What Liberal Media?

by Eric Alterman


The valuable content saves the irritating writing from two-star status. Alterman makes a convincing argument, a necessary one as well (perhaps not as timely 10 years after the fact, but the general premise holds and is absolutely relevant today since the same “liberal media” charges continue to be constantly tossed around). The chapters on Gore were particularly illuminating for me since I was just coming into my political awareness at the time and was still not paying very close attention to the facts of the 2000 election. Additionally, his general theme of “working the refs,” how the conservative establishment has shifted the center of American politics drastically to the right, is extremely important and well-taken. Reminds me of Coach K at Duke (there I go revealing my alma mater).

That said, there are some problems with the writing, most of them minor issues that just added up to sort of a sour taste over the course of the book, the chief offense being that it was occasionally clunky. I hesitate to call it “bad” just because that implies a level of expertise that I certainly don’t have. However the word “bad” did keep occurring to me, so I’ll just use “clunky” as a surrogate. A good example from the end of the book:

With an advisory board featuring Jeanne Kirkpatrick, Irving Kristol, and Chester Finn, the organization presents itself as a champion of “intellectual renewal” and “academic standards” in the face of their perceived decline at the hands of leftist academics and fashionable post-modern theories that blur the verities of our time behind a facade of impenetrable professional vernacular. 251

Um, excuse me? I’m sure that sentence means something, but I’m equally sure that I’m not going to spend the time to figure out what. And it’s not just me being dumb, I swear. Hannah Arendt is one of my favorite writers ever. Go and check out The Human Condition. Long sentences, really confusing. And totally awesome. This guy, not so much.

The book was strangely in need of some editing as well, which may have just been an issue in the 1st edition hardback that I had. Here’s a prime example of the combination of these two problems of bad editing and too much info in one sentence:

For instance, his assertion that that [sic] the hope for welfare payments was the main source of illegitimacy among black teenagers posited no evidence for this claim and failed to explain why the rate of illegitimacy rose for everyone — and not just welfare recipients — after 1972, while the constant-dollar value of those welfare benefits declined by 20 percent. 90

So there was this tendency to try and cram too much information into a sentence, which is sort of a microcosm of Alterman’s tendency to try and cram too much information into the book. The depth and breadth of his research definitely came across, but it seemed like overkill at times. He made very salient points and then kept making them over and over again, with many more examples than I needed or wanted. I think “pedantic” is the word for this particular offense. The most glaring example is how he spends 4+ pages on Rush Limbaugh, whose douchebaggery should already have been exceedingly familiar to any reader.

Perhaps, as with my first quote above, I’m just being dense. However I can’t help but opine that with a title like What Liberal Media?, this is not meant to be a strictly academic work, requiring seven citations when two or three will do. Indeed, his informal tone through most of the book gives the same impression (speaking of which, I’m still trying to come up with any conceivable need for his mentioning on p.244 that Charles Krauthammer is partially paralyzed).

The last issue is more major, unfortunately: the book is overwhelmingly anecdotal. For an author who spends pages in an early chapter blasting Charles Murray for his misuse (and lack) of statistics in Losing Ground and The Bell Curve, it seems hypocritical for Alterman himself to largely eschew the use of statistics throughout the book.

This became more apparent as the book went on and I started thinking, Well, I can see all these examples of conservatives in the media but surely there must have been liberal viewpoints as well. Why isn’t he telling me about those at all, or even mentioning them? The lack of mention made me suspicious, like he was trying to hide them to bolster his point. Of course all my suspicions would have been moot if he had just backed up his claims with a NEXIS search or some other statistical analysis (which, coincidentally, could have helped him trim his citations as well).

The cherry on top of this sundae of unprofessionalism occurs in the Clinton chapter when he armchair psychologizes journalists to explain how they incessantly attacked Clinton out of envy, “with the vengeance of a lover scorned.” This could, of course, very well be the case, but Alterman makes a laughably weak case in the one jarring paragraph he dedicates to the outlandish claim.

All in all, I’m glad I read the book. I am now better equipped to counter the false claims of liberal media bias. I’m not sure I can really recommend it to others due to the writing problems outlined above. What I would recommend, however, is to find a liberal who has read it and can tell you about the main arguments, so that you’ll be equipped as well, and without having wasted many hours on what would be a very slow and somewhat tedious read.

***UPDATE 3/3/13: This book loses more of my esteem after reading Noam Chomsky’s Necessary Illusions, which makes Alterman’s whole Liberal/Conservative dichotomy seem downright trivial, criticizing the constraints by which the entire liberal-conservative paradigm (and thus Alterman’s book) exists. It’s really a rather glorious proposition, and much more professionally and convincingly argued, albeit quite a bit drier. It honestly makes me wonder how Alterman could have written this book without even addressing the game-changing argument that Chomsky made almost 15 years prior. Basically, Chomsky makes Alterman’s entire book seem facile. Please go there for a real book on media criticism.***

Original Review


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