Alterman, Eric. What Liberal Media, New York: Basic Books, 2003
annotation by Jason Rissman (Theories of Media, Winter 2004)





Eric Alterman’s book What Liberal Media? disputes the commonly-held belief that American mass media offer a liberal bias in news coverage. Alterman contends that conservatives have succeeded in constructing and propagating the myth of a liberal-dominated media industry to the extent that conservatives and liberals alike accept this idea, despite evidence that there is little truth to this claim. The construction of this myth, however, has been so successful that its proponents need not prove their allegations but simply start with its truth as a given assumption.

Alterman attacks the myth of the "SCLM," or so called liberal media by analyzing written descriptions of this alleged bias, offering anecdotal examples of conservative media participants, and providing statistical evidence supporting his argument. In the Introduction, Alterman first takes to battle with the conservative Bernard Goldberg’s recent book Bias, in which the myth of a liberal media is laid out. Goldberg’s work, according to Alterman, suffers from faulty, circular logic, exaggerated claims unsupported by evidence, and poor if any research. According to Alterman, roughly 72 of 232 pages of the book are dedicated to seeking personal revenge upon Dan Rather. Alterman argues that Golderberg "simply assumes the existence of a liberal bias in the media to be an undisputable fact," and "has done little research beyond recounting his own experiences and parroting the complaints of a conservative newsletter published by Brent Bozell’s Media Research Center (6-7). Alterman’s argument is most convincing when he uses statistical information to contest Goldberg’s claim that the success of Fox News proves that most Americans agree that the media is too liberal. Alterman both shows that the migration to Fox is not nearly as extreme as that described by Goldberg and critiques Goldberg’s logic that just because this myth is popularly held that it is in fact true.

In Chapter 1, Alterman first problematizes the liberal media myth through providing a clear definition of liberal, incorporating the political thought of John Rawls. Such a definition would imagine a social compact that would be judged equally fair by those at the top or bottom of the structure, a very different perspective, he argues, than that approached by nearly anyone in American media. Alterman attacks a past "Freedom Poll" that supposedly supported the SCLM myth by pointing out that it was not representative of the media industry as it disproportionately favored smaller media companies. Alterman continues, in what is perhaps his strongest attack, to show how the ownership structure of the media industry actually would promote a conservative bias. Not only do large conglomerate media companies side with and lobby for conservative policies, such large companies also follow the profit motive in determining media content. This motive, he argues, "places renewed pressure on almost all media outlets to appeal to the wealthiest possible consumer base" (25).

Chapter 2 continues Alterman’s assault on the liberal media myth by connecting the trend towards a television "punditocracy" to what he sees is its inherently conservative leaning. Alterman describes the conservative perspectives, tendency to use faulty information, and even lack of qualifications of several conservative TV pundits, including George F. Will, Bill O’Reilly, Chris Matthew, Ann Coulter, Sean Hannity, Laura Ingraham, and Heather Nuart. Alterman challenges the idea of a liberal bias, arguing that despite the many conservative TV pundits it wasn’t until 2002 that a liberal was given a talk show. The media of TV talk show, he concludes, favors conservative hosts who have more simplistic perspectives. As for liberal political views informed by research and complicated by considering policy nuances, "television," Alterman concludes, "quite obviously has no use for this kind of thing" (44).

I believe that Alterman fits within the context of media studies in a role different than that he imagines for himself. In his introduction he argues, "Marshall McLuhan was wrong, or at least woefully inexact: The medium is only the message if you’re not paying close attention" (12). This statement, however, seems to be in conflict with Alterman’s conclusions that the ownership structure, profit motive, and competitive need for simplistic sound-bytes determine the content of the media. In seeing the economic underpinnings of the media as part of its inherent structure, Alterman’s assessment actually supports McLuhan’s notion that the media is the message.

In any case, beyond his relation to past theorists, Alterman does provide a strong critique of the liberal bias myth. His major weakness might only be letting his own media determine his message as well: in trying to appeal to a mass audience Alterman favors anecdotal arguments, as his opponents often do, over more convincing statistical evidence.