He earned a BA in history and government from Cornell University, an MA in international relations from Yale University, and a PhD in U.S. history from Stanford University.
Alterman began his journalism career in 1983, freelancing originally for The Nation, The Washington Monthly, The New Republic, Harper's, Le Monde diplomatique, and later, Vanity Fair, The New York Times Magazine, The New Yorker and The Atlantic Monthly, among others, while working as a senior fellow for the World Policy Institute in New York City and Washington, DC. Shortly after that he became the Washington Correspondent for Mother Jones, and soon thereafter Rolling Stone, before returning to The Nation as a columnist in 1995. Alterman has also been a contributing editor to ELLE, and a regular columnist for Worth and the London Sunday Express. and the Guardian.
Alterman was hired by MSNBC in 1996, both appearing as a commentator on the cable channel and writing a column posted on its website. In 2002 MSNBC engaged him to create the blog daily Altercation, one of the first blogs hosted by a mainstream media news organization. In September 2006, after a ten-year association, Alterman and MSNBC parted ways. Media Matters for America hired him as a Senior Fellow and agreed to host Altercation, effective September 18, 2006. Regular contributors to his blog Altercation included sportswriter Charlie Pierce and historian and military officer Robert Bateman. On December 22, 2008 Alterman announced that Altercation would be moving to The Nation's website in 2009, and would appear on a less regular basis than its previous Monday through Friday schedule. He has also worked as a history consultant to HBO Films.
He published his first book, Sound & Fury: The Making of the Punditocracy, which won the 1992 George Orwell Award, while studying for his doctorate in US history in Stanford in 1992. Alterman also published a number of other books, including the national best-sellers What Liberal Media? The Truth About Bias and the News (2003, 2004), and The Book on Bush: How George W. (Mis)leads America (2004). The others include: Who Speaks for America? Why Democracy Matters in Foreign Policy, (1998), and a second edition of Sound & Fury (2000). His It Ain't No Sin to be Glad You're Alive: The Promise of Bruce Springsteen (1999, 2001), won the 1999 Stephen Crane Literary Award. In September 2004, Viking Press published When presidents Lie: A History of Official Deception and its Consequences –- a version of his doctoral dissertation –– on lies of major consequence told by presidents Franklin D. Roosevelt, John F. Kennedy, Lyndon Johnson, Ronald Reagan, and George W. Bush.
His seventh book, published in 2008 by Viking was called Why We're Liberals: A Political Handbook for Post-Bush America. Also in 2008, Alterman published a lengthy essay in the New Yorker on the decline of American newspapers and the future role of new media news sites. His eighth book, Kabuki Democracy: The System vs. Barack Obama, was published in early 2011. It was an extension of a lengthy article he had published in the Summer of 2010 in The Nation. In 2012, Alterman published his ninth book, The Cause: The Fight for American Liberalism from Franklin Roosevelt to Barack Obama, a history of postwar American liberalism. Three years later, in 2015, he published his tenth book the ebook and paperback on demand, Inequality in One City: Bill de Blasio and the New York Experiment.
He is perhaps best known for his media criticism, which is the subject of two of his books. He writes a political column for The Nation and a weekly column for the Center for American Progress website. In contrast to conservative media commentators, Alterman argues that the press is biased against liberals rather than biased in their favor. He was called "the most honest and incisive media critic writing today" in the National Catholic Reporter, and the author of "the smartest and funniest political journal out there," in The San Francisco Chronicle. In 2008, Alterman also became a regular columnist to the Jewish magazine Moment, where he wrote regularly about Jewish issues. In 2009, he also became a regular contributor to The Daily Beast. In 2011, he gave up the column on Jewish issues Moment and began a new one in The (Jewish) Forward.
Alterman has taught journalism at both New York University and Columbia University. Since the fall of 2004, he has been a Professor of English at Brooklyn College, where he teaches courses in media and media history. In 2007 he was named a CUNY Distinguished Professor of English at Brooklyn College and Professor of Journalism at the CUNY Graduate School of Journalism. He is also a Senior Fellow at the Center for American Progress, and remains one at the World Policy Institute in New York.
Alterman was and remains a critic of Ralph Nader for Nader's actions in the 2000 U.S. Presidential Election, arguing that Nader is to blame for the election of George W. Bush because of vote splitting. He has called Nader "Bush's Useful Idiot," myopic, and a deluded megalomaniac. In the documentary An Unreasonable Man, he is quoted as saying:
The man needs to go away. I think he needs to live in a different country. He’s done enough damage to this one. Let him damage somebody else's now.
Alterman has also criticized Steve Jobs for his avarice and for never giving any of his wealth to poor people. Jobs died with more than $8 billion in various bank accounts and with shareholdings in a tax free fund with assets of more than $70 billion. He has also accused Apple of business practices which ultimately result in the misery of Chinese workers.
He appears in the award-winning documentary on Lee Atwater, Boogie Man: The Lee Atwater Story. In the film, Eric says "Race is poison, but it is poison that works for their side. People vote their fears and not their hopes, and Lee understood that." He also appears in Robert Greenwald's documentary Outfoxed. His critics have called him a member of the Israel lobby. Alterman notes that his views on Israel are attacked by the left for being too pro-Israel and right, such as The Weekly Standard, for being not supportive enough.
In May 2017, liberal intellectual Paul Berman published an account of blackmailing directed at coercing him to renounce his beliefs. A subsequent story (confirmed by Alterman) identified Alterman as the author of the intimidating emails sent to Berman; however, Alterman denied blackmailing Berman. In response to the controversy, former Boston Globe columnist Cathy Young published an account of her own publicized feud with Alterman including various allegations of intimidation.Sound & Fury: The Making of the Punditocracy (1992, 1993, 2000) ISBN 978-0-8014-8639-5
Who Speaks for America? Why Democracy Matters in Foreign Policy, (1998) ISBN 978-0-8014-3574-4
It Ain't No Sin to be Glad You're Alive: The Promise of Bruce Springsteen (1999, 2001)
What Liberal Media? The Truth About Bias and the News (2003, 2004) ISBN 978-0-465-00177-4
The Book on Bush: How George W. (Mis)leads America (2004) ISBN 0-14-303442-1
When presidents Lie: A History of Official Deception and its Consequences, (2004, 2005) ISBN 978-0-670-03209-9
Why We're Liberals: A Handbook for Restoring America’s Most Important Ideals (2008, 2009) ISBN 978-0-14-311522-9
Kabuki Democracy: The System vs. Barack Obama (2011) ISBN 978-1-56858-659-5
The Cause: The Fight for American Liberalism from Franklin Roosevelt to Barack Obama with Kevin Mattson (2012) 978-0-67-002343-1
Inequality and One City: Bill de Blasio and the New York Experiment, Year One (2015) ISBN 978-1-940489-19-3