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Proof Through Repetition and the "Liberal Bias" of the U.S. Media:

A Review of Eric Alterman's What Liberal Media?


Friday, June 20, 2003

Eric Alterman, What Liberal Media? (Basic Books 2003)

Can it ever be pointless to publish a well-written book?

Eric Alterman's What Liberal Media? is a nice piece of work. It combines uncompromising passion with sardonic humor, careful research, and incisive prose. Alterman makes a solid case that the legendary left-wing bias of the big-time American media is a myth.

That so many people believe that myth is a testament to nothing more than the power of repetition--a constant drumbeat from the right that has, perversely, "proved" an utter falsehood. Conservatives produce an endless supply of books, position papers, speeches, and so on, repeating the same discredited stories and distortions as if they were true. Truth becomes whatever they say it is--at least until someone like Alterman comes along and shows otherwise.

It might also be argued that to the extent that the myth of liberal media bias persists, it's too late to debunk it. Those who might have been converted to the truth already have been. And those who persist in believing the lie will keep on doing so. Conservatives will always be able to claim that there's a liberal bias and get away with it.

Though both of these arguments have their strengths, ultimately they fail. Alterman's book is still, amazingly and disappointingly, all too necessary.

Embedded Reporting and Other Pro-Conservative Media Bias During the Iraq War

Alterman could have been the victim of exquisitely bad timing. Finishing his book in late 2002, he saw only the beginning of the propaganda campaign leading up to the war in Iraq. Even as jaded as he is, it's hard to believe that he could ever have imagined the media's complicity in spreading the Administration's storylines. The media's coverage of the war, in many ways, proved Alterman's point better than he ever could have.

Embedded reporters from every major news organizations submitted to military oversight, sending sympathetic reports that glossed over the horrors of war. The comic strip Doonesbury put it best - showing a reporter asking: "Captain, would you describe our outfit as 'magnificent' or 'mythic'?" The reply: "Report it as you see it, sir."

Pro-Administration deceptions were repeatedly allowed by the media. For instance, when the President landed on an aircraft carrier, it traveled in circles so that camera angles would mislead viewers into thinking it was far out at sea. In fact, the shoreline was a short distance away.

Similarly, when Iraqis pulled down the statute of Saddam Hussein, cameras seemed to reveal a crowded square with throngs of ecstatic onlookers cheering wildly. In fact, as later reports revealed, the square was mostly empty. Worse, half of the onlookers were Iraqi emigres who had been flown in from Europe specifically to participate in that scene.

By now, of course, these facts are hardly revelations. I know these off-script facts, after all, because "the media" brought them to me. Ergo, the media is liberal, right? Hardly.

Even when presenting these unpleasant facts, the supposedly liberal media presents the Administration's manipulations as curiosities - or, worse, as brilliant public relations achievements. The New York Times, certainly at the top of anyone's list of the liberal media, recently offered its readers an awestruck report on the Administration's masterful manipulation of public opinion.

In sum, "liberal" criticism is not critical. It's admiring. And as Alterman shows, this was true even before the war.

Even Conservatives Admit Liberal Media Bias Is A Myth, Yet They Perpetuate It

Alterman includes in his book quotes from both James Baker and William Kristol happily admitting that there is no meaningful liberal bias in the media. Instead, they and other archconservatives concede, they are simply "working the refs," in order to force the media to bend over backward to compensate for a bias that even they admit is, at the very least, grossly exaggerated.

One might think this kind of concession by the mythmakers would kill the myth. But it turns out that the myth is far too useful, and it continues to be purveyed to television viewers unlikely ever to open Alterman's work and read these concessions of its falsity.

For instance, consider Kristol's comments in late May of this year, when he appeared on Comedy Central's The Daily Show with Jon Stewart. Stewart started by commenting on how well things are going for conservatives in the U.S., and he asked: "Is there anything else conservatives want?" Kristol, without missing a beat, replied: "Well, the liberals still dominate the media." To his credit, Stewart was incredulous; but Kristol was unfazed.

Even Liberals Themselves Play a Part In Perpetuating the Liberal Bias Myth

Meanwhile, the liberal "refs" have certainly been "worked" into submission. Take Stewart himself. His show traffics in sharp political satire, much of it highly critical of the Administration. Yet Stewart takes every opportunity to deny being liberal, consistently asserting that he is simply cynical. He regularly treats conservative guests with kid gloves, while turning into a tough interrogator of liberal guests. In the latter category, Arianna Huffington's appearance was a sorry spectacle, with Stewart constantly interrupting and saying things like, "What's the point? We can't do anything about this stuff, anyway!"

Similarly, the Times's Nicholas Kristof identifies himself as a liberal, but it often seems that he chooses to do so simply to be able to chide other liberals for being too liberal. For instance, is it truly a concern that the New York-based Times employs no evangelical Christians, as Kristof recently noted? Have any actually applied and been rejected on religious grounds?

In short, conservatives, and some liberals, continue to perpetuate the liberal bias myth, despite all evidence to the contrary. As a result, Alterman's book remains a very necessary counterweight.

But can Alterman's book actually do any good in achieving its goal of dispelling the "liberal bias" myth? Or is the belief in a liberal media bias so ingrained at this point that nothing can dislodge it?

Even the recent, blatantly conservative war coverage couldn't turn the tide. Nor can the advent of more and more conservative news outlets, writers, and speakers. Ironically, their presence is taken as evidence in favor of liberal bias, not against it: They are an antidote that would never have been introduced, the argument goes, had the disease of liberal bias not been so serious in the first place.

On this theory, Fox News acts as a necessary antidote to CNN--the Communist News Network. Ubiquitous conservative commentators such as John Stossel and George Will routinely are given a podium at the major networks. Yet they are portrayed by conservatives as merely window-dressing for the liberals who are really in charge, like Dan Rather (whose place in the conservative hall of shame was guaranteed thirty years ago when he dared to confront Richard Nixon).

The True Media Bias: In Favor of Owners' Profits and the Public's Fascinations

Ultimately, as Alterman points out - and gives copious evidence to show - media conglomerates are motivated by money. They cater to the financial interests of their owners, as any other corporation does. And those owners are wealthy and often conservative. Thus, if the media has any inherent bias, it's a conservative one.

But even that is not so simple. Though Alterman makes a good argument that "you're only as liberal as the man who owns you," there is clearly much more to the story than that. After all, the media also has a strong bias that is independent of politics: a bias that leads it to follow wherever the public's interest goes, since that's where the money lies.

Consider one recent incident in which media coverage closely followed money and controversy - not conservative or liberal politics. Conservative outrage about antiwar comments by the lead singer of the Dixie Chicks resulted in their songs being banned from large swaths of the airwaves. But that led to a backlash in which they appeared on the cover of Entertainment Weekly, gaining fans who never would have been interested in their music otherwise--with even the occasional rock music-loving law professor being willing to give their music a try. Now, mostly because of the media's financial calculations, they are back on the air. And why not? They are a meal ticket once again.

Alterman should be complimented for realizing that there had to be a direct response to the conservative onslaught. It's one thing to disprove the lie that the media is biased against conservatives, and another thing for that word to be spread, and believed. The sheer volume of the right-wingers' disinformation campaign requires a large response. Alterman's book is now being joined, for example, by Al Franken's Lies and the Lying Liars Who Tell Them: A Fair and Balanced Look at the Right. Proof through repetition requires disproof by honest reporting, repeated liberally.

Neil H. Buchanan, J.D., Ph. D., will be joining the faculty at Rutgers School of Law - Newark, starting in the Fall semester of 2003.

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