Alterman, Eric 1960–
Alterman, Eric 1960–
(Eric Ross Alterman)
CAREER: Business Executives for National Security, Washington, DC, associate for public policy, 1983–84; New School University, New York, NY, senior fellow of World Policy Institute, 1985–; Stanford University, peace studies fellow, 1992; Hofstra University, visiting assistant professor, 1997; New York University, adjunct professor, 1998, affiliated faculty with Magazine Journalism Program, 2001–03; Columbia University, adjunct professor, 2003; Brooklyn College of the City University of New York, professor; guest speaker at other institutions, including University of Wisconsin—Green Bay, Princeton University, University of California, Santa Barbara, University of Michigan, and Williams College; public speaker in the United States and abroad; guest on numerous television and radio programs. Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, junior fellow, 1983; Center for American Progress, senior fellow; Council on American Life, senior policy advisor; Century Foundation, convener of Future of Liberalism Roundtable, 2005–. World Policy Journal, member of editorial board.
MEMBER: Nation Institute (fellow).
AWARDS, HONORS: Grants from Fund for Constitutional Government, 1991, and Florence and John Schumann Foundation, 1993, 1999; Orwell Award, 1993, for Sound and Fury: The Washington Punditocracy and the Collapse of American Politics; Stephen Crane Literary Award, 1999, for It Ain't No Sin to Be Glad You're Alive: The Promise of Bruce Springsteen.
Sound and Fury: The Washington Punditocracy and the Collapse of American Politics, HarperCollins (New York, NY), 1992.
Who Speaks for America? Why Democracy Matters in Foreign Policy, Cornell University Press (Ithaca, NY), 1998.
It Ain't No Sin to Be Glad You're Alive: The Promise of Bruce Springsteen, Little, Brown (Boston, MA), 1999.
What Liberal Media? The Truth about Bias and the News, Basic Books (New York, NY), 2003.
When Presidents Lie: A History of Official Deception and Its Consequences, Viking (New York, NY), 2004.
(Coauthor) The Book on Bush: How George W. (Mis)-Leads America, Viking (New York, NY), 2004.
Contributor to books, including News Incorporated: Corporate Media Ownership and Its Threat to Democracy, edited by Elliot D. Cohen, Prometheus Books, 2005; and Proud to Be a Liberal, Ig Publishing (Brooklyn, NY), 2006. Critic at large for World Policy Journal, 1992–; columnist for Mother Jones, 1993–97, and Worth, 2000–01; author of "Liberal Media," a column in Nation, beginning c. 1997; author of column and blog Altercation, MSNBC.com. Contributor to periodicals, including New York Times, Washington Post, Vanity Fair, New York, Tikkun, Utne Reader, Washington Monthly, Present Tense, and Interview. Contributing editor, Rolling Stone, 1995–96, and Worth, 2000–01.
SIDELIGHTS: Eric Alterman is a liberal journalist who has been alarmed by what he sees as a government assault on democracy: his writings attack the influence of television pundits and the corporate interests that hold sway over America's national and foreign policy. Commentary contributor Aaron L. Friedberg called Alterman "a left-wing scourge of right-wing pundits" who evinces a "self-proclaimed eagerness to reinvigorate our democracy."
Alterman's first book, Sound and Fury: The Washington Punditocracy and the Collapse of American Politics, puts forth the idea that the workings of the U.S. government are unduly influenced by a group of political commentators working in the Washington, DC area. In his view, the worst offenders are those who offer their opinions on television programs. Alterman discusses commentators such as George Will, Patrick Buchanan, William Safire, Michael Kinsley, and John McLaughlin. He accuses them of focusing political debate on their own predominantly outdated concerns instead of on issues that truly matter to the average voter. Alterman also writes that U.S. President Bill Clinton won the Democratic primary due to the influence of such Washington pundits, and without their attention to him, the Democratic nomination might have been gained by Senator Paul Tsongas. The pundits also, in Alterman's eyes, orchestrated popular support of the 1991 Gulf War. Using the example of a well-known Cable News Network commentary program to illustrate his point, James Ledbetter in the Village Voice Literary Supplement explained that Sound and Fury "reads like the researched revenge of a man who just can't watch another Crossfire [television program] without screaming."
In addition to criticizing the current crop of political commentators in Sound and Fury, Alterman provides a history of political journalism. He begins in 1896, when Adolph S. Ochs transformed journalism with his policy of objectivity for the New York Times. This policy, Alterman claims, divided journalists into those who presented just the facts of a story, and those who provided pure opinion. He praises the man he portrays as the founding father of political pundits, Walter Lippmann, who dominated the field following World War II and tended toward commentary meant to conciliate the views of Republicans and Democrats. But after Lippmann, according to Alterman, the genre of political opinion declined to its present state.
Reviewers of Sound and Fury on both sides of the political spectrum have perceived a liberal bias on Alterman's part, and John Podhoretz observed in the American Spectator that the author, "while using most of these men [political commentators] as target practice … also flatters them by wildly inflating their importance and glamorizing them beyond all recognition." But Podhoretz also noted that Alterman "is on somewhat firmer ground when he attacks 'The McLaughlin Group' for infantilizing the American political debate." George W. Hunt of America praised Sound and Fury as "passionately argued," and added that "the tale [Alterman] tells is most sobering upon reflection." Paul Berman in the New Republic noted that "among Alterman's accusations and complaints, one that he makes about cold war fanaticism seems to me sharp and true. He observes that virtually no one among the leading pundits managed to notice post-1985 that the Soviet Union was headed in directions other than world conquest." George E. Reedy in the Washington Post Book Review praised Alterman as "literate and a master stylist with a highly sophisticated sense of humor." Robert C. Cottrell in the Journal of American History affirmed that "Alterman's analysis appears convincing and disturbing, given the influence pundits have wielded in the setting of national priorities over the past quarter century and longer."
In Who Speaks for America? Why Democracy Matters in Foreign Policy, Alterman suggests that American foreign policy is dictated not by the mandate of the public, but instead by special interests and executive fiat. New York Times Book Review correspondent Mark A. Uhlig wrote: "Building from the philosophical foundations of the American system, [Alterman] portrays the lack of public involvement as a product of deep historical trends that over two centuries have caused the progressive divorce of average Americans from the foreign policy process." In Commentary, Friedberg observed that Alterman's thesis "is that our diplomacy has become the exclusive preserve of a 'foreign-policy establishment' made up of an arrogant, internationalist elite that is shielded from scrutiny by a collusive media. The members of this establishment regard ordinary Americans as ignorant, irrational, and irresponsible. At its direction, the United States has been following a course that reflects neither the public's true wishes nor its underlying values." In Who Speaks for America? Alterman offers his prescription for renewed democratic involvement in foreign affairs: an elected body of ordinary Americans who would deliberate foreign policy issues and make recommendations to Congress and the White House. Then, according to the author, the government would be forced to respond to "legitimate democratic currents."
Some reviewers found fault with Alterman's premises and solutions in Who Speaks for America? Uhlig stated: "What seems missing from [the] argument is an acknowledgment of the difficulties involved in transforming popular will into effective, informed foreign policy decisions…. Another weakness of Alterman's discussion is the monolithic character that he tends to ascribe to public opinion and the ease with which he claims to discern the true concerns of the body politic." Uhlig concluded: "It is impossible to diminish the frustrations that Alterman identifies. But it is also hard to escape the suspicion that, in highlighting the chaos, conflict and rampant self-interest that characterize our system of government, Alterman is not so much arguing for democracy as describing it." Friedberg commented: "In excoriating the American impulses toward economic openness and vigorous diplomatic and military engagement, [Alterman], and not the foreign-policy elite, is the one who is at odds with the American people." The critic added that Alterman's argument "may reflect nothing more than a frustrated recognition that the country has not been going in directions he favors." Other reviewers responded more favorably to the book. In Library Journal, Scott K. Wright described it as a "wellreasoned and thought-provoking work," while a Publishers Weekly contributor observed: "This is an accessible book that makes a carefully argued indictment of the foreign policy-making process."
In What Liberal Media? The Truth about Bias and the News, Alterman challenges what he calls a widely held notion that the news media collectively demonstrate a liberal, left-leaning bias toward political and global issues. Not so, he claims—not since the 1960s. This is a deception fostered by the members of the conservative right who are actually in charge. Alterman points out that, while some individual reporters and commentators may hold liberal views, the media outlets that employ them are overwhelmingly conservative. Moreover, as New York Times contributor Gary Hart explained in his review, Alterman blames this misconception on "the far better organized, more powerful and effective propaganda machine of the right that postulates the presumption of liberal bias through research groups, religious organizations, ideological news organizations and conservative personalities." Alterman even suggests that true liberals do not "stand a chance" against the more organized and vocal conservative right. Liberals, he writes, tend to present themselves as more moderate, open-minded, and balanced in their beliefs, and therefore less exciting and attractive to television audiences and even to print journalists responding to a recent trend toward journalism as entertainment. Alterman points to the 2000 presidential campaign, in which the press responded to the conviviality of conservative George W. Bush more positively than to the reserve of the liberal Al Gore, even in the face of a vote-count scandal.
Booklist contributor Ilene Cooper called What Liberal Media? "highly readable and well documented." Critic Timothy Noah, despite being an occasional target of Alterman's barbs, also responded positively to much of the book. Noah wrote in Washington Monthly that, though "outside the pundit class, it remains true that reporters and editors remain predominantly liberal,… Alterman's larger point is well taken. There is a bizarre dearth of liberals on TV news shows, and many of those who get pegged as liberals … are really moderate conservatives." Alterman also suggests that the members of the press corps, regardless of political orientation, are just as interested in career preservation as the people they write about, and there will always be a temptation to offer the public what it is willing to pay for.
For When Presidents Lie: A History of Official Deception and Its Consequences Alterman sifted through the multitude of presidential lies throughout history to focus on one group: lies about issues of national interest and lies about military interventions abroad. He discusses four major examples: Franklin D. Roosevelt's lies to Congress that blamed Josef Stalin for the initial breakdown of the Yalta agreement in 1945 regarding the fate of Poland and the Crimea; the lies of John F. Kennedy in 1962 that credited the United States with resolving the Cuban missile crisis by convincing the Russians to remove themselves from the picture, without mentioning the compromise that resulted in a U.S. withdrawal from Turkey and a promise not to pursue the overthrow of Fidel Castro in Cuba; the lies of Lyndon B. Johnson that used a purported (and largely discredited) incident in the Gulf of Tonkin to justify U.S. intervention in Vietnam; and the lies of Ronald Reagan regarding U.S. sponsorship and financing of Contra activities in Nicaragua. Alterman postulates that such lies succeed, as Ken Bode observed in his Boston magazine review of the book, because "the public now assumes a general measure of lying from presidents, and the press and Congress … have been enablers for so long that it now comes naturally." Moreover, Alterman believes, according to Bode, that "with the continued erosion of checks on presidential authority, any American president now has overwhelming power to do just about whatever he wants in international politics." Alterman suggests that the underlying motivation for the deceptions, perhaps unrecognized by the liars themselves, has more to do with political self-preservation than the good of the nation, but he also believes that the liars will ultimately be exposed and judged by history. Jon Meacham commented in the Los Angeles Times Book Review: "I admire Alterman for doing about the only thing one can to further the cause of truth in a world riven with deceit: explain the failures of the past to the powers of the present in the hope that example will do more good than exhortation."
The book It Ain't No Sin to Be Glad You're Alive: The Promise of Bruce Springsteen marks a departure from political commentary for the author. The book is both biography and critique of rock artist Bruce Springsteen, a musician whose populist lyrics describe the dark plight of ordinary Americans who have missed the chance to partake of an affluent and influential lifestyle. "Alterman finds literary power and lessons to live by in Springsteen's work," observed David E. Thigpen in Time. In the New York Times Book Review, John D. Thomas noted Alterman's "intelligent analysis" of Springsteen's message, adding: "This book preaches to those already converted to the cult of Springsteen."
BIOGRAPHICAL AND CRITICAL SOURCES:
America, October 17, 1992, George W. Hunt, review of Sound and Fury: The Washington Punditocracy and the Collapse of American Politics, p. 266.
American Spectator, December, 1992, John Podhoretz, review of Sound and Fury, pp. 70-71.
Booklist, February 1, 2003, Ilene Cooper, review of What Liberal Media? The Truth about Bias and the News, p. 954.
Boston, October 24, 2004, Ken Bode, review of Why Presidents Lie: A History of Official Deception and Its Consequences.
Columbia Journalism Review, November-December, 1992, Piers Brendon, review of Sound and Fury, pp. 57-58.
Commentary, February, 1999, Aaron L. Friedberg, review of Who Speaks for America? Why Democracy Matters in Foreign Policy, p. 64.
Foreign Affairs, November, 1998, David C. Hendrickson, review of Who Speaks for America?, p. 152.
Harper's, October, 2003, Gene Lyons, review of What Liberal Media?, p. 77.
Journal of American History, March, 1994, Robert C. Cottrell, review of Sound and Fury, pp. 1548-1549.
Library Journal, October 1, 1998, Scott K. Wright, review of Who Speaks for America?, p. 116.
Los Angeles Times Book Review, September 26, 2004, Jon Meacham, review of When Presidents Lie.
Nation, February 8, 1993, Victor S. Navasky, review of Sound and Fury, pp. 168-169.
National Review, November 16, 1992, Terry Eastmand, review of Sound and Fury, p. 65.
New Republic, November 23, 1992, Paul Berman, review of Sound and Fury, pp. 43-45.
New York Times, March 16, 2003, Ted Widmer, review of What Liberal Media?; March 20, 2003, Orville Schell, review of What Liberal Media?
New York Times Book Review, October 4, 1992, Adam Platt, "Pounding the Pundits," p. 11; October 11, 1998, Mark A. Uhlig, "Vox Populi," p. 24; November 21, 1999, John D. Thomas, review of It Ain't No Sin to Be Glad You're Alive: The Promise of Bruce Springsteen, p. 75; October 10, 2004, Gary Hart, review of When Presidents Lie.
Public Interest, winter, 1993, Suzanne Garment, review of Sound and Fury, p. 108.
Publishers Weekly, September 21, 1992, review of Sound and Fury, p. 86; September 7, 1998, review of Who Speaks for America?, p. 76.
Tikkun, January-February, 1993, Jay Rosen, review of Sound and Fury, p. 63.
Time, November 29, 1999, David E. Thigpen, review of It Ain't No Sin to Be Glad You're Alive, p. 86.
Village Voice Literary Supplement, December, 1992, review of Sound and Fury, p. 7.
Vogue, November, 1992, Christopher Hitchens, review of Sound and Fury, p. 190.
Washington Monthly, March, 2003, Timothy Noah, review of What Liberal Media?, p. 53.
Washington Post Book Review, October 25, 1992, review of Sound and Fury, p. 6.