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Eric Alterman | The Nation

Eric Alterman

Author Bios

Eric Alterman

Eric Alterman

Columnist

Eric Alterman is a Distinguished Professor of English, Brooklyn College, City University of New York, and Professor of Journalism at the CUNY Graduate School of Journalism. He is also "The Liberal Media" columnist for The Nation and a fellow of The Nation Institute, a senior fellow at the Center for American Progress in Washington, DC, where he writes and edits the "Think Again" column, a senior fellow (since 1985) at the World Policy Institute. Alterman is also a regular columnist for Moment magazine and a regular contributor to The Daily Beast. He is the author of seven books, including the national bestsellers, What Liberal Media? The Truth About Bias and the News (2003, 2004), and The Book on Bush: How George W. (Mis)leads America (2004). The others include: When Presidents Lie: A History of Official Deception and its Consequences, (2004, 2005); His Sound & Fury: The Making of the Punditocracy (1992, 2000), which won the 1992 George Orwell Award; It Ain't No Sin to be Glad You're Alive: The Promise of Bruce Springsteen (1999, 2001), which won the 1999 Stephen Crane Literary Award and Who Speaks for America? Why Democracy Matters in Foreign Policy, (1998). His most recent book is Why We're Liberals: A Handbook for Restoring America's Most Important Ideals (2008, 2009).

Termed "the most honest and incisive media critic writing today" in the National Catholic Reporter, and author of "the smartest and funniest political journal out there," in the San Francisco Chronicle, Alterman is frequent lecturer and contributor to numerous publications in the US, Europe and Latin America. In recent years, he has also been a columnist for: MSNBC.com, Worth, Rolling StoneMother Jones, and the Sunday Express (London), a history consultant to HBO films and a senior fellow at Media Matters for America. A former Adjunct Professor of Journalism at NYU and Columbia, Alterman received his B.A. in History and Government from Cornell, his M.A. in International Relations from Yale, and his Ph.D. in US History from Stanford. He lives with his family in Manhattan.

Articles

News and Features

New York Times executive editor Howell Raines shares, with his
fellow liberal Southerner Al Gore, a talent for driving his opponents
batty.

The late John Rawls was, by all accounts, a remarkably modest and
generous person, much beloved by his friends and students, and
profoundly uninterested in the kinds of fame and celebrity perks

One big problem with liberal and leftist debate about Al Qaeda or Iraq
is that it rarely seems to have much to do with Al Qaeda or Iraq.

In a weapons producing nation under Jesus
In the fabled crucible of the free world
Camera crews search for clues amid the detritus
And entertainment shapes the land

Something about Al Gore brings out the worst in people, and nowhere is
this truer than in the so-called "liberal media." Journalists' "default"
position on Gore, Joe Klein notes, is "ridicule.

Shortly after September 11, Dan Rather--or "El Diablo" as he is known to
conservatives--appeared on Letterman and announced, "George Bush is the
President, he makes the decisions, and, you know

"My only regret with Osama bin Laden is that he did not manage to
kill every member of the
Wall Street Journal editorial
staff."

"In this recurring nightmare of a presidency, we have a national
debate about [George W. Bush's stolen presidency].... Otherwise there
would be debates only about whether to impeach or assassinate."

"We need to execute people like Ann Coulter in order to physically
intimidate conservatives, by making them realize that they can be killed
too. Otherwise they will turn out to be outright traitors."

First things first: Mr. Ashcroft, if you're there, I do not mean any of
the statements above to be taken literally. I do not mean them at all.
None of them. OK? What I do mean is to point out the incredible
hypocrisy of those on the right, the center and the "liberal media" who
defend the lunatic ravings of Ann Coulter, whether because she is
"kidding" or because "the left does the same thing." (For those who have
been lucky enough to have missed the Coultergeist of the past few
months, the author of the summer's number-one bestselling nonfiction
book in America has--in language identical to that above--expressed her
regret that Timothy McVeigh did not blow up the New York Times building,
mused aloud whether Bill Clinton should have been impeached or murdered,
and called for the execution of John Walker Lindh in order to intimidate
liberals.)

It's degrading to have to write about Coulter again. As a pundit, she is
about on a par with Charles Manson, better suited to a lifelong stay in
the Connecticut Home for the Criminally Insane than for the host's seat
on Crossfire. Her books are filled with lies, slander and phony
footnotes that are themselves lies and slanders. Her very existence as a
public figure is an insult to our collective intelligence. I should
really be writing about the campaign by neocon chickenhawks to
intimidate Howell Raines and the New York Times on Iraq. But
fortunately, John Judis and Nick Confessore have taken responsibility
for that, leaving me to the less ominous but more baffling phenomenon of
the bestselling Barbie-doll terrorist-apologist, who continues to be
celebrated by the very media she terms "retarded" and guilty of "mass
murder" while calling for their mass extinction by the likes of her
ideological comrade Timothy McVeigh.

Make no mistake. Coulter may routinely call for the murder of liberals,
of Arabs, of journalists, of the President, among many others. She may
compare adorable Katie Couric to Eva Braun and Joseph Goebbels and joke
about blowing up the Times building. But instead of ignoring, laughing
at or, perhaps most usefully, sedating her, we find Coulter's blond
locks and bony ass celebrated by talk-show bookers and gossip
columnists--even a genuine book reviewer--from coast to proverbial
coast.

Do I exaggerate? While promoting her hysterical screed against
"liberals"--a category so large she occasionally includes, I kid you
not, Andrew Sullivan--this malevolent Twiggy with Tourette's was booked
on Today, Crossfire (as guest and guest host),
Hardball, The Big Story With John Gibson and countless
other cable and radio programs. She was lovingly profiled in
Newsday, the New York Observer and the New York
Times
Sunday Style section. She was the Boston Globe's
honored guest at the White House correspondents dinner. Her incitements
to murder and terrorism have been cheered and defended in the Wall
Street Journal
and National Review Online. (The latter did
so, moreover, despite her having termed its editors "girly boys" and
behaving, in the words of the website's editor, Jonah Goldberg, "with a
total lack of professionalism, friendship, and loyalty.") And her
publisher, Crown, says it has no plans to correct her lies in future
editions. Why should they care? Is anyone holding them accountable?

The slanderous nonsense she puts between hard covers, moreover, is
selling not only to the caveman crowd, it's also receiving praise in
such respectable outlets as the liberal LA Times Book Review and
being quoted as constitutional gospel by alleged intellectual George
Will on ABC's This Week. This despite the fact that Coulter's
accusations have been as effectively discredited as Hitler's diaries.
(The last time I checked, the folks at Tapped, the American
Prospect
's weblog, had compiled so many of these falsities it took
them nearly 3,000 words to enumerate them. Coulter has also been ripped
to shreds by dailyhowler.com, spinsanity.com, mediawhoresonline.com,
Scoobie Davis Online and by Joe Conason in Salon. The most
comprehensive compilation can supposedly be found at
slannder.homestead.com. I cannot bring myself to actually wade into it.)

So what's the deal? Is looking like an anorexic Farrah Fawcett and
wearing skirts so short they lack the dignity and reserve of Monica
Lewinsky's thong enough to insure the embrace of the national
entertainment state no matter what you say, just so long as your
murderous bile is directed at "liberals"? Would it have worked for
Saddam if he wore a size 6? I really don't know. Naïve optimist
that I am, when I first picked up Coulter's book in galleys in the late
spring, I felt pretty certain we were done with her. I mean, how even to
engage someone who terms Christie Todd Whitman a "birdbrain" (page 51)
and a "dimwit" (page 53); Jim Jeffords a "half-wit" (page 50); and
Gloria Steinem a "deeply ridiculous figure" (page 37) who "had to sleep"
with a rich liberal to fund Ms. magazine (page 38)--all of which
makes her "a termagant" (page 39)? Coulter's done far worse since, of
course, and yet, like one of those Mothralike creatures that feed on
bullets and squashed Japanese villagers, the monster continues to grow,
debasing everyone and everything in its wake. Coulter jokes about
McVeigh blowing up the Times, and the Wall Street
Journal
--which was blown up by terrorists on September
11--rushes to her defense. Their man, Daniel Pearl, was murdered by
terrorists in Pakistan. Have they no shame? At long last, have they no
sense of decency left?

It's only August, but I'll go out on a limb and congratulate the
Village Voice
's Keith Harris for what I feel confident will stand
the test of time as the stupidest comment of the year. "Because his
vision of rock and roll is so grand, Springsteen requires a popular
consensus as surely as any invasion of Iraq. And as we've learned yet
again, nothing sparks phony consensus like national cataclysm. Maybe
that's why, for the past few days, a nagging thought has burrowed into
my brain that I wish was merely the snide aphorism I initially took it
for: If there hadn't been a September 11, Bruce Springsteen would have
had to invent one."

Like an Ann Coulter bestseller or a Rush Limbaugh radio rant, Harris's
review is idiotic but instructive. Aside from its self-evident (and
self-incriminating) silliness, what galls about the comment is its
willful forfeiture of the common cultural ground upon which Bruce
Springsteen plies his trade. Does 9/11 belong only to George Bush and
Donald Rumsfeld? Is American popular culture the exclusive preserve of
Spielberg, Bruckheimer and Britney?

While managing to keep both feet planted in the mainstream, Springsteen
has done more than any American artist to give voice to the American
"other" that pop culture would prefer to forget: the humiliated Vietnam
veteran, the fired factory worker, the hunted illegal immigrant, the
death-row inmate, the homeless person living beneath the bridge and
Amadou Diallo, a West African immigrant, accidentally murdered by
forty-one shots from New York's finest. With his 1994 AIDS ballad
"Streets of Philadelphia," Springsteen became the first heterosexual
rock star ever to sing in the voice of a homosexual man, in a work
that--as Ann Powers, who was then writing brilliant music criticism in,
uh, the Village Voice, observed--succeeded in crossing "the
barriers of class, race, and gender."

Springsteen is vulnerable to criticism on any number of grounds,
artistic and commercial, but his willingness to offer solace in troubled
times strikes me as pretty low on that list. Springsteen was literally
stopped in his car after 9/11 by someone who cried out, "We need you."
Monmouth County, where he lives, lost 158 people in the towers. He
played a couple of local benefits. He read, repeatedly, about the
meaning of his work to his fans in the New York Times's
"Portraits of Grief." He called a few widows, shared their stories and
made a record. It's what he does. "I have a sense of what my service to
my audience is going to be," he explains. "It's the true nature of work
in the sense that you're filling a place. And that place comes with its
blessings and its responsibilities." So sue him.

It is a separate question as to whether one thinks the art that emanated
from this impulse is wholly successful. With regard to The
Rising
, I can argue the point either way. But to take issue with the
very idea that art can be a balm to those in pain--or, as Springsteen
puts it, "music is medicine"--is cynicism itself. And to the degree that
this is at all representative of leftist attitudes, it speaks for an
impotent and self-defeating left: too smug and self-satisfied to engage
the culture of the common people, preferring instead to smirk on the
sidelines.

Granting both its sincerity and its (inconsistent) genius, The
Rising
does nevertheless raise some complicated questions about art,
politics and commerce. One has to go back to 1984--to Springsteen's own
Born in the U.S.A.--to find a rock record that was marketed as
energetically to mainstream America. After decades of relative
reclusiveness, Springsteen is suddenly everywhere in the mass media:
taking over the Today show in Asbury Park, on David Letterman two
nights in a row, ditto Ted Koppel, on MTV, Saturday Night Live,
simultaneous covers of Time and Rolling Stone; long
interviews with the New York Times, the LA Times and
USA Today. I half expected him to duet with Elmo or Big Bird over
breakfast. It should surprise no one that the record entered the charts
at No. 1 in eleven countries.

The problem arises--just as it did with Born in the U.S.A.--when
the work's cultural signification overwhelms its artistic essence; what
Nietzsche, in Twilight of the Idols, termed "the thing itself."
The dilemma for anyone who seeks to use popular culture to communicate a
message at odds with its market-driven heart of darkness is: who's using
whom? Did Springsteen accidentally empower Reaganism back in the
mid-1980s as he simultaneously denounced it? Is he somehow cheapening
the individual tragedies of which he writes and sings by performing
these haunting melodies at the ungodly hour of 8:30 am in the happy-talk
context of a Today show beach party?

Matt Lauer asked Springsteen whether he feared being accused of
exploiting the tragedy of 9/11, and Springsteen told him to listen to
the music and make up his own mind. The same might be said of his
willingness to embrace (and exploit) America's mighty mass-marketing
machine.

The answer has to be a personal one. In Asbury Park, I did some random
interviewing of people who had traveled many hours, and waited on
overnight lines, in the hope of seeing Springsteen perform four songs in
the Convention Hall for the Today broadcast. I spoke to a
firefighter who had gone into the burning buildings, a 16-year-old girl
who was repaying her mom for waiting ten hours on line to get 'NSync
tickets, a woman with her 5-year-old son, who, back in '85, enlisted her
entire family in a weeklong wait for tickets. Nobody mentioned Matt or
Katie. Nobody mentioned the marketing campaign. Nobody even complained
about the all-night wait and the uncertainty that they would be allowed
inside the hall. They were there for Bruce because Bruce was there for
them. In the midst of what Springsteen accurately terms "a theater of
humiliation on TV and on the radio, a reflection of self-loathing," they
had created a community around something better. This was their
hometown.

(Don't forget, while those Nation folks are on vacation,
www.altercation.msnbc.com.)

Speaking on NPR recently, Cokie Roberts, the soon-to-retire co-host of
ABC's This Week, falsely informed her listeners that "the
President was exonerated by the Securities and Exchange Commission." In
fact, even though his daddy was the President of the United States
during the incident in question, after a remarkably relaxed
investigation the SEC informed Bush's lawyer that its decision "must in
no way be construed as indicating that [George W. Bush] has been
exonerated."

Call me sentimental, but I'm going to miss the old gal. With no
discernible politics save an attachment to her class, no reporting and
frequently no clue, she was the perfect source for a progressive media
critic: a perpetual font of Beltway conventional wisdom uncomplicated by
any collision with messy reality.

Lippmann/Dewey fans will remember that the very idea of a watchdog press
breaks down when the watchdog starts acting like--and more important,
sympathizing with--the folks upon whom he or she has been hired to keep
an eye. With Cokie, this was never much of an issue. Her dad was a
Congressman. Her mom was a Congresswoman. Her brother is one of the
slickest and wealthiest lobbyists in the city. Her husband, Steve
Roberts, holds the dubious honor of being perhaps the only person to
give up a plum New York Times job because it interfered with his
television career. And together they form a tag-team buck-raking/book-writing enterprise offering up corporate speeches and dime-store
"Dear Abby"-style marriage advice to those unfortunates who do not enjoy
his-and-her television contracts.

Cokie came to public attention at NPR, where she developed some street
cred as a Capitol Hill gumshoe, but apparently grew tired of the hassle
of actual reporting, which only helped her career. With no concern for
the niceties of conflicts of interest, she and her husband accepted
together as much as $45,000 in speaking fees from the very corporations
that were affected by the legislation she was allegedly covering in
Congress. Moreover, she claimed something akin to a royal prerogative in
refusing to address the ethical quandary it obviously raised. (A
spokesman responding to a journalist's inquiry said that Queen Cokie's
corporate speaking fees were "not something that in any way, shape or
form should be discussed in public.")

Apparently, nobody ever told Cokie that the job of the insider pundit is
to at least pretend to be conversant with the major political, economic
and intellectual issues in question before putting these in the service
of a consensually derived story line. The pedantic George Will and the
peripatetic Sam Donaldson at least give the impression of having
considered their remarks ahead of time, either by memorizing from
Bartlett's or pestering politicians. Not Cokie. Once, when a
reporting gig interfered with one of her many social and/or speaking
engagements, she donned a trench coat in front of a photo of the Capitol
in the ABC studios in the hopes of fooling her viewers. She was not a
real journalist; she just played one on TV.

Still, her commentary was invaluable, if inadvertently so. As a pundit,
she was a windup Conventional Wisdom doll. The problem with Bill
Clinton, for instance, was that he was the wrong sort for Cokie and her
kind. "This is a community in all kinds of ways," she told Sally Quinn
during the impeachment crisis. "When something happens everybody gathers
around.... It's a community of good people involved in a worthwhile
pursuit." Here was her analysis of the complicated constitutional
questions impeachment raised: "People who act immorally and lie get
punished," she proclaimed, noting that she "approach[ed] this as a
mother." (Her own children are fully grown, but perhaps they're real
sensitive...) "This ought to be something that outrages us, makes us
ashamed of him." When the country refused to go along with the ironclad
Broder/Cokester consensus, she supported impeachment anyway, because
"then people can lead public opinion rather than just follow it through
the process." These same "people," meaning Ken Starr, Newt Gingrich and
Cokie's friends, made a return appearance in Cokieworld when the Supreme
Court handed Al Gore's victory to George W. Bush following the Florida
2000 election crisis. "People do think it's political, but they think
that's OK," she averred. "They expect the court to be political, and
they wanted the election to be over."

All this is relevant to those of you who are not dewy-eyed about Cokie's
departure--or Dewey-eyed about democracy, for that matter--because
Cokie's inadvertent honesty helps us understand how George W. Bush ever
made it to the White House in the first place. Why are we hearing about
Harken Oil only today? Why did the press ignore the evidence of Bush's
personal and professional dishonesty back in 2000, when it still
mattered? Meanwhile, these same reporters concocted stupid stories about
Al Gore's penchant for "exaggeration," misreporting the simplest facts
on his (essentially accurate) claims about the Internet, Love Canal and
Love Story. It's not as if evidence of Bush's unsavory past was
unavailable. I wrote about it twice on MSNBC.com, in the fall of 2000,
following a damning Talk magazine exposé of Bush's
suspicious business ethics, written by Bill Minutaglio and Nancy Beiles,
and based on documents made public by the Center for Public Integrity.
But nobody cared. The Times, the Post, the Journal,
CBS, ABC et al.--who had all championed Ken Starr's $70 million
investigation of a $30,000 unprofitable land deal--did not think Bush's
fortune-making sweetheart deals were worth more than the most cursory of
investigations. (Let's not even bring up the dubious Texas Rangers deal
or the missing years in his National Guard record.)

How did the media--and hence the nation--manage to miss these stories?
Just ask Cokie: As she explained back then in defense of herself
and her colleagues, "The story line is Bush isn't smart enough and Gore
isn't straight enough. In Bush's case, you know he's just misstating as
opposed to it playing into a story line about him being a serial
exaggerator." Thus spake Cokathustra.

For more, check out www.altercation.msnbc.com during The Nation's
summer lull. We never take vacations at Altercation.

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