Bias Schmias

I also like, though have a few disagreements with, Alterman’s book. 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 makes his strongest case when discussing the “punditocracy,” a term he coined in his 1992 book, Sound and Fury. The dominance of conservatives on TV shout-shows like “The McLaughlin Group” is undeniable. Alterman overstates it slightly by claiming that until MSNBC hired Phil Donahue, “not a single liberal [had] been recruited by a cable network to host a solo talk show.” (In fact, during the 1990s CNN had “Both Sides With Jesse Jackson” and “Heads Up With Michael Kinsley.”) But Alterman’s larger point is well taken: There is a bizarre dearth of liberals on TV news shows, and many of those who get pegged as liberals–Morton Kondracke comes to mind–are really moderate conservatives. In print, left-of-center commentators are more plentiful, but not nearly so thick on the ground as conservatives. Moreover, Alterman notes, nonideological pundits like David Broder often maintain an overt sympathy for the Washington establishment, which is itself somewhat conservative. About Clinton, Broder famously complained to The Washington Post’s Sally Quinn, “He came in here, and he trashed the place, and it’s not his place.” The posture of mandarin disdain seemed to suggest Broder thought Washington was his place.

Washington think tanks, where “inside the Beltway” wisdom is often manufactured, have a liberal reputation that probably dates back to Richard Nixon’s declaration that he wanted to firebomb the Brookings Institution. Brookings remains the most-cited think tank in Washington, but these days it’s a stretch to call it “liberal.” In reality, it’s a bastion of centrist technocrats, many of whom are Republicans. (Indeed, as Alterman points out, until recently Brookings was run by Michael Armacost, a Republican who served in the State Department under Ronald Reagan and as ambassador to Japan under George H.W. Bush.) The other most-cited think tanks tend to be conservative ones like the Heritage Foundation and the American Enterprise Institute. Indeed, Alterman points out, you have to work your way down to the 11th and 12th most-cited think tanks (the Urban Institute and the Economic Policy Institute) to find someplace “where mainstream Republicans and conservatives would honestly feel out of place.” The dominance of conservatism among these think tanks is no mystery: They’re funded largely by corporations that want lower taxes and fewer regulations.

Alterman’s thesis rests on shakier ground when he examines social bias. To his credit, he concedes that “the overall flavor of the elite media reporting favors gun control, campaign finance reform, gay rights, and the environmental movement,” though he doesn’t find the bias “as overwhelming as some conservative critics do.” Alterman also comes close to admitting that the media are hypersensitive about race, and points out that more often than not they choose not to cover racial issues at all, leaving (according to one survey) somewhere between 40 to 60 percent of all whites in America with the misapprehension that the average black American fares as well as the average white American in employment, income, education, and access to health care. In a chapter titled “What Economic Bias?” Alterman points out that business reporters tend to lean conservative, but fails to observe that most journalists who write about the economy from a more broadly societal view tend to lean liberal. As I write this, I can’t think of a single economics-beat reporter (as opposed to commentator) who actually believes the recently proposed Bush tax cuts represent sound economic thinking.

Outside the pundit class, it remains true that reporters and editors remain predominantly liberal. Alterman addresses this reality with varying degrees of effectiveness. He’s entirely unpersuasive when he explains away the fact that nearly 90 percent of all Washington journalists voted for Clinton by arguing that Clinton wasn’t very liberal. True enough, but he was certainly the more liberal choice. Alterman also maintains that reporters’ obvious adoration of John McCain, an Arizona Republican, contradicts the “liberal media” stereotype. But much of McCain’s appeal derived from the fact that he was drifting (and continues to drift) leftward. Alterman is more effective when he shows how affluence has made the more elite sectors of the media more economically conservative. Indeed, I was astonished to turn on CNN the other day and catch Jeff Greenfield, a onetime aide to Robert Kennedy, pooh-poohing the idea that people who make $100,000 a year are rich. (Reality check: 86 percent of U.S. households earn less than $100,000.)

Alterman’s most compelling argument about reporters and editors is not that they’re conservative, but that their product is. Because the public thinks the media are overwhelmingly liberal, and because conservatives have grown very adept at browbeating the media about this, reporters and editors tend to overcompensate. That goes a long way toward explaining why, during the 2000 election and the “long count” that followed, Bush got more favorable coverage from political reporters than Gore did, even though an informal poll taken by documentary filmmaker Alexandra Pelosi showed that the majority of reporters traveling on the Bush plane actually ended up voting for Gore. I would bet that the majority of reporters traveling on the Gore plane voted for Gore, too–even though they portrayed him, inaccurately, as a habitual liar. (Incidentally, Alterman cites me as a liberal journalist who’s been cowed by the right, because I’ve questioned the credibility of conservative-turned-liberal-darling David Brock.)

Thirty years ago, when Richard Nixon ranted about the liberal media that were out to get him, he wasn’t completely paranoid. The news media were pretty uniformly liberal in those days. But things have changed a lot since then. The old news organizations are more reflexively conservative, and newer news outlets–Fox News, talk radio, etc.–are consciously conservative. Do liberal bastions remain? A few. The New York Times and National Public Radio are still identifiably liberal, though Alterman won’t acknowledge it, possibly because Alterman’s own political outlook is a little to their left. His book’s most irritating omission is its failure to discuss these two news outlets at length. Still, Alterman’s larger message is dead-on, and ought to be heard. What Liberal Media? gets many little things wrong, but it gets the big things right.

Support Nonprofit Journalism

If you enjoyed this article, consider making a donation to help us produce more like it. The Washington Monthly was founded in 1969 to tell the stories of how government really works—and how to make it work better. Fifty years later, the need for incisive analysis and new, progressive policy ideas is clearer than ever. As a nonprofit, we rely on support from readers like you.

Yes, I’ll make a donation

Timothy Noah

Timothy Noah is the labor policy editor at Politico, a contributing editor of the Washington Monthly, and the author of The Great Divergence: America’s Growing Inequality Crisis and What We Can Do About It.