What Liberal Media?: The Truth About Bias and the News (Art of Mentoring Series)

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"Bold, counterintuitive, and cathartic.... Alterman is ready for a bar fight, and he comes out swinging."New York Times Book Review

Widely acclaimed and hotly contested, veteran journalist Eric Alterman's ambitious investigation into the true nature of the U.S. news media touched a nerve and sparked debate across the country. As the question of whose interests the media protects-and how-continues to raise hackles, Alterman's sharp, utterly convincing assessment cuts through the ...

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"Bold, counterintuitive, and cathartic.... Alterman is ready for a bar fight, and he comes out swinging."New York Times Book Review

Widely acclaimed and hotly contested, veteran journalist Eric Alterman's ambitious investigation into the true nature of the U.S. news media touched a nerve and sparked debate across the country. As the question of whose interests the media protects-and how-continues to raise hackles, Alterman's sharp, utterly convincing assessment cuts through the cloud of inflammatory rhetoric, settling the question of liberal bias in the news once and for all. Eye-opening, witty, and thoroughly and solidly researched, What Liberal Media? is required reading for media watchers, and anyone concerned about the potentially dangerous consequences for the future of democracy in America.

Author Biography: Eric Alterman is the media columnist for The Nation and MSNBC.com. He has contributed to Worth, Rolling Stone, Elle, Mother Jones, Policy Journal, and The Sunday Express (London). He received the Orwell Award for the Sound & Fury, and the Stephen Crane Literary Award for It Ain't No Sin to Be Glad You're Alive. He is also the senior fellow of the World Policy Institute at New School University, and a faculty member in the magazine journalism program at NYU. He lives with his family in Manhattan.

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Editorial Reviews

From Barnes & Noble
According to Bernard Goldberg, Bill O'Reilly, and Rush Limbaugh, liberals control the media. In fact, that claim has been a popular standard for conservative thinkers and politicians for decades. In What Liberal Media? media columnist Eric Alterman takes the war into the enemy's camp, pursuing an aggressive investigation into the intrinsically conservative nature of the U.S. news. Naming names and lobby groups, he profiles the real newsmakers behind and beyond the cameras.
Ted Widmer
Alterman is ready for a bar fight, and he comes out swinging. His first targets are Goldberg and Ann Coulter, the acidulous commentator whose mini-skirts and mini-thoughts have ensured her a wide following on the paleolithic end of the political spectrum. Alterman dusts off some of her more outrageous quotations (wishing that Timothy McVeigh had blown up The New York Times, to cite one example), which more or less refute themselves, and then proceeds to the more serious argument that ''the right is working the refs'' the way loudmouthed coaches do -- to gain whatever tactical advantage they can.

In fact, Alterman argues, the bias is hard to find. The Times was hardly soft on the Clinton administration, chasing after Whitewater for years, and The Washington Post has been slouching rightward for some time. Talk radio is Death Valley for the left, and the world of television punditry is not much better. Throughout the book, the idea of a liberal reporter seems a faint anachronism -- like the typewriter or Jimmy Olsen's bow tie -- when contrasted to the disciplined nexus of private foundations, talk shows and dirt-seeking oppo men that the right uses to get out its message. Alterman vividly presents this nether world as something out of Dante's ''Inferno'' -- the trust-funders with deep pockets, like Richard Mellon Scaife; the Internet bottom-feeders who traffic in rumors and half-truths (Matt Drudge); the braying hosts and guests on shows like ''The O'Reilly Factor'' and ''The McLaughlin Group,'' who never shut their mouths to listen to one another (where's the duct tape when you actually need it?).

But it's one thing to rant about the right, and it's another to show tangible proof that democracy is being tampered with. This Alterman sets out to do in his two best chapters, detailing the press's dismissive treatment of Al Gore in 2000 and its indifference to the actual counting of the votes in Florida. Alterman suggests persuasively that the press mollycoddled George W. Bush in the months leading to the election. Another interesting revelation is that the Republicans were poised to launch a ''massive talk radio operation'' to attack the verdict if Gore won the electoral count but lost the popular vote. History turned out differently, as we know, and Gore was excoriated as a sore loser for even questioning the result. By working the refs, the Bush team ended up winning the Super Bowl....
New York Times

The New Yorker
Alterman, a columnist for The Nation, says that, to the extent that the liberal media still exists, "I work in the middle of it, and so do many of my friends. And guess what? It's filled with right-wingers." His thesis, a response to recent books by the conservatives Ann Coulter and Bernard Goldberg, is that liberal media outlets take pains to feature opinion from all across the political spectrum (and are in some cases veering rightward); meanwhile, the right-wing media -- a well-funded empire of radio stations, TV shows, and magazines -- pursues an overtly partisan agenda. A polemic is nothing without passion, and Alterman's argumentative vigor is engaging, although his focus sometimes drifts, and he can happily spend an entire paragraph upbraiding Howard Kurtz for having said that William Kristol's being a Mets fan proves him to be "contrarian." Like most media commentators, Alterman probably overestimates the influence of media commentators, but the meticulous care with which his arguments are sourced and footnoted is in commendable contrast to the efforts of some of his more fire-breathing conservative opponents.
Sean Kevin Fitzpatrick
The commercial success achieved by right-wing authors Ann Coulter and Bernard Goldberg has inspired Alterman, a lefty, to take his own turn at bashing the media. In his second book, the author challenges the notion of a "liberal" media, arguing that the right has been so successful at manipulating the press that political debate in this country has shifted dramatically to the conservative side. Moreover, the right raises huge sums of money to influence that debate and rewards conservative media spokespersons like Rush Limbaugh and Matt Drudge. Alterman expresses his displeasure with President George W. Bush and attacks a variety of personalities in the administration and among the journalists who cover it, including New York Times reporter Frank Bruni, whose coverage of the Bush campaign Alterman calls "issueless." In fact, Alterman's incessant attacks on his peers are so many and so virulent that the reader may eventually suspect him of being less interested in reporting than in settling scores.
Publishers Weekly
Media bias has been preventing the American public from getting the whole story, says journalist Alterman, and bestselling books like Ann Coulter's Slander and Bernard Goldberg's Bias aren't helping matters. Alterman, who writes the "Stop the Presses" media column for the Nation and an MSNBC Web log, "Altercation," passionately lays out his case in this succinct, abridged reading of his latest book. Along with Coulter and Goldberg, Sean Hannity, Rush Limbaugh and George Will come under the gun, too, as Alterman picks apart the problems with today's news media. While it's intriguing to hear him list what he sees as quite grievous offenses by conservative media outlets, Alterman's well-documented research is what makes the book so engaging. Alterman reads this audiobook like a fervent political science or journalism professor might, listing facts and citing reports, then adding his own inflections to emphasize points. A Queens, N.Y., native, Alterman speaks with a slight accent and an even slighter lisp, but this does not detract from his heated, heartfelt performance. Simultaneous release with the Basic hardcover (Forecasts, Jan. 27). (Feb.) Copyright 2003 Reed Business Information.
Alterman and this book got a lot of attention when the hardcover edition was published, joining Al Franken and others in the liberal counterattack against conservative books alleging liberal bias in the media. Alterman's book is among the most carefully researched and argued of the lot, and as media critic for The Nation he is a smart, experienced journalist who makes no bones about being an old-fashioned liberal politically. The book examines what kind of messages really get out in television, print, and radio. He also has chapters about economic and social bias, the 2000 election, "W's World," and ends with an afterword on "Operation Iraqi Freedom." Of course such a book is part of a cultural dialogue at a particular time in history, and many of the names and events discussed have already been succeeded by new media favorites as the debate (at least on cable TV) continues. KLIATT Codes: SA—Recommended for senior high school students, advanced students, and adults. 2003, Perseus, 357p. notes., Ages 15 to adult.
—Daniel Levinson
Library Journal
Do the media lean to the Left or the Right? Bernard Goldberg argued for the Left in his best-selling Bias: A CBS Insider Exposes How the Media Distort the News. Alterman, media columnist for the Nation and author of Sound and Fury: The Making of the Punditocracy, counters that the whole idea of a predominantly liberal press is a pernicious myth. Calling for a more open-minded approach to the discussion of media bias, Alterman documents the range of conservative media outlets in all formats, showing that the conservatives far outnumber the small and underfunded liberal media. He further challenges the notion of liberal bias by highlighting the consolidation of major media into the hands of a smaller number of corporate owners, whose focus on profits encourages a conservative slant to news. To support his argument, Alterman relies on recent political history and media transcripts. Readers who have been bombarded by complaints about a too liberal press will welcome Alterman's articulate counterargument. Both academic and public libraries will want to add this book to their journalism collections.-Judy Solberg, George Washington Univ. Libs., Washington, DC Copyright 2003 Reed Business Information.
Kirkus Reviews
Journalist Alterman disproves with vigor the notion of news organizations’ left-wing bias, only to leave the more important question hanging: why ignorance trumps ideology. The author believes that the media should be watchdogs: aggressive and independent in securing news, questioning of authority, frank about any self-interest involved. Given his definition of liberals as those who believe in "a steeply progressive income tax, to say nothing of making universally available, high-quality health care, education, housing, public parks, beaches, and last but not least, political power," it doesn't take much to trot out the media opposition. The influential, or at least conspicuous, conservative pundits Alterman identifies range from the alarmist Ann Coulter to the paleoconservative William Safire, with all manner of the frothing Michael Kelly and the egregious Cokie Roberts in between, all of them selling an ideological agenda when not shoveling forth errors and insults, partial or misleading truths. Nor do these pundits own their last words; those are the property of editors, publishers, producers, and advertisers (witness the News Hour/Archer Daniels Midland embarrassment) geared toward a market whose heart isn't in hard news. Conservatives and liberals alike can hurl examples of bias at each other all day long, but it’s understood that "the White House depends on the media to make its case to the public; the media needs the White House to fill their airtime." Alterman (Sound and Fury, 1992, etc.) hits the nub when he writes, "Most reporters are ignorant about most things"; all too often, journalists don't have an inkling of what they are covering, especially regarding national politics(see Election 2000) and international affairs (from the Balkans to Iraq, few ask the hard questions). Regrettably, the author doesn't pursue this fundamental point. Nonetheless, a sobering reminder that TV long ago abandoned serious journalism and that watchdogs and skeptics are thin on the ground in all media--bad news for those who believe a vibrant, informative press is one of the bedrocks of democracy. Agent: Tina Bennett/Janklow & Nesbit
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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780641838743
  • Publisher: Basic Books
  • Publication date: 3/1/2004
  • Series: Art of Mentoring Series
  • Pages: 384
  • Product dimensions: 6.00 (w) x 9.10 (h) x 1.00 (d)

Meet the Author

Eric Alterman

Eric Alterman currently writes the “Stop the Presses” media column for The Nation and the “Altercation” web log (www.altercation.msnbc.com) for MSNBC.com. In recent years, he has been a contributing editor to, or columnist for Worth, Rolling Stone, Elle, Mother Jones, World Policy Journal, and The Sunday Express(London). His Sound and Fury: The Making of the Punditocracy (1992/2000), won the 1992 George Orwell Award and his It Ain’t No Sin To Be Glad You’re Alive: The Promise of Bruce Springsteen (1999), won the 1999 Stephen Crane Literary Award. He is also the author of Who Speaks for America? Why Democracy Matters in Foreign Policy(1998), and When Presidents Lie: Deception and Its Consequences, which is forthcoming. A senior fellow of the World Policy Institute at New School University, and an affiliated faculty member in the magazine journalism program at New York University, Alterman received his B.A. in History and Government from Cornell, his M.A. in International Relations from Yale, and his Ph.D. in U.S. History from Stanford. He was born in Queens, New York and lives with his family in Manhattan. He can be reached online at www.whatliberalmedia.com.

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Read an Excerpt


What I Saw at the Devolution

This work is not designed to set forth novel or startling political doctrines. It is intended rather as a report on the fundamental enterprise of reexamination and self-criticism which liberalism has undergone in the last decade. The leaders in this enterprise have been the wiser men of an older generation. But its chief beneficiaries have been my own contemporaries; and its main consequence, I believe, has been to create a new and distinct political generation.
Arthur Schlesinger, Opening words of The Vital Center, 1949


"Only mad dogs and Englishmen go out in the midday sun." It should have been no surprise that, try as I might, I couldn't get this Noel Coward ditty out of my head. Washington, D.C.'s dog days of summer have been legendary since the swamp was first declared our nation's capital as the bastard child of a constitutional compromise—and the summer of 1997 was no exception. Search as I might, however, I found few canines and even fewer foreigners as the temperature rose to oppressive levels. Instead, looking around the South Lawn of the White House, I saw a very different—though no less peculiar—menagerie braving Washington's heat and humidity on this most August day.

    If I had not known better, I would almost have thought it was a heat-induced mirage. Striding out of the White House through a flag-bordered path and headed toward a platform on the South Lawn,not arm in arm but close, were the then opposing leaders of American political power: Bill Clinton and Newt Gingrich. It reminded me of the comic books of my childhood, when DC Comics' Batman and Marvel Comics' Spiderman would team up, Superman would battle Muhammad Ali, or all the superheroes would gather together for a "special" issue that every kid just had to have. Along with Clinton and Gingrich on the platform in front of me, and certainly even hotter than I was because of the powerful camera lights trained in their direction, were Vice President Al Gore, House Majority Leader Dick Armey, Budget Chairman John Kasich, and dozens of members of Congress from both parties. They had come together to end nearly three decades of wanton fiscal insanity in Washington and sign the first balanced budget in a generation.

    Since the moment I had started my job as Vice President Gore's senior speechwriter two months earlier, the push for a balanced budget had been at the center of my work. "Today is the reason I came to the White House," I wrote in my diary the day the budget deal was first announced. The provisions of the agreement would have a real impact on the millions of Americans who would benefit from the lower interest rates that would result from the balanced budget, from the plan's tax cut for middle-class families, from the health insurance it provided for low-income children, and from the college tuition assistance it offered. On top of all this, the achievement of a balanced budget after decades of debate and false starts was an important milestone for the country and for the New Democrat brand of thinking that Clinton had brought to the White House. I had come to Washington to make a difference. Now, the day after my 22nd birthday and less than two months since I had graduated from college, I was, Forrest Gump-like, standing in a sacred spot on a truly historic day.

    But gnawing at my pride was a profound disquietude. At first I couldn't identify its source. The event was proceeding almost exactly as planned. Logistical preparations had begun days earlier in the West Wing basement office of Communications Director Ann Lewis. There, every last detail was haggled out—from the programs (parchment embossed with the presidential seal) to the invitees (over one thousand guests) to the music (answering a demand for "patriotic music," one meeting participant was forced to defend the choice of the Marine Band. "The Marine Band is `the President's Own,'" she sputtered. "They're about as American as you can get—and they're pretty wonderful!"). A top White House official poked her head in on her way out on the town that Friday evening and made sure the staff understood the significance of what we were doing. "This is the president's day," she directed. "Let's make it special for him."

    Although the show was proceeding as planned, my uneasiness grew steadily stronger. The day was bigger than even the president of the United States. The assembled potentates had come to lower the curtain on something larger than three decades of budget deficits. Along with its specific importance, the balanced budget had a symbolic significance as well. Though I didn't realize it just then, I was witnessing the end of the political history of twentieth-century America. As historian John Lukacs has pointed out, internationally, the twentieth century really lasted from Franz Ferdinand's assassination and the beginning of World War I in 1914 to the moment when East Europeans tore apart the Iron Curtain with their bare hands and ended the Cold War in 1989. In that "short century," the forces of democracy and freedom faced off against monarchy, fascism, and communism—and emerged triumphant. Similarly, American politics of the twentieth century lasted from August 1910, when former President Theodore Roosevelt unveiled his New Nationalism vision of big government, to August 1997, when President Bill Clinton acknowledged that expanding centralized, top-down, bureaucratic government was a thing of the past.

    It is no accident that these events occurred when they did. Roosevelt and his cousin Franklin, who put the New Nationalism into practice, lived in a time when centralized, assembly line factories were the cutting edge. They defined Americans' thinking about how the world should be ordered and structured. Bill Clinton came to power at a moment when this world was rapidly retreating and being replaced by a New Economy that was—perhaps above all else—intrinsically skeptical of centralized power and institutions, including government as Americans have come to know it. Clinton's signing of the balanced budget was a recognition of the awesome power the global financial markets now have in shaping American prosperity; it sent a clear message to Americans that government would live within its means, abiding by the same rules as the middle class; but most of all it made clear that the old, traditional choices about government had stopped being viable. Democratic big government programs and huge Republican tax giveaways—both types of government by "hot check"—were no longer live options.

    As the ceremony went on, I began to realize why I was so anxious. When I was very young, my parents ran a small theater company in Los Angeles. I had grown up backstage, memorizing all the actors' parts and knowing when the audience would laugh far before they had any inkling of an impending guffaw. This predictability gave me comfort. Now, as the budget signing dragged on, an idea gnawed at me: a page was turning—and no one had their lines for the next act. In the years since that hot summer of 1997, politics has stumbled and bumbled along, without moving forward. The new lines still have not been written. This is the unfinished business of American politics.


Noticing the rest of my White House colleagues, and trying desperately to fit in and to avoid passing out, I took the lead of the men and doffed my suit jacket, slinging it ever so casually over my shoulder. I strained—unsuccessfully—to keep my mind from drifting during the interminable speeches. Watching the behavior of the assembled crowd, an observer might not have realized that this was such a crucial new beginning for the president, his party, and the nation. Over there was Press Secretary Mike McCurry sharing a laugh with a couple other staffers under the shade of a gnarled old tree. There was one of my colleagues, in his late 20s and—like Thomas Hobbes' life in a state of nature—"nasty, brutish, and short," sidling up to a pretty summer intern. There was a cluster of staffers from the First Lady's Office—Hillaryland, they called it—folding their programs into makeshift fans. And every so often, people would interrupt whatever they were doing to glance over at the made-for-TV production taking place before them.

    It was indeed a special day for President Clinton—one that no one could have foreseen when he began his campaign for the White House. Running for president in 1992, Clinton had found a country gripped by a crisis of the old order. Confronted by the demise of the Cold War and the final death throes of the comfortable post-World War II economic arrangements, Americans felt certain of little more than decline—in their own standard of living, in the nation's economic well-being and social fabric, in their hopes for their children's future.

    It was clearly a moment for creative, innovative leadership. But as the 1990s began, both parties were AWOL. The Republican Party gloried in the creed of greed and viewed crime and welfare as wedge issues to be exploited rather than problems to be solved. It had raised taxes on the middle class and presided over an era of dwindling growth. Education was an afterthought and Republican economic strategy was largely limited to the notion of rewarding those privileged with wealth and praying that their leftover trickle would sustain the nation.

    At the same time, Americans saw a Democratic Party that had rejected its historic role as the tribune of the middle class. Many Democrats downplayed traditional values of work, family, responsibility, faith—labeling them the province of the Republicans. Paying more attention to rights than to responsibilities, to criminals than to victims, to bureaucrats than to entrepreneurs, to America's international sins than to its capacity for global good, the Democratic Party had lost its way.

    Both parties concentrated on playing their assigned roles in the formulaic debate between "left" and "right" that characterized politics for most of the century—a debate that had become devoid of meaning, dependent on memory, derisive of the many. If American politics of the 1980s and early 1990s was a school dance, the Republicans would be locked in a chaste, but fervent embrace of economic elitism; the Democrats would be doing the lambada with cultural elitism; and America's middle class would be standing unobtrusively alone by the punch bowl. Politics was playing to those who favored French mustard—and ignoring those who used "French's." It rejected their interests and sneered at their values.

    As the 1992 campaign got under way, few in Washington seemed to recognize this problem. But, far away from the glare of the national media's spotlight, a Democratic contender who had developed a cohesive critique of not only the Republican record but his own party's as well was preparing to step forward.

    Arkansas' youthful, yet veteran, governor, Bill Clinton, was, as he described himself, "a different kind of Democrat." In a political career built like most—on lucky breaks, one of Clinton's luckiest came early on. In 1974, he lost his first race—a run for Congress. Beginning his career on the state level instead, he gained a greater perspective on the changes transforming America. Of course, he paid a price for this distance from D.C. His name wasn't bandied about with breezy familiarity at the chardonnay and brie parties on the Upper East Side where campaign cash is collected. He did not become a powerful, beef-ingesting, pork-dispensing, perk-exploiting Capitol Hill baron. Yet his breathing distance from Washington allowed him to realize very early on that the Capital's political debates were increasingly irrelevant to a changing nation. Announcing his presidential candidacy in October of 1991, he further distanced himself from the most powerful leaders of his own party. "The small towns and main streets of America aren't like the corridors and back rooms of Washington," he intoned from the steps of Arkansas' Old State House. "People out here don't care about the idle rhetoric of `left' and `right' and `liberal' and `conservative' and all the other words that have made our politics a substitute for action."

    Clinton demonstrated a clear willingness to challenge both the Democratic Party's political arrangements and its ideological orthodoxies. For more than a year, as chairman of the Democratic Leadership Council—a band of party rebels committed to building a new governing majority—Clinton had traveled the country speaking out on the party's need to change in order to keep up with the times. Now, as his presidential campaign got under way, Clinton would break forthrightly with his party's past.


I believe that together we have fulfilled the responsibility of our generation to guarantee opportunity to the next generation, the responsibility of our generation to take America into a new century, where there is opportunity for all who are responsible enough to work for it, where we have a chance to come together across all of our differences as a great American community.
President Bill Clinton, at the balanced budget signing,
August 5, 1997

On October 23, 1991, twenty days after he announced his candidacy, Clinton traveled to Georgetown University, his alma mater, to deliver the first in a series of three speeches that formed the intellectual foundation of his candidacy. By the time he finished delivering the third in mid-December, he was languishing in fourth place in the polls in New Hampshire and had managed to raise only half as much in campaign funds as the leading fund-raiser in the pack. However, the press realized the effectiveness of his message. For instance, Howard Fineman of Newsweek wrote that through this series of three speeches, "Clinton has cornered attention." Largely on the basis of these speeches, they anointed him with a front-runner status that he was to take all the way to the nomination.

    The speech Clinton delivered that October day was one of the most eloquent given by an American politician in the past quarter century. Devoid of rhetorical bells and whistles, its power came from its honesty, from Clinton's willingness to speak truths that many politicians knew but few then had the courage to say.

    Clinton thundered at those—rich, poor, and in between—whose demand for special favors had undermined the basic American creed of fairness. He said it was time that all Americans—from corporate CEOs to deadbeat dads, from Congressional chieftains to welfare moms—were held to an equal standard of responsibility for their actions. He offered a "New Covenant, a solemn agreement between the people and their government, to provide opportunity for everybody, inspire responsibility throughout our society, and restore a sense of community to this great nation."

    Like President Reagan's central themes of smaller government, lower taxes, and stronger defense, this triad—opportunity, responsibility, community—served as the guiding principles of Clinton's presidency. These ideas were at the core of most every speech he delivered as president, and certainly every major one. In 1991, they were not just idle slogans, but fundamental departures from the Democratic dogma of the previous twenty-five years. They underscored his "different kind of Democrat" claim—an assertion that was central to his ability to win the White House. It is no accident that Walter Mondale did not even use the word "responsibility" once in his convention acceptance address while Bill Clinton used it six times.

    In his first presidential campaignn, Clinton used "opportunity, responsibility, and community" to differentiate himself from both traditional Republican and Democratic nostrums. "Opportunity" was neither the no-growth economic record and indifference of the Bush years nor the government guarantee of equal results proffered by many Democrats—it was an outlook of rewarding hard work, encouraging strong economic growth, and above all else promoting access to education. His vision of "responsibility" included not just a promise to "end welfare as we know it," but an uncompromising demand for better corporate citizenship. Finally, his call for "community" rejected the loose principles of both the Left and Right, vowing to go "beyond every man for himself on one hand and the right to something for nothing on the other."

    Clinton's New Covenant was less the basis for a new politics than a powerful reminder to the public that Clinton shared their distaste for the "brain-dead" old politics. Yet, it clearly reflected the raw resentments and muffled hopes of the average men and women who had seen both parties walk away from their historic commitments and get sidetracked by side issues. Unfortunately, as was once said of President William Howard Taft, if Clinton "were Pope he would think it necessary to appoint a few Protestant Cardinals." Once ensconced in office, Clinton brought into power a cadre of advisors and staffers who never bought into his message of change. He and his party paid a disastrous price for this in the 1994 midterm rejection.

    In the summer of 1997, some of the White House staff gathered together in the ornately tiled Indian Treaty Room for a good-bye party for Donald Baer. The hard-driving former journalist who became Clinton's chief speechwriter and then communications director had helped engineer the president's political resurrection after 1994 and was one of the few true believers within the White House. As part of the "entertainment," the guests were treated to a parody of "We are the World," entitled "We are Dons World," written and performed by many of the White House speechwriters and communications staff. But it wasn't only the voices that were off-key.

When we were down and out
And there seemed no Hope at all
Don helped build that bridge
And now we're standing tall.
Well well well, we're a community now.
An opportunity to take responsibility
In our churches, mosques, and synagogues.

    Rising to deliver some brief words of thanks to Baer, President Clinton couldn't help but deliver a mild rebuke to his staff members. His smile never leaving his face, but his eyes betraying a profound disappointment, Clinton said, "The thing about that `opportunity, responsibility, and community' is that for Don, they were never punch lines. They were what he believed in." As is often true, Clinton was also describing himself. But if he was disappointed in his staff, he might have seen where he fell short in leading them.


In signing the balanced budget, Clinton tried to make clear, once and for all, that Democrats would no longer peddle the shopworn planks of a bygone era. Whether it was free trade, welfare reform, fiscal responsibility, battling teen pregnancy, strong anticrime measures, use of military force abroad, or the death penalty, Clinton broke with the philosophy his party had promoted in recent years.

    Yet, there is little assurance that his personal impact on the Democratic Party is necessarily anything more than ephemeral. From the very beginning, Clinton concentrated first and foremost on bringing change to the nation and saw bringing change to his party—if it happened—as a positive side-effect. Mere days after his election, the barons of congressional power flew down to Little Rock to meet with Clinton—an outsider who had explicitly campaigned against both the Democratic Congress and Washington, D.C., in general. Before the glare of the camera lights, these Washington pooh-bahs appeared with the crusading young reformer from the hinterlands and, in effect, took him under their left wing. "Don't worry, sonny," they seemed to say. "We'll show you how it's done." And Clinton followed their lead. His calls for cuts in bloated Capitol Hill staff and for the line-item veto vanished, he soft-pedaled his desire for campaign finance reform, and he suddenly became vague on the middle-class tax cut—once a centerpiece of his economic agenda.

    From there forward, until his decisive break with congressional wisdom over the need for a balanced budget in the summer of 1995, Clinton chose accommodation over confrontation most every time. As president, he was seldom willing to expend his political capital in reconstructing the Democratic Party in his image. Most of his words and many of his actions pointed Democrats in a new direction. But when the forces defending the old party's apparatus and guarding its arrangements got in the way, he smoothed down the differences. This worked wonders for making peace; it was an enormous missed opportunity for remaking the Democratic Party.

    Yet, while Clinton might have sped up the process, politics continued to change even without his active assistance. The same societal forces that had shaped Clinton in Arkansas were having an even greater impact in shaping the next generation of political leaders around the nation. As the 1990s progressed, it became increasingly apparent that the old ways of American politics were fading away. The story of one family in particular makes it clear that it is truly not your father's politics.

    One would expect a moment of personal conversion to come while watching the sun rise over Machu Picchu, while running one's hands over the stones of the Great Wall of China, while traveling down the road to Damascus. It seems far less likely—and much less glamorous—for this moment of awakening to occur while campaigning for a state senate seat in St. Louis Park, a suburb of Minneapolis. After all, Saint Paul is one thing, St. Paul is another. Nevertheless, for one Minnesota politician, his successful first campaign put him in touch with voters who had concerns and outlooks very different from those of a previous generation.

    The story begins 125 hundred miles away in a different world. On Halloween night 1936, the children of Theodore Mondale did not go door to door searching for candy. Their father was a stern and reverent preacher who frowned on the holiday's frivolity. Moreover, the tight grip of the Great Depressions seventh year left little levity in their tiny town of Ceylon, Minnesota. But there was another reason why the Mondale family was at home on this Halloween. Theodore Mondale had gathered his family to listen to the radio as Franklin Roosevelt brought his reelection campaign to a close with a stirring address at Madison Square Garden.

     In a fiery speech, FDR sought to energize the Democratic Party's base of working Americans with a violent denunciation of the big business interests that he had battled during much of his first term. "I should like to have it said of my first administration that in it the forces of selfishness and of lust for power met their match," said Roosevelt, struggling to make his voice heard above the crescendoing cheers of the crowd. "I should like to have it said of my second administration that in it these forces met their master." Listening at his father's side, 8-year-old Walter Mondale was exposed to a brand of politics he would practice all his life.

    That October night, as he called "the roll of honor of those that stood with us," Roosevelt saw an industrial democracy with powerful interests arrayed on either side of a wide chasm. In his New Deal, he built up a big government to guarantee equal opportunity and protect Americans from the vicissitudes of adversity.

    A decade later, Walter Mondale became swept up in a small insurgent faction led by Hubert Humphrey that was fighting to bring the values of the New Deal to Minnesota. They were the children of FDR, the "distinct political generation" that Schlesinger had described. Attacked as an "upstart," Mondale laid into an old giant of Minnesota politics for being "a voice out of the past. A last gasp of the old farmer-labor group." He stated that his goal was to speak for a new "generation that has grown up to plague the normal and traditional way of doing things." In a world that changes much faster than the minds of the people who live in it, the challenge of politics in every age is to assess the world as it is and respond to it with honesty instead of nostalgia. When he was young, Walter Mondale met that challenge directly.

    But by the 1970s, as Mondale reached the heights of national leadership, America was changing both economically and socially. Americans were less likely to pledge their loyalty to parties in exchange for particular programs, to companies in exchange for a lifetime job, to interest groups in exchange for favors.

    While he was vice president, Walter Mondale stated that the Democratic Party's job was to "take care of its friends." That meant extending the reach of government to help those who had long been left out of the American Dream—the poor, minorities, struggling workers. Unfortunately, it also meant the care and feeding of the constituency groups that made up the party's special interest infrastructure by offering them specific promises and programs. Mondale believed that in addressing organized labor, he spoke to working people; in speaking to civil rights leaders, he addressed minorities; in talking with feminists, he appealed to women. "My premise has always been that there are more Democrats than Republicans, and if we can keep our own family relatively intact, chances are we'll win," he wrote in a memo to President Carter as they began their general election fight in 1980. He urged Carter to appeal "directly to our constituencies—Jews, labor, minorities, farmers, ethnics, women, environmentalists, etc." Running that fall against Ronald Reagan, Carter and Mondale did just that—and lost in a landslide.


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Table of Contents

Preface to the Paperback Edition xi
Preface to the Hardcover Edition and Acknowledgments xv
1 Introduction: Bias, Slander, and BS 1
2 You're Only As Liberal As the Man Who Owns You 14
3 The Punditocracy One: Television 28
4 The Punditocracy Two: Print 45
5 The Punditocracy Three: Radio and the Internet 70
6 The Punditocracy Four: Experts and the World of Ideas 81
7 What Social Bias? 104
8 What Economic Bias? 118
9 The Clinton Administration 139
10 The 2000 Election 148
11 Florida 175
12 W's World 192
13 The (Really) Conservative Media 225
Conclusion: An Honorable Profession 262
Afterword: "Operation Iraqi Freedom" 268
Notes 293
Index 337
Reader Discussion Guide 353
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Sort by: Showing all of 3 Customer Reviews
  • Anonymous

    Posted October 13, 2004

    Liberals just trying to CYA

    This is definitely written for the liberal audience. As always trying diligently to defend and cover their 'agendas'.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted July 19, 2009

    No text was provided for this review.

  • Anonymous

    Posted October 26, 2008

    No text was provided for this review.

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