Wednesday, August 16, 2006

Alterman Redux (and Geek Wednesday)

Now that I've done my level best to present a reasonably objective review of Alterman's What Liberal Media, I'd like to share some impressions I've collected on his work, in the context of what's going on right now in the world at large, through its reflection in the American mass media.

Alterman is, in essence, a Socratean gadfly on his profession. This is one reason why he's so often misrepresented, defamed, or ignored by his colleagues. On occasion, like any human being, he allows this treatment to incite a combative reaction; something he gracefully admits to in WLM. In the chapter titled "W's World," Alterman presents a graphic cross-section of the American media under the flagrantly patriotic mania that followed the tragedies of 9/11/01. He tells the story of how the nationalistic furor was carried so far within the media that they began to retrospectively trash Clinton, as if that would further prove their allegiance to America and its reigning neocon administration. As it is today, truth did not matter anywhere near as much as the slavish allegiance. Alterman traces one particular lie about a Ken Lay sleepover at the Clinton White House from the Drudge Report through the American mass media and then into newspapers and other media all around the world. He concludes:

Ken Lay never did sleep in the Lincoln Bedroom while Bill Clinton was president...All any reporter had to go on was the Drudge Report, whose unreliability had at that point been well established. And yet this trashing of the previous Democratic president was somehow carried out by the "liberal media" that was allegedly trying to subvert the nation on behalf of its own left-wing agenda. I have to admit that at times, it is enough to drive a genuine liberal to distraction. (p. 212).

It's a great piece of writing, both for its candor and its prosody (one thing that Alterman does not get enough credit for is the quality of his prose, which is crafted to a precision that is rarely encountered in any literature, let alone political lit). This is a professional journalist writing, and so his anger is, to my mind, not only tolerable, but encouraging. Let me explain this point a little.

I have written elsewhere that anger spoken clearly and articulately will never degenerate into warlike rage (this, by the way, is one area where I respectfully part company with the Buddhists and other prominent "New Age" teachers). WLM is a tome written in anger, and I offer that observation as the utmost compliment. What Alterman exposes, time and again, is not simply a conservative bias in the media, but again, a flagrant departure from the ethics of his profession, journalism. The discourse in the modern American media has degraded to something this side of, or even lower than, The National Enquirer. Alterman presents quote after quote, example after painful example, of this trend in the media—most notably in his history of the 2000 election, where he shows how the media's coverage of that contest eventually degenerated into a massive daily gossip column written by writers as diverse as Tucker Carlson and Maureen Dowd. To this end, Alterman cites a Princeton study of media reporting on the election,

...which examined the content and quality of 430 stories from major news publications, programs, and Web sites during the 2000 election campaign...[It] found that few of the 430..."explored the candidates' past records in office with more than a passing reference." Ditto the coverage of the October debates..; 70 percent of stories...focused on either the candidates' television performances or their strategies...coverage was cast not in the context of the issues themselves, but strictly in terms of how they "played" as political theater. (p. 154).

As Alterman concludes, "this issueless coverage coincided perfectly with the strategy of the Bush campaign." The problem with such a Weekly World News approach to journalism is that it becomes habitual. Need proof? Look over the MSM's coverage of the events of the past week: the inattention paid to the numerous historical contradictions of Rumsfeld's claims about his previous statements on Iraq; the admission in the New York Times that the NSA warrantless wiretapping story could have been published the year before the NYT editors finally squeezed it out (in other words, they repressed it under duress from the Bushies); the CNN anchorman who imputed that Ned Lamont is "the al Qaeda candidate"; or the FOX News recommendation that airports have "Muslim-only lines" (go right on through, Mr. McVeigh, we've got to unwrap some turbans).

As Professor Alterman says, "if indeed a liberal media conspiracy exists in the culture, it is playing one very strange game."


Geek Wednesday

Goodness Gracious, Great Balls a'Fire: We Mac-o-philes have an expression: "buy a Dell, you go to Hell." But we never meant it to be taken literally.

Now, to be fair, there have been numerous problems with Apple's portables overheating (a Powerbook owner friend of mine claims he can iron his pants with his), and the Li-ion barbecue remains a problem without a solution. Indeed, Peter Pollack indicates that there may be a systemic issue with Li-ion batts that will necessitate a global change in laptop tech. Meanwhile, unless you'd like to press your shirts while checking your email, I'd suggest keeping your plastic in your wallet or making your next PC splurge on a small, elegant desktop machine that know, fans.

And speaking of irrational tech obsessions, has anyone else seen the commercial for the new Nokia phone? "It's a reflection of you...what you think, what you feel, who you are..."


Sometimes I feel the same way about tech gear and its advertising as Alterman feels about the political media.

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