Left and center

Is the media really liberal? It’s an ontological question of American politics that’s as exhausting as it is inexhaustible. The question is so loaded, it makes “Have you been to the gay bathhouse?” seem like idle coffee talk. The query screams for qualifiers: Whose media are you talking about? And whose definition of liberal?

As irony would have it, the debate on this matter is played out almost entirely within the media itself—on the op-ed pages of opinion-molding newspapers, in magazines and on political talk shows. Still, the “liberal” charge is worth scrutiny, especially given the number of recent best-selling books from super-conservatives, like Ann Coulter, Bill O’Reilly and former CBS producer Bernard Goldberg.

Eric Alterman kicks off his necessary though hardly compelling book What Liberal Media? with an earnest recognition that he’s writing from the margins. Alterman’s a media columnist at The Nation magazine and an online scribe for MSNBC.com, and his What Liberal Media? is basically a riposte to the liberal media charge. Because those portraying the left on political talk shows are typically centrist Democrats—ex-Clinton strategists George Stephanopoulos (ABC’s This Week) and James Carville (CNN’s Crossfire) provide a case in point—it’s refreshing to hear arguments from a bona fide, left-of-center liberal.

One of Alterman’s most cogent challenges to the liberal-media charge occurs in his chapter on business journalism. Alterman writes: “No longer the working-class heroes of the Front Page/His Gal Friday lore, elite journalists in Washington and New York are rock-solid members of the political and financial establishment about whom they write. They dine at the same restaurants and take their vacations on the same Caribbean islands.”

Alterman goes on to point out that during the economic boom of the 1990s, reporters often served as free-market cheerleaders at the expense of substantive reporting on issues affecting the workers of the new global marketplace.

Alterman writes his book like an extended column, full of well-researched tidbits exposing the sophistry of many celebrated journalists. From The Wall Street Journal’s Peggy Noonan to The Washington Post’s David Broder or syndicated scribblers such as George Will and Robert Novak, there’s hardly a pundit Alterman fails to scrutinize. There are separate chapters devoted to pundits in print, television, radio and Internet media as well as “expert” pundits. For magazine fodder, it’s great. But, as a book, Alterman’s punditpalooza burns out quickly.

An insider-baseball solipsism to What Liberal Media? clouds otherwise significant points. But, ultimately, the author’s unspoken strategy proves questionable. Even if Alterman slays every pundit of political consequence, does he really win the debate? It’s hardly going out on a limb to suggest that those who scrutinize the pundits are usually themselves incurable political junkies, media industry types or other pundits. These insiders are so entrenched in partisan crossfire that they lose sight of the larger picture.

What would be truly liberating would be if the debate could transcend partisanship and focus on the media peccadilloes that hurt us all, like staid public-relations driven fluff and America’s ever-shortening sound-bite sensibility. With the pending war in Iraq and nuclear-diplomatic meltdown in North Korea, the liberal-media debate will remain on the back burner for now. But it’s unlikely to go away altogether.