Altercation over media bias…

Eric Alterman has published a new book on bias in the news media called What Liberal Media?. There’s a website promoting the book. And you may read the introduction that’s offered in a .pdf file.

I am immediately skeptical of any effort to assess media bias that focuses on, as Dr. Alterman’s introduction does, a critique of individuals–in this case Ann Coulter and Bernard Goldberg. The subject of bias in the news is larger than any particular person. I contend that a proper consideration of the topic should not rely on using an individual as a synecdoche for bias of a certain kind. It smacks of argument by anecdote.

As I have said before, anyone with access to a search engine may find dozens of examples of bias from any particular individual or political wing to “prove” that the media in general are biased one way or another. Trashing such sloppiness (ideologically driven or otherwise) is certainly important. But I hope that the introduction is not an indication of how Dr. Alterman will prosecute the balance of his argument because the topic is far more important than rooting out sloppiness.

I am, however, encouraged by this part of the introduction:

But to divide the media into their conservative, liberal, or centrist aspects misses a larger point and can do more to obscure than illuminate. The media make up a vast and unruly herd of independent beasts. Given their number and variety, it can be difficult for anyone to speak accurately about all of them simultaneously. Can one usefully compare Thomas Friedman to Larry Flynt? What about Garry Wills and Matt Drudge? Charlie Rose and Jerry Springer? Bill Moyers and Bill O’Reilly? Does Foreign Affairs share a single subscriber with the National Enquirer? Indeed, even the New York Times and the New York Post are not really in the same business. They have differing audiences, differing mandates, and differing professional standards, thank goodness. Marshall McLuhan was wrong, or at least woefully inexact: The medium is only the message if you’re not paying close attention.

Despite his misunderstanding of McLuhan, Dr. Alterman gives us the hope in this paragraph that his book will not devolve into a series of personality conflicts passed off as argument and proof. I am left to assume, for the moment, that the altercation of the introduction is thought necessary to sell books.

(I will try to review Dr. Alterman’s book in a timely manner. But I am hard at work on one of my own, as co-editor with Dr. Max Skidmore, Curator’s Professor of political science at UMKC. So I cannot promise. Oh…our book is called Word Politics. The manuscript is due in June. It’s our hope that it will be available before the presidential primaries. And, yes, that was a bit of shameless self promotion.)