Prefatory Note: Normally, the closest approach I ever have to a conflict-of-interest moment is the familiar impulse to go to the bar instead of sitting here to write each night for a blog that gets barely 5,000 visitors in a good month. But as I prepare to set before you this review of Eric Alterman's amazingly lucid book, What Liberal Media: The Truth About Bias and the News, I realize that two facts must be brought to the impartial reader's attention. I have admired the work of the author I am about to review for some time; and he has also been kind enough to publish a few of my notes to the "Correspondence Corner" of his weblog, Altercation at MSNBC.com (each time, with a link here to Daily Rev). It is, at the very worst, a borderline conflict-of-interest situation (I haven't gotten a dime out of it, mind you), but it deserves to be noted before we begin.
"One of the country's most significant problems is the stupidity of our political discourse." That's Eric Alterman writing yesterday in his MSNBC weblog, Altercation (see link above). If you imagine that a review of a four-year old book might not be very topical to what's happening in today's world, well, as Professor Alterman might ask you to do in his column in The Nation, think again.
Witness, for example, this complaint penned by Arianna Huffington over at her blog on Monday:
I mean, you had your own headline anchorman, Chuck Roberts, describe Lamont as the al Qaeda candidate. This is an equally deceitful, fraudulent, fabricated statement. There should be zero tolerance for all those deceits, whether in images or words.
Ms. Huffington was pointing out to CNN that one of their anchormen parroted an insidious implication from Dick Cheney, conflating the anti-war sentiments of Lamont voters in Connecticut with an endorsement of terrorists, yet without naming Cheney or any other source. But as Alterman reveals to us in some 300 pages of text and over 40 pages of footnotes, this is the way the American mass media have become accustomed to operate. This is the main premise of What Liberal Media. If this book had merely been written to demonstrate that there is no such thing as a dominant liberal current in the mainstream media, then the book would amount to nothing more than an argument for a tautology, and it would deserve to be quickly forgotten.
But that is not what this book is about. Not at all. Maybe it starts from that point, but by the end of the Introduction (or certainly the first chapter), we are in different and much deeper waters entirely. For Alterman is able to convincingly demonstrate that the American media are not merely a-liberal, not merely contra-liberal, but contra-journalistic. Alterman shows, in often chillingly disturbing detail, that the American media have, by and large, forgotten how to do their job. In fact, he shows that they have forgotten what their job is in the first place.
So before we get into the guts of this controversial book (which before a rational audience arouses no controversy whatsoever), let's start off with some calm, straightforward facts about What Liberal Media? (hereafter WLM), which no person of reason or sanity could remotely dispute:
• The book is detailed, admirably organized, and true to its purpose, which is to dispel firmly assumptions about the health and character of our so-called free press.
• The book is deeply researched and fact-checked to a degree of near flawlessness; it contains over 40 pages of footnotes.
• The book is written by a professional journalist and academic who has a depth of experience and knowledge of his field that should inspire at least a grudging respect, no matter your taste for his political frame of reference. In other words, he cannot be written off blithely as an outsider or a hack.
• The book is, at a minimum, adroitly written; its arguments balanced and well presented; its conclusions supported by data and evidence.
Now that's as much as any conservative book critic (if you'll pardon the expression) would allow. Now, let's dig up the real goods on WLM. We can begin with an overview, to which we'll add some details as the week progresses. The reasons for this approach are simple: (a) it's an important book which deserves this level of scrutiny (as opposed to, say, your average Ann Coulter best-selling rant); and (b) as we demonstrated above, a casual dip into the daily news reveals that Alterman's book is speaking to this very moment in time (if you have any further doubts about that, just check the Media Matters news feed in my sidebar at right).
1. Introduction: Bias, Slander, and Bullshit William Kristol, Ann Coulter, and Bernard Goldberg (respectively) are pushed under the microscope by way of orientation to the approach and methodology to be followed in this book.
2. You're Only As Liberal As the Man Who Owns You This chapter introduces a theme of journalism driven and distorted by commercial interests, which is to be more fully explored in Chapter 8.
3. The Punditocracy One (or, as I would call it, "What Liberal TV?"). This chapter examines TV pundit shows, starting out with the one deemed to be the most "liberal" of them all, This Week with George Stephanopoulos. If you'd like to see how topical Alterman's discussion here is, just check out the story from this weekend's interview of Homeland Sec dick Mike Chertoff, by two of these "liberal" pundits, Stephanopoulos and David Gregory, and how a lot of dirt over the timing of the recent British terror arrests had been swept under the carpet.
4. The Punditocracy Two (or, "What Liberal Print Media?"). A detailed review of the work of the "dean of American journalism," Mr. Centrist himself, David Broder of the Washington Post; followed by a laparascopic analysis of the decline of The New Republic. Once again, the point is not simply to disprove the presence of a liberal strain in the mass media, but to illustrate that the tilt is quite in the opposite direction, even among those labeled (or self-styled) as "centrists."
5. The Punditocracy Three (or, "What Liberal Radio / What Liberal Internet?"). The best and most thorough undressing of Rush Limbaugh (pardon the scary metaphor) that I've ever read; followed up by a fascinating history of the Drudge Report.
6. The Punditocracy Four (or, "What Liberal Thinktanks?"). This may be the most instructive chapter in the book, because it goes into a realm that, for most of us, is thoroughly unfamiliar. Where do those opinions, stats, talking points, and wonkish analyses come from? Alterman carves the path from Brookings to AEI for us, revealing a predominant right-wing stream of "expertise" that has arisen from the essentially objective historical roots of thinktankism. This chapter also contains a detailed exposure of the fraud typified in Herrnstein and Murray's racist and anti-scientific tome, The Bell Curve—in fact, the best I've read since Stephen Jay Gould's The Mismeasure of Man, which, by the way, is the finest book I've read on science and its enemies.
7. What Social Bias? Distortion, careless reporting, and fact-free journalism are found to abound even amid such "liberal" stalwarts as The New York Times and The Washington Post—this time, with the focus on issues of race, gender, and social violence.
8. What Economic Bias? The globalization issue is brought forward as yet another example of single-minded slavishness amid those same "liberal" media stalwarts. Then comes an eerie section featuring quotes from a panoply of media economic experts, all of whom joined an adoring chorus before the altar of Enron—before the walls came tumbling down, of course.
9. The Clinton Administration How getting your dick sucked becomes an impeachable offense, both to Congress and especially the mass media.
10. The 2000 Election Painful to review again, but necessary. Alterman presents data and facts amid a novel-esque series of blunders, schemes, and coincidences that led to the rise of a tyrannical and illegitimate regime in America. A compelling read, and along with the following chapter, worth the price of the book all by itself.
11. Florida The media's complicity in the Bush subterfuge that culminated in the stealing of power is detailed here, as a continuation of the agonizing story laid out in the previous chapter. Though even Alterman can't resist jabbing at Nader for the 2000 result (he did it again today, by the way), the real criminal in the skullduggery in the Sunshine State was the mass media, in its every popular portal. This is illustrated with detailed references, facts, and quotes.
12. W's World The symbiosis that developed between the White House and the media, particularly in the wake of 9/11, is dissected in all its uncomfortable detail.
13. The (Really) Conservative Media Finally, the truth about the dominance of neocon ideology in the press, television, radio, and the Internet, is laid bare, with the help of some disturbing economic statistics about the corporate stranglehold on the press.
14. Conclusion: An Honorable Profession A very ironic title for the closing chapter of a book that has completed the case for the opposite conclusion. But this little chapter is more a call to action than an affirmation of any honor adhering to modern journalism.
Afterword: "Operation Iraqi Freedom" An clear-sighted essay on the difficulties of war journalism, the distortions built into the culture of embeddedment, and the commercial compulsions that often override journalistic ethics, under the worst possible times and circumstances.
Over the course of the rest of this week, we'll spend more time with Alterman's book and his truly scientific perspective on the MSM. I am hoping that by the weekend we may have some ideas on what we as individuals can do to correct the wrongs that Alterman reveals, and that you'd have bought a copy of this invaluable treatise of citizenship by then.