Alterman: Journalism Obsessed By ‘Crap’

By: Mark Fitzgerald

Mired in trivialities of its own making, mainstream journalism needs new “giants” willing to stand up for traditional standards of truth-telling, media commentator and historian Eric Alterman said in a lecture yesterday at Northwestern University’s Medill School of Journalism.

Alterman lamented that important stories such as the abuse at the U.S. military’s Abu Gharib prison in Iraq are “one-week stories” at best, while attention is lavished on sagas such as the Scott Peterson murder trial.

“Journalists are responsible for that, in part because they have become part of the permanent government, and in part because we’ve become so addicted to the spectacle,” he said. “I do think the media are to be blamed for devoting so much of their space to crap.”

Alterman, the media columnist for The Nation magazine, spoke at the j-school as part of the Gertrude and G.D. Crain Jr. lecture series. The topic of the talk by the author of “When Presidents Lie: A History of Official Deception and Its Consequences” was the presidency, but nearly all the questions from the audience were about the media.

Alterman did not seem all that optimistic that new “giants” of journalism would appear all that soon to lead the news media back to fearless reporting. One big reason, he said, is that too many journalists — chasing the big money of public punditry — are working harder on honing their TV personalities than on investigative projects.

“That’s what the ambitious journalists out there are doing,” he said. “It’s not trying to discover the next Watergate or the next My Lai — it’s to be the next Tucker Carlson. If you can believe that.”

On the topic of presidential lying, Alterman said his book was about the pragmatic case against misleading the public on big issues. But presidents have every right to lie about their personal lives, he added.

“I think all presidents should refuse to answer all questions about their personal lives,” he said. “I’m totally down with George Bush not talking about whether he did cocaine.”

In answer to a question about presidential speechwriters, Alterman revealed he once wrote a speech for President Bill Clinton — a one-minute talk for the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. “I did it because I wanted Bill Clinton to refer to Bruce Springsteen as ‘The Man.’ And he did, I got Bill Clinton to call Bruce Springsteen ‘The Man.'”

(In an email to E&P Tuesday, Alterman said it would be more accurate to say he “worked on” rather than wrote the Clinton remarks. Alterman also noted he had mentioned the speechwriting previously in his “Altercation” blog on MSNBC.com.)

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