W's World

excerpted from the book

What Liberal Media?

The Truth About Bias and the News

by Eric Alterman

Basic Books, 2003, paper


The White House and the media need one another in order to be successful in their jobs. The White House depends on the media to make its case to the public; the media need the White House to fill their airtime and news columns.

The attacks of 9/11 initially appeared to cause a tectonic shift in virtually every aspect of American politics and the media that covered it. Anchor people started sprouting American flags on their lapels, and in their station's new logos. Behind the scenes, network and newspaper executives agreed to a variety of administration requests to withhold information from the public, and Fox's Roger Ailes sent secret strategic advice to the President.

As is natural in times of war or quasi-war, political dissent and even truthful reporting on those in power became a luxury that many believed to be unaffordable, and so the right seized on its political opening. Ari Fleischer seemed eager to shut down all criticism of the U.S. government when the ABC comedian, Bill Maher, called American pilots cowards for "lobbing cruise missiles from 2,000 miles away." The comment was actually a critique of the Clinton Administration's policies, not of Bush's, and a transparently foolish one at that. (How many missions had the millionaire comedian flown?) But Fleischer used the opportunity to warn against all forms of criticism of any U.S. government action. Americans, Fleischer said, "need to watch what they say, watch what they do." This ominous warning was echoed by Attorney General John Ashcroft, who insisted at a congressional hearing a few days later that any criticism of the administration-be it on grounds of the protection of civil liberties, pragmatic considerations, or anything else-would "only aid terrorists-for they erode our national unity and diminish our resolve. They give ammunition to America's enemies, and pause to America's friends."

Many conservatives took up the cause, seeking to silence anyone and everyone who was ever heard to utter a critical word about the United States of America under the guise of the need for wartime unity. CNN's Robert Novak ruled out the very possibility of patriotic dissent. In a response to the e-mail of a viewer, who wrote, "It is patriotic to debate foreign policy, especially when we have troops on the ground whose lives depend on our making sound policy," Novak replied, his history askew, "It was people like you who undermined our forces in the Vietnam War and brought Communist tyranny to a country that doesn't deserve it." Similarly, in response to Senate Majority Leader Tom Daschle's criticisms, Fox's Sean Hannity attacked Daschle, not for the substance of his words, but because he was "communicating to our enemies that this nation is divided, that we lack resolve and that we have forgotten September 11." To be fair, these pundits were only echoing the comments of Senate Minority Leader Trent Lott, who issued a "Red Alert" press bulletin, stating "How dare Senator Daschle criticize President Bush while we are fighting our war on terrorism, especially when we have troops in the field."

According to the American Council of Trustees and Alumni, an organization founded by Second Lady Lynne Cheney and featuring Democratic Senator Joe Lieberman on its board of directors, in a report issued after the attack, America's professors were "the weak link in America's response to the attack." The report criticized those who allegedly invoked "tolerance and diversity as antidotes to evil." The Rev. Jesse Jackson earned censure for remarking to an audience at Harvard Law School that America should "build bridges and relationships, not simply bombs and walls." Stanford historian Joel Benin was guilty of observing to students, "If Osama bin Laden is confirmed to be behind the attacks, the United States should bring him before an international tribunal on charges of crimes against humanity." And Wasima Alikhan of the Islamic Academy of Las Vegas made the organization's not-so-little list because of his publicly stated view that "Ignorance breeds hate."

Along similar lines, on the first anniversary of 9/11, the conservative, Moonie-owned Washington Times ran an unforgivably misleading story by a reporter named Ellen Sorokin about the teaching plan offered to its members by the National Education Association. The front-page article falsely accused the NEA of advising teachers not to blame "terrorists," or anyone else for that matter, for the 9/11 attack. Not one of the quotes attributed to the NEA actually appeared on its Web site or was spoken by any of its officers. Rather they appeared in an essay in one of the NEA's many hundreds of links, and even these were taken out of context and, it turned out had been posted accidentally on the pre-release version of the site. Sorokin wrote her story without even seeing the final version. No matter. The lie was picked up and trumpeted by Matt Drudge on his Web site, by the London Times, by John Gibson substituting for Bill O'Reilly, by Sean Hannity on Hannity and Colmes, by Tucker Carlson on Crossfire, by Kate Snow and New Republic editor Peter Beinart on CNN's Late Edition, and in op-eds by Abraham Cooper and Harold Brackman in the Los Angeles Times, and Mona Charen in the Baltimore Sun. George Will took the occasion of its publication to term the NEA a "national menace" and "as frightening, in its way as any foreign threat." John Leo denounced the NEA in his column in U.S. News and World Report, and then went on Lou Dobbs's Moneyline to issue this slanderous statement, using extremely vague language to make this grave charge with no evidence: It's "always hanging in the background that somehow America invited this somehow," he said, "as if you got punched by a stranger on the street. It's somehow it's your fault for making more money or being more successful. And I think that's the aura of the NEA's philosophy."

On the Internet, the superpatriots' attack was led by Andrew Sullivan, British expat and former New Republic editor. In language that seemed deliberately evocative of that employed by the late Senator Joseph McCarthy during the Red Scare of the 1950s, Sullivan implored Americans to distinguish between the kinds of citizens who could be trusted and those who sought to undermine the country from within. In the first category he identified "the middle part of the country-the great red zone that voted for Bush." Among Gore voters, however, Sullivan professed to spy a "decadent left in its enclaves on the coasts [that] is not dead-and may well mount a fifth column." It apparently did not concern Sullivan that not only were Gore voters more plentiful in America than Bush voters but that one of those "decadent enclaves"-the island of Manhattan-had actually suffered the consequences of the terrorists' attack. Many of Sullivan's former colleagues objected to the broad-based McCarthyite overtones of his attack, and so Sullivan responded by naming names. "These people," he wrote, "have already openly said they do not support such a war, and will oppose it. Read Sontag and Chomsky and Moore and Alterman and on and on, and you'll see that I'm not exaggerating." In fact, Sullivan was not exaggerating. Like McCarthy, he was simply Iying. While Susan Sontag wrote a short essay in the New Yorker that many people, including myself, found to be objectionable for its insensitivity to the victims of the attack, she never said she opposed the war. The "Alterman" to which Sullivan refers-the author of this book-also supported the war from the outset and has never said or written otherwise.

Admittedly, the self-appointed chiefs of the conservative thought police in the war on terrorism had an unenviable task on their hands. The war on terrorism proved categorically different from other wars in recent U.S. history because it was started by a physical attack on the mainland of the United States. We did not choose the war; it chose us. Excluding matters of purely operational importance, such as those involving ends and means, the war did not inspire any politically significant dissent. Indeed, the most vocal members of "Blame America" were on the political right, bedrock supporters of the president and his party. Jerry Falwell appeared on the 700 Club, hosted by Pat Robertson on the Christian Broadcasting Network, and announced to a still-grieving nation, "God continues to lift the curtain and allow the enemies of America to give us probably what we deserve." "Jerry, that's my feeling," Robertson responded. "I think we've just seen the antechamber to terror. We haven't even begun to see what they can do to the major population." Falwell then added that the American Civil Liberties Union has "got to take a lot of blame for this," again winning Robertson'< agreement: "Well, yes." Then Falwell broadened his blast to include the federal court and others who he said were "throwing God out of the public square." He added: "The abortionists have got to bear some burden for this because God will not be mocked And when we destroy 40 million little innocent babies, we make God mad. I really believe that the pagans, and the abortionists, and the feminists, and the gays and the lesbians who are actively trying to make that an alternative lifestyle, the ACLU, People for the American Way-all of them who have tried to secularize America-I point the finger in their face and say, 'You helped this happen."

The White House naturally distanced itself from these amazing words of some of its bedrock supporters, and the ensuing outcry inspired both men to apologize, if not exactly retract. Robertson, meanwhile, retained his status as an honored political commentator. When George Bush made a much-awaited speech outlining his Middle East policy in the spring of 2002, for instance, Robertson was the very first "expert" to whom CNN turned for illumination.

But on the left, as the neoliberal editor of Slate, Jacob Weisberg observed, opposition to the war and blame for the United States for causing it was at best insignificant. The New Republic created an "Idiocy Award" for those making allegedly antiwar or anti-American comments. Winners included: Katha Pollitt, Alice Walker Michael Moore, Oliver Stone, Karlheinz Stockhausen, Arundhati Roy ...


... the combination of these cops on the beat had the effect of silencing those with even the mildest of unpopular opinions. CNN chief Walter Isaacson warned his staff, "If you get on the wrong side of public opinion, you are going to get into trouble." This view was reinforced by a report by Alexandra Stanley, in the New York Times, who cautioned that "Most viewers are in no mood to listen to views they dismiss as either loopy or treasonous." And when Ted Koppel invited Roy to give her critical views, he felt compelled to offer this warning to his viewers: "Some of you, many of you, are not going to like what you hear tonight. You don't have to listen. But if you do, you should know that dissent sometimes comes in strange packages." Indeed, it became, in many instances, impossible for any public figure to make even a common-sense observation about the war.

Judging by conservatives' reaction to 9/11, their critique that the media was too liberal to report the news objectively has been thrown out the window. What conservatives wanted, apparently, was a mainstream media that reported and discussed the news from their own conservative perspective. In the aftermath of 9/11, that is what they got.

While most of us were still trying to sort through the horrific emotions of the moment, the media seemed to choose only the most belligerent voices to broadcast. Former Secretary of State Lawrence Eagleberger told CNN: "There is only one way to begin to deal with people like this, and that is you have to kill some of them even if they are not immediately directly involved in this thing." Time magazine's Lance Morrow demanded that the nation "relearn a lost discipline, self-confident relentlessness-and to relearn why human nature has equipped us all with a weapon (abhorred in decent peacetime societies) called hatred." Charles Krauthammer announced in the Washington Post, "This is not crime. This is war." Eliot A. Cohen declared (mistakenly) in the New Republic, "This is our generation's Pearl Harbor. In all likelihood, the price in human life will prove even greater." And Seth Lipsky, writing in the Wall Street Journal, got so excited, he started coming up with all kinds of places we could bomb. "There will be no shortage of targets," he wrote, "from Afghanistan to Iran to Iraq to Syria to the Palestinian Authority. Or even, for that matter, Saudi Arabia, which proved so recalcitrant in cooperating in our investigation of the bombing of an American barracks."

Wholly missing from the media's endless regurgitation of the horrific events, for instance, were voices of scholars who, while not pacifists or even (God forbid) leftists, knew enough about history and diplomacy to ask at least some difficult questions about whether "war" in the traditional sense would be the most effective response to achieve our purposes and defend our country. If you watched your television or read your op-ed pages during this time, you would have found endless commentary from the likes of Eagleberger, Krauthammer, and Cohen. Try as you might, however, you would not have found say, Sir Michael Howard, perhaps the world's most renowned living military historian. Articulating a view that eventually appeared to gain a consensus in Europe but was rarely even discussed in the United States, Howard offered up a strikingly different analysis of how to address the threat. "To 'declare war' on terrorists, or even more illiterately, on 'terrorism,"' he explained:

is at once to accord them a status and dignity that they seek and which they do not deserve. It confers on them a kind of legitimacy. Do they qualify as 'belligerents'? If so, should they not receive the protection of the laws of war? This was something that Irish terrorists always demanded, and was quite properly refused. But their demands helped to muddy the waters, and were given wide credence among their supporters in the United States.

But to use, or rather to misuse the term 'war' is not simply a matter of legality, or pedantic semantics. It has deeper and more dangerous consequences. To declare that one is 'at war' is immediately to create a war psychosis that may be totally counter-productive for the objective that we seek. It will arouse an immediate expectation, and demand, for spectacular military action against some easily identifiable adversary, preferably a hostile state; action leading to decisive results.

Nowhere on television, however, was the wise Harvard political scientist, Stanley Hoffmann, who observed in the New York Review of Books that despite all of the televised fulminating, the most elementary kinds of distinctions were being ignored, and hence all kinds of options were excluded from consideration. "Some of the terrorists and their supporters are religious fanatics who see in the U.S., the West, and Israel a formidable machine for cultural subversion, political domination, and economic subjection. The kind of Islamic revanche bin Laden projects in his statements is both so cosmic and based on so peculiar an interpretation of the Koran that there is very little one can do to rebut it," Hoffmann wrote. "But there is a great deal one can do to limit its appeal. This kind of an ethics of conviction feeds-like so many other forms of totalitarianism-on experiences of despair and humiliation, and these can be understood and to some degree addressed." Part of the problem with the kinds of views expressed by Howard and Hoffmann-views that probably represented a consensus view in most of Western Europe-was their inherent complexity; they could not, as television demands, be reduced to a sound bite. But another part is that these views did not flatter the jingoistic impulses of the conservative superpatriots who succeeded in hijacking our post-September 11 public discourse. And the mainstream media, ever fearful of conservative attacks on their patriotic bona fides, paid them no mind.

By far the most significant beneficiary of September 11 from a media/political standpoint was President Bush. Even in "normal" times, Peter Wolson, a former president of the Los Angeles Institute and Society for Psychoanalytic Studies, has explained, "The public has a need for an idealized hero. The public wants the president to succeed, even though there may be envy and lots of other conflicted feelings. There's a wish that the president will be a strong, powerful father figure." In the case of a trauma such as 9/11, this kind of nascent hero worship might be applied directly to the media, temporarily transforming George W. Bush from the military's commander-in-chief to the media's as well. Rather even appeared on David Letterman's program and announced, "George Bush is the president, he makes the decisions, and, you know, as just one American, if he wants me to line up, just tell me where." As David Carr observed at the time, "There's been a collective decision to re-imagine the president, and the media is fully cooperating. Journalists are very anxious to help him construct a wartime presidency, because we may be at war and he's the only president we have."

Made nervous by never-ending conservative attacks on their values and patriotism, the media reacted to the events of September 11 as if accused of a crime of which they secretly believed themselves to be guilty. The evidence of this "crime" could be seen in their overcompensation, orchestrated to demonstrate their patriotism like a community of new immigrants for an enemy nation, all to the benefit of Bush and his administration.

... the contrast between the treatment he and Vice President Cheney have received and that meted out by the media to the Clintons is enough to make one wonder if the media have not made some sort of silent pact among themselves to torment only Democratic presidents.

In the midst of the media's brief flurry of interest in Harken, ABC's nonpartisan and extremely politically savvy Web publication The Note warned its fellow journalists: "Since the Republican party is the only one of our two major political parties in America who believes the press is routinely biased against them, when such a frenzy is going on for a GOP administration, the press needs to be extra careful in making sure that perspective and fairness are maintained." Talk about "working the refs." Between the fear of appearing to tear down a national icon during wartime and the effect of decades of fielding attacks by politically minded conservatives drumming to a beat of their own invention, the elite media has so internalized the false message of their own "liberalism" that they were openly holding back on the Republicans, as if in fear of where the truth might lead. The media's gentle treatment of George W. Bush and his administration was, in many ways, a tribute to decades of hard spadework by conservative activists undertaken specifically for this purpose. And given its effect across the broad swath of American politics in the late 1990s and early 2000s, they had every right to take pride in their work.

By the time of the first anniversary of the 9/11 attacks, as Wall Street Journal reporter John Harwood quietly noted, most Americans were worse off than they had been on the day George Bush took office. "The Dow Jones Industrial Average has declined by nearly 2000 points since he took office; unemployment has risen to 5.7% from 4.2%. In the six quarters of the Bush presidency, growth of gross domestic product has averaged 1.1%, down from 3.6% in the last six quarters of the Clinton presidency. In the Journal/NBC poll, only 38% of Americans believe the country is safer than a year ago." Partially as a result of these developments and partially because of the enormous tax cut Bush pushed through Congress based on transparently phony economic assumptions, the federal budget had gone from surplus to massive deficit. Meanwhile, the number of Americans living in poverty saw its largest increase in more than forty years, median household income declined, and the number of Americans living without health insurance spiked upward. Every single one of these trends proved a reversal of the progress of the Clinton years. Abroad, the Middle East peace process-a deal nearly closed by Clinton-was in flames. America's allies were increasingly alienated by the nation's refusal to abide by international agreements and its insistence upon a ham-handed unilateralism in world affairs. And much of the sympathy engendered by the attacks of 9/11-attacks that might have been at least partially anticipated had the administration been paying closer attention to their warning signs-had been dissipated by Bush's demand for backing for a preemptive war against Iraq. Of course many of these events were well beyond the ability of any administration to control, particularly in light of the events of 9/11. But certainly not all of them. And the ironclad rule-at least until the advent of the second Bush administration-of American politics is that administrations get credit in good times and blame in bad times, regardless of causal connection or the lack thereof.

Yet Bush and the Republicans scored a smashing victory in the mid-term elections of 2002, making him the first president since 1882 to see his party actually gain seats in the House and Senate in an off-year election. Part of the reason, of course, was money. The Republicans, according to FEC records, spent $184 million more than the Democrats did in these elections, and that did not include the vast resources afforded by Bush's control of the executive branch. Another obvious reason was the dispirited, all-but-voiceless performance of the Democrats. But a no-less-significant factor in the Republican victory was a media that, as if by unspoken consensus, declined to hold the administration responsible for almost any aspect of these unhappy developments. Naturally, many in the media sought to portray the election of 2002-in which fewer than 40 percent of Americans participated and money made an obvious difference, to say nothing of September 11-as a vindication of the Supreme Court's decision to hand the 2000 election to Bush. The logic is a bit hard to follow, except when we remember that establishing Bush's legitimacy has been a desperately pursued priority of the punditocracy since the moment the court handed him his tarnished prize.

Given the media's role in helping George Bush to claim the presidency, both during the regular election as well as in Florida-in addition to the enormously gentle treatment accorded his presidency-one recalls the saliency of a slogan that could be found on Republican bumpers during the 1992 election. It read "Annoy the Media: Re-elect George Bush." Given the power of the "liberal media" myth, despite an avalanche of evidence to the contrary, one suspects that we will see its reappearance in 2004.

What Liberal Media?

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