Faith & Social Justice: In the spirit of Richard Overton and the 17th C. Levellers

25 Most Influential Liberals in U.S. Media?

The business conservative magazine Forbes has written an article describing their take on the 25 Most Influential Liberals in the U.S. Media and telling their readers to watch for their influence during the Obama era.  Forbes makes no distinction between liberals and progressives, so I will group them together for this blog post.  (The article follows a previous listing of the 25 Most Influential Conservatives  in the U.S. Media).  Now, it is probably true that liberals in the media will gain in influence in the coming years, especially if the Obama administration is successful (a big “if” given the size of his challenges).  But consolidation of the mainstream media’s ownership since the beginning of the ’80s has led to far more conservatives in the mainstream media than are representative of U.S. attitudes as a whole.  Unless media monopolies are broken up and policies implemented to promote more diversity (and local, small-scale) ownership of media outlets, the conservatives are still likely to dominate the  media, reflecting the biases of the media owners. 

But what is strangest about the article, however, is that the list leaves off influential  liberals (e.g., Keith Olbermann, Tavis Smiley, Katrina Van Den Heuvel, Katha Pollit, Naomi Klein, Clarence Page, Gene Robinson [the journalist,  not the Episcopal bishop], Matthew Rothschild, Amy Goodman) and includes figures that are not really liberals, but either moderates or even conservatives (e.g., Oprah Winfrey, Tom Friedman, Christopher Hitchens [a prominent cheerleader for the Iraq War], etc.).  In the case of omitting Olbermann, it is especially strange, because they list Rachel Maddow as #7–and, although Maddow was well-known to listeners of Air America Radio, it was her frequent  guest appearances on MSNBC’s Countdown with Keith Olbermann that led MSNBC to give Maddow her own The Rachel Maddow Show.  It’s fair to say that without Olbermann, Maddow would be much less influential because she would be reaching fewer people.  The Forbes article also lists only one African-American voice, that of Oprah Winfrey. Now, no one would doubt Winfrey’s huge media influence, but she is a very moderate voice–hardly radical in any way and far more conservative than most African-Americans.   All this suggests to me that Forbes, a very conservative magazine, is better at identifying influential conservatives than influential liberals.

At any rate, the Forbes list is below for your consideration,  Gentle Readers, along with my descriptions and comments.  I’ll suggest some substitutes and ask you for other contributions.

  1. Paul Krugman, Professor of Economics at Princeton University and winner of the 2008 Nobel Prize in Economics.  Author of The Conscience of a Liberal (which I highly recommend) and the brand new The Return of Depression-Era Economics (which I have on order).  Krugman writes a weekly column for the New York Times and has been a relentless critic of Bush-era economic policies, predicting the current economic crisis as early as 2003. He is also a frequent commentator on several cable news shows.  I don’t know if he  is the MOST influential liberal in the media, but he should be near the top–and I wish he was more influential with the Obama admin. than economist Larry Summers or Timothy Geithner. 
  2. Arianna Huffington was a moderately conservative Republican in the ’80s and ’90s, but had a conversion in the late ’90s and became a Democrat.  After unsuccessfully running for California governor in the recall election which led to Arnold Schwarzenegger’s 2 terms as governor, she founded the blog The Huffington Post, which has quickly grown into  an online daily journal with hired journalists as well as op-ed writers.  Because of HuffPo, Arianna is surely one of the most influential liberal voices, but she is only moderately liberal–and her writing staff includes people from across the political spectrum.
  3. Fred Hiatt is the editorial page editor of The Washington Post which definitely makes him influential, but does it make him liberal?  WaPo was a major cheerleader of the Iraq war from the run-up until early 2005 and Hiatt is an apologist for many Bush policies, including keeping open the detention gulag for suspected terrorists at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba.  I seriously doubt that many true liberals consider Hiatt a member.
  4. Thomas Friedman, Foreign Affairs columnist and Pulitzer Prize winning author for the New York  Times, at best Friedman is a moderate.  He defended the invasion of Iraq, but changed his tune quickly once no “weapons of mass destruction” were found.  Forbes probably considers him liberal because Friedman works hard to sound the alarm about catastrophic climate change (he suggests that “global weirding” would give a more accurate weather picture to non-scientists than “global warming”) and population explosions, but he’s a strong defender of globalized capitalism–even if not in the strong laissez-faire sense that Forbes would prefer.  To most progressives and liberals, Friedman is a reasonable conservative.
  5. Jon Stewart, stand-up comic turned host of Comedy Central’s fake news show, The Daily Show with Jon Stewart.  Stewart is definitely a liberal and uses his show to critique the silly aspects of the news (on all sides) as well as the silly side of politicians of all stripes. But, he interviews serious authors from all perspectives and here exercises real influence.  Surveys have shown that young people who get most of their “news” from The Daily Show are better informed than those who watch the mainstream media, which is both weird and sad.
  6. Oprah Winfrey, actress and host of The Oprah Winfrey Show.  No one doubts Oprah’s influence.  If you are writing a book, you definitely want her to promote it because then its sales go through the roof.  But apparently Forbes’ only criterion for considering this incredibly wealthy woman a “liberal” is that she was a major supporter of Obama’s campaign for the presidency. But Obama was supported by conservatives like Christopher Buckley (!), and moderate Republicans like Colin Powell, too.  (Obama’s campaign was like a Rorschach test in which people saw very different things  in his campaign–and he was clearly a break from Bush.) Maybe Oprah is a liberal, but nothing in her show really shows this and Forbes seems to have no real criteria for including her–a woman who, apart from the Obama campaign, has been notoriously apolitical. (In fact, I would argue that his appearance on Oprah in 2000, and her softball questions for him, allowed George W. Bush to swing enough of the women’s vote to “win” the 2000 elections.)
  7. Rachel Maddow is one of my favorite newscasters.  A young out lesbian Rhodes Scholar with an Oxford Ph.D.  in political science, Maddow held a number of strangely unrelated jobs before becoming a major liberal voice on Air  America Radio.  In 2007, she became a frequent guest commenter on MSNBC’s Countdown with Keith Olbermann which led in ’08 to her own hugely popular The Rachel Maddow Show.  She is openly to the left of Obama (was furious at the invitation of Rick Warren to give the invocation at the inaugural), a policy wonk, and someone with a great sense of humor.  She may also be the only host of a cable news program who deliberately doesn’t own a television and gets all her news online and from newspapers and magazines. (One of my favorite segments of her show is “Ms. Information” where she highlights underreported “Holy Mackeral” stories that need greater exposure.)
  8. Joshua Micah Marshall is the founder and senior editor of Talking Points Memo, a left-of-center on-line news center.  TPM began as Marshall’s personal blog during the 2000 presidential election recount in Florida and has grown to become an online news source with a staff of journalists and op-ed columnists. TPM has often broken news before the mainstream media and its factcheckers have debunked misreporting by the MSM.  With more and more under-30s getting the majority of their news online, Forbes is probably right that Josh Marshall is a major liberal influence.
  9. David Shipley, editor of the op-ed page of The New York Times.  Well, now that the Times employs more rightwing columnists than liberal ones,  it seems that only conservatives still consider the Times itself to be liberal. (Judith Miller’s shoddy reporting helped cheerlead us into Iraq!)  There are many liberal writers working for the Times, but Shipley’s own views are unknown.  Again, Forbes’ choice is hard to understand.
  10. Markos Moulitsas (“Kos”) is the founder and editor of the liberal blog (with diaries from across the spectrum) Daily Kos.  Here my curiosity is not that Markos was included, but that he was placed this low on the list.  After all, Daily Kos was one of the earliest influential liberal blogs, the answer to conservatives’ The Drudge Report and Markos used it to organize liberals and progressives at a time when conservatives were apparently winning everything.  His annual convention of liberal bloggers, which began as “Yearly Kos,” became “Netroots Nation” and in 2008 became influential enough that almost all major Democratic candidates for office felt compelled to attend and speak to  the assembled guests.  Unlike many political bloggers, Markos actually has a journalism degree and, while the diaries and comments of other “Kos” users may be simply opinionated rants, his own posts usually involve sharp political analysis.  I am not questioning Forbes’ inclusion of Moulitsas, but their ranking of his influence in this list.
  11. Fareed Zakaria, is a CNN Host, and editor and writer of Newsweek International.  With a B.A. from Yale and a Ph.D. in political science from Harvard, Zakaria is the past editor of the influential journal Foreign Affairs and author of the bestselling The Future of Freedom which has been translated into 20 languages.  His new book, The Post-American World, about the rise in power and influence of the rest of the world, has become an instant bestseller.  Again, my question here is not about Zakaria’s inclusion on the list, but his place on it.  I think he’s a major influence shaper, especially of policy elites. 
  12. Chris Matthews, host of MSNBC”s Hardball and, for a time, rumored to be a Democratic candidate for the U.S. Senate (from his native Pennsylvania) in 2010–rumors Matthews finally put to rest earlier this month.  Is Matthews a liberal? Sure,  he became infamous for saying on air that Obama inspired him so much he “sent a tingle up my leg,” and Matthews never stops letting people know that he worked for Bobby Kennedy’s campaign for the presidency, his show is always about polls and process and not much about issues.  While he has a reputation for tough questioning of guests, his questions are often not the ones which really should be asked.  I give Matthews major points for being against the Iraq war from the beginning, and for raising hard questions about the case for invasion during a time when most of the mainstream media (including the New York Times and The Washington Post ) were buying the Bush propaganda hook, line, and sinker, but so did Republican Senator Chuck Hagel (R-NE), now retired, and no one would call him “liberal.” Opposition to war, especially a war waged under false pretenses and was illegal under both domestic and international law, is not a “liberal” or “conservative” position.  Matthews is, at best,  a centrist.
  13. Bill Moyers, may be the last of the old-school serious journalists who does real investigative journalism in the United States.  The native Texan once thought of becoming a minister and actually graduated from Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary in Fort Worth, but returned quickly to his first love, journalism.  He worked for President Lyndon B. Johnson before quitting over the Vietnam War.  He has spent most of his long journalistic career with PBS and may have interviewed more globally fascinating people than Barbara Walters and Mike Wallace combined.  Definitely to the left of Obama politically, Moyers is part of that hardy breed of white Texas liberals. (Texas doesn’t breed many liberals or progressives, but those which do spring up there tend to be tough–they have to be– and possessed of great senses of humor and incredible bull**** detectors and a cultural tendency to plain speaking which annoys both Washington, D.C. and the East Coast elites. Which is why I like them so much.) He would be more influential than he is if more people watched PBS.
  14. Christopher Hitchens is a British-born American journalist, author, and literary critic–and one of the growing number of “angry atheists” seemingly spawned in reaction to religious fundamentalism.  But  is Hitchens a liberal?  Once a Trotskyist Leftist, Hitchens seems to have embraced at least part of the agenda of the Neo-Conservatives.  He was a strong defender of the Iraq war (and still is), and of preemptive war against what he calls “fascism with an Islamic face.”  Though insisting that he remains a “Democratic socialist,” this seems even more unbelievable than when Tony Blair says the same thing! I think Hitchens is popular with both liberal and conservative media types because he is both articulate and provocative, but it’s hard to argue that he is influential–much less an influential liberal.
  15. Maureen Dowd is the New York Times columnist and former Washington correspondent.  She’s center-left and her columns are popular for their humor, but I doubt she is as influential as Forbes believes.
  16. Matthew Yglesias, B.A. (magna cum laude) in philosophy from Harvard and once editor of the Harvard Independent, Yglesias started blogging in 2002 while still in university.  He is editor of the influential liberal blog, Think Progress and his first book, Heads in the Sand: How Republicans Screw Up Foreign Policy and How Foreign Policy Screws Up Democrats (2008) should be read by everyone in the Obama administration. Yglesias is also a staff writer for The American Prospect, a liberal journal.  He is widely respected by conservatives because he is willing to critique liberals and progressives (something far more common than conservatives believe, but they notice when Yglesias does this internal criticism), but his views do have major influence on the left side of the American spectrum.  I hope Yglesias’ influence grows–at least as long as he shows the kind of brilliant analysis he has shown so far. 
  17. Hendrick Hertzberg is a former speechwriter for President Jimmy Carter (D-39) and principle political commenter for The New Yorker magazine.  Does The New Yorkerhave enough circulation these days to be influential? Update: I wrote that last question because of the declining circulation of most newspapers and magazines, but Hertzberg replied to me that The New Yorker‘s circulation is over 1 million, it’s highest ever.  This is VERY good news, in my opinion.
  18. Glenn Greenwald, spends about half his time in Brazil with his same-sex partner.  A U.S. Constitutional lawyer, he was a columnist and author who resists easy categorization.  But the Bush administration pushed him much further to the left and he has been a relentless critic of its policies, of the echo chamber of the U.S. corporate media, and of the timidity and complicity of far too many Democrats in Congress.  He writes a column devoted to politicall and legal topics for the online journal Salon.com (which is one of the best online magazines, imo).  He has focused much attention on surveillance issues and separation of power abuses and his testimony has been cited in Congress.  He is the author of 3 highly influential books, How Would a Patriot Act? (2006), which makes the argument that apologists for the Bush regime betrayed core American principles; A Tragic Legacy (2007), examining how the Bush presidency led to huge longterm failures; Great American Hypocrites (2008) exposes hypocrisy in both political parties.  All are New York Times bestsellers and all are highly recommended by me.
  19. Andrew Sullivan is a British citizen, but he writes frequently for American media and his blog The Daily Dish, is an excellent online feature of The Atlantic Monthly.  Forbes appears to classify Sullivan as “liberal” because he is openly gay and because of his opposition to the Religious Right and American cultural  conservatives (yet, he is a faithful, if dissident, Roman Catholic).  But he is no liberal or progressive, but rather a classic libertarian conservative (expect him to be a major critic of Obama’s economic policies).  As a progressive, I always find libertarians to be excellent companions in struggles for civil liberties (and frequently on war and peace issues, too, since libertarians are seldom military interventionists), but on economics, we are lightyears away.  This makes Sullivan an interesting dialogue partner, but it hardly makes him a liberal.
  20. Gerald Seib  is Washington bureau chief for the Wall Street Journal .  He is an excellent and objective reporter.  The WSJ has arch-conservative editorial pages, but its news sections are brilliantly objective and free from influence of the editorial pages.  I guess this makes Forbes think that the WSJ news section and its writers are “liberal” because they aren’t obviously conservatively biased.  But I don’t know anyone who can really tell Seib’s politics from his writing.
  21. James Fallows  is a former speechwriter for Jimmy Carter who has been a journalist for years with The Atlantic Monthly.  Once again, I would guess that Fallows is liberal because of his former occupation, but I have never seen much “liberal bias” in his reporting.  I also doubt that Fallows is an influence upon many liberals in America.
  22. Ezra Klein is a young writer and editor at The American Prospect and he was one of the first bloggers to be given press credentials at a political convention in 2004.  He writes frequently on health policy and has argued that 2009 may finally be the year Americans get universal healthcare (I hope he is right!).  He is also a major writer on the labor movement. 
  23. Kevin Drum  is a journalist who became a blogger and is now both.  His blog, The Political Animal at The Washington Monthly  is always worth reading.  I admire Drum for his intellectual honesty.  In the aftermath of 9/11, he got  caught up in the delusional Bush war fever like so many others.  He originally supported the invasion of Iraq, but, on the eve of invasion, he changed his mind, initially for pragmatic reasons. His investigations had convinced him that the approach the Bush administration was taking was bound to make the invasion an unmitigated disaster and that Saddam was once more contained and the weapons inspectors were doing their work.  Since that time, he has seen that the war should have been opposed from the beginning on philosophical grounds. 
  24. Kurt Anderson the writer and novelist and creator of the cultural website, Studio 360.  I don’t see anything which makes Anderson either liberal or a POLITICAL influence, though his cultural influence is undeniable.
  25. Michael Pollan is a columnist, an environmental activist, and also a professor of journalism at UC Berkeley.  The author of the bestselling, The Omivore’s Desire and his The Botany of Desire explores the co-evolution of humans with certain plants. 

It’s an odd list. It combines undoubted influential liberals with those who are either not liberal or not very influential.  Further, as I pointed out, it leaves out every African American voice except that of OPRAH! (Where is Tavis Smiley, Clarence Page, or Bob Herbert? Since bloggers were featured so prominently, what about some prominent black political blogs like Jack and Jill Politics?)  There were no Latinos, either.  And the ranking of the liberals included seems odd. 

So, Gentle Readers, any suggestions for a better list of influential liberals for what Forbes is calling “the age of Obama?”

January 25, 2009 - Posted by | media reform, U.S. politics


  1. Noam Chomsky, although he is not a media-type person. He is actually quite critical of the media as a tool of the empire. And he is not a ‘liberal’ in the sense of Obama or Clinton. He is much more radical than that. But his books and his lectures do have influence, although I wish his influence were much greater.

    Comment by Jonathan Marlowe | January 25, 2009

  2. I agree, Jonathan, with everything you said.

    Comment by Michael Westmoreland-White | January 25, 2009

  3. “The age of Obama” ? That may be a bit premature. He hasn’t been in office a month yet. I think some in the media may be smitten with BHO.

    Comment by Paul | January 25, 2009

  4. You may be right, Paul, that many in the media are smitten with Obama, but I seriously doubt Forbesis part of that swoon. I think they were using the term “age of Obama” as a sarcastic reference to the 4-8 years he’ll be in office. Given Forbes conservative perspective, I suspect that this list was meant as a warning to its readers of “people to watch closely and with alarm.” The strange thing to me was the people they chose.

    Comment by Michael Westmoreland-White | January 25, 2009

  5. Michael I voted for Obama, because I believe that the man can do a good job if the Congress will work with him instead of against him. It takes a special person(especially when it comes to politicians) to put conscience before ego and I think that Obama is a man of principle. Our Congress,unfortunately, has been rife with partisan politics for far too long and the nation has suffered for it. If there is an age of Obama, I hope that it is one of positive results and a good future for our children.

    Comment by Paul | January 26, 2009

  6. Is Matthew Yglesias a Latino? I queried Google on the question but couldn’t come up with a solid answer either way. Regardless, I do agree that he’s a must-read.

    Comment by Kyle | January 26, 2009

  7. I know Yglesias is Jewish, but I don’t know if he’s Latino.

    Comment by Michael Westmoreland-White | January 26, 2009

  8. Yglesias is Jewish? Yes, this is a Spanish last name, meaning “churches” (interestingly enough if he is indeed Jewish. . . )

    Comment by Saul | January 29, 2009

  9. Yes, Saul, Yglesias is Jewish. The Spanish for “church” is “iglesias,” from the Greek, “ekklesia” or “assembly.” But he may also be Latino. His father, Raul Yglesias, is a novelist, I’ve found, and “Raul” is definitely a Hispanic name.

    Comment by Michael Westmoreland-White | January 30, 2009

  10. I love Jon Stewart. But I think it is a mistake to view his show as “fake” news, even though he himself calls it fake. The reason his show IS SO GOOD because he does research the news and he understands it, if he and his team didn’t understand the news then they could comment on it as well as they do.

    I view his show as more satire, not “fake” news.

    Comment by Martin | February 7, 2009

  11. It’s a fine list, including Chomsky, of people who hate nearly everything that I love and love many things that I hate. My admiration for them is only in how some of these people became so influential. And what happens in the mind of a rational person to find many of these failed and destructive beilefs so appealing. To me it proves that there’s politics, and philosophy, and then there’s spiritual influences that mold our lives. Some ideologies seem to be from Hell, not Heaven.

    Comment by Steve | February 17, 2009

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