Vetting the watchdogs

Leonard Boasberg is a former Philadelphia Inquirer editorial board member and reporter.

At the 1964 Republican National Convention, the one that nominated Barry Goldwater, media critic Dwight David Eisenhower got one of his biggest ovations when he warned the assembled delegates to scorn “sensation-seeking columnists and commentators, who couldn’t care less about the good of our party and our entire economic structure.”

For 40 years and more, Republican politicos and right-wing pundits have been attacking the “liberal media.” The mantra has become an article of faith to much of the general public, so much so that, as Eric Alterman observes, "[o]nly 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.’ ”

According to Alterman, media critic for the Nation and MSNBC and a prolific author of books and articles, the mantra is a myth -- a myth assiduously and cynically propagated by conservatives. As he puts it, the conservatives have been “working the ref.” And it works: Journalists bend over backward, or rightward, to demonstrate that they really, really aren’t liberal at all. No use. “Liberal, liberal, liberal,” say the conservatives, the way George Bush the Elder used to spit out the word.


“What Liberal Media?” is a well-documented, even-tempered and witty answer, I might say antidote, to such toxic recent bestsellers as Bernard Goldberg’s “Bias,” that essay in insult and self-justification that George Bush the Younger made a point of displaying to the TV cameras, and Ann Coulter’s venomous, invective-laden and fact-challenged “Slander.” In Alterman’s view, much if not most of the bias and slander come from the right.

Conservatives like to cite a 1992 poll that purported to show that 89% of Washington journalists voted for Clinton in 1992. The poll, according to Alterman, proved nothing: It was based on only 139 respondents out of 323 questionnaires; it questioned fewer than 20% of major media outlets, most questionnaires going to middle-market and small-circulation papers (the Thibodaux Daily Comet in Louisiana); and the questionnaires conspicuously missed many of the principal conservative journals.

Let it be noted, in fairness, that the very word “media” is a generalization. There’s still a lot of variety out there among the media -- “a vast and unruly herd of beasts,” as Alterman puts it -- despite the increased concentration of ownership in television, radio and the printed press. Still, let it also be noted, in fairness, that where the electronic media are concerned, the old Fairness Doctrine is no longer operative, thanks to the Federal Communications Commission.

Result? Tune in on the TV punditocracy. “Who among liberals,” Alterman asks rhetorically, “can be counted upon to be as ideological, as relentless and as nakedly partisan, as George Will, Bob Novak, Pat Buchanan, Bay Buchanan, William Bennett, William Kristol, Fred Barnes, John McLaughlin, Charles Krauthammer, Paul Gigot, Ben Wattenberg, Oliver North, Kate O’Beirne, Tony Blankley, Ann Coulter, Sean Hannity, Tony Snow, Laura Ingraham, Jonah Goldberg, William F. Buckley Jr., Bill O’Reilly, Alan Keyes, Tucker Carlson, Brit Hume, CNBC’s roundtable of the self-described ‘wild men’ of the Wall Street Journal editorial page, and on and on?”

Where are the liberals? Alterman reels off a list of 15 liberal commentators, not one of whom enjoys or ever has enjoyed a prominent perch on TV.

Let’s tune in the radio. Let’s not, if you’re looking for balance. There’s Rush Limbaugh, with anywhere from 15 million to 20 million listeners. There’s Oliver North, the Iran-Contra hero. There’s G. Gordon Liddy of Watergate infamy. Alterman lists 16 more, every one, he says, located on the extreme right with “not a single well-known liberal talk-show host in the nation.”

If the media are so liberal, how does it happen that so many of their most powerful members aimed such a drumfire of criticism at Bill Clinton? “Whether the president was falsely accused of holding up planes at LAX for getting a haircut or allegedly raping and battering a woman decades ago,” Alterman writes, “no accusation was too trivial or too outlandish to be swallowed by the media and trumpeted to the country at large.”

It was the New York Times, that alleged bastion of liberalism, that even before Clinton was nominated in 1992 printed a report on Whitewater that launched Kenneth W. Starr’s six-year, $60-million investigation that turned up nothing about Whitewater but nearly brought down the president. The New York Times editorial page smote Clinton hip and thigh over the Monica S. Lewinsky episode. “The media,” Alterman asserts, “proved remarkably pliant in the prosecutor’s hands, in part out of admiration for Starr himself and in part out of a near unanimous distaste for the president.”

If the media are so liberal, you would expect their liberal bias to have been reflected in the coverage of the 2000 presidential campaign. Quite the opposite, Alterman contends. Gore inspired “almost universal hostility” among reporters and editors who covered the race. They revealed that hostility in the stories they wrote and in the stories they didn’t write.

Gore did not claim to have “invented” the Internet. He did not claim to have “discovered” Love Canal. He did not claim he and Tipper had been models for the main characters in Erich Segal’s novel “Love Story” (in fact, he once casually mentioned a 17-year-old newspaper report that quoted Segal -- erroneously, by the way -- as having said it). Yet TV bloviators like Chris Matthews of “Hardball” had a grand time mocking Gore, and even respectable representatives of the (as Alterman calls them) “so-called liberal media” cited his credibility problem on the basis of their own misquotations.

Bush’s misrepresentations, however, were not part of the “story line,” as former Los Angeles Times correspondent Robert Shogan detailed in “Bad News,” his study of the press’ role in presidential campaigns. The press overlooked them and continues to do so, Alterman asserts. Clinton lied. Gore lied. Bush’s statements, in a Washington Post front-page story last October, were an “embroidering [of] key assertions.” His “rhetoric has taken some flights of fancy ... taken some liberties ... omitted qualifiers ... simply outpace[d] the facts.”

During the Florida counting, or miscounting, fiasco, Alterman contends, generalizing freely, “the media happily swallowed almost everything the Bush forces threw at them.” Even before Sept. 11, but especially afterward, he says, the media have deferred to Bush on most matters -- the indifference, for example, with which most greeted Harken Oil then-director Bush’s sale of company stock, for more than $800,000, just before it tanked.

Financial coverage takes a well-deserved beating in the book. Business magazines celebrated Enron for its innovation and excellent management. Fortune hailed Chief Executive Kenneth L. Lay -- “Kenny Boy,” as President Bush used to call his major supporter -- as a “revolutionary.” As for California’s energy crisis, right-wing columnists scoffed. Charles Krauthammer wrote that only “silly” Californians “think that the rolling blackouts are a conspiracy by the power companies to raise rates.” Which, of course, they were.

Before the corporate scandals that began gushing with the collapse of Enron in the fall of 2001, the financial journalists were out to lunch -- often with the Wall Street analysts who were shilling for companies in order to sell stock. Afterward, "[t]o the Republicans’ delight,” Alterman observes, “journalists treated Enron’s collapse primarily as a financial, rather than as a political matter.”

Alterman concedes that among the elite media there is a liberal bias on certain issues. Abortion, for example. He cites the Los Angeles Times’ 1990 series on that very question, in which reporter David Shaw gave scores of examples “that any fair-minded person who is not a partisan of one side or the other would have to agree are slanted in favor of the side that favors legal abortion.”

I’m not sure I agree, though, that there is a liberal tilt on campaign finance reform, gun control, gay rights and the environment. Is it liberal bias to report the influence of big money in elections? The Bush administration’s rollback of environmental regulations? It depends, obviously, on whether all sides are handled fairly. Media bias is largely a subjective matter, as Alterman says, except in the most egregious cases (I would cite the Wall Street Journal editorial page as exhibit No. 1 on the right).

I think he overstates the case when he says “the myth of the ‘liberal media’ empowers conservatives to control debate in the United States to the point where liberals cannot even hope to get a fair shake anymore.” Nevertheless, Alterman has done a persuasive job of at least puncturing the myth and, if enough people read the book, somewhat righting the balance.