By: Ari Berman
Updated at 10:30 a.m. Eastern Standard Time, March 11
What was billed as a debate on media bias featuring three writers (Eric Alterman, Arianna Huffington, and William McGowan) and one celebrity (comedian/actress/antiwar advocate Janeane Garofalo), turned into an animated series of divisive rants on the media’s coverage of the Bush administration and Iraq.
Held Monday at Michael Jordan’s steakhouse in New York’s Grand Central Station as part of a conversation series sponsored by The Week magazine, it attracted media heavyweights such as Tina Brown, Hendrik Hertzberg, Frank Rich, Victor Navasky, and Fox News’ Eric Burns, and even Georgette Mosbacher, among others, who sat silently for the most part over their grilled shrimp and salad, as the four panelists took turns bashing either Bush or each other.
Calling the media “shallow, obsessive, toxic, lazy, and conformist,” columnist Huffington wondered aloud why the mainstream media hasn’t yet held the White House accountable during its march to war. Reacting to Bush’s press conference on Thursday, Huffington proclaimed, “Have you ever seen lap dogs behave more obediently? Are they afraid of losing their all-access pass to the White House?”
Eric Alterman, Nation contributor and author of the new book What Liberal Media?, said the press had allowed Bush to lie about Saddam Hussein’s connections to Al-Qaida. He decried an emerging “right-wing punditocracy” and a status quo of deference to the President. “The right-wing establishment has so much control that no one on the left can fight back,” he claimed. He said talk radio, which draws the largest audience of any medium, had become “less diverse than the press under Stalin’s Soviet Union.”
Alterman could barely contain his hostility toward McGowan, and vice versa, as they sat at opposite ends of the makeshift stage. (The two writers have been feuding in the media.) McGowan called conservative domination of the media a corrective force, after years of liberal sway, arguing that liberals still control key reporting and producing positions at networks and in newsrooms. He decried the “PC” influence he finds in too much of the media. He also attacked the antiwar movement and their “silly, ridiculous slogans centering around a war for oil and oedipal connections to Bush’s father.”
Garofalo took umbrage at this. She said she had been ridiculed by the media for her antiwar activism and, clearly, it hurt. She blasted conservative talk show hosts for attempting to marginalize the antiwar movement by focusing almost exclusively on celebrities. Just today, Garofalo said, she had to change her phone number after a series of crank calls (she hinted that someone at Fox News had given her number out). And she said the press had a vested interest in going to war. “The press is biased in favor of ratings — and war is ratings,” Garofalo said.
Besides the four panelists, moderator Harold Evans invited other notables to join the fray. After Huffington criticized the media’s failure to cover the Gary Hart-Warren Rudman report on national security in January 2001, former Senator Hart himself spoke to the gathering via speaker phone. He said the increasing influence of corporate control had blurred the line between entertainment and information. He then repeated Huffington’s view that the media had failed to ask the Bush administration tough questions on Iraq. “What countries will be there with us, how long will it take, what are the costs, and what about casualties?” Hart asked. “Bush is ducking and dodging these issues and the press is not demanding answers.”
At this point, Fox’s Eric Burns weighed in from the audience, bashing Alterman for misspelling the title of his TV show. He also refuted the notion that the media is one single entity. “We assume that the media is a single noun,” he said. “Media is in fact a plural noun.”
Huffington said she wanted the media to ask Vice President Dick Cheney two questions: “Number one, before the Gulf War, then-President Bush called Saddam Hussein a Hitler. Why after the war did Haliburton, under you, conduct $73 million worth of business with him? Number two, why did you call for the end of sanctions against this ‘Hitler’?” With that, moderator Evans joked they should try to get Cheney on the phone.
Although the panel certainly veered left (reportedly because a number of conservative invitees declined to participate), all four panelists agreed that the media didn’t look deep enough into difficult issues. Garofalo didn’t seem interested in the intricacies of media bias, saying the end result of the panel would still leave American citizens under-served. “After the bombs start falling next week no one is going remember a thing said in this room,” Garofalo emphasized. “All of our time has been wasted — this debate is so degrading.”
Alterman disagreed with Garofalo’s remarks, saying the purpose of the debate was to discover why the media, in war and peace, poorly served the American public.