Editore"s Note
Tilting at Windmills

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February 11, 2003
By: Kevin Drum

ERIC ALTERMAN AND WHAT LIBERAL MEDIA?....I guess it's interview month at CalPundit. The interview with Josh Marshall last week was fun, so after I finished reading Eric Alterman's What Liberal Media? I emailed to ask him if he'd do an interview too. He agreed probably as compensation for doing some gratis proofreading of his book and we spent half an hour on the phone Sunday evening.

Alterman has been a media critic for over a decade, writing a regular media column for The Nation and a 1992 book, Sound & Fury, about the rise of the Washington "punditocracy" and its corrosive effect on political discourse in America. What Liberal Media? goes a step further and talks about day-to-day coverage of political issues and Alterman's belief that not only is the media not friendly to liberals, it's downright hostile.

Alterman doesn't hold out much hope that conservatives will change their tune the charge of media bias is too important a part of their broad strategy but he's optimistic that his book might put some backbone into reporters who have been cowed by relentless charges of bias for the past three decades: "Im hoping theres this strata of the media, people like Peter Jennings or Tom Rosenstiel, who will read my book and see that the evidence is really compelling on the other side." I hope so too.

My review of What Liberal Media? is here.

The website for the book is here and the first chapter (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.

And now the interview:


Your book seems to imply that, say, 30 years ago, conservatives had a legitimate point about liberal media bias. Do you think they did?

Yeah, I think thats probably true. It depends on how you define liberal, but I think Barry Goldwater had a problem, thats true.

You have to go that far back?

I think in 1964, 1968, 1972, yes. Id say the turning point was probably 1978, midway through the Carter administration. Thats when conservatives got the upper hand in both politics and media.

What caused that? Why 1978?

A couple of things caused it. One is that the conservatives invested an enormous amount of money in an infrastructure of ideas beginning in 1964, when Richard Mellon Scaife figured out that they couldnt win just by putting up a candidate. I think that investment in the intellectual superstructure started to pay off 14 years later.

I also think the world became more conservative. Vietnam was a catastrophe and it was a liberal catastrophe, and the war on poverty was a catastrophe, and that was a liberal catastrophe, and even though its kind of unfair to blame liberals in both cases, everybody did.

And then the Soviets got much more adventurous around that time, and the whole civil rights movement, the whole We Shall Overcome period in American history became transformed into the black power moment of history, and that black power moment of history didnt really work for anyone, particularly liberals. So liberalism was kind of exhausted by that period, it didnt have any answers, and the conservatives were ascendant and self confident, and journalism just picked up on it.

You spent a hundred pages or so at the beginning of the book talking about opinion leaders the punditocracy in the press and TV, and yet Ive always thought that what conservatives were really complaining about was ordinary newsroom reporters and their biases....

You know, I just did this really unbelievably stupid show on MSNBC today and I got in a big fight with them. They had three conservatives on plus me, and they wouldnt shut up about Dan Rather. For some reason they have an almost sexual obsession with Dan Rather.

So no, I dont think its about everyday reporters. I think they have this idea that these elite reporters look down on them, and Rathers a symbol of that. Its all these guys who live in New York and Washington, make a lot of money, and have contempt for the values of everyday people, the elite of the elite.

I mean, on this stupid show, this guy Joe Scarborough would say, Oh I love you elites, youre so....amusing. I mean, Im just some guy there, but Im the elite and that makes me the enemy.

Well, when I say newsroom reporters, Im thinking of reporters from the New York Times, the Washington Post, and so forth, and in your chapter on social bias you as much as said that, yeah, they are biased....

Look, the truth is, I dont know anybody except Christopher Hitchens, maybe George Stephanopoulos, whos anti-abortion. I dont know a single person in my life whos anti-gay rights. In the media world in which I live, everybody has basically the same views on social issues, everybody supports gay marriage, everybody supports abortion rights, everybody I know supports gun control.

So I think theyre right that in the liberal elites everybody basically has these views on social issues. But I think that because theyve been beating up the liberal elites for so long, the media have grown particularly cowardly on these issues and have bent over backwards to try and give the conservatives what they want, so that it no longer matters that much that they happen to be right about journalists views on these social issues. I think that the journalists views arent very important in terms of how the news is reported.

Do you think there are any social issues where theres a conservative bias?

No, although I do think there are examples of journalists who are liberal on social issues bending over backwards to be sympathetic to conservatives. Theres this whole indulgence of Pat Robertson, who is insane, hes crazy, but hes treated as a serious commentator.

You know, Pat Robertson is right next to Jerry Falwell agreeing with him when he said that God was punishing America and thats why we had 9/11. And yet, when George Bush announced that ridiculous Middle East policy of his, the very first commentator that CNN went to was Pat Robertson, who knows nothing about the Middle East except that its supposed to cause Armageddon and the coming of the Messiah, or something like that. So theres an indulgence of people like Falwell and Robertson, who have no expertise on anything except their own particular niches in American politics, and theyre treated respectfully when they say the most ridiculous things.

Why do you think that is? People like Falwell, Robertson, and Ann Coulter arent even taken very seriously by conservatives, and yet they end up on TV. How does that happen?

Well, I spent a lot of time in the book on Coulter. I used to work with her and I dont like her. We were both hired to be pundits on MSNBC when it first began. We were both there the very first day it was on the air, and the stuff that was coming out of her mouth, I couldnt believe my ears.

But MSNBC kept her back then, simply because she was good looking, and she was a woman, and she was conservative, and they loved the idea that a woman was conservative, just like they love the idea that they had all these black conservatives. I used to joke back then that Id heard that Quincy Jones had married Peggy Lipton, you know, from Mod Squad, and I said if they had a daughter who was conservative shed get a lifetime contract on MSNBC because shed be a black blonde conservative.

Do ordinary reporters still believe all this stuff? You say theyre cowed by charges of liberal bias, but do they still believe it, do they react to it, or do you think theyre catching on?

Do they believe it? Yeah, they believe it because they dont think about it. The conservatives have invested so much money in this notion of liberal bias in the media that they buy into it even though theres very little evidence to support it.

They keep waving that one goddamn study from 1992, which turns out to disintegrate when you look at it carefully. But most journalists believe it. If you read the stories about that study, youll find people like Howie Kurtz, even Tom Rosenstiel, who I respect, all buying into it. Peter Jennings.

They all buy into this notion, even though the evidence just doesnt support it. But Im hoping theres this strata of the media, people like Peter Jennings or Tom Rosenstiel, who will read my book and see that the evidence is really compelling on the other side. I dont see how you can read the chapters that I wrote on Florida, or the Gore campaign, and say that the Democrats had an advantage with the media. I just dont see it.

Some people think that we should just give up on the whole idea of an objective media, go to the European model....

Yeah, I said that in Sound & Fury. I still believe that. I dont even really believe in the idea of facts or opinions. I believe in context. I believe there are certain things you need to know to understand the story, and theyre not necessarily factual and theyre not necessarily opinion, but they could be either one.

To tell you the truth, I think Fox does a better job of covering the news than CNN or MSNBC, because they have a context, its understandable, it makes some sense, whereas at MSNBC and CNN the news just comes at you as if from outer space, its news from nowhere. I dont watch cable news, but if I did I would watch Fox. Assuming there was nobody with a context that I share.

Who do you think are the best liberals out there writing or talking on TV today?

Well, the problem is that most of them are my friends. One who is not my friend, who I dont know at all, but I think does a great job, is Paul Krugman, whos amazing because hes just not playing the game. Hes doing what he thinks is right and doesnt begin from any of the premises that the official Washington punditocracy discourse begins from. So Im very impressed by that. Plus he knows economics, thats his armor, thats how he protects himself from conventional wisdom.

I very much admire the prose styles of both Frank Rich and Rick Hertzberg. I think E.J. Dionne and Richard Cohen are both very effective columnists, theyre both really good at the form, and theyre both unpredictable, which is a good thing in a columnist.

How about on TV?

Theres only two people I can really stand to watch on TV at all. One is Bill Moyers and the other is Ted Koppel.

Thats it?

Well, I cant think of anyone else. I hate television journalism. I can stand to watch Rather, Jennings, and Brokaw, they dont personally anger me, but the news is so dumbed down on television that it ends up being false, and it infuriates me. Everything is so simplified, its written for people who know nothing, and it ends up being so overly simplified that it becomes false.

Begala does a very good job defending the liberal side on Crossfire. I never watch it, but I sometimes see transcripts on Media Whores and I like his energy, hes very quick on his feet. But I do think that its really hard to be a liberal on television, I just think the liberal case is too complicated.

Why is it so hard to get good combative liberals on TV?

I think that if youre going to be a liberal today, its a really complicated case to make, and you have to respect that complexity. And TV just has no use for complexity. Theres just no way to do it.

I mean, here I was on Crossfire the other night and Tucker Carlson quoted something I said about myself on Altercation, and he asked, do you really think its a conspiracy against you? I mean, fucking Tucker, I have a PhD in American history, I know how complicated it is, I was just making a point that one person, Ann Coulter, had written a totally useless, dishonest book, whereas Ive written a serious book that has 40 or 50 pages of footnotes, and one of us gets booked on television, on the Today show, and one of us doesnt. Im not saying its a conspiracy, but Im raising the issue: is this about journalistic self flagellation or is it about the fact that shes blond and has good legs? But Im not drawing any conclusions based on my own example.

Anyway, here I was in the position of being accused of being overly simplistic by Tucker Carlson, which strikes me as ridiculous. But thats how you win on television, you take something out of context and you beat it into the ground. If any of the members of my dissertation committee had heard me on Crossfire theyd be ashamed to have approved my doctorate.

Do you think the internet is any different?

The internet is just a medium. Are you asking me about weblogs, are you asking about Slate and Salon and The Nation on the net, including my Nation column along with my weblog? What.?

OK, how about weblogs?

I feel a little bad about the fact that the Lott story broke immediately after I closed the book, because the book does end up shortshrifting the influence of weblogs. They have shown they can have an influence.

But if you take a look at that case as your paradigm, you have to say theres basically two people who drove that case, and thats Josh and whoever Atrios is. Josh is a journalist, hes got a journalists reputation. Before I was ever involved in the internet, before I even understood what a weblog was, I would check up on Josh, I would check up on Mickey, I would check up on Andy, because of their journalistic reputation. And so, these are journalists with weblogs and thats kind of a different case than the blogging phenomenon, right?

Now, Atrios would be the counterexample, because he really did play a big role in the Lott controversy, and well see how that plays out, well see if that happens more and more. I will say that the fact that I was #33 on Amazon last Friday is entirely due to weblogs, so Im enormously grateful for that, and I do think that they can have an impact, but we dont really know what its going to be yet.

Josh seemed to feel that blogdom as a whole could help drive stories and drive opinions. Do you think thats true?

I think thats true, yeah. Blogdom can drive a story because a lot of journalists read blogs. But very few blogs can do independent research, and without independent research youre just a chorus, and that can have its value, but its by definition limited.

You talked in the book about funding of think tanks and how important thats become for conservatives. Is there any hope at all for getting that on the liberal side? Why arent there any rich liberal cranks like Scaife willing to fund liberal think tanks?

There are some good liberal funders, but its a very complicated question. The genius of what Scaife and Coors and those people did is, they just threw manure onto a field and decided to see what grew. What Scaife did is, he just gave everybody money, he said, fine, lets see what grows, whereas liberals are much more focused on programmatic money. They dont fund things that might turn into something useful that you cant predict.

You have to able to fund things where you cant predict how theyre going to work, and liberals dont do that. They want control, they want reports; they dont fund basic research, they dont fund operating expenses. All of the liberal organizations are always begging to keep going, they dont pay their people very well, and so theyre never going to let a thousand flowers bloom and see which of them is the prettiest.

Thats admirable that the money is going to programs as opposed to propaganda, but do you think that realistically....

No, I dont think it is honorable. I think its about control, and I think liberal funders have to be willing to give up control.

I also think liberal funders have to admit theyre liberals. Most of the large foundations, like Ford and Rockefeller and MacArthur, they wont say that theyre liberal, and they fund conservative stuff. Theyre not engaged in the same kind of practice that the right wing is.

Theres a quote in the book from the president of the Heritage Foundation, Ed Feulner, saying that this is not about PhD research, this is about giving our side the information they need to win arguments. I mean, they hand out index cards to people who are going on Crossfire so that they can make pithy points. Theres no such thing as a liberal foundation doing that, but it has to be done, because the battle just isnt being joined. The first thing liberals have to do is wake up to the fact that theyre in a battle.

Kevin Drum 12:06 AM Permalink | Trackbacks

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