Two well-known members of the national media exchanged points, friendly jibes and ideas about their profession Saturday afternoon as part of the Arthur N. Rupe Great Debate series.
The Arts & Lectures sponsored debate – moderated by UCSB Center for Film, Television and New Media Co-Director Ronald E. Rice – focused on different aspects of media bias, including how bias is manifested in different media forms, the general political ideas of media personalities and the effects of media on public opinion.
Eric Alterman, author of What Liberal Media? The Truth About Bias and the News and When Presidents Lie: A History of Official Deception and Its Consequences, argued a liberal viewpoint. Tucker Carlson, whose show “The Situation with Tucker Carlson” holds a primetime slot on the MSNBC television network, argued for the conservative side.
Carlson opened the debate with the assertion that America’s poorly informed electorate is the result of a badly biased press. He attributed low levels of political awareness among Americans to a liberal bias in the media and expressed disapproval of the way the media portrays politics in the United States.
“In a democracy, it’s essential that citizens have a common frame of reference for reality,” Carlson said.
Carlson contended that three issues – abortion, the second amendment and gay marriage – are always presented from a left-leaning point of view in American media. On average, Carlson said, journalists tend to be white, come from liberal, coastal areas, graduate from liberal colleges, and as a result have the same culture and perspective of the world.
“Everybody in journalism is pro-choice, pro-gun control and for gay marriage,” Carlson said. “When you only have people [in the media] that all think the same, you do not have good coverage. You can’t cover America until you have a newsroom that looks like America … who thinks like America.”
However, Alterman said he thinks the media is being pushed toward a conservative bias.
“If we had a liberal media, then 44 percent of Americans would not have believed the Sept. 11 bombers were Iraqis,” Alterman said. “We get an extremely biased version of the news.”
Alterman also contended that, even if television pundits or politicians were not overtly liberally biased, the structure of media in general allows for much more coverage of conservative interests.
“Everyday I read the Business Section of the New York Times. Not the Labor Section, not the Environment Section,” Alterman said, referring to two nonexistent sections. “These are conservative assumptions.”
After each speaker’s opening statements, the other had a brief rebuttal time. Afterward, the moderator asked Alterman and Carlson a series of questions. In response to Rice’s inquiry about what a truly unbiased media would look like, Carlson said an ideal media would be one in which reporters were not allowed to write stories that directly involved their own interests.
“[News outlets] should not allow reporters to cover things where their interests are at stake,” Carlson said. “That’s lying.”
The debaters also responded to Rice’s questions about new forms of media – like Internet blogs and podcasts – and their effects on information sharing around the world.
“It’s never bad to have more sources of information out there,” Carlson said.
Alterman somewhat disagreed.
“They allow for democratic conversation outside the media, which is good,” Alterman said. “But they also lack the gatekeeper function of the media, and that makes me a little bit nervous.”
The debate was heavily attended by Santa Barbara community members, as well as by faculty, staff and students of UCSB.
Many audience members felt the debate went a little off-topic at times, as Alterman and Carlson began debating the cause of the war on terror and the success of the Bush administration, among other things.
“A lot of the time, it really seemed like they weren’t so much debating bias in the media,” Holly Klick, a second-year graduate student in political science, said. “It seemed more like they were debating politics in general.”