Is the media really liberal? It's an ontological question of American politics that's as exhausting as it is inexhaustible. A question so loaded it makes, "Have you been to the gay bathhouse?" seem like so much idle coffee talk. A query that screams for such qualifiers as: Whose media are you talking about? And, whose definition of liberal? It also begs another implicit question: What are the implications of a biased media? In other words, So what?
As irony would have it, this debate is played out almost entirely within the media itself -- on the Op-Ed pages of opinion-molding newspapers, in magazines and on political talk shows. When discussing "the media," journalists and politicos are usually referring to news outlets that aspire to the aphorism known as "fair and balanced" coverage. This boils down to the top five daily newspapers and the news departments of the three major television networks and some of the major cable stations.
If conservatives accuse liberals of being a sniveling clique of incurable whiners about civil rights, welfare and the environment, conservatives delight in lamenting their oppression at the hands of the liberal media. While many stop short of conspiracy theory, it's such a longstanding charge that it merits some scrutiny, particularly given the number of recent best-selling books from right-wingers like Ann Coulter, Bill O'Reilly and former CBS producer Bernard Goldberg.
Eric Alterman kicks off his necessary, though hardly compelling, What Liberal Media? (Basic Books) with an earnest recognition that he's writing from the margins: "The idea that the media might, for reasons of ownership, economics, class or outside pressure, actually be more sympathetic to conservative causes than to liberal ones is widely considered to be simply beyond the pale."
Alterman is the media columnist in residence at The Nation magazine -- the voice of the Volvo-driving left -- and an online scribe for MSNBC.com. What Liberal Media? is his riposte to the liberal media charge. Because those portraying the left on political talk shows are typically centrist Democrats -- ex-Clinton strategists George Stephanopoulos (ABC's This Week) and James Carville (CNN's Crossfire) provide a case in point -- it's refreshing to hear arguments from a bona fide liberal.
Take, for example, the habitual conflation of Clinton voters with liberal Democrats with, in turn, the elusive entity known as "the left." As Alterman notes, Clinton ran in 1992 as a New Democrat: pro-death penalty, staunchly pro-free trade and hawkish enough in his foreign policy to earn the endorsement of The New York Times' William Safire. Such distinctions, he notes, permit Democrats to be elected in many parts of the South and the West. But pundits still lump Clintonistas in with Democrats of the waning Paul Wellstone tradition. The upshot, of course, is a reduction in the scope of political debate and the further marginalization of real liberals.
One of Alterman's most cogent challenges to the liberal media consensus occurs in his chapter on business journalism. Alterman writes: "No longer the working-class heroes of the Front Page/His Gal Friday lore, elite journalists in Washington and New York are rock-solid members of the political and financial establishment about whom the write. They dine at the same restaurants and take their vacations on the same Caribbean islands." Alterman goes on to point out that during the economic boom of the '90s, reporters often served as free market cheerleaders at the expense of substantive reporting on issues affecting the workers of the new global marketplace.
Alterman writes his book like an extended column, full of well-researched tidbits exposing the sophistry of many celebrated journalists. From the Wall Street Journal's Peggy Noonan to the Washington Post's David Broder to syndicated scribblers like George Will and Robert Novak, there's hardly a pundit Alterman fails to scrutinize. There are separate chapters devoted to pundits in print, television, radio, Internet -- even "expert" pundits. For magazine fodder it would be great, with the doses administered biweekly. But as a book, Alterman's punditpalooza burns out quickly.
There's an insider-baseball solipsism to What Liberal Media? that clouds otherwise significant points. But ultimately the author's unspoken strategy proves questionable. Even if Alterman slays every pundit of political consequence, does he really win the debate? It's hardly going out on a limb to suggest that those who scrutinize the punditry with the tenacity of a sports radio listener are either incurable political junkies, media industry types or other pundits. These insiders are so entrenched in partisan crossfire that they lose sight of the larger picture. Which is that, rightly or not, their place within the pop culture hierarchy rests somewhere between Sarah Michelle Gellar's diet and the WNBA.
What would be truly liberating is if the media debate could transcend partisanship and focus on the media peccadilloes that hurt us all -- like staid, PR-driven fluff, and an ever-shortening soundbite sensibility. With the pending war in Iraq, and nuclear/diplomatic meltdown in North Korea, the liberal media debate will remain on the back burner for some time, but it's unlikely to go away. Sadly, there's still too much political mileage to be gained from it.