By Betsy Rothstein - 11/03/08 06:56 PM EST
Snitch perverts. Liars. Scum. Liberal hacks. Media morons.
Media Matters for America, the liberal media watchdog group created by David Brock, author of The Republican Noise Machine, has been collecting such insults since its inception in 2004. Conservative provocateur Ann Coulter nicknames its members “Nazi block watchers.” Radio host Michael Savage prefers “Group of Swine.”
Meanwhile, like a beanstalk, the organization grows.
In the past 18 months Media Matters has expanded to 100 full-time employees in Washington and Denver, from an initial 12 in Washington. Some 85 people are at work in the maze of deluxe offices on Massachusetts Avenue off Dupont Circle. As a not-for-profit organization, its budget — up from $3.5 million to more than $8 million — depends on donors, some anonymous.
Known contributors include Esprit clothing founder Susie Tomkins Buell; Leo Hindery Jr., former economic policy adviser to ex-Sen. John Edwards (D-N.C.); billionaire Peter Lewis; Bren Simon, a Democratic Party contributor; Gail Furman, psychologist and Democratic donor; and James Hormel, grandson of the founder of Hormel Foods.
Other funds come from the Tides Foundation (run by Teresa Heinz Kerry), the Arca Foundation, the Peninsula Community Foundation and the San Francisco Foundation.
Media Matters’ serene blue office is deceptively quiet; voices are low. But quiet does not mean prim or very orderly. Cereal boxes are everywhere, a reflection of long and erratic work schedules. Most staff wear jeans and T-shirts, sneakers or flip-flops. There’s a ping-pong table in a back alcove where employees can blow off steam.
But there is little time for games. Staff are scouring conservative media for mistakes or, a wider category, items they don’t like.
The organization’s president, Eric Burns, offers evidence that Media Matters has had an impact on this election. When Jerome Corsi, author of Unfit for Command (which, during the 2004 race, attacked John Kerry’s military record) released his book about Obama, The Obama Nation, Media Matters blasted it as inaccurate. The Obama campaign then released its own report under the same title, “Unfit for Publication,” and cited Media Matters’ research.
Burns says Media Matters’ goal is not to elect Obama but to force news media to be accurate. It monitors Rush Limbaugh, but in the same breath attacks CNN’s Dana Bash and MSNBC’s Andrea Mitchell.
“I don’t think there’s any question that our work is preventing any Swift Boat attack from taking hold, has leveled the playing field and maybe given Barack Obama a fair shake,” he says.
But he adds, “I’m not the Obama campaign. We’re an independent organization not beholden to anybody ... It’s bigger than any one candidate, it’s bigger than any one election.”
Each office has three televisions, plus six in the “War Room” permanently tuned to Fox News, MSNBC and CNN.
“Clearly, we are a progressive organization,” stresses Jioni Palmer, the national press secretary.
Palmer was previously a reporter for New York Newsday and a flack for House Ways and Means Committee Chairman Charles Rangel (D-N.Y.).
What Media Matters employees deny is conservatives’ charge that they are a front group for Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton (D-N.Y.) or an arm of the Democratic Party.
“When it comes to this group, media doesn’t matter,” says Ron Bonjean, a Republican strategist and former spokesman for Sen. Trent Lott (R-Miss.) and House Speaker Dennis Hastert (R-Ill.). “I’m sure they have a room in the basement at the DNC [Democratic National Committee] that they work out of. They’re so in the pockets of the Democratic leadership that they have lost their credibility.”
R. Emmett Tyrrell, founder and editor in chief of The American Spectator, for whom Brock worked in the mid-’90s, watched when Brock claimed to have lied in his Troopergate stories in the magazine. “He has a memory problem,” Tyrrell says, adding that the magazine never found anything factually incorrect about his pieces. “He also has a loyalty problem.”
Tyrrell says Brock’s behavior reminds him of British author E.M. Forster: “If asked whether he would betray a friend or his country, he said he’d betray his country. Well, David’s response to that would be, presumably, ‘Why not both?’ ”
But Tyrrell also compliments Brock: “He really was an elegant and lucid writer and a ferocious investigator.” Unfortunately, he says, those qualities have vanished. “He now claims what he wrote was in bad taste. He was one of the few who claimed to ever have had his taste elevated by being with the Clintons.”
And what about Media Matters? “A man who is a self-declared liar sets himself up as a monitor of, [of] all things, talk radio — it’s amazing, isn’t it?” he says.
Palmer counters, “Our work speaks for itself and so does Mr. Tyrrell’s.”
Burns sees it this way: “David Brock was a celebrated conservative writer [who] ultimately had a break with the right wing. He saw how the movement operated, how they deliberately sought to influence the media and often used underhanded tactics to do so.”
Media Matters prides itself on credibility. Each day they filter items through an eight-step editing process that includes posing the question, “Would you be willing to put the item up on the website as if your reputation hinged on it?” They also send out internal e-mail “bat signals” of potential items, which can amount to 300 in a day.
Matt Labash of The Weekly Standard doesn’t take kindly to the organization. “I’m definitely aware of Media Matters and their mission from when periodic controversies bubble up,” he wrote in an e-mail. “Fact-checking is never useless … but the rest of their mission is faintly ridiculous, so I tend not to read them.”
But even he is sympathetic to why Media Matters exists. “For years, I suppose, the right pretty much had the monopoly on finger-wagging cranks who saw bias lurking behind every innocuous utterance,” he says.
The conservative version of media watchdogs, Media Research Center, is a decade-old operation run by L. Brent Bozell III that has little respect for Media Matters, although the company’s spokeswoman refused to comment.
Palmer says of conservative critics, “They’re arguing based on emotions. What David Brock did was build a better mousetrap. We monitor everything. We drill down deep into right-wing radio, which has been the province of conservatives.”
Labash says, “Not that bias doesn’t exist, but if Brian Williams blew a snot rocket out of the left side of his nose instead of the right in the parking lot after his broadcast, it was taken as evidence that he was trying to throw elections for Democrats and destroy the republic. It’s silly. But Media Matters saw this paranoid ranting on the right, figured they could do it too, and so decided to become the humorless hall monitor counterparts of the left. Except they’re even more insufferable.”
He explains why: “Take, just as a random example, their website today, in which they rake over that repository of right-wing bias, CNN’s Candy Crowley. She’d stated that polls showed Obama would win if the election were held today, and that Obama, too, felt he would win. She then ran a clip of him saying, ‘I feel like we’ve got a righteous wind at our backs,’ without mentioning that Obama said they were still going to have to fight every day to the election.
“Sloppy phrasing on Crowley’s part? Maybe. But Obama obviously still thinks he’s ahead, because he is. From Media Matters’ reaction, however, you’d have thought Crowley just reported that Obama had been caught giving a reach-around to a goat. It’s not that big a deal. It was a positive Obama story, and I have this strange gut feeling that CNN isn’t looking to put John McCain over the top. But these are the kind of groundbreaking insights you get when you employ a roomful of pedants with too much time on their hands.”
Media Matters employees are a highly educated, motivated bunch, many of whom joined because, as research director Jeremy Schulman put it, they “got tired of throwing things at the TV.”
Dave Saldana, deputy editorial director, says he was working in Los Angeles as a TV news writer when an executive producer tossed a tape on his desk and said, “Give me Jerry Springer’s take on the Lewinsky matter,” referring to White House intern Monica Lewinksy.
That was it. Saldana felt useless. So he became a lawyer and eventually found his way to Media Matters.
“There are times when you feel like hitting your head against the wall,” he says. “How many times can you hit [Fox News’s] Sean Hannity for saying an unsubstantiated fact?”
But “there are times we catch something and stop it dead in its tracks before it becomes a thing. It’s very proud work.”
Ben Dimiero, a Middlebury graduate, works in the War Room as a new-media associate. He started as an intern.
He had planned to move to Los Angeles to be a screenwriter but took a job pushing around a mail cart at a package company in New Jersey. He hated the job, began surfing the Web, and came upon Media Matters. “It was writing I had never seen before,” he says. “I became obsessed with it.”
Doug Stauffer, a TV booker, has the awkward job of pitching company spokesmen and articles to producers of shows they have sometimes criticized. “I wanted to do something that has a little substance and meaning to it,” he says of why he moved here from Manhattan six months ago.
David Corn, a liberal journalist who writes for Mother Jones magazine, says the organization is not only credible, but useful. “I’m happy when they notify me when Bill O’Reilly says something about me that is not true,” says Corn. “Bill O’Reilly called me a sewer dweller [on his radio show] for reasons I could never fully fathom. I learned about it because Media Matters posted something about it.”
Corn concedes the organization tilts left. “As long as they are accurately conveying what is said, it doesn’t matter what their particular political biases are,” he says. “They are leftist and pro-democratic. It’s not like they are pretending to be a neutral fact-checking organization.”
Conservatives like Tucker Carlson, covering the presidential election for MSNBC, finds that ludicrous. He says of Media Matters: “It’s a weird experience to be lectured about media ethics by political hacks.
“This is an arm of the political party started in part by Hillary Clinton. Journalists by definition aren’t trying to achieve a political end. They are trying to tell the truth. Media Matters are trying to get people elected.”
On his now-defunct MSNBC cable news show, “Tucker,” Carlson interviewed Media Matters senior fellow Paul Waldman. He says attacking Waldman was among the most enjoyable moments he has ever had on TV.
Off air, Carlson says he asked Waldman what qualified him to monitor the media. To which Waldman allegedly told Carlson, “I have a Ph.D. in media studies.” Carlson, unable to contain laughter, remarked, “That’s absurd!”
During that interview, Carlson aired a clip from Clinton from the YearlyKos Convention in Chicago in which she says she helped create Media Matters.
She said Democrats are “really putting together a network in the blogosphere in a lot of new progressive infrastructures — institutions I helped start and support, like Media Matters and the Center for American Progress.”
While it is true that John Podesta, who runs the Center for American Progress, provided office space to Brock and his employees in 2004, Media Matters has consistently distanced itself from Clinton’s involvement and says she has never been involved in the operation.
“It is an old line of attack used by those we have criticized in an attempt to discredit our work,” says Palmer. “What Paul said to Tucker, more than once in that interview, is what we have always said: David Brock started Media Matters. Sen. Clinton, like Sens. [Tom] Daschle [D-S.D.] and [Harry] Reid [D-Nev.], Vice President Al Gore and others, have been encouraging and supportive of Media Matters from the very beginning, because they know how important the work we do every day is.”
Burns calls Carlson the “poster child for the problem of cable journalism.” He says Carlson is “an activist. You have pundits and partisans that are presented at journalists.
“Tucker, in my mind, was someone just spitting out conservative talking points whether they were true or not.”
Fox News, which Media Matters writes about often, would not comment. “Sorry,” said a spokesman, “we’re going to pass.”
Burns explains: “There are folks inside Fox that understand the value of what we’re doing, the staff and some of the producers. They’ll quietly cheer us on.”
Burns’s stark switch from Republican to Democrat makes him a near-perfect choice to run the organization. Brock, who now focuses on fundraising, tapped him two years ago from his perch on Capitol Hill as the Democratic communications director for the House Rules Committee and made him chief communications officer.
Burns cut his teeth working for Republican politicians in Texas, including then-Gov. George W. Bush and, later, operatives Mike Murphy and John Weaver. He worked for Bush’s gubernatorial race leading up to his 1998 reelection.
He became disenchanted and in 2002 switched parties and became former Rep. Chris Bell’s (D-Texas) communications director.
He says the Republican Party’s press operation is based on fear: “It’s that use of fear of the unknown.
We see it over and over again in a very naked, grotesque way with the Republican vice presidential candidate running around using the word ‘terrorist.’
“In our minds, we’re just getting started. There’s a lot of work to do.”