It takes only an instant for a visitor to Media Matters for America's headquarters in downtown Washington to sense its mission, if not its methods. A few steps into its modern offices, which resemble a newspaper newsroom, a pair of prominently displayed signs spell out the basics: "Fox Keeps Fear Alive," reads one; "Restore Sanity, Fight Fox," reads its companion.
Fighting Fox is what Media Matters does, relentlessly and obsessively. In the six years since its founding, the watchdog group has evolved from an all-purpose scourge of the conservative media into Fox News Channel's veritable shadow and constant irritant. From well before sunrise to long after it each day, teams of young researchers sift through video clips and transcripts of programs hosted by Fox stars such as Glenn Beck and Bill O'Reilly to find dubious facts, logical contradictions and poisonous - at least to Media Matters' liberal sensibilities - rhetoric.
Media Matters watches other conservative media figures - your Rush Limbaughs and Michael Savages - but Fox has become the focus. On most days, the majority of the blog items, video excerpts and commentaries that the organization posts to its Web site concern some perceived outrage perpetrated by one of Fox's pugnacious hosts and commentators.
"Sarah Palin joins Glenn Beck in desecrating MLK's legacy," read a headline on the site the other day.
"Fox News hosts tell [billionaire Warren] Buffett to 'quit lecturing' the rich," read another.
"REPORT: Fox donates at least $40 million in airtime to potential GOP presidential candidates," read a third on a posting that cited Media Matters' estimate of the value of airtime soaked up by Fox commentators/would-be presidential candidates Palin, Mike Huckabee, John Bolton, Rick Santorum and Newt Gingrich.
The dogged pursuit of Fox, says Media Matters' founder David Brock, reflects not just the cable network's popularity among conservatives but its power to set, and perhaps distort, the political agenda. Brock and his staff say they regard Fox as something more than just the televised equivalent of talk radio; they describe it as a de facto political operation, with a leading role in disseminating conservative messages, supporting conservative candidates and mobilizing voters.
"I don't consider it a media institution," Brock says. "It's a political institution that [Fox News Chief Executive Roger] Ailes created after Obama came into office. . . . We're here to counter their lies and misinformation."
Brock is a story unto himself. A former journalist-turned-political operative, he made his name in the 1990s as a self-described conservative "hit man," with scathing exposes of Anita Hill (his book was titled, "The Real Anita Hill") and of Bill Clinton and his accuser, Paula Jones.
In the latter part of the decade, however, he disavowed his conservative convictions and became a liberal. His conversion was recounted in a confessional book, "Blinded by the Right."
Fox's hosts haven't been shy about firing back at Media Matters - apparently to Media Matters' delight. The group keeps an archive of Fox's periodic attacks on the organization on the front page of its Web site. One is a clip of "Fox and Friends" morning host Steve Doocy dismissing Media Matters as "a blog nobody reads." O'Reilly, a frequent Media Matters target, has called the organization "a vile propaganda outfit." (Fox did not respond to repeated requests for comment.)
As colorful as the tit-for-tat battle is, it may be just the foreground noise of a larger war between rival billionaires. In one corner: Rupert Murdoch, the chief executive and principal shareholder of News Corp., Fox's parent company. In the other: George Soros, the wildly successful investor whose philanthropic organization, the Open Society Institute, has funded many of the organizations that Fox's personalities like to attack, including Media Matters.
Both elderly (Murdoch is 79, Soros is 80), both immigrants (Murdoch was born in Australia, Soros in Hungary), the two men nevertheless are separated by a vast ideological chasm. Soros is an avowed liberal who has used his wealth to fight totalitarian regimes in Europe and fund progressive groups at home. Murdoch is a nearly lifelong conservative who has spent decades building a media empire, often clashing with establishment rivals such as the BBC and America's leading broadcast networks.
Fox has been a merciless critic of Soros, with Beck in the lead. In mid-November, Beck devoted three episodes of his TV program and several of his syndicated radio programs to detailing how he believes Soros is subverting American democracy. (Beck's false assertion that Soros was a Nazi collaborator as an adolescent brought a denunciation from the Jewish Anti-Defamation League.) Beck has repeatedly fulminated against one of Soros's favorite recipients, the Tides Foundation, a San Francisco-based nonprofit involved in environmental and human-rights projects.
Fox also was quick to make a connection between Soros's donation of $1.8 million to NPR in the days before NPR fired commentator Juan Williams for remarks that Williams made on O'Reilly's program. In the wake of Williams' firing, O'Reilly and other Fox hosts launched an extraordinarily ferocious series of denunciations of NPR, repeatedly calling for Congress to eliminate its federal funding.
In October, Soros donated $1 million to Media Matters, saying that he hoped his money would be used to combat Fox's "incendiary rhetoric" and " to more widely publicize the challenge Fox News poses to civil and informed discourse in our democracy."
In recent weeks, Media Matters has gone from simply publicizing what it deems to be Fox's misinformation to actively campaigning against the network. The organization has posted a Web page with an online petition that asks Fox's advertisers to "Drop Fox," that is, stop sponsoring the network.
Brock says the campaign, which predates Soros's contribution to Media Matters, is justified by Fox's refusal to rein in Beck. Brock and Media Matters blame Beck for inciting violent threats against the Tides Foundation, as well as a shootout in July between California police and a gunman who authorities said intended to attack Tides' headquarters. Tides chief executive and founder, Drummond Pike, has endorsed Media Matters' campaign.
"Every sponsor of every Fox show should be put on notice that this insanity is being underwritten by [advertisers]," Brock says. He adds: "If Beck isn't stopped, I think we'll have another Oklahoma City [bombing] in this country."
Media Matters used similar pressure tactics last year in its campaign against another controversial TV personality, former CNN host Lou Dobbs. Joining with a coalition of Latino and liberal organizations, it asked Dobbs's advertisers to stop supporting what the groups saw as his demonization of undocumented workers and his determination to keep alive questions about Obama's birth certificate long after the so-called "birther" movement had been discredited. The coalition claimed victory last November when Dobbs resigned from CNN (he recently joined Fox Business Channel), but it's unclear whether the "Drop Dobbs" effort was responsible. At the time, Dobbs's ratings had been declining and the host was at odds with the network over CNN's attempts to tone down his program.
Nevertheless, Media Matters has shown that it can generate heat. The organization was instrumental in stirring up the media storm that surrounded and eventually engulfed radio personality Dr. Laura Schlessinger in August, for example. Schlessinger, responding to an African American caller, repeatedly used the n-word on the air during a segment of her daily show. The incident might have escaped notice had Media Matters not dug up audio of Schlessinger's comments and posted it on its Web site (the group was tipped about the comments by an African American journalist who had taken offense, says Ari Rabin-Havt, Media Matters' head of research). A few days after the flap, Schlessinger announced that she would quit her syndicated show at year's end.
Media Matters' other greatest hit was its role in the controversy surrounding Don Imus, whose infamous "nappy-headed hos" comment about the Rutgers University women's basketball team exploded in 2007. The remark might have passed, too, if Media Matters hadn't posted an audio clip and called attention to it after complaints by a group of African American journalists. The avalanche of media coverage led MSNBC and CBS Radio to drop Imus's program.
For many years, the most vigorous and forceful media criticism has tended to come from the right rather than the left. Liberal critics were overshadowed by conservative organizations, such as the late Reed Irvine's Accuracy in Media, that saw liberal favoritism in much of the mainstream media's reporting.
The right is still active, of course. These days, the best-known and best-funded conservative watchdog may be the Media Research Center of Alexandria. The MRC has been tracking alleged instances of left-wing bias since 1987, and publishes a feisty blog, Newsbusters.org, which reports on and comments about the news media, much as Media Matters does.
Suffice to say there isn't much love lost between the two nonprofit groups. Brent Bozell, the MRC's founder and president, declined to be interviewed for this story, but issued a statement through a spokesperson reading, "Media Matters has proven itself to be nothing more than a disreputable extension of the radical liberal megaphone, as evidenced by their outright lies, fabrications and character assassinations. The Media Research Center will have nothing to do with this group." Bozell did not cite specific instances of fabrications or character assassination by Media Matters.
Thanks to constant and effective fundraising appeals, Media Matters has surpassed the MRC to become the largest organization of its kind. It fields a staff of 80 (and has 20 unfilled positions, according to Brock), which includes dozens of analysts and researchers. A related but legally separate organization, Media Matters Action Network, tracks conservative political figures and advocacy organizations.
Working in shifts starting at 5 a.m. and going until 1 a.m., Media Matters' researchers churn out about 400 pieces of commentary and other content each day. The teams are organized like a political campaign's rapid-response operation. At the first sign of controversy, the group responds with sourced and verified information quickly.
Rabin-Havt, the 31-year-old head of research, points proudly to Media Matters' response to news of Elena Kagan's nomination to the U.S. Supreme Court in May. Within two hours of the news leaking, the group had posted a full dossier on Kagan's legal and personal history, including facts about her decision to bar military recruiters from Harvard Law School when she served as its dean. He believes that the quick turnaround "blunted the attacks" on Kagan.
Media Matters can mount such responses because the organization is flush. Brock reports that the umbrella organization raised $23 million this year, a huge leap from its initial funding of $3.5 million in 2004. In addition to Soros's $1 million, Media Matters is underwritten by such prominent liberal donors as Peter Lewis, the chairman of Progressive Insurance; Susie Tompkins Buell, co-founder of the Esprit clothing company and a close ally of Hillary Rodham Clinton; Rob Glaser, the founder of RealNetworks; Rachel Pritzker Hunter, of the multibillionaire Pritzker family; and Colorado multimillionaires Tim Gill and Pat Stryker. Other donors have not been publicly disclosed.
Brock has been so adept at raising money that he's branching out. A new political action committee, separate from Media Matters, will raise money to create and run political advertising during the 2012 campaign. The new group, known as American Bridge, has about $4 million in pledges. It will be chaired by Kathleen Kennedy Townsend, the former lieutenant governor of Maryland and the eldest of Robert F. Kennedy's children.
Despite Fox's frequent caricature of Media Matters as "far left," Brock's embrace of such centrist Democrats suggests his group's politics aren't radical. Dan Kennedy, a liberal press critic and professor of journalism at Northeastern University, says Media Matters' work tends to be "well researched," and not nearly as ideologically driven as another left-leaning press watchdog, Fairness and Accuracy in Media. "I read [Media Matters] fairly frequently and the picture I get is that they are more partisan Democrat than really liberal," Kennedy says.
Rabin-Havt, a former aide to a series of prominent Democrats, including Senate Majority Leader Harry M. Reid (D-Nev.), doesn't expect Fox to moderate its rhetoric anytime soon. But there's not much Media Matters can do about that, nor is that the goal, he says. Instead, the idea is to fight Fox's fire with facts, and to isolate its periodic broadsides within the conservative media. He describes a landscape rich with distortions, from the Swift Boat attacks onn John Kerry''s Vietnam-era service in 2004 to the false notion that Obama is secretly a Muslim.
"Misinformation is dangerous when it metastasizes," Rabin-Havt says. "Fox is going to lie with impunity. Rush Limbaugh is going to lie. The problem is when a story jumps from Fox News to CNN or the New York Times or The Washington Post. Our job is the head these things off at the pass."