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February 06, 2003

The truth will set you free...

I was reminded last night (as if I needed reminding) of why I never watch CNN's Crossfire.  While I must admit to finding James Carville pretty funny on occasion, having to endure the odious Paul Begala (who wouldn't piss on a Republican if he or she were on fire) is beyond the pale.

(A quick aside about Carville: I heard my favorite Carville-ism a few years ago at a corporate boondoggle at Beaver Creek a where  James Carville and his wife Mary Matalin were the after-dinner entertainment.   Anyway, during his spiel, Carville described the etymology of the word "politics" as the combination of the Greek word "poly" meaning "many" and the word "ticks" meaning blood sucking insects.   I also loved his line about Paula Jones; "Drag a hundred-dollar bill through a trailer park, you never know what you'll find.", but that's another story.)

Back to Crossfire.   I was at the gym, on the elliptical machine, so I was pretty much a captive audience. Thankfully, I was able to listen to another channel while watching the closed captioning for CNN...  It made it much easier to bear.

After a very predictable debate about the reaction to Powell's UN speech, they brought out the liberal journalist and author Eric Alterman to plug his new book What Liberal Media?.  Begala introduced Alterman thusly: "he says the media have grown increasingly cowed by false complaints of liberal base, and hence, progressively more sympathetic to the most outlandish conservative complaints."  (Alterman has evidently been channeling Al Gore with his now famous comments about a conservative "fifth column" in the media ranks.)

I found this exchange between Alterman and Tucker Carlson amusing:

CARLSON: ... let's start with the one honest thing you say. At the very beginning on page 20 you admit what all of us who work in the press know, and that is that most reporters are liberal.  You concede that most of them voted for Clinton you think.

"The vast majority are pro-choice, pro-gun control, pro separation of church and state, pro-feminism, pro affirmative action, and supportive of gay rights." It kind of cuts against your argument, doesn't it?

ALTERMAN: Well, socially liberal, yes. Economically conservative.  And the fact is that, while I admit and agree that most elite reporters are socially liberal, it's not up to reporters what gets on the news, Tucker.  Do you think that the owners of most corporations that own media corporations are liberal?

CARLSON: Actually, having worked in media corporations and grown up around the, for one, and worked in them all my adult life, I can tell you, as I think you already know, most reporters don't take orders from the owners of their companies.  Most reporters don't know who the owners of their companies are and have zero contact with them.  So that's not a plausible claim.

ALTERMAN: Well, Tucker, who hires the pundits, who hires the people that determine the agenda?  Why is it that virtually all of the people that appear on network television as pundits are conservatives, not liberals?

CARLSON: Well I'll tell you why. Because the talent pool -- there are only two that I know of -- good liberals and they work on the show. It's a tiny talent pool.


Curious as to how an apparently rational, sentient being could believe (or at least argue with a straight face) that the U.S. media are dominated by conservatives, I clicked on the (downloadable) introduction to Alterman's book.  Most of the chapter (actually seven of the thirteen pages) is devoted to vitriolic (and often below-the-belt) criticism of Ann Coulter (and her book Slander: Liberal Lies about the American Right) and Bernard Goldberg’s book Bias. Personally, I find Coulter offensive and annoying, and while I liked Goldberg's book, it is a bit thin.  However, I was flabbergasted to read Alterman's analysis of the "liberal" press:

Move over to the mainstream publications and broadcasts often labeled “liberal” and you see how ridiculous the notion of liberal dominance becomes.  The liberal New York Times op-ed page features the work of the unreconstructed Nixonite William Safire and for years accompanied him with the firebreathing-if-difficult-to-understand neocon A. M. Rosenthal.  Current denizen Bill Keller also writes regularly from a soft, DLC neoconservative perspective.  Why was then-editorial page editor, now executive editor, Howell Raines one of Bill Clinton’s most vocal adversaries during his entire presidency?  Why is this alleged bastion of liberalism, on the very morning I wrote these words, offering words of praise and encouragement to George W. Bush and John Ashcroft for invoking the hated Taft-Hartley legislation on behalf of shipping companies, following a lock-out of their West Coast workers?  (Has the Wall Street Journal editorial page ever, in its entire history, taken the side of American workers in a labor dispute?)   It would later endorse for re-election the state’s Republican/Conservative governor, George Pataki, over his capable, if unexciting, liberal Democratic African-American opponent, Carl McCall.

Let me see if I understand this: the guy is seriously saying that the NYT is not liberal?!   Well, I suppose if you think Howell Raines, George Pataki, and A.M. Rosenthal are conservatives, I suppose he may be right. But wait, there's more...

The Washington Post editorial page, which is considered less liberal than the Times but liberal nevertheless, is just swarming with conservatives, from Mr. Kelly to George Will to Robert Novak to Charles Krauthammer, among many more.  On the morning before I finally let go of the draft manuscript of this book, the paper’s lead editorial is endorsing the president’s plan for a “pre-emptive” war against Iraq.  The op-ed page was hardly less abashed in its hawkishness.  A careful study by Michael Massing published in the Nation found, “Collectively, its editorials, columns and Op-Eds have served mainly to reinforce, amplify and promote the Administration’s case for regime change.  And, as the house organ for America’s political class, the paper has helped push the debate in the Administration’s favor. . . .” 

OK, I get it, unless you support Saddam Hussein, you are a conservative. By this definition, perhaps he's right about conservatives controlling the media.

If you wish to include CNN on your list of liberal media — I don’t, but many conservatives do — then you had better find a way to explain the near ubiquitous presence of the attack dog Robert Novak, along with
those of neocon virtuecrat William Bennett, National Review’s Kate O’Beirne, National Review’s Jonah Goldberg, the Weekly Standard’s David Brooks, and Tucker Carlson.  This is to say nothing of the fact that among CNN’s most frequent guests are Ann Coulter and the anti-American telepreacher Pat Robertson.  Care to include ABC News?  Again, I don’t but, if you wish, how do you deal with the fact that the only ideological commentator on its Sunday interview show is the hardline conservative George Will?  Or how about the fact that its only explicitly ideological reporter is the deeply journalistically challenged conservative crusader John Stossel?  How to explain the entire career of Cokie Roberts, who never met a liberal to whom she could not condescend?  What about Time and Newsweek?  In the former, we have Mr. Krauthammer holding forth and in the latter Mr. Will.

Evidently, Alterman also believes that if you happen to have a conservative commentator or two appearing in your publication, then you are - again by definition - not liberal.   And I don't mean to nitpick here, but who possibly considers Cokie Roberts to be a conservative?!

What Alterman doesn't appear to understand, or at least doesn't talk about in the introduction to his book (and I'm too cheap to go out and buy it, so that's all I'm reading, anyway) is that the main conservative complaint about the liberal press is that its opinions permeate the news reporting, rather than solely the editorial pages. I would go further and say that there is no such thing as "objective reporting", and I don't care what the Columbia School of Journalism has to say on the subject. As Mickey Kaus suggested on January 13th:

Saving the Lie: How many of the New York Times' journalistic problems would be solved if the paper just replaced the slogan in the upper-left hand corner of its front page ("All the News That's Fit to Print") with the phrase:

"A Crusading Liberal Newspaper"

I'd guess those four words would neutralize about 80 percent of the animus against Times editor Howell Raines. What's deeply annoying about Raines and his henchperson Gerald Boyd isn't their liberalism, or their bias, but their insistent pretense that what they are doing isn't liberal or biased but just straightforward objective newspapering the way the Times has always done it. ("Call it journalism.") They're selling their product dishonestly, sneakily trying to trade on the credibility earned in an earlier, different time. The truth would set them free. There's nothing wrong with being a crusading liberal newspaper, after all.

I think the unpleasant truth that folks like Alterman and Begala are trying to avoid facing is that there is now (for the first time in a long while) a real diversity of opinions expressed in the mass media in this country.  Thanks to Rupert Murdock (who brought us Fox, the NY Post, and the Weekly Standard), Ted Turner (who brought us the first real alternative to network TV news with his Cable News Network (before Time Warner turned it into the Clinton News Network, driving down its ratings in the process), Robert Bartley (the man who created the conservative juggernaut that is now the WSJ's editorial page), Matt Drudge, and the technology of modern communications (which brought us the Blogosphere, the Internet, 500 cable channels and a whole lot more), Americans now have a more fully developed, and balanced, national press.  Like Britain, with its Guardian, Times, Independent and Telegraph, and France, with Le Monde, Figaro, Liberation, etc. we now also have an ideological diverse group of national media outlets.  Now if we could only agree to actually talk about this fact...

February 6, 2003 at 09:03 AM | Permalink


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While I understand that you simply disagree with Alterman about what exactly conservative is, none of your comments really MEAN anything:

"OK, I get it, unless you support Saddam Hussein, you are a conservative. By this definition, perhaps he's right about conservatives controlling the media."

What is the significance of this statement? What NEW thought have you brought to light? In what sense have you PROVEN anything. You haven't even really said much of an opinion. You are relying upon the reader to infer that Alterman is stupid because he thinks only conservatives support the war. Great. Well, first of all, you are insulting his intelligence which is never a good thing to do to a published author (he is probably pretty smart) and you have absolutely NO credibility to be able to say something like that and let me ASSUME that you have emperical evidence to back up this claim.

At least learn how to actually argue if you are going to try and opine in a way such to change the hearts and minds of your readers.

Posted by: Derek | May 19, 2004 6:48:45 AM

It all depends upon how you define "mean", Derek...

Posted by: Spart | May 19, 2004 2:10:43 PM

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