March 12, 2004
Eric Alterman, Author of "The Book on Bush" and "What Liberal Media?"
A BUZZFLASH INTERVIEW
Eric Alterman has emerged as one of the most astute and meticulous writers and thinkers with two essential books that explain the gap between the perception and the reality of George W. Bush's policies and how a compliant media enables a distorted image of Bush. Alterman clarified the true bias in the news with his spectacular bestseller book What Liberal Media?, now available in paperback with a new chapter on media coverage in Iraq. And he has exposed and demystified the policies of the Bush Administration with co-author Mark Green in his new book The Book on Bush: How George W. (Mis)leads America.
Eric Alterman writes the "Stop the Presses" media column in The Nation and "TheAltercation" Web log for MSNBC.com. He has been a contributing editor to, or columnist for 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 also wrote Who Speaks for America? Why Democracy Matters in Foreign Policy (1998). Alterman is 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. He 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.
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In your new book, titled The Book on Bush: How George W. (Mis)leads
America, you state that when it comes to any policy from
the Bush administration, three essential questions are asked: What
religious right want? What does big business want? What do the neo-cons
want? After looking at the last three years of administration policies,
what more do you think each of those three groups want?
One of, if not Bush's first executive order when he took office, was to stop funding family planning programs abroad. Now anyone who knows anything about those programs will tell you that they're reducing the number of abortions because they educate women about birth control. But the right-wing would rather have more abortions than have the United States give money to programs that may or may not advise young women about how to plan their pregnancies. To me, the right-wing logic is self-defeating.
Another case is stem cell research. People who have Parkinson's are going to suffer and die an early death because of the research that is being handcuffed by Bush's decision to stop research. Now Bush doesn't say that it's because of his religious faith he's going to prevent necessary research to take place that will ease people's suffering. Bush tries to say he's thought about it and he's found a middle ground. But it's never a middle ground. It's always exactly what his faith wants, and it's what the religious right wants. When it comes to economic issues, it's what the corporate elite want. And in the case of foreign policy, it's whatever the neo-cons want.
BuzzFlash: Recently, there was a lot of news after the indictment of Jeffrey Skilling from Enron. I saw on CNN that basically 55 percent of CEOs who were polled admitted that they were shipping jobs overseas, but that they'd had no choice because of competition. When you look at those three constituencies -- the religious right, big business, the neo-cons -- do you think that it's a recipe for a complete implosion from this administration and that those three groups might step on each other and hurt Bush's re-election? Obviously jobs will be a big issue this November.
Eric Alterman: No, I don't think it's a recipe for implosion, I think those three groups represent a base. If you have a base, they'll stick with you through thick and thin. Nothing can ever go that terribly wrong, as long as you hold on to your vote. So the base is probably around 35 percent of registered voters -- the people who absolutely vote. The thing is, if you really go for your base, it ought to be very difficult for you to attract the rest of the country, because that base is in conflict with the rest of the country. The rest of the country doesn't have the economic interests of the corporate elite, and it doesn't share the religious views about abortion, or even about stopping civil rights for gay couples that the Christian right believes in. And the rest of the country didn't feel like it had to go invade Iraq to capture Saddam Hussein for no particular reason.
Now because the rest of the country doesn't share the priorities of the base, Bush has to deceive the country about what he's really doing. And thus you have this deceptive rhetoric about the administration's policies. You have this egregious big operation and constant reminder of the "war on terrorism." And you have phony statistics on Bush's economic policy and the tax cuts.
I don't say anywhere in this book that George Bush is a liar, because I don't pretend to know what George Bush is thinking. I do say George Bush is now distilled with falseness, and you can't believe anything he says. I just don't know if he happens to believe it.
BuzzFlash: When you look at the administration's policies, it's difficult to come to terms with what's going on in their heads. Is it that these people truly, sincerely believe in their policies? Or is this a simply what they see as a winning political strategy? Is it both?
Eric Alterman: I don't think you can generalize about all of them. I wouldn't be surprised if Paul Wolfowitz believes everything he says. I would, however, be very surprised if Richard Perle did. I would also be very surprised if Donald Rumsfeld and Dick Cheney did.
If there is a more complicated matter or policy, it's hard to know what, if anything, Bush knows about it in order for him to believe it. I don't think Bush is stupid. I think it's a big mistake when the left tries to treat him like he's dumb. But he is incredibly intellectually incurious, and lazy, and ill-informed.
The war in Iraq was a very risky political move. He didn't have to do it. It wasn't the kind of thing you do if all you care about is re-election. So you must have some strong beliefs to pull it off. And it's been a big bad move in political terms. His approval rating is much lower than it would be without the war. And it's the level of trust of the country, which is something that I don't think you can get back if you lose it -- it is now way down below 40 percent.
I'm willing to grant Bush that he has his own genuine commitment to his ideology. I just think it's an ideology that's not shared by the rest of the country, and, therefore, he tries to mask it with these various operations, the most obvious using 9/11 to justify invading Iraq.
I want to make this clear. I'm not an expert on domestic policy. I wrote the foreign policy sections of the book. And when I read the domestic sections and edited them, I was amazed that the distortions about Iraq's assistance in the 9/11 attacks and the total exaggeration of WMD's to promote the war in Iraq was not limited to foreign policy matters, but domestic policy as well. That's just the way they do things in this administration: malign the facts and deceive. This is the most ideological administration with the least concern for facts or evidence of any administration I've ever heard of, and I have a Ph.D. in American History.
BuzzFlash: One of the great topics in your book that you and Mark Green write about is how Bush talks left and governs right. There are plenty of examples of Bush's bait and switch. Do you fault the media for Bush's ability to do this?
Eric Alterman: Very much so. Even if the media was doing a terrific job and we had the world's greatest media we still would not have the full picture of what is going on. Frankly, when you're dealing with complicated information, a book is the best way to sort through that information. The Bush administration knows that newspaper and magazine articles are short, reporters are on deadline, people don't have spare time to sort through arguments and evidence on these critical issues, and so the Bush administration can get away with deception.
Our book does sort through the reality versus the rhetoric. It's 450 pages or so, and there are 1,700 footnotes. It tells you as much as we can, the complete story of what's gone on in terms of what this administration has done to the country. Even if The New York Times were much better than it is, it still couldn't do that, because it's a newspaper, and it gives you the news every day. And that's all it does. Same with news weeklies.
A lot of people on the left think the media actively protects news that they don't want to report. I disagree with that strongly. A lot of what I learned about the Bush administration I learned from reading and watching the media. Yet the media view is that they allow the administration and the far right to define what's important and to set the agenda.
I was on a panel recently at this conference about Iraq. I pointed out that there was a news story how the CIA had warned George Bush, before he went into Iraq, that Iraq was not responsible for terrorism against the United States, and that the only likely inspiration for Iraqi terrorism against the United States, and possibly even an Iraqi alliance with al-Qaeda, would be American invasion of Iraq. So Bush's invasion of Iraq wasn't protecting our country from any known threat, but Bush was actually creating a new threat which would result in more Americans being wounded or killed. And a professor on the panel -- I think he was a political scientist -- said that this was some secret kept in some obscure media publication. And I said, "Well, do you know where it was kept? It was kept on the front page of The New York Times. That's where I read it." That news was on the front page of The New York Times.
Now you would think that the CIA telling the President we are going to make the country less safe with this invasion of Iraq would be a news story if there ever was one, and that it would lead the media to really look into this issue with more scrutiny. But that was on The New York Times one day, and it disappeared the next day. The right-wing has this enormous echo chamber, and it helps because it can force the media, particularly through cable news shows, to focus on what the right-wing thinks is important. The left doesn't have anything like that. It's starting to build this. It's finally getting its act together in the sense of creating the various mechanisms necessary to play the game the White House plays.
BuzzFlash: Do you think that part of the reason is more of a structural problem with the media? If that story came out, let's say, 30 or 40 years ago, without a mass media, that it would have been more of a bombshell news story? It seems before that when The New York Times ran a front-page story, there were such things as a bombshell headline or story.
Eric Alterman: I was talking about this issue of mass media at a book signing recently and how powerful it was when Life Magazine ran the photograph of a week's worth of soldiers who died in Vietnam. That was very powerful in terms of turning the country against Vietnam. Rolling Stone ran similar photographs recently about the war in Iraq -- and Rolling Stone is not Life Magazine and that's one difference between the media then and now. In fact, Life barely exists now, but it doesn't matter because there's so much else out there that everything gets buried unless it's constantly repeated in the simplest terms imaginable. So that's exactly what the right-wing does. They get the talking points in the morning, and then it's on Rush, and it's on Fox, and it's on O'Reilly, and it's on Hannity, and the rest is just repetition.
The left is starting to build the tools for this in getting talking points out and countering the propaganda of the right-wing of the day. You're going to see a liberal radio network soon. You've got MoveOn.org. You've got my blogs where I focus on this issue and the work you guys do at BuzzFlash. And we're seeing the elements of a network forming.
BuzzFlash: When you look at the way the media reports the news, they quote something that an administration spokesperson or a cabinet member says, regardless of whether it's a brazen lie or not. The reporter then goes to someone else and gets a response to refute the lie. If you're a lay reader, all you get is this tit for tat, and you probably say to yourself, "both people, Democrats and Republicans, are lying or both people have their own agenda." It seems that the Bush administration has completely utilized this tactic to their advantage. Again, this tit for tat simply overwhelms your common reader.
Eric Alterman: I think that's very well said. When I wrote Sound and Fury, which was published in 1992, I was writing about this problem. I was speaking of the Reagan-Bush administration, and I thought that objectivity is no longer useful when a reporter or media organization prints information it knows to be false. I think we would be much better off if newspapers and television stations told us what they felt is the truth and didn't worry about whether or not they were objective. Because what is far worse is when they make the public think they're objective when they're not. And it's degrading to the reporter and to the democratic society to report falsehoods as if they're news.
Now it turns out that the people who took my advice were Rupert Murdoch and his colleagues who started Fox News. And I actually think that's fine. The thing that makes me crazy is when a radio host said to me recently, "Well, yes, we have Fox News. They're conservative, but you have CNN." And that's just bullshit. And too many liberals and progressives have swallowed that line – that CNN and CBS, and The New York Times are some sort of liberal balance for the conservative media. They're not.
What's funny when you talk about media is that the genuine liberal media is completely not part of the discussion, because the discussion about media bias takes place between the right and the far right. Whenever you meet reporters, and whenever I meet reporters who I've only read, they always seem to know a lot more about their topic than they're writing about. And that's because they can't get what's true into the newspaper because they've got to play by these dated rules about objectivity. I would just like to see it go out the window.
BuzzFlash: You're on a book tour right now promoting The Book on Bush. Do you get the sense that people are seeing through Bush's façade and the façade of a liberal media?
Eric Alterman: The people who come see me are people who agree with me. The only time I ever get attacked on my book tour is from the left. I went on a book tour last year to talk about What Liberal Media?, mostly the same places as this year and it has been a million times better this time. Everybody's very energized. People are working together. I have a little bit of faith left and I think everybody understands that the media is not on their side. This is the battle we have to fight every day. And people are into it, and it feels great. We might lose it, but it feels great to fight the battle and to see people getting involved in politics again.
BuzzFlash: In researching your book, what jumped out at you as the most appalling example of Bush's failed administration?
Eric Alterman: Everybody asks me that. I'll tell you what jumps out at me: three days after 9/11, I took my 3-year-old kid down to Ground Zero because I was told by my government that it was safe to do so -- that the air quality was not dangerous to a 3-year-old child's lungs. And I found out a year later that they literally lied to us, but we didn't know that. The Bush administration said that they couldn't test the air quality in New York or at Ground Zero. But we know the White House made the EPA change their position from "we can and will test the air quality" to "we can't test the air quality at Ground Zero" because the White House was worried about a panic, and they wanted to get Wall Street back up and running.
I can't tell you the feelings that I feel when I think about that. Now as it turned out, the air quality was not toxic, but the Bush administration didn't know that when they told the EPA to change their tune and tell the American public that the air quality at Ground Zero was fine.
BuzzFlash: I know you're not a campaign strategist by profession, but you wrote a book basically documenting the policies and happenings inside the Bush Administration. How can Democrats use Bush's record against him this November? And, secondly, do you think Bush's policies will be an issue, or will his image and $200 million in TV ads deceive the American public and win the day?
Eric Alterman: Oh, it's going to be $400 million. You're going to have $200 million on the presidential side and another $200 million on the Washington, D.C. congressional elections, and the messages and dollars will piggy back off each other. And that may win the day. There's never been quite this size of disparity before. But it seems to me that the Democratic candidates can and should make the election about Bush's policies. The last election was a popularity contest between George W. Bush and Al Gore. But now Bush has a record. Bush had a record back in Texas, but the media didn't bother looking at it. He's got a record now that they can't avoid. A year ago, I would have given you chances of 15 percent that a Democrat could beat Bush. Now I'm giving the chances at maybe 45 to 50 percent that Bush will lose.
BuzzFlash: One last follow-up question: As a historian, do you see the presidential election as a referendum of image versus fact and substance?
Eric Alterman: That is way too simple. I mean, life is not that simple. First of all, it's hard to fathom what the election will be about because I'm not sure what the hell kind of country the United States would look like if we have four more years of these people destroying everything. Right now, the right-wing is in control of the entire apparatus of government. And, yes, the right-wing intimidates the media, by and large. But they don't have to get re-elected. There is a point where people in this country need to decide their own fate and consider our future when they vote.
BuzzFlash: Eric Alterman, thank you for your time.
Eric Alterman: Thank you.
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Get your copy of The Book on Bush from BuzzFlash.com.
Eric Alterman's Web Site
Altercation Web Log on MSNBC.com
"Stop the Presses" Column
in The Nation
"Think Again," Column
for Center for American Progress
What Liberal Media?
A BUZZFLASH INTERVIEW
otherwise noted, all original