, who once explained his political philosophy to the journalist Karen Rothmyer this way: "You fucking Communist cunt, get out of here." As Alterman notes, few books are actually read, which, to conservative activists, is an opportunity rather than a problem. As a case study, he offers up Charles Murray, whose books promoting punitive welfare reform (Losing Ground, Basic Books, 1984) and the notion that black people may be genetically inferior (The Bell Curve, with Richard Herrnstein, Free Press, 1994) entered the mainstream because of an organized conservative effort to garner positive book reviews and establish Murray as an expert.

Alterman chooses some counterintuitive targets to make some of his points. For example, he points to the Washington Post’s David Broder, the "dean" of political pundits, as having established a reputation as a centrist, or even a liberal, despite taking numerous conservative positions over the years — from calling Eugene McCarthy’s and Robert Kennedy’s antiwar activities "degrading" in 1968 to arguing 30 years later that Bill Clinton’s affair with Monica Lewinsky was "worse" than Richard Nixon’s criminal abuse of his presidential powers.

The Post’s media reporter, Howard Kurtz, who also hosts CNN’s Reliable Sources, gets whacked by Alterman for lending the respectability of his nonpartisan image to conservatives ranging from Tucker Carlson to Laura Ingraham in both the profiles he writes for his paper and the guests he chooses for his show, while rarely saying a nice word about liberals. Interestingly, Alterman also goes into some depth about Kurtz’s conflict of interest in reporting on CNN for the Post. Yet Alterman fails to mention that several years ago, when the Washington Post Company formed an alliance with MSNBC, the company reportedly tried to pressure Kurtz into moving to that cable outlet, which is jointly owned by corporate titans General Electric and Microsoft. Whatever Kurtz’s conflicts may be, they pale compared to those of his employer.

The neolib/neocon New Republic takes it on the chin for reasons that are not its editors’ fault: the magazine continues to be held up as an icon of liberal thought by the Washington establishment even though it hasn’t been truly liberal for many years. Alterman’s argument is that conservatives can disingenuously cite TNR as a font of liberalism, thus discrediting true liberals, which is hardly TNR’s responsibility. (He quotes an old joke from former TNR editor Michael Kinsley that the magazine should be renamed Even the Liberal New Republic ...) Alterman also rather courageously (and accurately) notes that his own magazine, the Nation, is widely viewed as out of the mainstream in part because of "the continued appearance in its pages of a long-time Stalinist communist, Alexander Cockburn, whose unabashed hatred for both America and Israel, ... tarnish the reputation of its otherwise serious contributors."

I don’t agree with everything in Alterman’s book (although I appreciate the mention on page 59). The misspelled names are wince-inducing. He also undeservedly slimes John Ellis, the presidential cousin who, as an exit-poll consultant for Fox, prematurely called Florida for Bush on election night 2000. I know Ellis, and there’s no doubt that he wanted to be first and get it right, not diabolically create a stampede for Bush. Nevertheless, What Liberal Media? is a comprehensive, deeply impressive overview of what’s wrong with the American media today.

And what’s wrong is that tens of millions of Americans are being told continuously — by Rush, by Fox News, by the Wall Street Journal editorial page, by dozens of Limbaugh wanna-bes on local talk radio (hello, Jay Severin), and by commentators such as Michael Kelly, Jeff Jacoby, William Safire, George Will, Mona Charen, Charles Krauthammer, Robert Novak, Michelle Malkin, Jonah Goldberg, David Horowitz, Fred Barnes, et al., et al. — that the real problem with the media is that they’re too damn liberal.

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Issue Date: March 13 - 20, 2003
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