Eric Alterman’s
'What Liberal Media?'

Illustration by Austin Swinburn

One topic that keeps coming up in partisan discourse is the role of “The Media” in our collective political life as Americans. As a result result of banging my head against the brick wall of semi-public opinion one too many times, I have to conclude that, depending on the choir to which you happen to preach, one can convincingly argue about the bias of the news. It just so happens that this reviewer falls into the liberal camp, and in the interest of gaining deeper knowledge on this topic, I recently finished reading What Liberal Media? by Eric Alterman. It is well done, and well worth reading. I was reasonably convinced of a rightward bias in media coverage, even before reading this book, and this book served to reinforce that notion. I wanted that reinforcement, so mission accomplished there.

Disclaimer: There are any number of people that have more time than I do to bother with fact-checking the extensive footnotes, and there are many qualified people that can discuss the ramifications of news slant at great length. For one particularly effective approach, visit Bob Somerby's Daily Howler weblog.

While the subject matter is topical, current, and certainly worthy of in-depth discussion, something is bothersome about this particular approach, however. It might be accurately portrayed as “sneering partisanship,” which is the phrase that resonates with me even today. For the most part, I am right (so to speak) with Alterman on his central argument, which is that the American media are, by and large, conservative. Even more troublesome, certain segments of these media are conservative activists; in one particularly Orwellian turn of phrase (attributable to spooky neo-conservative flack William Kristol), they are on a mission of “advocacy journalism” for a spooky neo-conservative agenda.

“Beyond the question of any relevant bias, whether it is conservative or liberal, is one of what the American public deems to be an acceptable standard of journalistic discourse.”

This turn of events is four-square in opposition to a functioning democracy. It is as disturbing as it is obvious. Yet, something keeps churning in my stomach like a hunk of half-digested chorizo. Beyond the question of any relevant bias, whether it is conservative or liberal, is one of what the American public deems to be an acceptable standard of journalistic discourse. It is not about the bias of reporters or their corporate masters; rather, it is about the paucity of critical content in the news.

As one observation, “news content” has increasingly become supplanted by “infotainment.” There is a disturbing and widening trend for news to be presented without any context. To make matters worse, every media outlet leads with the same top stories, and often you will be subjected to identical coverage, the same newsreel footage, and the same doorstep to doorstep narrative. Even worse, some of the biggest non-issues become the focus of follow-the-sun “make-news” coverage on every single outlet. One case in point: The comings and goings in the Laci Peterson case are, in sum, non-news news. However, it is difficult to assign a firm partisan motivation behind the non-stop blather around this case. Rather than having a blantant right or left slant, this sort of thing is about sensationalism and market share in the 24x7 news cycle. As the word “news” implies “new” or “new-ness,” it is sickening to see so many non-worthy, stale, and irrelevant stories touted as something original, fresh, and hot off the press. We, the consuming public, have in many ways come to embrace this trend, or at the very least, to tolerate it.

If public interest issues (whatever they happen to be) manage to sneak into the mix, they are given about as much depth and dimension as one might expect in a fifth-grade civics lesson. When analysis is introduced, it would appear that there are no shades of grey to consider, and only two choices.

Now, what does this bring to mind? For me, binary thinking, uncritical analysis, news devoid of relevance and presented without context? That is the glove to the hand of neo-conservative politics. That is the The Matrix which functions to obscure the machinations of the GOP groove. Neo-conservative politics and corporate news media are soul-mates; albeit more ontological than ideological. This symbiosis is at the forefront of a large-scale effort to re-define the political landscape.

That effort, sadly enough, has been fantastically successful.
Nowhere has this been more painful than the functional re-definition of what it means to be “liberal” in American politics. No longer is liberalism a mark of distinction. Rather, it is a smear term. The putative Left in this country runs from this particular characterization. Few in elected office want to be cast as liberal, because that word has been so thoroughly demonized. As such, an apparent, functioning liberal response in the halls of power is difficult to pinpoint.

Much is made in the book about the election of 2000, and the consequences of overwhelmingly conservative media. It is arguable that the media favored, coddled, and kid-gloved George W. Bush into the presidency. However, it was asserted as a given that Bush's opposition was the alternative to the GOP vision of “compassionate conservatism.” Yet, is it true that to be a Democrat means to be a liberal? Does the debate of liberal versus conservative turn on party affiliation?

This needs to be more fully explicated; that is, how we can have a discussion about politics and not delve into what party affiliation means in and of itself in America. The implication is that Republicans are the standards-bearers for conservative policies, and Alterman repeatedly makes this case. Yet, the converse is seldom discussed in the book. Is it accurate to portray Democrats or Democratic policies as uniformly liberal?

If liberalism is defined as “the policies of Democratic administrations,” then discussing liberal bias in media is moot. Leaving aside the question of bias in media coverage, it is an affront to characterize many policies touted by the Democratic establishment as liberal. The sundry attacks on the liberalism in the Clinton administration rises rose to the level of prima facie absurdity, for example. What was really going on was that conservatives were dog-piling on Clinton for his conservative policies not being conservative enough, yet calling those policies “liberal.” If for no other reason, the charge of “liberal” stuck because Clinton was a Democrat, not because his policies did not find favor with wing-nuts. In short, conservatives were attacking conservative policies during the Clinton years. Now, THAT is a script even Orwell could not have written.

I offer that this is the crux of the Democratic identity crisis today, and it is something that the book misses by a country mile. If Clintonian policy sets the standard for liberalism in American political discourse, then discussion of liberal versus conservative is a non-starter.

Alterman asks, “What liberal media?” My question is “What good does it do to discuss the failure of the media to hold up the liberal end of public opinion, when the liberal representation in American politics is all but non-existent?”

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