OFF THE GRID

The Senate? Newsweek? Can’t Liberals Do Anything Right?

Jul 20, 10 | 8:04 AM   byMichael Wolff
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Jonathan Alter, dying Newsweek’s Obama chronicler, vociferously protested my you-don’t-need-a-weatherman conclusion last week about it looking as though the Democrats could lose the Senate. “No, it’s not,” said Alter, who finds my sometimes impressionistic methods of characterizing the news to be outré and not of his class, in a harrumphing tweet. “GOPs don’t even think so. Try reporting, Michael. It helps.”

With hardly time to take a breath, the Wall Street Journal rushed in yesterday to make the case and codify the obvious: “Democrats for the first time are acknowledging that Republicans could retake the Senate this November if everything falls into place for the GOP, less than two years after Democrats held a daunting 60-seat majority.”

Let’s parse: What Alter probably meant to say in his tweet is that, in fact, the likelihood remains that the Democrats will hold on to the Senate. But Alter is a believer and what he actually said is that the very idea of a Senate loss for the Democrats is out of the realm of conceivable reality—shocking to even suggest. Putting aside the unknowable outcome of the mid-term elections, what we do know is that Alter is wrong on the face of it. The GOP, with the conservative Murdoch-owned Journal as exhibit A, is demonstrably thinking that a defeat in the Senate could be possible (the Journal report was actually preceded by the FT’s report last week).

For Alter, even entertaining the thought of a lost Senate majority is an insult to the administration with which he is so joined at the hip (for his book, Alter spent lots of time with the president, who handily courted him). Alter is aggressively trying to discourage talk of a Senate loss, while the Journal, more and more channeling Murdoch’s view of Washington, is naturally trying to encourage it. Alter and the Journal are each (consciously or not) doing what the other is trying to do: influence the message, because the message influences the outcome.

I have never liked Alter (nor he, me). He’s a condescending gasbag, full of lectures and admonitions. Also, he’s an apparatchik—he’s on the liberal side, as much as the Journal is on the conservative side (when I began my Murdoch biography, Alter buttonholed me to say that my duty was to really “screw” Murdoch). Indeed, Alter represents, perhaps as much as anybody, the figure that the conservatives have been complaining about for years: the unmistakable liberal journalist who so virtuously insists on his objectivity.

Which prompts a separate question from the fate of the Senate: What if Newsweek, in its losing battle to reinvent itself, had become openly liberal? Why didn’t it simply become the MSNBC of magazines? The Huffington Post of print? Put another way, might it be its Alter-like pretense of ineffably burdened fair-mindedness that the savvy media public, knowing the pretense isn’t worth a damn, has turned against?

Not to put too fine a point on it, but I’m the more reliable reporter. Alter is a promoter. He might as well declare himself and make a buck off of it.

More of Newser founder Michael Wolff's articles and commentary can be found at VanityFair.com, where he writes a regular column. He can be emailed at michael@newser.com. You can also follow him on Twitter: @MichaelWolffNYC.
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