TCS Daily

'Just Talkin' Crazy'

By Pejman Yousefzadeh - May 2, 2003 12:00 AM

The question of whether the national media is ideologically biased has received a new lease on life with the publication of What Liberal Media?, the new book by Nation media columnist Eric Alterman. The book was heralded as the definitive rebuttal to the notion that the media is biased in a manner that favors the liberal side of the political divide. But while the bells and whistles connected with the publication and hyping of the book are impressive and guaranteed to get attention, the actual arguments contained in What Liberal Media? are weak and rather easily countered.

Alterman argues that most reporters are conservative when it comes to economic issues. This, Alterman claims, is because those reporters must satisfy the financial interests of the media conglomerates that they work for. In Alterman's words, "The reporter, the editor, the producer, and the executive producer all understand implicitly that their jobs depend in part of keeping their corporate parents happy" (p. 23). This leads the press to be sympathetic to conservative leanings, according to Alterman, who says that the press "appeared quite well-disposed to conservative efforts to 'reform' the nation's Social Security system so as to introduce private stock market accounts-at least before the Nasdaq crashed" (p. 21).

This fantastic claim is not borne out by reality. First of all, the primary financial interest of any media conglomerate is ratings for its news broadcasts. Not Social Security privatization, not tax cuts, not ending the double-taxation on dividends. And if ratings demand that a tax cut proposed by the Bush administration, or the prospect of private Social Security accounts be criticized, they will be criticized. Alterman failed to discuss the fact that the media is all too willing to accept and propagate the liberal argument that the Bush tax cuts are somehow illegitimate because they are "directed towards the richest portion of the population" (which should surprise no one, as the richest members of society are the ones that pay the overwhelming share of taxes). He failed to discuss the fact that the media is all too willing to accept and propagate the argument that pensioners would somehow be "forced" into private accounts, and that private Social Security investment accounts would cost those dependent on Social Security their life investments. This constitutes a press corps that is "well-disposed to conservative efforts"? One cannot help but wonder what a press corps that is "actively hostile" to "conservative efforts" would look like.

Another major Alterman claim focuses the supposed bias of the press to (a) hype stories that argue in favor of free trade as opposed to stories that cast doubt on the process of globalization, and (b) hype the performance of the stock market and the views of the corporate world. Alterman points to these supposed instances of bias to further claim that the "so-called liberal media" does not exist.

First of all, it is well known to all but the most ignorant observers that the globalization debate is not a Right/Left debate, per se. While there are plenty of anti-globalization protestors on the Left (Congressman Dick Gephardt, Congresswoman Marcy Kaptur, and the student anti-globalization movement come to mind), there are anti-globalization opponents who are definitely not found on the left end of the ideological spectrum. The paleoconservative commentator and sometime Presidential candidate Patrick Buchanan has made his name fighting globalization-particularly the NAFTA treaty. So did Ross Perot-who is no one's idea of a typical Leftist. Mainstream liberals, and free-market conservatives have certainly made common cause to advance the agenda of globalization and free trade. But that coalition transcends traditional ideological lines just as the anti-globalization movement transcends ideological lines. Additionally, contrary to Alterman's claim that the news media's coverage of trade and globalization fails to pay proper attention to the supposed downsides of trade (worker's rights, the state of the environment, etc.) such stories are in fact easily found with either a Google search, or in examining actual policy decisions (President Bush's capitulation to demands for the imposition of steel and lumber tariffs was but one example of how the issue of worker's rights, the supposed sanctity of homegrown industries, and the protectionist movement in general, were able to influence policy).

The complaint that the news media hypes the performance of the stock market and "embraced the zeitgeist of capitalist hedonism" (p. 122) is even more nonsensical. Alterman argues that in its zeal for "capitalist hedonism," the media ignored reports detailing the supposed gap between the rich and the poor in America, and that corporate executives appeared on television far more than did denizens of organized labor (p. 124). He also lambastes the media for treating "the geek entrepreneur and the hip new CEO" as "comic-book superheroes" (p. 122). This may be evidence arguing against the presence of a liberal media-if such fawning coverage continued regardless of economic circumstances. But as we know, it did not. Once scandals at Tyco, Enron, WorldCom, Adelphia, and the like began to dominate the news, the media had no problem being restrained from an "embrace" of "capitalist hedonism," and instead stories proliferated of CEO and corporate malfeasance.

Throughout his book, Alterman evinces an intellectually condescending and arrogant tone towards those he considers his ideological opponents-especially President Bush. Alterman clearly views Bush as-surprise!-stupid, and goes out of his way to say so. One would think that Alterman's intellectual preening would lead him to be sure that he does not make careless mistakes for which he could be mocked and lampooned. Alas, careless mistakes abound, some trivial and many others, far more serious.

For example, Alterman attempts to demonstrate that the conservative pundits who also happen to be physically attractive females represent an affront to general journalistic standards. In doing so, Alterman employs the well worn "all beauty, no brains" argument. Thus, Ann Coulter is introduced as "a blond bombshell pundette" (p. 3). Laura Ingraham is Coulter's "fellow leggy blond pundit" (p. 3). Jennifer Grossman is described as "another MSNBC right-wing blond" (p. 42). Heather Nauert is "yet another young blond called upon to twirl her locks before the camera while sounding off on national affairs" (p. 43). You get the point. While it is obvious that Alterman is beginning all of his diatribes by describing the looks of his female pundit targets because of his belief that they were hired mainly on their looks, it certainly is bizarre-and perhaps even somewhat tiresome and misogynistic-that he should feel compelled to do so over and over again. But if he does insist on this tactic, then might I add a helpful editorial tip? A gentleman who possesses a golden mane is "blond." A lady who possess a golden mane is "blonde." Is it too much to ask that the grammatical distinction be gotten straight-at least by the time that What Liberal Media? The Sequel is issued?

In the category of serious mistakes, Alterman argues that Bill Clinton was not much of a Leftist President by claiming that "At Alan Greenspan's request, and immediately upon taking office, Clinton dropped the stimulus package he promised in his campaign with nary a peep from Congress" (p. 49). Wrong. In fact, the stimulus package was put to a vote in the House of Representatives, where it passed. The reason Clinton pulled the package was that it faced an insurmountable filibuster in the Senate, led by then-Senate Republican Leader Robert Dole. The filibuster, and Clinton's unsuccessful efforts to break it by reaching out to moderate Republican Senators was detailed in Bob Woodward's The Agenda.

Alterman notes with distaste a spring, 2002 article in The New Republic that called upon President Bush to fire his generals for speaking out to the press in a manner that The New Republic considered "military insubordination." Alterman tells us that "This charge is being leveled, recall, in a democracy, where no one is asked to forfeit their First Amendment rights as a condition of serving in the military" (p. 55). First of all, if Alterman is accusing The New Republic of suppressing the "First Amendment rights" of military officers, his claim is utterly misplaced. The First Amendment is designed to guard against unconstitutional restrictions of speech that are imposed by a state or government actor. The New Republic is neither a state or government actor-rather, it is a private entity.

Even if Alterman is decrying the prohibition on "First Amendment rights" that would presumably have been placed on members of the military by the President if he had followed the lead of The New Republic, his argument is still wrong. Apparently, Alterman has never heard of the Uniform Code of Military Justice, which does in fact restrict the "First Amendment rights" of people in uniform. Members of the military are not free to criticize the President of the United States (their Commander-in-Chief), the Secretary and Undersecretary of Defense, the Deputy Secretaries of Defense, or others in the civilian chain of command, nor are they permitted to engage in activities involving public expression that can be engaged in by non-military citizens and residents of the United States.

Alterman engages in the well-worn tactic of trying to claim that the Bush administration was somehow responsible for the Enron debacle, since George W. Bush received contributions from Enron in the 2000 campaign, and since there were personal relationships between Bush administration officials and Enron officials. In fact, Enron worked assiduously-and successfully-to cultivate contacts in the Clinton Administration as well, and supported the Kyoto Protocol because it would benefit Enron's business (none of these connections is acknowledged by Alterman, and none of them does anything to reduce his high opinion of the Kyoto Protocol). Additionally, Alterman ignores the many policy differences between Enron and the Bush administration in his zeal to tie the administration to the Enron debacle. He also ignores the fact that the only public figure with government experience who engaged in an ethical impropriety with regard to Enron was Clinton Treasury Secretary Robert Rubin-who called his successors in the Treasury Department to urge that Enron's credit rating not be reduced (it would have harmed Citibank, with which Rubin was connected after leaving the Treasury Department, and which was one of Enron's creditors). Rubin would have been guilty of serious violations through his lobbying-if it weren't for the fact that President Clinton, right before leaving office, revoked an Executive Order that he signed immediately after becoming President in 1993, which banned government officials from lobbying their old departments for five years after they leave office.

Alterman alleges that the media attacked President Clinton during his time in office, while suggesting that Independent Counsel Kenneth Starr got good press. This would come as a surprise to Starr, who was castigated as a "prude," a "Torquemada," and "Elmer Fudd" in his time as Independent Counsel, and who was savaged mercilessly by both the Clinton White House and the press, that his favorability numbers dropped to subterranean levels in the polls. Alterman claims that the non-existence of a liberal media can be proven by the media's supposedly rough treatment of 2000 Democratic Presidential nominee Al Gore, as opposed to its supposedly gentle treatment of Gore's opponent for the nomination: former New Jersey Senator Bill Bradley. The fact that Bradley was more liberal than Gore, and the fact that any support for Bradley over the more centrist Gore may have served more to prove the existence of media bias, escapes Alterman completely. (How liberal was Bradley? Liberal enough that Alterman supported Bradley in the primaries, and owns up to it in his book.) Alterman claims that Gore was out of media favor in part because of his supposed lack of standing in the establishment. This makes no sense whatsoever. How on earth does anyone claim that Gore, a politician with over two decades of service in Washington, D.C. as both a Representative, a Senator, and the sitting, two-term Vice President of the United States at the time of the 2000 election, was less of an establishment figure than Bush, a man who had six years of experience in politics-all of them as Governor of Texas? Even more bizarrely, Alterman makes the argument that the Bush campaign's implicit message in 2000 was that "Bush is new. Gore is old. It's time-ha, ha-for [Gore] to go" (p. 152). So which is it? Did Bush have an advantage since he was an establishment figure, or because he was a fresh face? Alterman seems to suggest that it was both.

Alterman alleges journalistic impropriety on the part of the television media for supposedly having called Florida too early for George W. Bush on Election Night, 2000. He never mentions the fact that Florida was originally called for Gore-at a time when Bush was leading all of the exit polls, and before the polls closed in the western panhandle of Florida-which is an hour behind the rest of the state. It is estimated that thousands of Floridians failed to vote-having heard prematurely that Gore had won the state. Alterman also fails to address the argument made by journalist and writer Bill Sammon, who points out in his book that in instance after instance on Election Night, states were called for Gore faster, and based on less conclusive exit polling, than they were for Bush.

To round out the list of egregious errors that undermine Alterman's argument, he posits that there was no germane Florida law that should have put an end to the recounts (p. 188). Alterman forgets that there was a body of federal law that should have put an end to the recounts-law that stemmed from Article II of the Constitution, and which as University of Chicago Law Professor Richard Epstein argues, provided a strong argument for Bush's side of the case. Alterman claims that the media consortium that handled the recounts demonstrated a clear Gore win. In fact, the paper-thin margins of the consortium recounts demonstrate that the survey results cannot be considered definitive-especially given the remarkable lag of time between the election, and the consortium recounts. Finally, in addressing the functions of the White House, Alterman repeats the lie that White House Press Spokesman Ari Fleischer sought to stifle "all forms of criticism of any U.S. government action" by saying that Americans "need to watch what they say, watch what they do" (p. 199). Alterman took the quote out of context, and Fleischer's statement was clearly directed to all sides of the political divide. Indeed-as a transcript of the press briefing, and this report show, Fleischer included people "in [the President's] own party" in his admonition to have commentators weigh carefully the impact of their words before those words are said.

Perhaps Alterman knows that his argument rests on one incredibly thin reed after another, since he feels the need to supplement his argument with personal attacks. Andrew Sullivan and Michael Kelly are repeatedly compared to Joseph McCarthy-which perhaps helps prove Jonah Goldberg's point that "McCarthyite" and "McCarthyism" have come to mean "anything liberals or leftists consider to be unfair, unjust, un-nice." Camille Paglia is "nutty" (p. 53). Current Wall Street Journal Opinion Page editor Paul Gigot is damned by faint praise, with Alterman saying that he is "not quite as nutty" as editor emeritus Robert Bartley (p. 232). Hilton Kramer, the editor and art critic for the New Criterion, is derided by Alterman as a "cranky neocon" (p. 251). A few lines down, writer Norman Podhoretz is dismissed as an "excitable neocon."

When he appeared on the Daily Show to hype his book, Alterman made the claim that "American talk radio has less ideological diversity than Stalin's Soviet Union." This caused Daily Show host Jon Stewart-who identifies himself as a liberal, to remark to Alterman, "You know, I was with you there for a while, but now you're just talkin' crazy." Indeed.

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