In a fascinating post, Kevin Drum writes that Newsweek senior editor Jonathan Alter appeared on Al Franken’s radio show this morning and called the Bush Administration a bunch of “clowns.”
Here are Alter’s money quotes:
The level of incompetence is so staggering here, and yet there’s this gap between how astonishingly incompetent — and we can go over particulars in the last year if you want to — how astonishingly incompetent they’ve been and the perception is still of them as solid citizens.
The only way you can sort of start to let the public know is to say, no, they don’t know what they’re doing. They’re clowns.
What makes this interesting is that, while Alter doesn’t pretend to be conservative, he apparently never says anything remotely like this in Newsweek. As Kevin notes in a comment to his own post, this fact gives both conservatives and liberals reason to be unhappy:
And here’s a fun fact: conservatives can complain about Alter because, you know, he’s obviously a stone Bush hater and just pretends otherwise in print. Damn liberal media. [You got that right. More about this below. -- Patterico.] Liberals can complain for the same reason I did. So everyone is unhappy! Congratulations!
Drum is right. For many of us, this validates what we think of media types like Alter: they pretend to be sober, restrained, and sometimes even “balanced” — but in private they are all shrill partisans. (Strictly speaking, Alter wasn’t in private while on Franken’s show, but he was on Air America, which is close enough. At a minimum, Alter evidently felt comfortable enough to say things that he would never say in Newsweek.) They try to hide this partisanship when they are in public, but they are often not as successful as they think they are.
Liberals can get upset over this, too — as Drum points out. Because liberals can say: if Alter really thinks this, why the hell doesn’t he say so in Newsweek, and get the word out? (Some mistakenly argue that Alter’s failure to do so proves that the media is really not liberal. Nonsense. It proves only that media types are not always completely open about how liberal they are. Nevertheless, they still push their leftist viewpoint in everything they write — and don’t try to tell me that’s not true of Alter.)
Either way, there is a decent argument that Alter is not being entirely straightforward with his readership in his columns. As another commenter pointed out, Alter appears to be playing to the audience, depending on the forum:
[Alter] might be soft-pedaling his Newsweek columns to protect his access, or exaggerating his disdain for Wolfowitz to Franken because he thinks that’s what Franken’s listeners want to hear.
(To be fair to Alter, I think that there are other potential reasons for the difference in tone, besides dissembling. One possibility suggested by some Drum commenters is editorial interference. Another obvious issue, which the commenters hadn’t yet discussed when I last read the thread, is the relative spontaneity of the spoken versus the written word. Even unedited, if you express your thoughts in writing, they are likely to be more reflective and thoughtful than what you say on the radio. However, the opportunity for reflection also provides a greater opportunity for hiding your true feelings — which is harder to do on the radio.)
Advantage: blogs. People have sometimes complained about the occasionally strident tone of my blog entries. (Not often — but it has happened!) But there is one positive benefit to my style of expression: at least you know you’re getting my actual opinion — not some watered-down version of my opinion that I have deemed palatable for my audience, and not my opinion as moderated by some squishy editor.
(Cross-posted at Oh, That Liberal Media.)
UPDATE: Welcome to readers of NRO’s The Corner, and thanks to Tim Graham for the link.
To clarify: I’m not claiming that Alter is unbiased in print. But I haven’t seen him use language this strident in Newsweek. I could be wrong, but it seems to me that — while clearly liberal — he is not completely straightforward with his readers about the fact that he is a shrill, Air America-style name-calling partisan.
I hope readers bookmark the site and visit again. The main page can be found by clicking here.
UPDATE x2: Welcome to Instapundit readers, and thanks to Prof. Reynolds for the link.
UPDATE x3: Alter has responded to Drum’s complaints, here — and corroborates my arguments perfectly:
Alter disputes the notion that he’s too restrained in print. “If I just attacked Bush with a sledgehammer every week in Newsweek it would get pretty predictable, so I vary my pitches,” he says. “But lately I’ve been whacking him pretty good. I haven’t done it that explicitly, but I’ve certainly done it and expect to do it some more.” He acknowledges, however, that different media force journalists to play different roles — and that he takes a different approach in Newsweek than he does on a liberal radio show.
My point exactly. Drum sums up the problem well in his post on Alter’s response: “Not only do you owe it to your readers to say what you really feel, but you also owe it to your critics to let them know the point of view that informs your writing.”