excerpted from the book
What Liberal Media?
The Truth About Bias and
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
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
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
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.