What Liberal Media?

The Truth about Bias and the News


By Eric Alterman

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Widely acclaimed and hotly contested, veteran journalist Eric Alterman’s ambitious investigation into the true nature of the U.S. news media touched a nerve and sparked debate across the country. As the question of whose interests the media protects-and how-continues to raise hackles, Alterman’s sharp, utterly convincing assessment cuts through the cloud of inflammatory rhetoric, settling the question of liberal bias in the news once and for all. Eye-opening, witty, and thoroughly and solidly researched, What Liberal Media? is required reading for media watchers, and anyone concerned about the potentially dangerous consequences for the future of democracy in America.


Acclaim for Eric Alterman's What Liberal Media?
"Compelling . . . Dead-on, and ought to be heard."
The Washington Monthly
"Meticulously researched . . . Fair-minded and persuasive."
The Santa Fe New Mexican
"Makes a powerful case for how the news media have shifted dangerously to the right. . . . Eric Alterman is to be thanked for fully engaging the conservative media horde that has overrun the citadels of American communications."
"A welcome, lonely voice in our current political and media climate."
The Columbus Dispatch
"With extensive documentation and persuasive logic, [Alterman] shows that wherever you turn unabashed conservatives dominate the media. On talk radio, political opinion approaches a level of uniformity only seen in totalitarian societies."
Boston Herald
"An exhaustively documented puncturing of the conservative mantra . . . Each well-footnoted point, each unassailable statistic, resounds with the dull thwack of meat on concrete, as facts always hit harder than mere assertions."
The Village Voice
"Often humorous and acerbic . . . Well worth the read."
The Charlotte Observer
"Alterman argues persuasively that far from reflecting a liberal bias, the media are more likely guilty of being beholden to business interests and the status quo than to any political ideology."
The Sacramento Bee
"Not only a superb piece of polemical reporting—one done so well that no one surely will hereafter be able to talk about liberal bias in the news with a straight face—it's also fun to read. . . . Alterman, who ends with an impassioned essay on the crucial importance of high-quality journalism in a democratic society, shows that much more than liberal or conservative victory is at stake."
South Florida Sun-Sentinel
"Long overdue . . . [Alterman] does a masterful, painstakingly documented job."
Milwaukee Journal Sentinel
"Produces a powerful effect. . . . In this detailed and comprehensive examination of nearly every facet of the American news-commentary industry, Alterman presents an impressive refutation of the liberal-media myth."
The American Prospect
"Alterman hits the nub. . . . A sobering reminder that TV long ago abandoned serious journalism and that watchdogs and skeptics are thin on the ground in all media."
—Kirkus Reviews
"Alterman delivers well-documented, well-argued research in compulsively readable form. . . . Whether readers agree with Alterman or not, his writing on the business of opinion making is eye-opening. This book will be required reading for anyone in politics or journalism, or anyone curious about their complicated nexus."
Publishers Weekly
"At a time when media ownership in the United States is more or less limited to six major conglomerates, this is an extremely important book."
The Tucson Citizen
"Alterman, a serious journalist with several political books to his name, methodically proves his case. . . . There is one chapter that alone is worth the price of the book."
The Hartford Courant
"Exhaustively researched, the book presents a mountain of evidence to debunk the myth in a convincing fashion. . . . While the notion of a Left-leaning press may be just an illusion, Alterman demonstrates that the perception is perhaps more important than the reality."—The Providence Journal
"Intelligent and exhaustively researched . . . Alterman's facts will be difficult to dispute. Hopefully, they will be just as difficult to ignore."
Boston Review

Sound & Fury:
The Making of the Punditocracy
(1992, 2000)
Who Speaks for America?
Why Democracy Matters in Foreign Policy
It Ain't No Sin to Be Glad You're Alive:
The Promise of Bruce Springsteen
(1999, 2001)
When Presidents Lie:
Deception and its Consequences

To my girls,
Diana Roberta, Eve Rose, and Ruthie . . .
and to my father, Carl,
with deep love and profound gratitude.

My dear fellow, a journalist is a juggler, and he must accustom himself to the difficulties of his profession.
Still a man hears what he wants to hear and disregards the rest . . .

My publisher asks that I say a few words about how this book was first received and what kind of impact this had on my thesis. Lest I be accused of whining (I do, but only in private), the book's reception was pretty terrific. Not only were reviews largely favorable and intelligent, the mail was intensely gratifying. I suppose 90 percent of life is timing, and indeed I am lucky to have timed my message to a moment when so many people were eager to hear it.
Still, the way in which a book is received tells an author a number of things. Much of the book's early success, in my view, is attributable to the enthusiasm with which it was received not in the media per se but in the liberal blogosphere. My argument that even the genuinely "liberal" media is not nearly so liberal as the conservatives are conservative, that it is not organized as a political movement—and that indeed, much of it has been cowed into adopting conservative assumptions and arguments if only unconsciously—was more than borne out by the collective yawn with which these ideas were met by some of the media's most liberal constituents. After all, if the media were so liberal, than the really liberal part of it likely would have embraced a book designed to prove the opposite case—the better to get on with its work of being liberal in the extreme under the radar of the unsuspecting masses. Alas, this did not take place.
What Liberal Media? went unreviewed in three genuinely liberal newspapers—the Boston Globe, the Seattle Post-Intelligencer, and the San Francisco Chronicle—even though it made it into single digits on all three of those newspapers' local best-seller lists. It also went unreviewed even in the liberal The New Republic. The neoliberal Washington Monthly turned the book over to a writer whose work I strongly criticized, both in the book and elsewhere. Gene Lyons of Harper's was less than crazy about it, while over at The Atlantic my good friend Ben Schwarz, its terrific literary editor, let it pass without a word. No word either in New York. Slate gave the book to its dyspeptic media critic, Jack Shafer, who ignored its contents, except to take a swipe at a silly debate in which I participated on National Review Online. (The latter, by the way, appeared bent on welching on the $100 plus a fleece sweatshirt I was promised for my participation, until its editors were inundated with e-mail missives from loyal Altercation readers. Thanks guys.) The New York Observer assigned a front-page hatchet-job profile to the very writer who found himself charmed and delighted by Ann Coulter's remark about how much fun it would have been had Timothy McVeigh blown up the New York Times. He quoted me referring to women as "chicks" when in fact I was pointing to baby chicks painted on my daughter's wall, among a few no less egregious misrepresentations. Remember, these are actual liberals in the media, where I have actual friends. If the genuinely liberal media worked in any way remotely comparable to the conservative media as presented in the following, little of what I describe here would have been even theoretically possible.
Meanwhile, with the exception of an extremely thoughtful review in Columbia Journalism Review, the alleged alpha males of watchdog journalism also saw fit to ignore this book, for reasons about which I can only speculate. Washington Post and CNN media reporter Howard "Conflict of Interest" Kurtz doubly ignored it. (I was a regular in Howie's media notes column before the book was published; nevermore.) American Journalism Review's editors did not think it merited a review. Fox News Channel's "fairly balanced" media program Fox Newswatch could not spare a moment of mention; neither could communist NPR's programOn the Media. Given the (gratifying) attention that the book's argument received on Jim Romenesko's Media News web site as well as favorable reviews in such places as the New York Times, the Sunday New York Times Book Review, the Los Angeles Times, and The New Yorker (see front and back cover blurbs), it's hard to argue that these failures even to address the topic were not conscious decisions.
Meanwhile, the conservative media certainly did their job. What Liberal Media?, I am proud to say, completely stinks in the opinion of Andrew Sullivan, Jonah Goldberg, Bernard Goldberg, David Horowitz, the Wall Street Journal editorial page, Commentary, American Enterprise, the American Spectator, The Hill, all of right-wing talk radio, and most of cable TV (where I was almost always paired with an extremist conservative lest my views infect viewers if not disputed within thirty seconds). Whatever else it may have accomplished, this book was certainly a boon to the face-time media careers of the likes of William McGowan and the folks at Brent Bozell's Media Research Center.
On broadcast television and in national newsweeklies, again, the book was unheard of. Nothing at all on any of the networks or PBS, save for an excellent forty-minute debate on the Iraq war with Christopher Hitchens on The Charlie Rose Show. This overall lack of attention might not be so remarkable were it not for the fact that Ms. Coulter is embraced by this particular constituency in spite of her frequent jokes about how funny it would be if journalists were murdered by terrorists and comparing Katie Couric—a mother and widow—to both Eva Braun and Joseph Goebbels.
All in all, indeed, I have precious little about which to complain. I remain extremely heartened and encouraged by the manner in which the book was initially received and discussed in many significant media circles. Given the ever decreasing role to which books are allotted in our tabloid culture, any serious author of course would be thrilled with the degree and quality of attention this book has received, and I am certainly no exception. Yet whatever the degree of notice—favorable or unfavorable—to blame (or thank) "liberals" for it would be more than a bit nutty; that's all I want to say. That and, oh yeah—I hear O'Reilly wears a rug. If you don't like it big guy, sue me.
E. R. A.
November 2003
New York City

It's a bit complicated psychologically to write a book that so perfectly contradicts conventional wisdom by arguing that the bias of the American media is more conservative than liberal. I suppose I am a natural for it, but still, it's hard to do without allies. Fortunately, I was lucky in mine.
But before I start thanking people, I should mention a couple of the circumstances that helped fuel the work, since they seem relevant to the book's genesis. First, while working on it, I was also putting the finishing touches on a nearly decade-long effort to complete my dissertation in the history department at Stanford. My topic was presidential lying. In reading and rereading my data, I continued to be struck by how little even the best and most admired journalism of the period in question—no matter what period it was—really understood about what happened behind closed doors with regard to presidential decisions, and how easily they swallowed the most transparent deceptions. This was particularly true with regard to matters of war and peace. This knowledge steeled my resolve in calling attention to what I believe is a deeply misguided consensus on the notion of "liberal media" today.
My resolve was further strengthened by the personal anomaly that, until I began work on this book, I had studied history virtually my entire life without ever reading the work of Robert Caro on either Robert Moses or Lyndon Johnson. I rectified this unforgivable omission in my education by devouring all of Caro's books in an unbroken string. (Actually, I listened to them on tape, unabridged, for a period of about a year, something I recommend to all those who find themselves in a similar state of ignorance, but without a lot of time for reading for pleasure.) In any case, one of the many points I found continually beaten into my head during my long walks or short Stairmaster sessions was the same one that had struck me in doing my own research on past presidencies. Throughout the amazingly well-documented careers of both Moses and LBJ, the contemporary journalism of the period served mainly to confuse the reality of what actually took place, and almost always in the service of power. Read 3,850 pages of Robert Caro, dear reader, and you will find that you actually can fool most of the people most of the time—at least for a period of a half century or so. If so many people could be so wrong so frequently about figures as important as these, it does not tax my imagination to believe the possibility that many of the people who write and speak about the media are wrong today.
Success or failure, I cannot say, but this book has many fathers (and mothers). In some ways, it is a sequel to my first book, Sound & Fury, published originally in 1992, for which many are to blame. In some ways it is a natural outgrowth of my work as a media columnist for the Nation and everything columnist/Weblogger for MSNBC.com. Victor Navasky and Katrina vanden Heuvel may be held responsible for inviting me to undertake the former and Joan Connell and Merrill Brown, the latter. I originally began research specifically for a book on media, the role of ideas in society, and the power that money has to help shape both, at the suggestion of my good friend Bill Moyers, in his capacity as president of the Florence and John Schumann Foundation. Thanks too, to Hamilton Fish and Taya Grobow of the Nation Institute for help in facilitating the research grants, among other things. I will always be grateful for the foundations' generosity.
I was working merrily on that earlier book on September 11, 2001, when, in the shock of what took place, I suddenly lost my excitement for it and began floundering. Todd Gitlin came to my rescue with what now seems like an obvious idea. It was so obvious, in fact, that it took Todd only nine words to make his point. His email read in its entirety: "You should write a book called What Liberal Media?" Fortunately much of my research for the former work proved relevant to this one. So thanks to Todd, I got my mojo working again and didn't lose any time or waste much effort on the wrong book, which is something so valuable you can't even buy it with an American Express Centurian card.
Todd did a bit more after sending the e-mail, giving me a tough-minded read on the early drafts and helping me tease out ideas that would have forever stayed buried in my subconscious. Given the fact that Todd has now done this on about every book I've written, I calculate my debt to him as unpayable. So I won't try. Michael Waldman had nothing to do with the idea of the book but was just as helpful in its execution. His reading of it saved me from many errors and inspired numerous ideas and examples to be found in the text. Michael has also helped me with previous books, and, as with Todd, I am indeed fortunate to have such friends.
Much of the book was originally researched for Nation columns I've written over the past few years and to the degree that the facts are correct, I am indebted to editor Betsy Reed and an army of Nation fact-checkers. First among equals of these is Mica Rosenberg. Thanks people, especially to Mica. Karen Abrams did some first-rate proofreading, giving generously of her time and talents.
Given the nature of the book, it is also incumbent on me to point out that it relies rather heavily on the work of many other writers and reporters, all of whom, I hope, are duly credited in both the footnotes and the text. Of these, however, two stand out for special mention. The reporter whose work I borrow most heavily is almost certainly Eric Boehlert of Salon. I had no idea how good he is—or in fact, that anyone at all was this good—until I began to do systematic searches on the topics about which I planned to write. Almost every time, Eric got there first, and often, best. I also, to my own surprise, found myself relying quite frequently on the reporting of Howard Kurtz of CNN and the Washington Post. I mention my surprise because, as the reader will soon see, I am rather critical of Kurtz on political grounds in the text. I stand by that, of course, but he is an insanely energetic reporter and I think, in the main, a reliable one. As a media critic and historian, I am grateful for the body of work he has produced. As a writer who is also employed by two separate media organizations, I have considerable sympathy for the conflict-of-interest quandaries in which Kurtz is impossibly enmeshed. My situation is easier than his because I write only about what I choose, whereas neither the media reporter of the Washington Post nor the host of CNN's Reliable Sources is free to ignore important issues and stories. Still I should be held accountable on these issues as I hold Kurtz accountable and I hope that the (constructive) criticism I offer my employers in this work speaks to this point. I do admit to being a bit easier on people who happen to be my friends than I might otherwise be. How could it be otherwise? It would be better if I could identify my relationship to each and every individual in this book, but it would also be impossible. Ultimately, I think I am fair (and balanced) in my judgments to both friend and foe. Readers are obviously invited to make their own judgments.
Meanwhile, I also relied on the work of a few key journalistic watchdog institutions, and I should like to salute them as well. These include the editors and writers of the Columbia Journalism Review. Thanks tremendously to whoever made the decision to put its enormously valuable archives on the Web. The work published in American Journalism Review was quite helpful. So too was the material published and/or transmitted by the Pew Charitable Trust's Project for Excellence in Journalism and by the Committee of Concerned Journalists. And, as a regular writer on media-related topics, I am perhaps most grateful to Jim Romenesko and the people at the Poynter Institute who support his invaluable work. Doing this book without Media News would have added years to my research. Thanks also to the German Marshall Fund for generously funding my research on European media views and to the Aspen Institutes, Italia and Berlin.
Finally, the actual book owes its reality to the support and expertise of my crack editors at Basic, Vanessa Mobley and John Donatich; no less to the work of my Superagent, Tina Bennett, who—and I do not say this lightly—is to agents what the E Street Band is to rock and roll. Thanks also to my careful copy editor, Judy Serrin. To be honest, the book would have been completed a little bit earlier without the efforts of my family, the (equally) beautiful and talented Diana Roberta Silver, and Eve Rose Alterman to get me to do other stuff; it would also have been no fun. While I do not yet know what they are, I imagine this book contains its fair share of mistakes. I blame my parents.
NYC, 8 November 2002

Bias, Slander, and BS
ONLY A LIBERAL would be dumb enough to title a book, What Liberal Media? Listen to just about anyone and the answer is obvious: "What, are you stupid? Just pick up a newspaper or turn on your TV." Should that fail to convince, bemusement can turn to anger, or at best, pity, as in "There are none so blind as those who will not see." America's argument about media bias features just two points of view. The right argues that the media is biased toward leftists. The other side responds, to quote David Broder, "dean" of the Washington press corps, "There just isn't enough ideology in the average reporter to fill a thimble."1 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.
Social scientists talk about "useful myths," stories we all know are not necessarily true, but that we choose to believe anyway because they seem to offer confirmation of what we already know (which raises the question, if we already know it, why the story?). Think of the wholly fictitious but illustrative story about little George Washington and his inability to lie about that cherry tree. For conservatives, and even more many journalists, the "liberal media" is just that: a myth, to be certain, but a useful one. If only it were true, we might have a more humane, open-minded, and ultimately effective public debate on the issues facing the nation. Alas, if pigs could fly. . . .
Republicans of all stripes have done quite well for themselves during the last five decades fulminating about the liberal cabal/progressive thought-police who spin, supplant, and sometimes suppress the news we all consume. Indeed, it's not only conservatives who find this whipping boy to be an irresistible target. Dwight David Eisenhower received one of the biggest ovations of his life when, at the 1964 Republican convention, he derided the "sensation-seeking columnists and commentators" who sought to undermine the Republican Party's efforts to improve the nation.2 The most colorful example of this art form, however, is probably a toss-up between two quips penned by William Safire when he was a White House speechwriter for Vice President Spiro Agnew, who denounced both the "nattering nabobs of negativism" and the "effete corps of impudent snobs" seeking to sink the nation's morale.3 His boss, Richard Nixon (who had been Ike's VP), usually held his tongue in public, but complained obsessively in private to the evangelist Billy Graham of "a terrible liberal Jewish clique" that "totally dominates the media" and "erodes our confidence, our strength."4 Just about everyone wants to get in on the fun. Even Bill Clinton whined to Rolling Stone that he did not get "one damn bit of credit from the knee-jerk liberal press."5 The presidency's current occupant, George W. Bush, continues this tradition, complaining that the media "are biased against conservative thought."6 On a trip to Maine in January 2002, he quite conspicuously carried a copy of the best-selling book, Bias, by Bernard Goldberg, as if to the give the so-called "liberal media"—hereafter, SCLM—a presidential thumb in the eye.7
But while some conservatives actually believe their own grumbles, the smart ones don't. They know mau-mauing the other side is a just a good way to get their ideas across—or perhaps to prevent the other side from getting a fair hearing for theirs. On occasion, honest conservatives admit this. Rich Bond, then the chair of the Republican Party, complained during the 1992 election, "I think we know who the media want to win this election—and I don't think it's George Bush."8 The very same Rich Bond also noted during the very same election, however, "There is some strategy to it [bashing the 'liberal' media] . . . . If you watch any great coach, what they try to do is 'work the refs.' Maybe the ref will cut you a little slack on the next one."9 Bond is hardly alone. That the SCLM were biased against the administration of Ronald Reagan is an article of faith among Republicans. Yet James Baker, perhaps the most media-savvy of them, owned up to the fact that any such complaint was decidedly misplaced. "There were days and times and events we might have had some complaints [but] on balance I don't think we had anything to complain about," he explained to one writer.10 Patrick Buchanan, among the most conservative pundits and presidential candidates in the republic's history, found that he could not identify any allegedly liberal bias against him during his presidential candidacies. "I've gotten balanced coverage, and broad coverage—all we could have asked. For heaven sakes, we kid about the 'liberal media,' but every Republican on earth does that,"11 the aspiring American ayatollah cheerfully confessed during the 1996 campaign. And even William Kristol, without a doubt the most influential Republican/neoconservative publicist in America, has come clean on this issue. "I admit it," he told a reporter. "The liberal media were never that powerful, and the whole thing was often used as an excuse by conservatives for conservative failures."12 Nevertheless Kristol apparently feels no compunction about exploiting and reinforcing ignorant prejudices of his own constituency. In a 2001 subscription pitch to conservative potential subscribers of his Rupert Murdoch-funded magazine, the Weekly Standard,


On Sale
Dec 17, 2008
Page Count
384 pages
Basic Books

Eric Alterman

About the Author

Eric Alterman is a CUNY distinguished professor of English at Brooklyn College and holds a PhD in US history from Stanford University. A contributing writer to the Nation and the American Prospect, he is the author of eleven previous titles, including the New York Times bestseller What Liberal Media?: The Truth About Bias and the News. He lives in New York. 

Learn more about this author