Jonathan Alter

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Jonathan Alter
Jonathan alter 2013.jpg
Jonathan Alter at the 2013 Texas Book Festival.
Born (1957-10-06) October 6, 1957 (age 61)
Occupation Journalist
Nationality American
Alma mater Harvard University
Genre non-fiction
Spouse Emily Lazar
Children 3

Jonathan Alter (born October 6, 1957) is an American journalist, best-selling author, and television producer who was a columnist and senior editor for Newsweek magazine from 1983 until 2011, and has written three New York Times best-selling books about American presidents. He is a contributing correspondent to NBC News, where since 1996 he has appeared on NBC, MSNBC, and CNBC. Alter was one of the first magazine or newspaper reporters to appear on MSNBC. When the shows were on the air, he could often be heard on Imus in the Morning and The Al Franken Show on Air America Radio. Alter is currently an executive producer on the Amazon Studio's production Alpha House, which stars John Goodman, Mark Consuelos, Clark Johnson, and Matt Malloy.

Alter is the author of The Defining Moment: FDR's Hundred Days and the Triumph of Hope, a national bestseller published by Simon & Schuster in 2006, and Between the Lines: A View Inside American Politics, People and Culture, a collection of twenty years' worth of his columns published by Borders Books. His 2010 book is The Promise: President Obama, Year One, published by Simon & Schuster, a behind-the-scenes look at Obama's eventful debut. The Promise was a New York Times Best Seller, reaching #3 on the list at its peak. Alter's new book on President Obama, The Center Holds: Obama and His Enemies, was released on June 4, 2013.[1] "The Center Holds" debuted on the New York Times Best Sellers list on June 23, 2013.[2]

A veteran of Chicago politics, Alter has known President Obama and his closest confidantes for as long as nearly any national columnist, having published the first national magazine cover story on Obama in Newsweek’s 2004 “Who’s Next Issue.”[3]

Alter currently hosts a radio show with his children, one of whom is a writer for TIME Magazine and one who's a producer for The Nightly Show with Larry Wilmore on SIRIUS channel 102 called "Alter Family Politics." The show is part of Andy Cohen new 24-hour network, Radio Andy. [4]

Early life and education

Alter was raised in a Jewish family in Chicago,[5] the son of James Alter (1922–2014),[6] who owned a refrigeration and air-conditioning company, and Joanne (née Hammerman) (1927–2008),[7] who was an elected commissioner of the Metropolitan Sanitary District of Greater Chicago and a member of the Democratic National Committee.[8][9] His mother was first woman in the Chicago area to be elected to public office.[10] He graduated from Phillips Academy in 1975[8][11] and Harvard University in 1979, where he was one of the lead editors on the Harvard Crimson.[8][12]


For a decade in the 1980s, Alter was Newsweek's media critic, where he was among the first in the mainstream media to break tradition and hold other news organizations accountable for their coverage,[citation needed] a precursor to the role later played by blogs. When Newsweek launched his wide-ranging column in 1991, it was the first time the magazine allowed regular political commentary in the magazine, other than on the back page. After the election of Bill Clinton in 1992, during which Alter was a consultant to MTV, he was among a small group of reporters and columnists who had regular access to Clinton, though he was far from a reliable supporter, particularly during the Monica Lewinsky scandal. "Alter bites me in the ass sometimes, but at least he knows what we're trying to do," Clinton was quoted as saying in the book Media Circus by The Washington Post's Howard Kurtz.

Alter gained international notoriety on election night 2000, when on NBC with Tim Russert and Tom Brokaw, he claimed that the election would be settled in court. He was the first pundit to predict the months long recount process.[13]

Two months after the September 11 attacks, Alter wrote an article for Newsweek called "Time to think about torture" which became one of his best-known articles.[14] In the column, he suggested that the U.S. might need to "rethink ... old assumptions about law enforcement". Stating that "some torture clearly works", he suggested the nation should "keep an open mind about certain measures to fight terrorism, like court-sanctioned psychological interrogation", and consider transferring some prisoners to other countries with less stringent rules on torture.[15]

Alter was a fierce critic of President George W. Bush,[citation needed] emphasizing what he considered Bush's lack of accountability and his position on embryonic stem cell research. Alter, a cancer survivor, has written about his own bout with lymphoma and experience with an autologous adult stem cell transplant.[16] On NBC's Today Show, Alter was the correspondent for several stories about the effect of the Iraq War on returning veterans. The Defining Moment, which was reviewed respectfully, surprised some critics with its analysis which concluded that the United States had come very close to dictatorship before Franklin D. Roosevelt became president, painting him as the savior of American democracy and capitalism. During an interview with 60 Minutes on November 14, 2008, then-President-elect Barack Obama said he had recently been reading The Defining Moment and hoped to apply some of Roosevelt's strategies that were outlined in the book into his own administration.[17]

A longtime proponent of education reform, Alter played a major role in the Academy Award nominated documentary Waiting for "Superman".[18]

In 2009, Alter was the commencement speaker at Western Connecticut State University, which awarded him an honorary doctorate.[19] He also has received honorary degrees from Utica College (2008) and Montclair State University (2009).

In April 2011, Alter left Newsweek, joining Bloomberg days after.[20]

Alter is an executive producer of the Amazon Studios show Alpha House starring John Goodman. Written by Doonesbury creator Garry Trudeau, the comedy series revolves around four Republican U.S. Senators who live together in a townhouse on Capitol Hill. After developing the script with Trudeau, Alter sold the pilot to Amazon, which picked up the show as its first original series.[21] The eleven-episode first season began streaming online in late 2013. Production for the second season of Alpha House began in the summer of 2014.[22]

Personal life

Alter lives in Montclair, New Jersey,[10] with his wife Emily Jane Lazar,[8] an executive producer of the Comedy Central show The Colbert Report, and their three children Charlotte, a writer for TIME Magazine,(b. 1990), Tommy, a producer for The Nightly Show with Larry Wilmore on Comedy Central, (b. 1991) and Molly a college student.(b. 1993).[10]

Alter's family has had wide-ranging influence in politics. His mother, Joanne, was the first woman elected to public office in Cook County, Illinois. His sister Jamie Alter Lynton and brother-in-law Michael Lynton, the CEO of Sony Corporation of America, are two of the most politically active fundraisers in California, one cousin Charles Rivkin is one of the creators of the "Muppets" franchise[23] and the current United States Ambassador to France and another cousin Robert S. Rivkin is Chief counsel for the US department of Transportation.[23] Rivkin's wife Cindy S. Moelis is the head of the White House Fellows Program and one of Michelle Obama's closest friends. Alter serves on the Board of Directors of DonorsChoose,[24] which allows teachers to post online proposals for classroom materials, and The Blue Card,[25] a national Jewish organization assisting Holocaust survivors.


  1. "The Most Anticipated Books of Spring 2013". Publisher's Weekly. January 25, 2013. Retrieved January 2, 2014.<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
  2. "Best Sellers > Hardcover Nonfiction". The New York Times. June 23, 2013. Retrieved January 2, 2014.<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
  3. Carlo Wolff (May 18, 2010). "Like its subject, Obama treatise is detail-oriented". The Boston Globe. Retrieved January 2, 2014.<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>[not in citation given]
  4. Missing or empty |title= (help)<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
  5. Jonathan Alter (April 2, 2012). "The fourth outfielder - The day Jonathan Alter played for the Cubs — sort of". Chicago Tribune. Retrieved January 2, 2014.<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
  6. Kogan, Rick (August 18, 2014). "James Alter, Chicago businessman and civic leader, 1922-2014". Chicago Tribune. Retrieved December 13, 2014.<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
  7. Jensen, Trevor (November 11, 2008). "Joanne H. Alter: 1927 - 2008". Chicago Tribune. Retrieved December 13, 2014.<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
  8. 8.0 8.1 8.2 8.3 "Emily Lazar Engaged To Jonathan H. Alter". The New York Times. August 24, 1986. Retrieved January 2, 2014.<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
  9. Ben Goldberger (December 12, 2008). "Joanne Alter, Gender Trailblazer In Chicago Politics, Dies". The Huffington Post. Retrieved January 2, 2014.<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
  10. 10.0 10.1 10.2 Eric Levin (December 19, 2007). "Writer in Residence - Newsweek Columnist Jonathan Alter interprets history as it happens. At home, he steeps himself in the past, including the edigree [sic] of his Victorian dream house". New Jersey Monthly. Retrieved January 2, 2014.<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
  11. "Heffner Adds More Guests for Next Two WPAA Live Political Broadcasts". Phillips Academy website. January 24, 2008. Retrieved 2011-05-24.<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
  12. Who's Who in America 1986-1987. 1. p. 50.<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
  13. "Election Night 2000: No Decision". Retrieved 12 October 2012.<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
  14. Gordon, Rebecca (2014-05-22). Mainstreaming Torture: Ethical Approaches in the Post-9/11 United States. Oxford University Press. p. 183. ISBN 978-0-19-933643-2. Retrieved 2015-04-15. Although he has since published a well-received history of Franklin Delano Roosevelt's first hundred days in office and two books on Barack Obama's presidency, Newsweek columnist Jonathan Alter is probably still best known as the first person to suggest in popular media that the attacks of September 11 meant someone ought to be tortured.<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
  15. Jonathan Alter (2001-11-05). "Time to think about torture". Newsweek. Retrieved 2011-05-24.<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
  16. Jonathan Alter (April 9, 2007). "My Life with Cancer". Newsweek. Retrieved 2011-05-24.<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
  17. Reardon, Patrick T. (November 18, 2008). "FDR books on Obama's nightstand". The Chicago Tribune.<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>[dead link]
  18. "Waiting for Superman (2010)". IMDb.<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
  19. Alter, Jonathan. Speech, May 24, 2009. Retrieved 2011-05-24.
  20. "Jonathan Alter out at Newsweek". 2011-04-11. Retrieved 2011-05-24.<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
  21. Felsenthal, Carol (21 November 2013). "Jonathan Alter on the Making of Alpha House". Chicago Magazine. Retrieved 2014-08-04.<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
  22. Dionne, Zach (2014-03-12). "Amazon Ordered Four of Its Pilots — Including 'Transparent' — to Series". Grantland. Retrieved 2014-07-31.<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
  23. 23.0 23.1 "Robert Rivkin takes on challenge of Toyota inquest with Transportation Department". Chicago Tribune.<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
  24. National board of directors. Retrieved 2011-05-24.
  25. pdf file of Board of Directors. Retrieved 2011-05-24.

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