Media Bias Fight: Alterman’s “Verifiable Facts” vs. Tucker’s “Unsourced Blather”?

January 19th, 2006 6:46 AM

Over at Romenesko Letters, the liberals are trying to dismiss the conservative case against the liberal media, but they’re shooting blanks again. A man named John Martellaro, clearly moony over Eric Alterman’s questionable grasp on media reality, writes in to suggest the media account of the Alterman vs. Carlson media-bias debate revealed that Alterman offered "verifiable facts," while Tucker Carlson offered only "unsourced blather." Unfortunately, his lame arguments considers polls about Iraq and the names of newspaper sections as the "verifiable facts" of a conservative media bias. I'll rebut this after a peek at Martellaro's letter:

Where's the real bias in the U.S. media, leaning left or leaning right? The "debate" between Tucker Carlson and Eric Alterman is hardly the last word on the subject, but let's start there.

Alterman begins by offering up a sourced, numerical fact: 44 percent of Americans believed there was Iraqi involvement in the 9-11 attacks. He is apparently referring to the results of a nationwide Harris Poll of 1,961 U.S. adults between December 8 and 14, 2005.

Carlson responds with a broad, sweeping, unsourced and imprecise generalization: "Everybody in journalism is pro-choice, pro-gun control and for gay marriage."

Alterman comes back with another easily verifiable fact: The New York Times, our premiere "liberal" daily, publishes a daily Business section --but not a "labor" or "environmental" section.

Carlson returns serve with another sweeping generalization: On average, journalists tend to be white, come from liberal, coastal areas, and graduate from liberal colleges. First, "on average," AMERICANS tend to be white and come from coastal areas; just check with the Census Bureau. Yet he states this as if it was proof that journalists are not representative of their audiences. Second, I'd like to invite Tucker to leave his precious Beltway bubble and come out here to Kansas and other Midwestern states, visit a cross-section of print and broadcast newsrooms, and see how many people don't actually hail from the coasts.

OK, so we have verifiable facts coming from the left, vs. unsourced blather and empty talking points coming from the right. And every member of the media who writes about it will automatically do their best to present the debate in as "balanced" a fashion as possible, giving each side equal weight even though one side has no real weight at all. That's the journalists' training, that's their instinct.

And it is exactly that training and instinct that the right-wing noise machine has been manipulating and abusing since the Nixon administration to accomplish the goal of giving their BS equal time with the facts.

There's your "liberal" media. Puh-leeze.

Please repeat after me: The question over liberal (or conservative) media bias begins with content analysis. It begins by asking: does the media live up to their claims to offer the product of an "objective" method? It's clear that Martellaro thinks that objectivity is just a racket exploited by those pathetic, weightless conservatives who have no arguments.

The Alterman nuggets that Martellaro is hailing are not the kind of "verifiable facts" that prove a conservative media bias. He says Alterman's citing a Harris poll showing people believed Iraqis were involved in the 9/11 attacks. (That Harris poll hasn't been reported by most of the so-called conservative media.) Alterman's thesis here is that Americans believe obvious inaccuracies (the 9-11 attackers were overwhelmingly Saudis, no Iraqis) because they're being manipulated by the conservative media.

In short, he's making an argument about media effects without actually proving media bias -- without proving that reporters told readers or viewers that Iraqis were involved in the 9-11 attacks. He's not citing "verifiable facts" about media bias, but only about Harris polls.

(For those who think Saddam didn't support terrorists in general, read your Steve Hayes.)

Alterman's second factual nugget is that the New York Times has a "Business" section, not a "Labor" section or an "Environment" section. Alterman believes this is a very convincing argument. But what if the "Business" section is staffed with a bunch of reporters who believe tax cuts are awful and that corporate CEOs make way too much money? (Ask TimesWatch about that.) Alterman doesn't ever get there. He thinks you say "business section," and the argument is over. But that doesn't prove that the news product is biased one way or another. It proves that Alterman didn't get to name the sections, and that it's somehow a very conservative notion that "Business" is not an inclusive word that describes both employers and employees. They didn't call it the Barons of Capital section.

PS: I sent my own letter to Romenesko supporting Tucker:

Tucker Carlson is right on his claim as to how media surveys show the media elite are well to the left of the public (but trying to move it left all the time) on the issues of abortion and homosexuality. One of the most recent surveys, sadly, is Stanley Rothman and Amy Black’s survey in 1995. It found "Nearly all of the media elite (97 percent) agreed that ‘it is a woman’s right to decide whether or not to have an abortion,’ and five out of six (84 percent) agreed strongly. Three out of four journalists (73 percent) agreed that ‘homosexuality is as acceptable a lifestyle as heterosexuality,’ and 40 percent agreed strongly."