Propaganda Propagation

Propaganda Propagation

A column arguing that a liberal foundation outspent the Koch brothers disproves its own assertion in a disclaimer—which conveniently gets forgotten when the initial claim is repeated.


My new Think Again column is called “Acknowledging Our Mistakes in Iraq Would Prevent Us from Repeating Them” but I would have called it “Liberal Hawks on Iraq Anniversary: 'We were right to be wrong.'" Anyway, it’s here. You can be the judge of what it should be called.

My Nation column is called “The Passion and Eloquence of Anthony Lewis” and it is here.

How to get into Bruce Springsteen.

An annoying back and forth:

I found myself forced last week to get into a letters to the editor hassle with a conservative academic named Richard Vatz, who, in attempting to make the case in the Baltimore Sun that “Liberal media bias is beyond doubt,” wrote the following sentence:

Nation magazine journalist Eric Alterman wrote a book, 'What Liberal Bias,' that is widely cited and heavily researched but filled with evidentiary problems.”

That was it. No evidence. No follow up. No nothing. And the dude could not even get the title correct.

Anyway, I responded:

To the editors:

I was almost tempted to admire both the irony–to say nothing of the audacity–of being accused of producing work flawed by “evidentiary problems” in a newspaper column by a professor who cannot be bothered to produce a single scintilla of evidence to support his claim. But since it’s my reputation at stake, my amusement was minimal.

For the record, the work to which your guest columnist, Richard E. Vatz, refers: What Liberal Media? The Truth About Bias and the News (Basic Books, 2003 and 2004), was meticulously fact-checked and contains  fully 43 pages of source notes. I do not deny the possibility of error. It’s almost impossible to write a work of over 350 pages without them, though I am aware of none that have survived beyond its first printing. I also do not deny the likelihood that many people will disagree with my arguments. That is, after all, what honorable public discourse is all about.  But I do deny both Mr. Vatz and by extension, the Sun’s right to cast aspersions on my scholarship by throwing out casually derogatory accusations without making any attempt to support them.

I hate to sound defensive, but it so happens that The New Yorker magazine, which is considered to be an authority on such matters, noted the“ meticulous care with which [Alterman’s] arguments are sourced and footnoted.” The Los Angeles Times called the book “well-documented” and “even-tempered.” The Columbia Journalism Review said the “research really is excellent.” The Orlando Sentinel called the book “thoroughly researched.” The Milwaukee Journal Sentinel termed it “masterful, painstakingly documented.” Publishers Weekly thought it “well-documented” and “well-argued.”  Providence Journal: “Exhaustively researched.” The Boston Review: ”Exhaustively researched.” I could go on, but my point is not to brag, but merely to point out that Mr. Vatz’s opinion is a lonely one, and requires, at the very least, significant supporting evidence to be taken seriously as anything but an ideologically motivated ad-hominem attack.

Such baseless accusations may be the appropriate manner to conduct oneself in the on Fox News or right-wing talk radio, but Sun readers deserve better and so do I.  I look forward to both an apology and a retraction.


Eric Alterman 

So then he wrote back:

Eric Alterman criticizes my recent commentary in The Sun on major media bias ("Liberal media bias is beyond doubt, March 18) because, he claims, I lacked "supporting evidence" in claiming his book, ""What Liberal Media? The Truth About Bias and the News," had "evidentiary problems" ("Vatz's baseless attack," March 21). He unsurprisingly quotes variously liberal sources as finding his thesis well-proved. In several e-mails to me, he recklessly analogized me to the reckless Joe McCarthy, ending with addressing me as "Joe." Very adult.

As I explained to him, it is impossible to provide full analysis to every example one cites in a 600-700 word op-ed piece, but I shall be happy to now, quoting just a few problems in his work from a book review I wrote for a major journal in my field, the Fall, 2003 issue of Qualitative Research Reports in Communication. Incidentally, Mr. Alterman's book was required reading in my class for years.

Mr. Alterman disputes the existence of most liberal bias and even argues that there is much conservative bias in the media (p. 1, p.11, p. 15). He concedes that there may be some liberal bias here and there in the media, but he undercovers it and claims without proof it is not "overwhelming" in the significant areas of abortion, gun control, campaign finance reform, gay rights and the environment (pp. 108-109).

Mr. Alterman is simply not careful with his generalizations in his book and often his evidence is conspicuously selective. For example, he cites a 1996 Freedom Forum poll of Washington bureau chiefs and congressional correspondents as "the right's Rosetta Stone…" He simply ignores the very long list of other media surveys that reveal as well that elite journalists skew left or liberal in comparison to public opinion.

There are also glaring omissions in his work. For just one example, absent is any careful analysis of National Public Radio. In his very selective and limited analysis of this source of liberal bias (NPR), he simply claims that it was inadequate in criticizing corporate wealth. There also has been a long concern about allegedly anti-Israeli reporting by NPR, which is also unaddressed by Mr. Alterman.

I could go on, but the point is that one cannot write a lengthy treatise about every supporting point in an op-ed piece. But a writer should have knowledge about criticisms he makes, and I do. Mr. Alterman doesn't.

Richard E. Vatz, Towson

So then I wrote back:

I have no doubt your readers find the back and forth between Richard E. Vatz and myself about the evidence contained in my 2003 book, What Liberal Media? The Truth about Bias and the News, to be tedious. Be assured I find even more tedious to have to participate in it.  But a scholar’s reputation for accuracy and evidence is the equivalent of his personal integrity. Mr. Vatz appears intent on impugning mine, but insists upon doing so behind nothing more than the verbal equivalents of smokescreens and mirrors.

I’ll be as brief as I can. In his March 26 letter in response to mine, Vatz notes in his first sentence that “claim that he lacked ‘supporting evidence’” for his attack on the evidence in my book.  I did not “claim” this, I note it as a simple fact. Vatz made no attempt whatever to support his accusation.  He later attempts to excuse his action because he writes, “it is impossible to provide full analysis to every example one cites in a 600-700 word op-ed piece.” Again, “full analysis?” How about none whatsoever? Mr. Vatz appears not to know the difference.

In his next sentence he writes that I “unsurprisingly quote variously liberal sources as finding his thesis well-proved.” Again, check the record. Not a single one of the sources I quote was a “liberal” one. Each was a mainstream media newspaper or newsmagazine. They are “liberal” only the sense that anyone to the left of say, Rush Limbaugh or Ann Coulter is also “liberal.” Perhaps this is also true of Mr. Vatz, though, lacking further evidence, I hesitate to draw any definite conclusions.

I apparently hurt Mr. Vatz’s feelings when I emailed him that it was also a tactic of Joe McCarthy’s to make accusations without bothering to present any evidence. For that I am sorry, accurate as the analogy may be.

As for his belated attempt to support his initial carelessness, he huffs and puffs a bit before insisting that one piece of evidence I cite is “selective.” Goodness! A scholar being “selective?” What will he accuse me of next? Exercising careful judgment?  As for his revelation that there exists  “a very long list of other media surveys that reveal as well that elite journalists skew left or liberal in comparison to public opinion.” It is false to say I ignore this. I address it by noting that a variety of factors, including professional pride, the belief in objectivity, media ownership, and right-wing pressure—all of whose effects are described in detail in my book–can prevent liberal journalists from publishing liberally biased stories. I’m sorry if I stated this in such a way that Mr. Vatz failed to understand it. I hope I have done so more clearly now.

As for the “glaring omissions,” in my work, and my “very selective and limited analysis,” once again, I plead guilty. In a book of only 350 or so pages with a 43 mere pages of supporting source notes, one cannot cover absolutely everything. I am selective. My analysis is limited. This is true. It is also a truism. All scholarship is by definition “selective” and “limited.” It’s true of Robert Caro’s (so far) 4000 page biography of Lyndon Johnson  and it’s true of everything Mr. Vatz has ever published, whatever that may be. As a professor of “rhetoric,” I would have expected him to know this, but then again, I would also have expected him to be acquainted with the meaning (and importance) of evidence.

Finally at the end of his letter, Mr. Vatz writes “There also has been a long concern about allegedly anti-Israeli reporting by NPR, which is also unaddressed by Mr. Alterman.” I have to admit, I find this bizarre. First, it has nothing whatever to do with anything in my book, since I barely discuss NPR. Second, once again–and I am getting as tired of writing this as Sun readers are of reading it–Mr. Vatz provides no evidence. for his accusation. Sure “there has long been concern” about lots of “alleged” matters. Many people are apparently concerned about President Obama’s “alleged” birth in Kenya and his “alleged” desire to turn the United States into either a Socialist or an Islamic Republic, or perhaps both. In the past, we have heard of others “concern” with President Clinton’s “alleged” murder of his wife’s “alleged” ex-lover or his “alleged”  love child of mixed-race parentage. The idea that Vatz would end his missive by tossing out yet another allegation for which he provides no evidence is either sad or comical, depending on one’s point of view. What it is not is worthy of space in your newspaper.


Eric Alterman

Alter-reviews:  Carrington and Ellington, Stephen Stills and Duane Allman

I was unfamiliar with the work of the drummer, Terri Lyne Carrington, but she certainly caught it with her tribute to the 1963 album by Duke Ellington, Charlie Mingus and Max Roach,  Money Jungle. Her album features Featuring Gerald Claytonand Christian McBride, with guests, Clark Terry, Lizz Wright, Herbie Hancock  and picks up the previous  commentary on the perennial tug-of-war between art and commerce that has only grown more desperate in the half century that’s passed.  I caught her band at Dizzy’s  on Tuesday night and she and the players (which included Mr. Clayton)  It was an interesting and provocative night, and in addition to educating me about Carrington’s work, whetting my appetite for next month’s Jazz@LC tribute to Mr. “Beyond Category.” The Ellington festival begins on April 24 and you can read about it here. For more about Ms. Carrington, go here.

It’s been a magnificent week in my favorite category:  “Box sets of the music of the people to whose work I grew up listening but with whom I could not entirely keep up, much to my regret.” Up first, Carry On is a four-CD set, spanning 50 years. One great thing about it is that it’s the right size to fit on your cd shelf (as were the slightly less expansive Crosby and Nash boxes.) You get over five hours of music and a 113 page booklet and most of it, I’m betting, is stuff with which you’re not familiar.  Produced by Nash with Stills and Joel Bernstein, it hits most of the high spots but throws in a plethora of alternate recordings, demos, live cuts, new mixes, totalling 25 previously unreleased tracks.

I also appreciate that the box is organized chronologically—beginning with The: "Travelin " a previously unreleased recording that Stills made at age 17 in Costa Rica (one of the many places he lived growing up in a military family). The most recent recording is from one of those incredible Beacon shows I reviewed in the fall and has  CSN performing "Girl From The North Country."  There’s a lot of music here that will be a revelation to people who know only CSNY, Buffalo Springfield and Marrakesh Express.  Did you know, for instance that Stills played with Hendrix? (He says they were planning to record together.) There’s a great jam here.  And I particularly love the 2002 CSNY “Ole Man Trouble” at MSG with on Booker T. and Donald "Duck" Dunn. You’ll also find Herbie Hancock, Eric Clapton, Maynard Ferguson, Ray Baretto, Willie Bobo, and Larry Harlow sprinkled throughout the musicians, but overall it’s a compelling play for Stills’ centrality in the history of rock n roll, as well as just some great stuff to have all in one place.  I would have preferred a bit heavier emphasis on the Manassas albums and the much undervalued solo work from the late seventies, but hey, I didn’t do the work. The price is pretty reasonable too, all things considered. More here.

p.s. I see the May 3CSN/Jazz@LC gig is sold out. That’s a shame. I fear the scalpers will get rich on what will undoubtedly be a once-in-a-lifetime experience.

The monster box this month is the enormous seven cd  129 track retrospective of Duane Allman's  work,  “Skydog.” Duane’s career has been examined before, over the course of four cds, but this set will tempt even those who, like yours truly, already have everything the Allman Brothers ever put out  plus a few albums where Duane was just a studio hand. It begins in 1965 with Duane, at age 18, together with his baby brother, Greg, fronting a band called the Escorts, doing a quite decent version of “Lovelight.” A year later we get six songs, also with Gregg, as the Allman Joys. Plus another nine with same as The Hour Glass and then two more as the 31st of February follow.  These are much better than I expected them to be—few are “work” the way say, listening to “The Bruce Springsteen Band” or “Steel Mill” can be.  Next we get a tour through Duane’s studio work, much of it done down in Muscle Shoals for Jerry Wexler  and includes the work of Clarence Carter, Wilson Pickett, Arthur Conley Aretha Franklin, Boz Scaggs, Ronnie Hawkins, Lulu, Herbie Mann, Hammond Jr.,  Barry Goldberg, Otis Rush, King Curtis, Johnny Jenkins, Sam Samudo, Delaney and Bonnie, and even Laura Nyro and Lulu. There is no new Derek and the Dominoes material unfortunately and the Allman Brothers stuff, which is a lot of it, is mostly from performances that have been released in the past few years but are not on the classic albums that everybody has.  I had them, but the studio work and the early stuff more than justifies this box even with the repeats.  In fact I’ve even gone out to buy a few albums by people with whose work I was unfamiliar after listening to Duane play on their songs.  The mixes are excellent and the liner notes, while not terribly elaborate, provide all the dates and players for each of the songs. There are too many highlights spread across this to name any one—especially since this will differ from person to person–to name any of them. But everything’s here. It takes one up a bit short to note that Duane died at just 24. I’ve been seeing the band twice a year (at least) for the past quarter century, and while they are better technically now than ever—better I would submit, than just about any band of musicians playing popular music of any kind anywhere—the creative period obviously took place under Duane and shortly thereafter (through “Brothers and Sisters.”) There is a richness to this music, given his versatility as a studio player and the excellence of those whom he sought for collaboration and vice versa.  “Skydog” is not cheap but it will sell out, and if you are considering it, even with the repeats of previous releases, I feel pretty certain you’ll regret it if you let it go by. I know I would. There’s a video here.

Now here’s Reed:

Propaganda Propagation
by Reed Richardson

Ever wonder where a piece of right-wing misinformation comes from? Or how it got started? Or what kind of long, strange trip it took from conception to gestation to arriving, fully formed, in the talking points of conservatives, after which one can expect the mainstream media to treat the lie seriously on the Sunday morning news shows?

Then come with me down the rabbit hole.

Our first stop is this Mediaite column from earlier this week authored by columnist and site editor Noah Rothman. The premise of this column was that the millions of dollars New York City Mayor Mike Bloomberg is currently spending to push for reasonable gun control legislation was, in fact, counterproductive. Instead, he argued Bloomberg is conveniently providing right-wing folks from the redder parts of America an attractive archenemy to rally against. But Rothman’s real objection to Bloomberg comes later in the piece when he suddenly pivots to the topic of campaign finance reform [italics mine]:

Bloomberg is the physical embodiment of the hypocrisy the Democratic Party and the media display on campaign finance reform issues.Combined with the news that the liberal Tides Foundation had contributed five times more to Democrats than the oft-maligned libertarian Koch Brothers contributed to Republicans, Bloomberg’s financial contributions to liberal candidates demonstrate that progressives and the media establishment are only concerned about campaign finance issues when Democratic candidates are in danger of losing elections. 

As someone who has occasionally written about the pernicious effects of outside spending on political campaigns—for example, right here last week—I was admittedly surprised by the claim in the italicized portion above. Could it be that the Tides Foundation really is this secret liberal leviathan whose Democratic campaign funding dwarfs even the infamously outlandish spending by the Koch brothers? Only a few seconds after clicking the link, which brings you to a page on the Human Events website, does one begin to realize the short answer is no.

The Human Events article is, itself, merely a waystation for this bit of propaganda, one that uses the supposed smoking gun about the Tides spending for “activist causes” to aim criticism at the supposed liberal media’s unfair obsession with the Kochs. But to get the full measure of the deception here requires clicking the link for the block-quote. Doing this drops you down one more level, to the original source of the talking point, a Washington Examiner op-ed from early March. And here, predictably, is where the wheels start to come off:

Three Koch foundations made a total of 181 grants worth $25,405,525 in 2010 (most recent available records). The one Tides Foundation made a total of 2,627 grants worth $143,529,590 in 2010.

Put otherwise, for every one grant made by a Koch foundation, Tides made more than five grants.

First, let’s set aside Examiner executive editor Mark Tapscott’s innumeracy and sloppy conflating of the comparative ratios of grants and grant dollars. What’s really noteworthy here is that these bottom-line numbers lack any context at all, and that Tapscott doesn’t bother linking to the pertinent tax forms for these four foundations so the reader could see for him or herself where all this money is really going.

There’s a reason for all this opacity, of course—it’s because the details tell a radically different story when it comes to these two groups’ actual spending on partisan causes. If you actually look into their individual grants, you’ll see only a tiny percentage of it went anywhere near politics. The foundations of the Kochs donated almost all of its monies to apolitical causes, with most of the grants going to the general funds of several dozen universities. And at nowhere in these three foundations’ records is any mention of the Kochs’ notoriously spendthrift 501(c)(4) political group, Americans for Prosperity, which spent $140 million during the 2012 election.

As for the Tides Foundation, more than 96% of its 2010 grants—$138 million—went to 501(c)(3) charities that are barred, by law, from partisan activities. These grants ran the gamut from the Academy for the Love of Learning to the Zen Community of Oregon. The remaining $5.1 million of Tides grants did go to 501(c)(4) groups, also known as social welfare organizations—most notably, groups like the ACLU and League of Conservation Voters—that can engage in robust political lobbying and endorse partisan candidates.

So what’s going on here? Simple, Tapscott is cherry-picking two distinct sources of charitable giving from either side of the ideological spectrum whose spending, when compared without any regard for accuracy or precision, conveniently fits longstanding feelings of conservative resentment and claims of media bias. Thanks to some vestigial remnant of intellectual honesty, however, Tapscott acknowledges as much in the very next paragraph, what I’ve taken to calling the greatest disclaimer of all time:

There are important qualifications to these numbers, including that the two Koch brothers also contributed to numerous political candidates, there may be other Koch-controlled foundations that didn't surface in this study, not all of the grants included here went to political or ideological groups or causes, and the two men may have significant influence on yet other foundations not under their direction.

Qualifications, indeed. What we have here is a four-part(!) self-defeating timebomb stuck squarely in the middle of his argument, which essentially blows apart the conclusions therein. This selective conflating of grants to like-minded charities with direct donations to political campaigning is little more than trafficking in willful misinformation. And while adding this shameless disclaimer gives Tapscott an out, it won’t come as a surprise that when this talking point gets picked up and repeated among the usual right-wing suspects, this bit of context magically disappears. Instead, the core critique becomes ground down and polished into a soundbite ready diatribe where the “secret” Tides foundation gets to escape “liberal media” scrutiny while contributing hundreds of millions to “political causes,” all of which is further cross-contaminated and intentionally confused by intermixing vague talk of funding partisan candidates.

Notably, Rothman makes the very same mistake in his column, which contains nary a mention of the huge caveat that accompanied the Examiner op-ed about the Kochs many other political spending efforts. Even the Human Events page Rothman links to manages to keep the disclaimer. Now, I don’t consider Mediaite part of the right-wing media constellation, nor do most others in the media I suspect, so it’s important to understand that when Rothman’s column got picked up and featured on Hot Air, Michelle Malkin’s website, his lack of due diligence effectively launders this bit of conservative misinformation through an ostensibly liberal or at least apolitical news site, where it can then be approvingly cited and injected back into the right-wing media feedback loop.

Once ingrained, these talking points can be almost impossible dislodge, no matter how much logic is applied, as I found out. Right after Rothman’s column came out, I pointed out the deceptive nature of this claim that Tides give “five times more” to Democratic candidates than the Kochs do to Republicans, citing the actual 990 tax form as proof. His initial response, via Twitter, was encouraging, if also suggestive of someone who doesn’t take glaring errors very seriously: “Strive for accuracy, but we’re all imperfect beings. Does not change the underlying point of that post.”

Rothman’s subsequent “correction” was anything but, however, as it kept the same A vs. B textual construction from the original and simply substituted “progressive causes” where it had previously said electing Democrats (which is how it now reads). When I pointed out that his column was still grossly inaccurate because it continued to conflate grants to non-partisan charities with all the partisan-focused spending by the Kochs, which actually totaled close to $400 million in 2012, he continued to obtusely lump them all together as “political spending.”

His resistance to ceding the point is, in a way, understandable. To take away the idea that liberal groups like Tides and individuals like Bloomberg are vastly outspending conservatives like the Koch brothers undermines his caviling about Democratic hypocrisy. Likewise, if the right-wing’s deluge of election campaigns with hundreds of millions in cash really is unmatched by the left than his column’s whole argument falls apart. Most telling to me was his response to my last question, where I asked him if he thought liberals, though vastly out-gunned in the post-Citizens United world of no-holds barred political spending, should nonetheless be forced to unilaterally disarm to prove their belief in campaign finance reform. His answer—silence.

Truth be told, I suspect that whatever Rothman’s flawed arguments about liberal hypocrisy on campaign spending are, they will quickly dissipate in the discourse. His contribution to furthering a right-wing propaganda point, however, has the potential to last for years. I guess we’ll know his column really succeeded when we tune in on Sunday morning to hear someone talking all about how the Tides Foundation outspends the Koch brothers on “Meet the Press.”

Contact me directly at reedfrichardson (at) gmail dot com. 

Also, I’m on Twitter here—(at)reedfrich.

Editor's note: To contact Eric Alterman, use this form.

Read Reed Richardson on the press coverage of the lead-up to the Iraq War ten years ago.

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