JESSE OXFELD | On
September 11, 2001, Eric Alterman, media columnist for TheNation and blogger for MSNBC, was at work on a book about the power of
money in the world of ideas. "I wasn't doing a great job on it," he says, "and
after that I was feeling increasingly detached." Soon his friend Todd Gitlin,
the Columbia University media theorist, e-mailed just one sentence: "You should
write a book called 'What Liberal Media?'." "Bingo," thought Alterman.
"That's exactly what I should be doing." He didn't like the way September 11
was being reported, and he wanted to address the new discourse. So he delved
into his voluminous files, accumulated in his work for TheNation
and elsewhere ("I'm a long way from being the world's best reporter," he says,
"but I'm an incredibly systematic researcher"), and he looked into Gitlin's
question. What Liberal Media? became Alterman's new book, and his to
answer to Gitlin's question is thatcontrary to conventional wisdomthere's
no such thing. (Read more about What Liberal Media? at www.whatliberalmedia.com,
and then buy
it on amazon.com.)
Is your argumentthat there isn't a leftward biassimply
a defensive argument? Or is it also supposed to be a pro-active argument, that
not only isn't there the leftward bias but, in fact, there is a rightward bias?
The media are socially liberal, although not as socially liberal as people seem
to imagine they are, because their social liberalism has been crushed to an
enormous degree by the conservative onslaught on the "liberal media." And most
reporters and editors and certainly media proprietors are economically conservative.
So the media are conservative on economic issues, and maybe more liberal than
conservative on social issuesbut I think they bend over backwards to be
more than fair to conservatives. And the upshot of these two forces leads them
to be much more sympathetic to Republicans and conservatives then they are to
Democrats and liberals.
I think you have all the evidence you could ever want for that
in the coverage of the 2000 election, the coverage of Florida, in the coverage
that George Bush has received, and in the incredible amount of attention paid
to Bill Clinton's financial shenanigans and personal foibles compared with those
of George Bush, which, in my view, are far more significant and yet receive
a tiny fraction of attention.
How does it happen that the news coverage ends up having
a slight lean towards the conservative side when everyone agreesand studies
showthat most reporters and editors are Democrats and lean liberal on
social issues at least?
There's one study that they keep quoting about Washington reporters that voted
for Clinton in 1992, and that's a bad study. It purports to be of Washington
journalists but it's really a questionnaire that was sent out to those Washington
journalists who are registered with the Congressional press corps. I think it
was sent out to roughly 400 people and they got about 130 responses. No social
scientist would accept that response rate to draw any conclusions in the first
place. Now, if you look at who they sent the study to, it's not the people who
are on the McLaughlin Group, it's not the people at the Wall Street
Journal. Plus, it's not up to reporters what gets in the newspapers and
what gets on television, it's up to editors and producers and owners, and those
people are a lot more conservative. So that study doesn't convince me really
of anything. And even if that were a great study it still wouldn't tell you
what goes in the media; it would just tell you what people think.
Journalists are much tougher on Democratic candidates then
they are on Republican candidates. If you don't admit that the media were much
tougher on Al Gore than they were on George Bush then you're just not an honest
person. There was no contest, if you look at the numbers of stories that were
done and the lies that were told about Gore's positions and the idiotic nature
of the coverage about Love Story and Love Canal, in all of which Gore
got completely a raw deal in terms of how inaccurate the coverage was. He didn't
say he invented the Internet, he didn't say he discovered Love Canal. And all
he did with Love Story is accurately quote a report he'd read in the
Nashville Tennessean 14 years earlier. And these stories were blown up
and repeated thousands of times. And in the meantime, George Bush deserted his
National Guard post, he may or may not have been guilty of insider trading,
he was cleared by a friend of his daddy's, and none of these stories showed
How does this happen, that the coverage is so imbalanced?
It's complicated, it happens for a lot of different reasons. Part of it is that
Republicans scare journalists. I think I say in the book something like, Republicans
are from Venus, Democrats and journalists are from Mars. Democrats and journalists
are the same kind of people. They're interested in politics, they care about
the issues, and so they're naturally much harder on Democrats, that's (a). Then
(b) is that they hated Al Gorethey just hated his guts. They detested
him and they couldn't hide that fact; they didn't even try. There's an incident
described in the bookI wasn't there but I read about it in Timewhere
Gore's face came up during the debate with Bradley and the press room began
to boo, loudly, and yell. These are people who adhere to the tenets of journalistic
And if you compare that coverage in The New York Times
between Katharine Seelye of Gore and Frank Bruni of Bush, that's all you really
need to say. I don't think any sane person would argue that the Times
wasn't much, much kinder to Bush than it was to Gore. And this had an incredibly
important effect on such a close election. And you can make exactly the same
arguments and compare the coverage of Clinton and Bush. They were all over Clinton
for a land deal that he ended up losing money on, $70 million was spent investigating
it. Harken Oil was a much bigger deal, it made Bush's fortune, and the things
that he may or may not have been guilty ofwe don't know because the press
won't investigate itare much more serious. And yet the story lived and
died in the matter of a week. Same thing with Bush's desertion from his military
post. If that had been Clinton we would have been hearing about it every night.
Another reason is that there is actually a conservative movement in this country
and there is no liberal movement. I mean it's like half of the nation versus
The Wall Street Journal and Fox News and The New York Post and
The Washington Times.
Do you think you're going to change people's minds with all
the evidence you've gathered?
Yeah I do. I've only had one review, it was from Publishers Weekly, but
I was very proud of it. They said, "Regardless of whether or not you agree
with Alterman, you have to acknowledge he's convincing with his"I
can't help but say this"his compulsively readable evidence."
I don't see how you can read the two chapters, the one of Florida and the one
of the 2000 election, and make the argument that the media is not much, much
harder on Democrats than on Republicans. I covered the 2000 election and I covered
Floridanot that I covered the issues themselves, I covered the mediaand
yet when I went back to it systematically, I couldn't believe how bad it was.
But isn't this the kind of issue where people believe what
they believe and you're not going to convince many people to change their view?
Don't you think people coming at this from a rightward view are going to say,
well he works for The Nation, what do you expect?
Well people from right, yes. But I think a lot of people, particularly a lot
of journalists, have just heard this "liberal media, liberal media, liberal
media," and they assume it's true because they've been hearing it for 30 years.
It's been an incredibly expensive and impressive campaign by the right to convince
journalists that the media are liberal. It's not true. I think there are a lot
of people out there who have heard the words, "liberal media," but who have
never really thought about it. And if they're interested in the topic enough
to pick up the book, I think I have those people.
Jesse Oxfeld will take over as mediabistro.com's
editor-in-chief this Monday.