“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.”
And thus the scene is set by dedicated non-lefty George Gurley in his latest New York Observer profile, “The Avenging Alterman.”
But as we shall see the question of who is “avenging” whom is an open one.
“Mr. Alterman reeked of success.”
As does anyone the upper-crust rag considers worthwhile.
“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.
In other words: “Why isn’t he a Republican?”
“He’s the kind of guy whom even close friends call “arrogant,” “intolerable” and “asshole”-but always affectionately and always followed by praise.”
Aha, so he’s “trouble.” Michael Kelly’s friends and colleagues didn’t use those terms to describe him. That’s because he was an arrogant intolerable asshole in print.
“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.
And so we get down to brass tacks. NPR not liberal? Shocking, is it not? And here he is eating fois gras and Kobe beef, downing it with pinot noir! And those “fish-like eyes”!
We get the picture. It’s Peter Lorre in M !
“He was wearing a gray blazer, a purple button-down shirt and faded jeans, which was dressy compared to his normal attire.”
One wonders while Calvin Klein is stumbling about basketball courts these days. Clearly he should become a political columnist.
“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.
“Even”? With all this name-dropping it’s shocking that Gurley didn’t list them.
“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”).
Earth to Gurley: Bill Maher is not a leftist!
“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.”
Earth to Frank Rich: Faux News is most of all propaganda.
“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.”
Ah but as much as I love Eric he’ll never be Cassius Clay. Thank goodnes there’s a William Klein retrospective going on in New York right now with his amazing film Muhammed Ali — The Greatest being screened. It’s a stunning reminder of how far we’ve fallen in forty years.
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!”
Actually he’s right. I am especially reminded of life under Stalin with today’s pictures from Iraq, with statues of Saddam Hussein being torn down — just like in the opening of Eisenstein’s October.
I doubt that George W. Bush would sponsor the making of an Ivan the Terrible — even though we’ve got such modern Eisensteins as Todd Haynes and Gus Van Sant
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.
With those “fish eyes” of his. My that must have been scary!
“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.)
And so for Gurley what’s important is not what the country actually thinks about our national policies, but what David Chase thinks about Eric.
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.”
Earth to Eric — while the former may well be possible, the latter will never come to pass.
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.
You’re not going to get Eric to choke on his Kobe beef so easily, George!
“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!”
Note the “no.” Very clever, Eric.
“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.”
OH MY GOD! A “GATEWAY DRUG”!!!
“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.
Frankly I don’t understand the Springsteen stuff myself. I’ve been trying to get Eric to pay more attention to Lorenz Hart, to little avail.
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?’”
Yet this is precisely the sort of name-dropping The New York Observer lives for.
Only to castigate the dropper.
“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.”
This is by far the most interesting remark in the interview. Why monsters like Atwater are found to be “fun” by writers with far greater scruples (any scruples) deserves a book all by itself.
“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.”
But that’s apples and oranges, unnamed “friend.” Eric said he was “impressed with myself.” Quite a different matter than the vagaries of fame.
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.)
Look who’s stalking!
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.
And this should, of course, make him desirable to The New York Observer. Imagine that — Vanity Fair — Hitchens’ stomping grounds.
“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.”
No cum-stained blue GAP dress for you, honey!
Just what is it about interns anyway?
“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.”
Surely a hanging offense. A serious journalist who likes to go out with attractive women? How rude!
Maybe there is a blue GAP dress in your future, young lady!
“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. “
So are we supposed to offer him decorating tips now?
“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.”
There’s a division between the two? In Eric’s mind or Gurley’s?
How ambitious is Eric Alterman?
Which is the only question that really matters to the Gurleys of this world.
“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.”
Ah but there are all kinds of enemies worth making, Eric!
“One would be fellow Nation columnist Alexander Cockburn.”
Took the words right out of my keypad!
“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.
I must admit to liking the “bedraggled plume” bit. But I’m a sucker for metaphor.
“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.”
No wonder this “friend” chose to go nameless. Can we get serious here? Calling the Newmans “Paul and Joanne” is a crime?
“Mr. Alterman was finished with his Kobe beef.”
Nope. It’s eating Kobe beef that’s the crime! Clearly Eric should be a vegetarian. Right Mr. Gurley? That way you could turn him into a wussier Al Gore rather than a failed Bill Clinton (of which more shortly).
“I’m done,” he said brusquely to a waiter. “I’m done,” he repeated-slightly impatiently, meaning: “Take the plate away.”
Wonder if Eric has seen Rossellini’s La Prise de Pouvoir par Louis XIV ?
“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.”
And so as the dishes are cleared away, night falls on Manhattan, and bombs fall on Baghdad, Eric Alerman has the unmitigated gall to find a waitress attractive.
Yes, it’s The Politics of the penis once again. It all started with Bill Clinton’s Penis. Now it’s Eric’s. Soon it’ll be every penis for itself!
Damn those Liberals! No waitress is safe!