The Truth About Bias and the News

By Eric Alterman

Basic. 322 pp. $25

According to the American right, the American left has too much influence over the news. According to Eric Alterman, this is a myth and a lie. The myth matters because during its rise conservative ideology and more bullying voices on the right have actually been ascendant in news and opinion. Their success means that "liberals cannot even hope for a fair shake anymore."

What Liberal Media? is Alterman's countersuit against the right for rhetorical fraud. The fraud is the frequent charge of media bias against conservatives. He also wants to refute an earlier book: Bernard Goldberg's 2001 bestseller, Bias. Goldberg is a former correspondent for CBS News, an insider who told tales of liberals spinning the news. Reading the bestseller lists during Goldberg's run must have been too much for Alterman, who covers the press for the Nation and also writes a lively blog for MSNBC. (A previous book on pundits helps qualify him for this one.)

To Alterman, the whole notion of liberals in charge of the media is a bizarre ruse, easily refuted yet often funny. It's worth writing about because so many crackpots believe it, or pretend they do. "Republicans of all stripes have done quite well for themselves during the last five decades fulminating about the liberal cabal . . . who spin, supplant, and sometimes suppress the news we all consume." Journalists uncertain about their own ideological ground have let themselves be intimidated by the charge, he believes.

In candid moments, conservatives admit to playing games. Rich Bond, former chairman of the Republican Party, says that braying about the liberal media is a way to "work the refs," hoping they will "cut you a little slack on the next one." William Kristol, editor of the Weekly Standard, admits that "the liberal media were never that powerful, and the whole thing was often used as an excuse by conservatives for conservative failures."

But Alterman isn't interested in failure on the right or in Kristol's idea that a belief in media bias can be a crutch. "Working the refs works," he concludes. He admires the audacity of conservatives who complain about their marginalization by an allegedly hostile press. Marginalized? Witness the rise of Fox News along with its winking claim to be more balanced than so-called liberal networks. Look at how conservatives dominate in television punditry and talk radio. Look at the vast network of conservative think tanks and magazines. These people, he argues, understand the war of ideas and how it gets carried into talk shows, news columns, opinion magazines and book publishing.

Alterman has news for us: The Post's David Broder, icon of neutral professionalism, has lately become a conservative, or at least acts like one in his journalism. Compare editorial pages: The Wall Street Journal's is rock solid for the right. The New York Times and The Washington Post, allegedly liberal, cannot be counted on in a fight.

Florida in 2000 -- now there was a fight. "The media happily swallowed almost everything the Bush forces threw at them," Alterman charges. In the aftermath of Sept. 11, journalists in awe of the president's popularity helped create an intimidating environment for dissent. Some 30 years after Spiro Agnew's speeches denouncing a liberal elite in newsrooms, the right's bullies had secured their prize: "a mainstream media that reported and discussed the news from their own conservative perspective."

To his credit, Alterman doesn't just make these claims; he tries to support them by consulting transcripts, adding facts, explaining errors and retelling key controversies from the news pages. His subject, then, is recent political history as much as it is media criticism. In this sense, he is trying to raise intellectual standards in the debate over media bias, and that is a very good thing after the success of Goldberg's thinly sourced book.

In that spirit, though, some questions can be raised. What Liberal Media? argues that conservative ideas and Republican Party assumptions now dominate news and commentary, with bad results for democracy. Is the cure for that news media dominated by liberal and progressive ideas? This would be a novel argument, but Alterman does not make it. Both the left's critique of the corporate media and the right's notion of liberal bias see ideology at work where news and truth should prevail. But why is it always the other guy's ideology, never one's own? Thus we have Roger Ailes, head of Fox News, denying that there is anything conservative in the network's approach to news. But he doesn't mind saying that Fox corrects for liberal bias in the other major networks.

"We're marginalized by the news media." "Are you crazy? We're the ones getting marginalized." There is something strange about a dialogue conducted this way, where the winner is the one more powerless to be heard. Alterman writes, "If people are willing to examine the question of media bias in an open-minded fashion, perhaps we can even up the sides a bit." It almost sounds like he's working the refs. *

Jay Rosen is chairman of the department of journalism at New York University and author of "What Are Journalists For?"