Columnist, Commentator Alterman Calls for Less Biased Coverage

Eric Alterman, media columnist for The Nation and on-air commentator for the MSNBC network, criticized the media for putting profit-making before accurate and unbiased news coverage at a brown-bag lunch yesterday at the John F. Kennedy School's Taubman Center.

Alterman, who is also a visiting professor of journalism and media studies at Hofstra University, told the group of about 50 people that the media no longer places its emphasis on reporting the news impartially.

"The American media serves consumers very well," he said. "What it doesn't serve is the republic."

In the speech, titled "Democracy Matters: Who Speaks for Americans?," Alterman cited the recent television media blitz surrounding the trial of British aupair Louise Woodward. He said that such sensational coverage tends to "crowd out real news."

"They're very addictive," he said of the tabloid-like stories.

But when asked by an audience member how he could criticize the media and still be part of it, Alterman responded that he knew where to draw the line.

"There's a little bit of space for dissent within the system," he said. "I stay within the boundaries of what can be heard."

He related the decrease in "real news" to a perception that the American people are often "too ignorant" to make valuable contributions to the foreign policy process.

"That's not a very hard case to make," he said, citing a recent survey which found that 63 percent of Americans favored NATO expansion, yet only 10 percent could name a country that would be affected.

But Alterman said while Americans as a whole may be ignorant of facts, "they are not stupid."

The best way to increase the public's role in shaping foreign policy and democracy in general, he said, is for citizens to become more educated. The obvious way to accomplish this task, he said, is through the media. However, he said the current state of media essentially prevents any sort of public education.

"I would argue that the media will never be able to educate people to make them the kinds of citizens that the Founding Fathers had in mind," he said. "The media is structurally unfit to serve this purpose."

He added that many people now do not even read a daily newspaper or watch the evening news. And Alterman said that it was basically "impossible" for those who do try to stay informed to get unbiased information from the media.

He said that society does not find "public space"--a place for people to interact and become better educated--in current forms of media because it is unprofitable.

"There's no money in stimulating good citizenship, in providing public space," he said.

He added that this problem in the media is compounded by recent corporate acquisitions that have decreased the number of news sources.

He also criticized most journalists for having no concept of the average American family's level of income. He said most reporters were at least slightly biased in reporting news from a class level that is different from that of average America.

"We don't have a working class media," he said.

According to Edie Holway, fellows and programs administrator for the Joan Shorenstein Center on the Press, Politics and Public Policy, the center selected the "provocative" speaker for the speech series based on suggestions from people at the center and at the Kennedy School.