Are the media biased? Well, it depends on how you look at it. Fox News Channel, for example, is a right-wing propaganda outlet, but everyone knows that, and no one goes there expecting objectivity. In What Liberal Media?, Nation and MSNBC.com columnist Eric Alterman argues that all the yelling conservatives have done, since the 1960s, about the "liberal media," has been the equivalent of "working the refs." As a consequence, major news outlets and commentators have shifted mainstream political debate inexorably to the right. At this point, truly liberal voices are almost entirely absent from public discussion of major issues. At the same time, though, the wails about "liberal bias" in the media persist in best-selling books by Bernard Goldberg, Bill O’Reilly and Ann Coulter.
The rightward shift isn’t limited to rhetoric; it’s mirrored in concrete changes in American political reality. This is one of the most important points Alterman makes:
Any discussion of bias is riddled with definitional problems, owing to the considerable degree of conservative success in moving the fifty-yard line deep into what not long ago was already their own territory. Richard Nixon was a conservative in his day but the positions he took in 1968 were well to the left of those taken by Al Gore in the 2000 election.
In Fear and Loathing On The Campaign Trail ‘72, Hunter S. Thompson quoted a Republican convention delegate saying, "This country’s going to move so far to the right you won’t even recognize it." That statement, which started out as (likely drunken) hyperbole, has become a disturbing truth. What passes for radical left-wing opinion in America today would fit comfortably into the platform of any center-right party in Europe.
Alterman goes beyond statistics and citations (though he’s got plenty of those, and plenty of damning quotes, too) and writes about the background issues that lead journalists to represent the views of the powerful rather than the powerless. He discusses the speaking fees with which pundits and news commentators augment their salaries, and suggests that such activity shifts their attitudes in ways that impact later work:
Journalists are not being paid tens of thousands to give a single speech by public school children, welfare mothers, individual investors, health-care consumers, or even (in most cases) unions. They are taking it from banks, insurance companies, investment houses, and all manner of unindicted CEOs. If they want to continue to be invited, they had better not write anything that might offend these people.
It’s also worth remembering, and Alterman reminds the reader, that the major Washington journalists travel in the same social circles as the politicians they cover. In many ways, this makes political coverage in America the equivalent of a society column, in which the rich and powerful report on their friends and neighbors, employing the genteelly flattering tones of courtiers.
While Alterman’s arguments are persuasive, there’s a feeling of futility that builds as the book goes on. Part of this comes from his account of the fundamental changes that have been wrought on political debate in the internet age:
Not unlike the way in which the irresponsible right-wing talk-show network forms its own self-referential information circuit, ‘news’ on the Net is passed along from one site to another with little concern for its credibility. Also like radio, this tactic of combining the unverifiable with a metaphorical microphone has been perfected by the far right to create a doubly deceitful dynamic of ideological extremism, false information, and accusation against which truth—and liberalism—have little chance to compete. Rush Limbaugh, meet Matt Drudge.
There’s an unexamined assumption here—that liberal internet commentators and talk-radio hosts would be more likely to broadcast "truth" than conservatives have been—but beyond that, the reader is left wondering whether the battle hasn’t already been lost.
While it’s demonstrably true that left-wing voices are primarily absent from mainstream political debate, a book like this isn’t necessarily a solution. Alterman describes a shift in tone, from civilized discussion to cable-TV loudmouths hurling sound bites and baseless accusations at each other, but in general he refuses to move with the tide and employ these tactics himself. What Liberal Media? is an organized, rational and persuasive book which refuses to demonize those who disagree. For this reason, it’s somewhat unlikely to reach readers whose minds actually need changing about the issue of media bias. This seems to be a problem endemic to the moderate left. The insistence on appealing to the better angels of people’s natures appears increasingly starry-eyed and na�ve in an age where the other side is sending out commentators like Ann Coulter and Rush Limbaugh, who often seem to find the idea of backing up their frothing assertions with facts laughable. Perhaps if Alterman was a little more willing to get blood on his hands, this book would have a chance of taking bestseller-list space away from idea-free ideologues of the right like Bill O’Reilly and Sean Hannity. As it is, it’s likely to reach the already converted, and a few others, a fact which, given the importance of its ideas, is somewhat disheartening.