Earlier this month, the editors at the left-wing political journal TomPaine.com posted a challenge to Ann Coulter and Bernard Goldberg, bestselling purveyors of the “liberal media” myth, to debate Eric Alterman on the topic of press bias on C-SPAN. As of print time, only Alterman has laced up his gloves. And no wonder: Compared to the thin ideological gruel of Goldberg’s Bias and Coulter’s Slander, Alterman’s What Liberal Media? The Truth About Bias and the News is an exhaustively documented puncturing of their conservative mantra—the media-crit equivalent of the beatdown Ed Norton’s Fight Club narrator tosses Jared Leto’s pretty-boy Project Mayhem initiate. Each well-footnoted point, each unassailable statistic, resounds with the dull thwack of meat on concrete, as facts always hit harder than mere assertions.
It’s a pummeling long overdue. Since November 1969, when Vice President Spiro Agnew echoed William Safire’s attack on the “nattering nabobs of negativism,” the liberal media straw man has effectively helped move the center rightward by constantly putting objectivity-minded journalists on the defensive. Alterman systematically proves that, contrary to popular perception, the right has cynically pushed the liberal media myth in an attempt to rally its base and explain away its failures. “The right is working the refs,” he writes. “And it’s working.” Witness Goldberg and Coulter, who have each sold over 400,000 copies of their ref-hassling screeds. Witness also the cable-ratings leader Fox News, essentially a 24-hour ref working the other refs.
Sooner or later, every proponent of the liberal media myth will cite a 1996 Freedom Forum study that showed that 89 percent of Washington journalists voted for Clinton in 1992—proof positive, they insist, that the media are hopelessly liberal. Alterman handily dissects the right’s Rosetta Stone by questioning the logic that equates a vote for Bill Clinton with liberalism, looking at the details of the study itself (which had “a response rate so low that most social scientists would reject it as inadequately representative”), citing evidence that many conservative Washington journalists were absent from the survey, and pointing to surveys that show most high-ranking Washington and New York journalists hold conservative economic views, even if they also have socially liberal views.
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. He compares the aggressive reporting on the Clinton administration to the extended honeymoon given to its successor. Most damningly, he looks at the press’s treatment of the 2000 presidential election and the ensuing Floridian debacle and concludes that by not looking too closely at Bush’s connections at Fox News, in the Supreme Court, and all over Florida, the media were tolerant of, if not complicit with, efforts by the Republican Party to take the Oval Office by any means necessary.
Less concerned with charges of bias, Columbia sociology professor Herbert Gans picks up where Alterman leaves off—with worry for an American democracy dependent upon a deteriorating press to inform its citizenry. Democracy and the News explores the structural (and, ambitiously, theoretical) problems facing both the press and representative democracy, and how the two are interrelated.
A central theme is “disempowerment,” an admittedly clumsy term he uses to describe the process by which political and economic influence in America flows up, from individuals to organizations. This process, he says, is visible politically in the influence of lobbyists in Washington, and economically in the growing wage gap between workers and CEOs (for middle-income families between 1979 and 1997, income rose 9 percent; for families in the top 1 percent, 140 percent), as well as in the increased numbers of corporate mergers and acquisitions (from 1,719 in 1985 to 9,634 in 1999), and in the decrease in “employer obligations” such as pensions and health insurance. “The result is a disempowerment spiral,” writes Gans, adding that it also leads to a decline in confidence in government, a sense of powerlessness among a majority of Americans, and apathy. And, he argues, since the news industry isn’t immune to the disempowerment process, it too faces problems (shrinking news budgets, conglomeration, etc.) that stem from the individual’s loss of influence.
Gans falls short, however, in his sometimes frustrating omission of statistical and textual evidence. When discussing the punditry’s ideological imbalance, Gans claims, “Guests are frequently chosen from representatives of the Right and Center, the Left having long ago been banished from the mainstream news media,” without providing any numerical foundation. Alterman, by comparison, makes a similar—if more nuanced—point, and backs it up, chapter and verse.
Gans ends with suggestions on how to improve both the news and American democracy that range from the practical (more expertise for beat reporters) to the bold (less objectivity, more voice) to the hopelessly idealistic (rethinking democratic theory). Pie in the sky, maybe, but also a thought-provoking counterbalance to Alterman’s muddy gutter fight.