Eric Alterman, the liberal author of the new book What Liberal Media?, was standing in the middle of Michael’s restaurant, the liberal-media hangout on West 55th Street in Manhattan. After a warm embrace with lefty novelist E.L. Doctorow, he took a seat.
Mr. Alterman reeked of success. Forty-three years old. Four books under his belt, with bold titles like Who Speaks for America? Media columnist for The Nation magazine. A Web blogger who is paid by MSNBC.com to write whatever the heck is on his mind every morning. Degrees from Cornell, Yale and Stanford. Best man at his wedding? George Stephanopoulos. Divorced now, but living with a cool lady-who hasn’t insisted he marry her!-and their cute kid on the Upper West Side.
He’s the kind of guy whom even close friends call “arrogant,” “intolerable” and “asshole”-but always affectionately and always followed by praise.
He apologized for being late for lunch. A reporter for NPR’s All Things Considered had called to interview him. (By the way, according to Mr. Alterman’s book, NPR ain’t so liberal.) He ordered foie gras, the Kobe beef and a glass of pinot noir. Earlier, he’d said he liked his lunches “expensive.” He has a brainy-little-kid quality, with large fish-like eyes behind glasses and a neatly trimmed goatee. He has a distinctive laugh that begins at raucous and ends in high, whinnying hysteria.
He was wearing a gray blazer, a purple button-down shirt and faded jeans, which was dressy compared to his normal attire. That evening Justin Smith, publisher of the magazine The Week, was throwing him a dinner party, which would be attended by liberal pals like Mark Green, writer Calvin Trillin, The Nation‘s Victor Navasky and even three ex-models.
Although his book is positioned as a counterweight of sorts to two best-selling books by right-wingers- Slander by Republican blonde Ann Coulter and Bias: A CBS Insider Exposes How the Media Distort the News by Bernard Goldberg, which Mr. Alterman called “a long white-man’s whine”-not all of his targets are firmly on the right. Also coming in for criticism are New Republic editor in chief Marty Peretz, ABC comedian Bill Maher (“foolish”) and filmmaker Michael Moore (“Naderite”).
“I think what’s really valuable about the book is, it’s become such a given that the press is liberal. He’s poked some holes in that,” New York Times columnist Frank Rich told me. “And he’s done it with a lot of research and reportage. On both sides-the left and the right-there’s a tendency just to blather and use invective. On the right, you have an example like Ann Coulter-that The Times should be blown up because it’s such a left-wing den of iniquity. But the left can go over the top, too, about how right-wing the press is, and be driven too crazy by Fox News Channel, which is, most of all, entertainment. This book is a very reasonable , backed-up-by-argument case by someone who I think is a very sophisticated media critic.”
“I think a great many people were waiting for something like this to be said,” said Hendrik Hertzberg, The New Yorker‘s senior editor and a friend of Mr. Alterman’s for 20 years. “It sure has struck a nerve. He’s moved up in weight class. He’s a light heavyweight at least, which is not bad-that’s what Sugar Ray Robinson was.”
Mr. Alterman told me he was “enormously gratified” by the reception to his book (good review in The Times), but added that he was also disappointed because the book had “been crowded out by the war,” and thus it had been hard to get “traction.”
“I had a lot of reasons to be anti-war, and the book was a small one,” he said. “Everything was dominated by the war, and still is.”
On The Daily Show on Comedy Central, Mr. Alterman told Jon Stewart that he thought there was more diversity in the Soviet Union under Stalin than on American talk radio today.
“Come on now,” Mr. Stewart said. “Now, I may have a great leaning toward your point of view-but Stalin? Now you’re just throwing crazy stuff out there!”
But Mr. Alterman sees himself as battling a huge tide of “crazy stuff”-first and foremost, anything that comes out of Ann Coulter’s mouth or pen.
“Coulter’s book is evil,” he said.
(Ms. Coulter told me she’d “never read anything” by Mr. Alterman and added, “I hear he’s practically become my newest stalker.”)
Mr. Alterman looked around the restaurant.
“Truthfully, I don’t dispute that just about everybody in this room is pro-abortion, pro-gun control, pro-gay rights, pro-campaign finance,” he said. “I feel I’m allowed in here. I mean, I’m not exactly at home. There’s no perfect place for me in the media-I’m the most liberal person in it, or one of them.”
Why was it good to be a liberal in 2003?
“There’s two reasons,” he said. “One is, if you’re a liberal about most things, you’re more likely to be right than not. But here’s an interesting reason: The rest of the country agrees with you. It’s basically a liberal country.”
(Another good reason might be that casting directors from The Sopranos know your name: A few weeks ago, Georgianne Walken e-mailed Mr. Alterman and asked if he would audition; The Sopranos was looking for someone to play a TV reporter. “I said, ‘Sure-provided this is not an April Fool’s joke,'” he said. “They faxed me my lines the next morning.” He auditioned for Sopranos creator David Chase-as did New Republic literary editor Leon Wieseltier and journalist Philip Gourevitch. But the tweedy would-be thespians lost out to a writer from the show, who got the part.)
I told him I saw liberal bias all over the media. For instance, I said, The New York Times actually wants Bush to fail in Iraq.
“I don’t know that,” he said. “I agree that the editorial page is against Bush …. I’m against Bush. I don’t want the war to fail. I want Bush to resign in ignominy-and the war to be a great success.”
What was ever in The Times that could possibly bother a liberal? I challenged.
“Jesus fucking Christ,” he said. “They endorsed George Pataki! Look at what this man is doing to New York City. I have a daughter in New York City public schools. He’s destroying them!”
After a few more mouthfuls of Kobe beef, I again asserted that The Times under executive editor Howell Raines was a liberal tool.
“Well, why did Howell hate Clinton so much, then?” Mr. Alterman said. “Why did he love Ken Starr and hate Bill Clinton? He liked Ken Starr. You can’t be a liberal and like Ken Starr. He loved Ken Starr. It’s like liking Idi Amin.
“Here’s my question for you conspiracy nuts about The Times,” Mr. Alterman continued. “Why did Howell Raines ask Frank Rich to stop writing his column? Frank Rich is the most literate, eloquent liberal writer we have. Why would Howell go to the single best writer of all the liberal columnists and say, ‘Stop doing it’?”
Because people were complaining about him?
“Nobody was complaining about him-people loved him. This is New York; this is the Upper West Side! Because there’s no goddamn conspiracy – that’s why!”
Eric Alterman was born in Queens and grew up upper-middle-class in Scarsdale. His mother was a school psychologist, his father a salesman and engineer. Young Eric was a bookish athlete who by age 18 was smoking pot every other day after high school. Bruce Springsteen saved his life, according to a book he wrote in 1999 (It Ain’t No Sin to Be Glad You’re Alive: The Promise of Bruce Springsteen). The song “Born to Run,” he wrote, “exploded in my home, in my mind and changed my life.” Once, Mr. Alterman hurled a pair of his hightops onto the stage at a Springsteen show.
He attended Cornell-where he smoked pot once a week-and said he was “all set to be like a New York Jewish literary intellectual.” He did his honors thesis on Jewish intellectuals, including I.F. Stone. The two got to know each other.
“I can’t risk being accused of dropping names of famous people,” he said. “We were very close until he died. I felt enormously lucky for that. We used to go to the movies. I was friends with his wife. He would tell me stories about hanging out with Albert Einstein. He’s sort of my external conscience. I often ask myself, ‘What would Izzy do?'”
Mr. Alterman spent his 20’s between Washington, New Haven and Paris, where he tried to be a writer and attended graduate school at Yale. He did freelance writing for The Nation, Harper’s Magazine, Mother Jones, The New Republic and The Times Magazine, for whom he profiled the late Republican political strategist Lee Atwater.
“I never had any more fun than I had with Lee Atwater,” he said. “He had a genius for the jugular of American politics, and without Lee Atwater there would be no Karl Rove, and without Karl Rove there would be no George W. Bush, and hence we’re all a lot worse off for his influence.”
Mr. Alterman’s first book came out in 1992, when he was pursuing a doctorate in U.S. history at Stanford. It was titled Sound and the Fury: The Making of a Punditocracy. He said he’d expected that his book would make people like George Will “afraid to show their faces in public again, because I had so humiliated and revealed them for the charlatans that they were-but in fact, nothing changed at all. Everything went back to the way it was.”
To promote the book, he appeared on The Today Show and The Tonight Show.
“I was more famous then,” he said. “When I was still in graduate school, I had my 15 minutes. And now I’m not that impressed with myself.”
“I don’t think that he had a sophomore slump after Sound and the Fury,” said a friend. “But I think he expected to be big and famous after it.”
In 1996, Mr. Alterman became a regular on MSNBC with Ms. Coulter. (“I seem to have made a greater impression on him then he on me,” she told me.)
In July 1997, The Village Voice published an article by Ken Silverstein, in which he called Mr. Alterman’s ascension to the punditocracy “hypocritical,” accusing him of such sins as summering in the Hamptons and fawning over Melanie Griffith in a piece he wrote for Vanity Fair.
“He is incredibly rude and arrogant,” one intern who had worked for Mr. Alterman told The Voice. “He constantly wants to remind you that he’s Eric Alterman, that he knows a lot of important people, and that you’re a lowly intern.”
But he also earned fans. Freelance writer Katie Rosman was an assistant at Elle magazine when she first got to know Mr. Alterman, who was then a contributing editor at the women’s fashion magazine.
“He would call and be relatively demanding about silly little things-messengers for this or car service for that,” she said.
Now they’re close friends.
“I’ll poke fun at him now and say, ‘You were just one of those snotty writers that assistants hate,'” Ms. Rosman said. “And he says, ‘I was just doing it on purpose . I thought I was being funny !'”
“He has shocked me with the things he’s done,” she said. “He’ll call me and his line is, ‘So, do you want to be arm candy tonight?’ I’ll ask him what the event is, and he won’t tell me-I have to decide before. And then he’s taking me to George Soros’ apartment or some New Yorker party, and he introduces me to everybody . So I really admire him for that. He takes me to good parties.”
Currently, Mr. Alterman lives in the tidy Upper West Side apartment he shares with Diana Silver, a research scientist at New York University. They met in high school and worked together at the Bronx Zoo, smoking dope around the corner from the apes. They married other people, divorced them, and had a daughter together in the late 1990’s. Her initials are the same as her father’s; Mr. Alterman calls himself “E.R.A.” and his daughter “E.R.A. 2.”
His place is decorated with the usual “New York semi-single male” stuff-photos of Sinatra, Babe Ruth at bat, Springsteen, arty naked-lady pics, Mets stuff. Hundreds of books arranged by subject. Once a month, Mr. Alterman and Ms. Silver host a salon in his apartment for fellow lefties and “chicks,” he said.
How ambitious is Eric Alterman?
“If my life were about ambition, I wouldn’t have my politics,” he said. “And I would have a reputation for being a lot nicer. I’m just not very political-I make all kinds of enemies that are stupid of me to make.”
One would be fellow Nation columnist Alexander Cockburn.
“We hate each other,” Mr. Alterman said. “I like George Bush and Dick Cheney better than I like Alexander Cockburn. I’m not kidding. They are at least honestly misguided. I just think he’s a disgraceful writer. I don’t think he’s an honest person.”
“He has some sort of obsession with me, which I suppose is flattering,” Mr. Cockburn said. “I’ve never known a fellow to unify so many otherwise mutually antagonistic people in dislike of him. Long ago, I concluded his stuff is worthless-one more bedraggled little plume on the funeral hearse of the Democratic Party. The furthest I’ve gone is to call him a twerp-part brown-noser, part cheeky chappy.
“Eric is difficult,” said Nation editor Katrina vanden Heuvel. “But behind that difficult, gruff exterior is someone who cares deeply about progressive ideas and democracy in this country.”
“He’s very hard to understand,” said a friend of Mr. Alterman’s who did not wish to be identified. “Because he really is an unbelievable asshole and a really, really great person. He is the worst name-dropper in the world-because he only uses first names. He’ll say, ‘Oh, I had dinner with Paul [Newman] and Joanne last night …. ‘ He is a huge literary starfucker.”
Mr. Alterman was finished with his Kobe beef.
“I’m done,” he said brusquely to a waiter. “I’m done,” he repeated-slightly impatiently, meaning: “Take the plate away.”
He ordered a cappuccino low-fat and bantered with the waitress.
“Another thing I do that liberals don’t do is, I admire the beauty of waitresses,” he said. “That’s a beautiful waitress.”