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April 20, 2003
What Liberal Media (Alterman) (3)

What Liberal Media?

Less of a review than a few thoughts that stayed with me after I finished the book. Mostly things in the nature of quibbles and argument, because I always have arguments. (Sorry, no time for editing today. I hope it's coherent.)

Leaning right

Like...on pages 24-25, Alterman suggests that the turn from serious television news coverage to the tabloid carryings-on of pop stars and other entertainment is to prevent "liberals" from adding bias to actual news coverage. This is a manifestly absurd perspective since his own premise is that any such bias is mythical because the media companies are in conservative hands. (It also ignores the very real problem of the change he himself mentioned of "news" programs moving from serious coverage of national and world events to potential profit centers driven by ratings and advertiser agendas.)

I'm just saying. It seemed like an odd charge to make, suggesting as it did that "liberal journalists" could only be prevented from slanting the news by the absence of news to slant.

I would say, rather, that the absence of any serious news coverage equally eliminates the ability of anyone, liberal or conservative, to inject much more bias than the opportunity of picking and choosing between which "news events" to cover.

In a couple of places, Alterman discusses the rightward shift of politics over the last 25 years or so, which I bring up only because it made me wonder if the rightward move by the "left" was self-motivated or a reaction to a slow move on the part of conservatives toward the fringes of the right.

Alterman seems to speculate that it's the latter - that huge increases in funding conservative think tanks began to move conservatives ever-more rightward, although he never addresses the matter direction.

I'd like to also suggest that the achievement* of many notable liberal goals (racial and gender-based equality, attention to the environment, etc.) left liberals, so some degree, without a platform to stand on.

(* "Achievement" as in "mainstreaming concern over these issues and legislating significant attempts to eradicate the problems" and not, "it's 100 percent done, so we can all go home now" since a glance at the pages of most national papers shows that the job is not, in fact, done.)

He also covers, albeit briefly, the conservative pundits' reaction to Hillary Clinton. (I might also say their near-demonizaton of her.) The thought that occurred to me at that point was that if the likes of Bill O'Reilly and Chris Matthews are so afraid of her - she must really have something.

Citizens and debate

Moving on.

"Television is a medium that is not merely indifferent to ideas but actively hostile to them."
In terms of the nightly news broadcasts that's very true. No one could give decent coverage of an even marginally complex idea in 23 minutes that have to be shared between sports, weather, and a recap of everything significant that's taken place in the country that day. (I don't say, "the world" because broadcast news programs largely ignore events outside our shores.)

Speaking of the pundits, Alterman also quotes R. W. Apple, Jr. (NYTimes) saying that Americans "crave unity above everything." The problems with genuine "full-throated debate" are its "costs: to national unity, to confidence I the electoral process and to respect for leaders in general."

If this is, as Alterman says, "a deeply held belief of the ideological center" then the center has moved far more to the right than I was aware.

In short, I question, I even challenge that perception.

There are those who object to debate but it's my perception that these are a minority. I believe that, in a system where the voices of the people were actually to be heard, most journalists and almost all politicians would be amazed by how passionately most people want to talk, to debate, and to be part of the process. Even the people in favor of the current Administration have opinions and they want to share them. In fact, I've only seen a few far-right wing nuts objecting to debate at all. It's certainly not something you'd hear from a liberal or even someone truly centrist, considering how far from centrist most governments are.

Again and again I've seen posts or e-mails prefaced, "I'm not really political" or had conversations that started "I'm pretty middle of the road most of the time" and these beginnings are always followed by, "but." These people are "ideological center" but they have opinions and they want to share them. They want to debate.

The vast center that is unwilling to rock the boat is a myth, an illusion created by the complete disgust of most Americans with 99 percent of the current crop of politicians.

The voters care, they just figured out that politicians weren't listening. And, as long as the economy went reasonably well, they were inclined to just ignore the government. (The spectacular growth of the underground or "black market" economy over the last twenty years or so isn't a coincidence. Unhappy with the way 'government' was running things, people started living outside the system.)

How about "social" bias?

Alterman devotes a chapter to that. Is there social bias in the news? That is to say, is news coverage biased toward traditional "liberalism" on social issues? He says 'yes' and I'm inclined to agree. (Of course, I'm also unable to see anything wrong with this. "Social liberty" is a lot of what this country was based on, isn't it? ) At least, I agree that news coverage seems to be biased toward those issues that used to be liberal.

Where I disagree is with his (and, apparently media's in general) acceptance that redressing racial and gender-based inequalities in news coverage meant opening the door to unashamedly biased and even inflammatory coverage. I do understand how it's possible for the pendulum to swing too far - for voices previously ignored to be given too much latitude, but understanding doesn't mean I approve.

I take issue, for instance, with some of the examples (see p. 111) of "paternalism" of the media in its attempt to broaden news coverage to include pieces by and about minority citizens.

"...examples of African-American reports receiving a degree of indulgence from the paper's editors that would be unthinkable for a white reporter. Describing his own work in terms that would clearly be tagged as racist if spoken by a white person, African-American report Kevin Merida explains, "the black experience is part of who I am" and so he tried "to incorporate that in my coverage.")
It was up to the editors and publishers to keep racism and inaccuracy out of the news coverage of even the first African-American (or Asian, or female) reporters in the same way it was up to them to keep white reporters honest and unbiased.

I think it's possible to "incorporate" one's own experience without including blatant racism and certainly it was up to Merida's bosses to teach him how, if he didn't know.

Alterman does condemn press coverage that doesn't adhere to what we think of as "journalistic standards" and certainly I agree with him, but implicit in his text I find an expectation that an African-American/Asian/female/Latino/disabled reporter should report without in any way exposing the experience of their own lives.

This is manifestly absurd. It's also impossible. I doubt I could write with clarity and true understanding of the plight of a poor African-American male living in a ghetto. Few people could. Journalism does boast some exceptional writers but few journalists are that gifted. A journalist should bring their experiences to what they cover. But they should do it openly and honestly, scrutinizing their own work to make certain they're using their experiences to add understanding to their reports, not to add distortion or dishonesty.

It's right to expect honestly and fact-checking from all news media sources but part of what a reporter, or a publication, brings to a story is their "angle" (a very different matter than "spin," let me add) and pretending otherwise is simply na´ve.

More than that, if all reporting was gender-neutral and color-blind, there would be little or no point in having "diversified" the pool of reporters and media executives in the first place, aside from the demands of "equal opportunity" (not an unworthy goal).

It's not, you understand, that we media "consumers" demand a complete absence of bias or transparency of reporting. Most of us are smart enough to have noticed that the news is reported by fallible human beings, after all. We demand truth and honesty, whatever the bias.

The element of "spin" that I (indeed, many of us) spend so much time denigrating has become devastating not because it represents a certain bias to coverage but because it has come to be an acceptable synonym for "lie."

Well, having said all of that, and gone on onto a tangent attacking something Alterman never claimed, I'll go further and point out that Alterman is quite correct in pointing out the media's failures of honesty and accuracy, even as he is quite right to scold both the Left and the Right for their failures in this area.

There will be a pause while we all contemplate the fact, proven here once again, that only the Left is honest enough to hold both it's own and it's opponent's failures up for public scrutiny.

In the end, Alterman suffers from the same blindness that most true liberals suffer from. True liberals do believe in "justice for all" and in their attempts to give everyone a free and equal hearing, miss the opportunity to take the bludgeon of bias to their foes.

Can liberals match the Right in bombast, and ratings, without adopting the scorched-earth rhetorical tactics that conservatives use against us?

I doubt it. While liberals continue to try to be fair and impartial, they'll still be perceived as weak by those who don't understand them. And while liberals continue to attack liberals for failures of, well, "liberality," they only achieve the end of adding to the weight of negative public coverage of those labeled, "Liberal."

Sheesh. I have a lot more to say (well, when didn't I?) but I think that's enough for now.

Posted by AnneZook at 11:59 AM