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the Complete Review
the complete review - media studies

What Liberal Media ?

Eric Alterman

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To purchase What Liberal Media ?

Title: What Liberal Media ?
Author: Eric Alterman
Genre: Non-fiction
Written: 2003
Length: 271 pages
Availability: What Liberal Media ? - US
What Liberal Media ? - UK
What Liberal Media ? - Canada
  • The Truth About Bias and the News

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Our Assessment:

B+ : solid, deeply disturbing look at the American media

See our review for fuller assessment.

Review Summaries
Source Rating Date Reviewer
The American Spectator . 3-4/2003 K. E. Grubbs Jr.
Columbia Journalism Rev. . 3-4/2003 Rick Perlstein
Commentary . 7-8/2003 George Russell
Commonweal . 9/5/2003 W.C. McWilliams
Neue Zürcher Zeitung . 4/4/2003 Steffan Heuer
The NY Times . 20/3/2003 Orville Schell
The NY Times Book Review . 16/3/2003 Ted Widmer
The Progressive . 5/2003 Matthew Rothschild
Salon . 28/2/2003 David Talbot
The Village Voice . 25/3/2003 John Giuffo
The Washington Monthly . 3/2003 Timothy Noah

  Review Consensus:

  Predictably ideologically divided

  From the Reviews:
  • "Alterman's leaky little launch took on way too much water in the first chapter. But don't miss the last pages, in which he theorizes -- mirroring right-wing pamphleteers of the Birch persuasion -- that the media reflexively follow the dictates of a powerful cabal of conservative activists and misanthropic millionaires, "the Conintern." (...) If, being an astute American, you know the media tilt left, then maybe, just for the sake of mirth, you should indulge the through-the-looking glass experience of Alterman's last pages." - K. E. Grubbs Jr., The American Spectator

  • "Alterman's research, really, is excellent; his unique contribution to this debate is his dedicated trawling of transcripts for those moments when pundits reveal their inane prejudices during the endless stretches of air they have to fill on cable TV. (...) There are flaws: the production feels a bit hasty (he reports on events that happened only six weeks before I received the galleys, a remarkably fast turnaround), he's nasty in an ad hominem way to those on the left he disagrees with, he occasionally calls the kettle black (...). Alterman's style is a little grating." - Rick Perlstein, Columbia Journalism Review

  • "Alterman's bilious book may provide a certain entertainment value for spectators of the East Coast media mud-wrestling circuit. But the striking thing about his arguments is how pallid and contradictory they are. (...) The effect of Alterman’s skewed political taxonomy is to push almost everybody in the media to the Right: with leftists like Stone, Gitlin, and Alterman himself reconfigured as liberals, liberals can be conveniently relabeled as conservatives, and conservatives fingered as right-wingers or extreme right-wingers." - George Russell, Commentary

  • "He is an admirable stylist, cheerfully acerbic, like H. L. Mencken, but without Mencken's less endearing bigotries and crotchets. Alterman, in fact, unites left-wing convictions and common sense, part of a company that is all too select these days, and he resists the temptation to simplify his story." - Wilson Carey McWilliams, Commonweal

  • "Altermans 320 Seiten dickes Buch What Liberal Media ? legt dar, dass die meisten Tageszeitungen und vor allem die elektronischen Medien in den Vereinigten Staaten überwiegend konservative Standpunkte vertreten oder rechte Kommentatoren zu Wort kommen lassen." - Steffan Heuer, Neue Zürcher Zeitung

  • "In an impressively researched and documented book, What Liberal Media ? The Truth About Bias and the News, he provocatively challenges this conservative wisdom as a mirage. He asserts that what Americans should really fear is the far better organized, more powerful and effective propaganda machine of the right that postulates the presumption of liberal bias through research groups, religious organizations, ideological news organizations and conservative personalities that "skews the entire discourse toward the right." " - Orville Schell, The New York Times

  • "Alterman is ready for a bar fight, and he comes out swinging. (...) The book appears to have been written quickly, and at times it shows. From a historian's perspective, Alterman could have spent far less time on the minutiae of recent television broadcasts and more on the deeper background of the changes in the media industry over the last two decades. (...) What Liberal Media ? is bold, counterintuitive and cathartic." - Ted Widmer, The New York Times Book Review

  • "But sinking the right's evidentiary Bismarck is only Alterman clearing his throat. He goes on to show that conservatives outnumber liberals (and even centrists) in almost every gathering of the punditocracy, on television or radio, in print, online, and in the choice of experts quoted in mainstream news stories. He analyzes the coverage of corporate America and finds it to be overwhelmingly biased toward management and ownership." - John Giuffo, The Village Voice

  • "What Liberal Media ? makes a smart and important point: The widespread assumption that the news media is captive to liberalism simply isn't true. (...) Alterman's thesis rests on shakier ground when he examines social bias. (...) Alterman's most compelling argument about reporters and editors is not that they're conservative, but that their product is. (...) What Liberal Media ? gets many little things wrong, but it gets the big things right." - Timothy Noah, The Washington Monthly

Please note that these ratings solely represent the complete review's biased interpretation and subjective opinion of the actual reviews and do not claim to accurately reflect or represent the views of the reviewers. Similarly the illustrative quotes chosen here are merely those the complete review subjectively believes represent the tenor and judgment of the review as a whole. We acknowledge (and remind and warn you) that they may, in fact, be entirely unrepresentative of the actual reviews by any other measure.

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The complete review's Review:

       Eric Alterman's book is written practically in response to two recent books about the alleged liberal bias of the American media, Bernard Goldberg's Bias and Ann Coulter's Slander, as well as the more general (and very loud) whiny and outraged cry from conservatives about that bias. Alterman means to explode the myth of a liberal media bias -- though as his book shows (as does a simple glance at the nation's most influential newspapers and magazines, television news and (political) talk shows -- and media ownership (and sponsorship) in general), there's not much to explode because there's not much there. Not much that's "liberal", that's for sure.
       One of the first points Alterman makes is that there is a "liberal media" out there, of sorts -- publications with a generally liberal tilt (just as there is a "conservative media", led by the likes of Fox News, the Wall Street Journal, the Weekly Standard, etc.). But, he points out: "even the genuine liberal media is not so liberal", making space for liberal-hating and conservative writers in its pages -- i.e. introducing opposing points of view in a manner essentially never found in the conservative-stronghold publications (and TV shows, etc.). It's a point repeatedly hammered home: the liberal press allows for a plurality of points of view, the conservative press tolerates no dissent. (As Alterman shows, this leads to the unusual situation of, for example, the Wall Street Journal's extremist opinion page comments directly contradicting the actual solid (and far more objective) newsgathering found in the rest of that newspaper's pages.)
       What Liberal Media ? offers a fill of examples, with chapters on diverse forms of "the punditocracy" (on TV, in print, on radio and the Internet, etc.), followed by looks at broader issues (asking: "What Social Bias ?" and then "What Economic Bias ?"), before considering in some depth specifically the coverage of: the Clinton administration, the 2000 election campaign, the Florida fiasco at the end of the campaign, and now the jr. Bush presidency.
       There's a lot of detail: specific examples of where conservatives claim to find a liberal bias which Alterman then shows isn't really convincing. Alterman does a good job with the examples he chooses (most of the time -- a few seem entirely too petty or trivial to bother with), and makes a strong case for his position.
       Alterman's approach necessarily leaves him open to nit-picking criticism and an endless litany of (supposed) counter-examples. Still, he presents more than enough to convincingly make his main point: that, if anything, large influential sectors of the media (talk-radio being only the most obvious) are overwhelmingly conservatively oriented and offer no liberal points of view (except in presenting an often twisted version of some liberal position in order to ridicule it).
       Alterman is better on the bias of the editorial writers and boards, the talk show hosts, and the columnists than that of the actual news-gathering and -presenting media. His coverage of the press coverage of the Clinton and Bush White Houses, and the 2000 campaign isn't quite as convincing. Clearly, candidate and then President jr. Bush has been treated with kid gloves by the media -- in large part also because of how adeptly his staff has managed the media (allowing little access, and offering little substantive information other than exactly what they wish disseminated). But much of the way Bush is presented in the press -- and the way President Clinton and candidate Gore were -- seems to have far more to do with other factors than mere ideological bias. He also doesn't explore fully what the consequences of this coverage are: the public seems, for example, to have been largely indifferent to the intense media pre-occupation with then-President Clinton's moral degeneracy, much as they now don't appear to mind being misled by the jr. Bush regarding issues such as Iraq (a war begun for what are clearly entirely illegitimate reasons, at least as they were presented to the American people) or his administration's economic policies. Biased or not, this way or that, the American public often appears to remain strikingly indifferent to what anyone in the media says.
       What Liberal Media ? is also of particular interest in its focus on the media domination by corporate interests and the insidious support of generally right-leaning foundations and backers. The examples of Richard Mellon Scaife and Rupert Murdoch are particularly instructive. (Alterman also has good fun in pointing out the irony that a large number of the politicians and pundits with a particularly hawkish attitude conveniently managed to avoid serious (or often even token) military duty themselves.)

       Ideological bias isn't that outrageous in opinion pieces, but what one hopes for is a solid foundation of fact on which the opinions can be based, as well some semblance of transparency (so, for example, readers should know if pundits or journalists benefit financially (or otherwise) in any way by supporting a certain position or drawing attention to it). Much of the media nowadays -- especially among the pundits -- offers little of either. What Liberal Media ? offers both a good view of the bigger picture of American media, as well as many smaller examples of what is wrong there.
       The current kowtowing of the American media (perhaps in misguided patriotic fear and fervour) to an administration which generally seems to have no interest in making truthful representations to the citizens it governs (witness the jr. Bush administration's laughable explanations of its economic policies (and their decidedly not so laughable consequences) and all the deception surrounding what can now only be termed as the entirely illegitimate actions in Iraq -- not to mention the administration's failure to address it's inadequate handling of everything from post-war Afghanistan and Iraq to environmental policies to almost all aspects of so-called homeland security) should be all the proof that anyone needs that the American media is far from liberal (and far from objective, critical, or, largely, even in any way useful). For those who aren't convinced by what they see and hear and read around them every day, Alterman's book offers a great deal more evidence. Of course, those who don't see things quite the same way -- the blindered folks who still see a liberal bias all around them -- will, no doubt, manage not to find any validation here -- or, rather, just validation of their own points of view, with Alterman just another one of the damn liberals, twisting things to his own purposes, and not seeing things the way they should be seen.

       Alterman's book makes for a good, if often discouraging read. There are many examples to get the blood boiling, and Alterman presents the information well and even entertainingly. His arguments are clear, the evidence -- in many cases -- quite overwhelming. But one wonders who it is supposed to convince: those that see a liberal media bias surely won't be swayed, while those that see the truth will only find depressing confirmation of their views.

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What Liberal Media ?: Reviews: Is there a liberal media bias ?: Eric Alterman:

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About the Author:

       American journalist Eric Alterman has written several books.

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© 2003-2010 the complete review

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