Editore"s Note
Tilting at Windmills

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February 9, 2003
By: Kevin Drum

WHAT LIBERAL MEDIA?....Eric Alterman's latest book, as if you didn't know already, is called What Liberal Media?, but I have a feeling a better title might have been Enough Already, OK? His basic case, it seems, is that sure, maybe conservatives had a point when they first started complaining about liberal media bias 30 years ago, but they won that war a long time ago and should now declare victory and just shut the hell up about it. But they won't do it because it's become an indispensable part of their media toolkit:

Rich Bond, then the chair of the Republican Party, complained during the 1992 election, "I think we know who the media want to win this election and I don't think it's George Bush. The very same Rich Bond also noted during the very same election, however, "There is some strategy to it [bashing the 'liberal' media]....If you watch any great coach, what they try to do is 'work the refs.' Maybe the ref will cut you a little slack on the next one."

What Liberal Media? is basically broken into two parts. The first part is very specifically about bias in the media, and Alterman methodically works his way through television, print, radio, and think tanks. The second part, which is actually the more entertaining of the two, is a series of case studies: the Clinton administration, the 2000 election, the Florida recount debacle, etc.

In the first few chapters Alterman makes a pretty convincing case that liberal bias doesn't exist among the "punditocracy" either on TV or in print, and definitely not on radio or among the think tanks. Op-ed pages are full of right wing voices, most of them dedicated movement conservatives, and the same is true of TV, where, like Noah's ark, liberals are allowed to appear only when paired up with conservatives, never on their own. Talk radio, of course, is an open and shut case for conservative hegemony, and thanks to a larger funding base, conservative think tanks the intellectual backbone of the punditry have grown like weeds over the past two decades.

Now, this is important stuff, but there's another side too, and it's the one in my experience, anyway that forms the real core of the conservative complaint: the biases of ordinary beat reporters on hot button social issues such as gun control, abortion, gay rights, and so forth. Here, Alterman confesses, "Though the evidence is sketchy, I tend to believe that on many social issues, conservatives have a case."

Alterman then goes on to admit that when it comes to reporting on religion, conservatives have a "strong case." In the case of abortion, bias is arguably "pervasive" but has gotten better since 1990. In the case of the death penalty and gun control, "a fair minded observer might point to a pervasive liberal bias." What's more, he says, "I concur that the overall flavor of the elite media reporting favors gun control, campaign finance reform, gay rights, and the environmental movement...."

I'm not quite sure why Alterman takes this tack, but on this issue arguably the most important one the best he can do is to suggest that while liberal bias on social issues might exist, it's not quite as bad as conservatives make it out to be:

I do not find this bias as overwhelming as some conservative critics do....The mere fact of paying more attention to a story than an audience would likely choose as clearly seems to be the case with both campaign finance reform and the death penalty is hardly evidence of bias on one side of the issue or another.

This is hardly a ringing defense of the media's coverage of social issues, and I found it a little disappointing that he didn't choose to make a stronger case. It is unlikely that a similar book by a conservative author would have cut so much slack for an opposing point of view.

When it comes to political reporting, however, things are quite different, and here Alterman makes a pretty good case that reporters' biases don't affect their actual coverage very much. The media savaged Clinton over the Monica Lewinsky scandal, hated Al Gore with a passion, and has generally treated George W. Bush very leniently, even before 9/11. The reason, he says, is twofold: reporters react more strongly to scandal and the chance of a fat byline than they do to anything else, and in any case they have been so cowed by accusations of liberal bias that much of the time they bend over backwards to avoid it.

What Liberal Media? is a well documented and entertainingly written book, well worth a read for anyone interested in liberal causes. Although Alterman inexplicably writes a chapter on social issues that could appear almost intact in National Review, the rest of the book provides plenty of evidence that conservative charges of pervasive media bias are mostly myths. Conservatives control think tanks and talk radio and have at least equal access to newspaper op-ed pages and television talk shows. On economic issues most reporters favor conservative positions, and time and again they have shown themselves willing to savage liberal politicians either out of personal pique or simply because it will advance their careers. And even on social issues, what bias there is tends to be pretty spotty.

Overall, conservatives no longer have much of substance to complain about when they make charges of liberal bias, and this book gives you the ammunition to tell them so. And if it manages to embarrass a few principled conservatives into toning down their rhetoric, and puts a bit of backbone into a few national reporters, it will have done its job.

The website for What Liberal Media? is here. The first chapter of the book in PDF format is here. For those of you without PDF viewers, the folks at Cursor have posted the first chapter in ordinary HTML format here.

Eric Alterman's daily blog on MSNBC is here.

A Nation cover story adapted from the book is here.

You can buy the book from Barnes & Noble, Amazon, Alibris, Powell's, or Buy.com. Or you can just get off your lazy ass and drive over to your local bookstore and buy it right now.

Kevin Drum 8:41 AM Permalink | Trackbacks

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