Sunday, 24 July 2011

Eric Alterman: "What Liberal Media?"

(My apologies.  This started out as a review, but has become both that and a rundown of the conclusions the book later led me to draw.  As someone once said, the longer a review goes on the less you know about what is reviewed, and the more you learn about the reviewer, and that certainly applies here.  You have been warned...)

I had this book recommended to me by Glenn Greenwald (not directly, obviously, he's a very busy man), and although Mr Greenwald writes and acts like he's learned his approach to human interaction from a particulary dickish Terminator, his choice of reading material is generally excellent.

Also, I've been wanting to read a full book on the state of the American news media for quite some time now.  Seven years of fevered blog and article reading has been very illuminating, but I realise that approach needs to be occasionally leavened with full texts.

So how well does Alterman's book serve in that capacity, from the perspective of a long-term amateur?  I'd say it does OK.  Not great, but OK. 

Alterman's approach for the first half of the book is to divide the media into sections: print, TV, radio etc. and study each one for evidence of bias.  I'm not completely convinced that this approach is the most effective one. 

Yes, Alterman does exceptionally well in demonstrating that there are any number of highly successful conservative media outlets, which indeed tend towards higher viewing figures than their non-conservative equivalents. And this, obviously, that is true.  Moreover, it's unquestionably an important point to make.  In my experience it is all too common to see people making arguments along the lines of "Well, apart from FOX News, the US media has an obviously liberal bias".  This is a poor argument in the first place, but as Alterman points out, a more accurate version of this statement would read "Well, apart from FOX News, the New York Post, Rush Limbaugh and talk radio in genaral, and the Drudge Report, the US media has an obviously liberal bias."

In a rational world (as Greenwald likes to say) that should end the argument immediately, because by this stage it's become the US media-watching equivalent of saying "Apart from people drinking wine and lager, the UK population is obviously mainly teetotal".   You don't get to make exceptions in your argument when the exceptions take up as much space as this one does.

As effective a fire-break as this approach is, though, I wasn't happy with this approach, precisely because I thought that the argument was idiotic in the first place.  Alterman likes to knock down terrible arguments: he spends some time early on tearing into Goldberg's Bias and Coulter's Slander, neither of which I've read, but both of which clearly contain terrible arguments, assuming Alterman's quotes are accurate. 

The problem is that much better arguments exist out there. Goldberg's key assumption (in the passages quoted) is that liberal over-representation in newsrooms must translate into liberal bias in coverage, (Coulter's key assumption is that everyone in the US is a fucking imbecile and should be treated as such), and that's easy to counter.  Hell, I've done it myself, using similar arguments to Alterman - the political axes a reporter has to grind are only as important as their editors and the people the editor answers to will allow them to be, and those people tend to be conservative.  Well, they are in some sense, which I'll return to later.

So, yes, that deals with the foolish and the unengaged.  But you want to refute a position, you need to concentrate on the smartest arguments for that position, not the dumbest.  Shooting fish in a barrel might be fun to watch, but it won't teach you anything about hunting shark.

I think my problem boils down to this: the book doesn't put nearly enough effort into defining what the phrase "liberal bias" really means.  Again, I've covered this before, but there is absolutely no sense in having a conversation about this unless you're going to tackle economic bias and social bias separately.

There's actually a strong case to be made, I think, that the US media has a strong anti-conservative bias (which is not, of course, the same thing as a liberal bias).  I think it was reading Al Franken that first brought this point home to me.  Plenty of journalists live in areas and in social groups where, say, being gay or being an atheist isn't a big deal, where divorce isn't something you think of as morally bad (as oppose to, say, merely something it would be nice to not have happen), and where being sexually active without a ring on your finger is seen as a lifestyle choice, rather than giving God the finger.

Some people choose to see that attitude as an anti-conservative bias.  Personally, I think when you're evidence of bias is that someone else is taking pains not to demonstrate any bias, including the ones you have, then you can pretty much just go fuck yourself.  Frankly, a great deal of the arguments on this front boil down to "I am a Christian and conservative, most people in this country are Christians, a lot of them are conservative, therefore those who don't share my own beliefs are biased against conservative".

If he'd heard that shit, Socrates would have choked on his hemlock.  It's terrible logic: since many people share the same tent as me, they all agree with me, and anyone who doesn't is therefore outside the tent.  Not passing judgement is not being biased against those who pass judgement.

Be that as it may, though, the shakiness of this line of reasoning as is nothing to the idea that the US media displays liberal bias in economic terms.  This simply has no supporting evidence, so far as I can see, something I would have liked to see this book make far more of.

Trying to identify liberal economists in the States ends up being like one of those old word games we played as kids, where you'd ask a friend to silently answer a set of questions, and the final answer would always turn out to be Denmark.  Find me a remotely prominent journalist in the US media who espouses Keynesian economics, rather than a combination of Friedmanism, Reaganomics, and a belief in the pixie dust of the supply side fairy.  Keep the name to yourself, but choose an animal which shares the same first letter as your choices surname.

If you're animal isn't a marsupial, let me know.  I'm always keen to learn about new animals.  Of course, if you're economics commentator isn't Paul Krugman, I'd be even more interested.

That, to me, is what combatting the liberal media myth requires.  Not a long liest of how many conservative commentators there are out there, and how unbelievably vicious and stupid they are.  A systematic dissection of what the arguments to be debunked actually mean is required.  Only then can you set about demolishing them.  Ultimately, Alterman's argument, as well-written and researched as it is, doesn't seem to be aimed at the right target here.

The second half of the book is much better.  It focusses on specific incidents in American history - the Clinton administration, the Gore campaign, and the Supreme Court decision that the Florida recount was unconstitutional ( but also that their ruling should not be applied to any other recound employing the same standard).  The question which hovers over these chapters is obvious: what could it possibly matter that the US media is liberally biased if this is the result?  If the overwhelming attitude of the newspapers and TV shows is that Clinton should be impeached for infidelity and Gore has too many suit buttons, then who cares whom the individual journalists would vote for under the chimerical "ideal circumstances"?

This is what matters about the US news media.  Its output is conservative, both economically and as regards to any national issue in which a "liberal" and a "conservative" position can be sensibly (if, perhaps, sweepingly) be applied.  Alterman argues - not entirely convincingly, in my opinion - that the anti-Clinton and anti-Gore phenomena (he wrote this book years before the 2008 campaign, but it's not remotely difficult to imagine him adding "pro-McCain" to that list)  is due to the media internalising and over-compensating for the "liberal bias" myth, but for the purposes of this discussion, I don't think the underlying explanation really matters all that much.  The endopint is what should concern us.

Alterman is on much firmer ground identifying this endpoint.  Along the way, he points fingers in directions I hadn't been aware of before (at last I know who Richard Mellon Scaife is), which perhaps reinforces the idea that this is intended as a primer rather than a thorough discussion.  I can't deny that this book works as the former, it's just a little disappointing that there's comparatively little for those who already have some intellectual grasp of what's going on.

Overall, then, I'd give this book four stars for a newcomer to the issue (some of Alterman's argument are a little too sloppy for me to give the book more than that), and perhaps three and a half stars for anyone else.

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