Left Gears Up to Fight Media Wars
From a glitzy new office in downtown Washington, the ideological war over the media is fully engaged.
Six years after its founding to counter what it said was "conservative misinformation," Media Matters for America employs a staff of 70 that spends 19 hours a day monitoring newspapers, magazines, broadcast and cable television, talk radio, and the Internet to counter reporting or commentary it deems to be inaccurate or biased.
Lou Dobbs recently described the group as part of "the vast left wing conspiracy," an ironic twist on Hillary Clinton's famous description of the conservative infrastructure arrayed against her husband when he was president and fighting off attempts to impeach him.
In fact, just a few miles away and across the Potomac, in Alexandria, Va., one of the groups Clinton was talking about, the Media Research Center, founded in 1987 by L. Bent Brozell III, is engaged in a longer-running attack on the media from the right.
Shortly after launching Media Matters, founder David Brock said he hoped his group would some day be as influential as Bozell's, and that day appears to have arrived. They have roughly the same budget ($10 million) and staff, and are equally adept at provoking the other side.
The MRC, as a rule, doesn't comment on Media Matters. Conservative publisher Andrew Breitbart, though, has no such rule.. "I'm 100 percent at war with those people," he recently told POLITICO.
One of the bloodiest battles in that war occurred last fall, when Kevin Jennings, an openly-gay educator hired by the Department of Education to run an anti-bullying campaign, became a conservative cause.
Jennings was under fire from critics because he once described how as, a 24-year-old teacher, he counseled a student having a sexual relationship with an "older man." Several conservative outlets and commentators said that by law Jennings had to report the incident, claiming the student was only 15 years old at the time, and the relationship thus constituted statutory rape.
Media Matters obtained the student's driver's license and proved he was 16 at the time, the age of consent in Massachusetts. While some may still question Jennings' judgment, he didn't break any law.
"This should put to rest claims made by Fox News and other conservatives that Jennings covered up 'statutory rape' or 'molestation,'" wrote Media Matters senior fellow Karl Frisch. "To continue reporting such reckless speculation is at best willful disregard for the facts and at worst journalistic malpractice."
The battle over Jennings convinced Media Matters that it needed to not only monitor other media but to do its own original reporting. On Monday, Joe Strupp, who covered the press for 11 years with Editor & Publisher magazine, will launch a new media blog after signing on as the group's first investigative reporter.
Joining a partisan organization is a change for Strupp, given that his press coverage with E&P, or in appearances on "Fox News Watch," was solidly non-partisan. However, Media Matters, he says, didn't ask about his political beliefs when it hired him, and his goal remains to do "straight-ahead reporting." Still, Strupp acknowledges that he represents a "new sort of wing for their organization."
Ari Rabin-Havt, vice president for research and communication at Media Matters, confirms that ideology was not discussed before he was hired. But don't expect Strupp to be investigating "Countdown with Keith Olbermann" or Talking Points Memo.
More likely, he'll focus on programs and outlets on the other side ideologically from Media Matters, or on hot-button issues the organization is interested in. "Joe knows where we're coming from," Rabin-Havt said.
"We never change the truth in what we're covering," Rabin-Havt said. "We do make choices here on what to cover. Every newspaper has editors that make choices about what they care about, which is why Fox News has very different stories than CNN, even in their daytime coverage."
So while Media Matters may increasingly hire journalists with more traditional news backgrounds, the reporting and writing still fits in with the organization's goals. Unlike a newspaper, Media Matters is not in the business of selling advertising, subscriptions or competing on a variety of beats. It also has a clear political agenda.
For instance, Media Matters hired Will Bunch, a veteran Philadelphia Daily News reporter and blogger, as a senior fellow last month. Bunch plans on remaining at the Daily News while also working on a book that seems well-suited for the Media Matters audience: "The Backlash: Right-Wing Radicals, Hi-Def Hucksters, and Paranoid Politics in the Age of Obama."
Media Matters was launched with about $2 million in seed money from wealthy liberal donors who shared Brock's vision of combating what he called in a book "The Republican Noise Machine."
Assistance also came from the John Podesta-led Center for American Progress, a liberal policy and advocacy organization which includes billionaire George Soros as a major backer. The National Democratic Network, a think tank and advocacy organization, and progressive activist organization MoveOn.org, have also helped fund Media Matters. The New York Observer reported in December that last year it "received grants of at least $100,000 from more than a dozen foundations."
While Media Matters president Eric Burns and senior fellow Eric Boehlert are more visible presences on cable news and talk radio, founder David Brock remains chief executive and a major presence in the organization.
He plays a key role in strategy and fundraising, which supports the entire non-profit apparatus, and is typically at the office each day. "He guides us, gives vision," Rabin-Havt said.
That Brock has anything to do with the organization at all is more than a little ironic given his own role as part of the right-wing conspiracy. Two of Brock's notable contributions were his book "The Real Anita Hill," and a 1994 American Spectator article that spawned "Troopergate," leading to allegations that Bill Clinton, while Governor of Arkansas, used state troopers to arrange liaisons with women.
Brock later confessed that much of the Anita Hill book was false, apologized to the Clintons for the Troopergate article, broke with the right officially in a 1997 Esquire piece, and four years later explained his conversion in greater detail with his memoir, "Blinded by the Right: The Conscience of an Ex-Conservative."
At the time Brock started Media Matters, the main counter to conservative media groups such as MRC and the even more established Accuracy in Media, founded in 1969, was Fairness and Accuracy in Reporting (FAIR), a liberal watchdog group that launched in 1986 to target media bias and censorship. While FAIR offers some analysis online each day, it doesn't do so as comprehensively as the better-funded Media Matters, which has researchers posting clips of video and audio throughout the day along with frequently updated online content.
For the working reporters who are targets of Media Matters as much as they come under fire from conservative talkers Rush Limbaugh or Bill O'Reilly, scrutiny from the Left is just as meddlesome as scrutiny from the Right, particularly when the group fixates on a single word in an article, which could be the result of newsroom haste or simple carelessness rather than any greater conservative conspiracy.
For instance, in a blog item last week entitled: "New York Times, please define ‘splits,'" Boehert took issue with a Times headline that said the GOP "splits" over Senator Jim Bunning's recent attempt to block an extension of unemployment benefits.
"But has the GOP really split?" he wrote. "In fact, couldn't the argument be made that the real news is that the GOP hasn't split, and that very few GOP voices are complaining about Bunning's increasingly odd behavior?"
Rabin-Havt, who like other Media Matters executives, arrived at the organization after working for a number of groups affiliated with liberal advocacy and the Democratic Party, said he thinks Media Matters has been somewhat misunderstood by mainstream reporters.
"The culture here, in this office, and I think reporters would be surprised by this, isn't one of sniping or disrespect towards the media," Rabin Havt said, adding that "being a reporter is such an incredibly honored profession, and plays such a role in our society and our debate, and we want people to do the best job they can."