The "explosive new allegations" against the Obama Justice Department that hit the airwaves in June were in fact "completely unsubstantiated" assertions that were not broadcast so much as "trumpeted" by Fox News. That's the world according to Media Matters for America, the rapid-response liberal cadre of "misinformation" hunters that for six years has been raising its visibility -- while also raising the volume of invective that flavors much of today's press criticism.
The Fox story, elicited by daytime America Live interviewer Megyn Kelly on June 30, was a triple bank shot of politics, law, and putative video drama. It was built around charges by conservative operative J. Christian Adams, a former Bush administration Justice Department lawyer. He argued that his successors in the Civil Rights Division were reverse racists because they refused to prosecute a voter-intimidation case based on film clips of New Black Panther Party members standing menacingly in front of a Philadelphia polling station on Election Day 2008.
Readers of Mediamatters.org learned that the charges were based on "hearsay" from a Republican activist with a history of bashing President Obama and working as a poll watcher in 2004 for President Bush. A hyperlink sent readers to Adams's June 28 Pajamas Media post, in which he deplored "the profound hostility" in the Civil Rights Division "toward a race-neutral enforcement of civil-rights laws."
Media Matters then tracked the story as it was picked up on July 7 by CNN -- criticizing the cable network for not mentioning some conservative criticism of the Right's sudden fixation on the Black Panthers -- and by The New York Times. (The Washington Post was tardy, as ombudsman Andrew Alexander later complained in his column, waiting until July 15 to cover the Adams dustup.)
Thus did the digital Left's fastest-growing watchdog group, which claims 5 million visitors a month to its website, intercept a story launched by the conservative "noise machine" and seek to steer it toward the friendlier shoals of the mainstream press.
The Media Matters view of Washington soared in January, when the nonprofit's nearly 70-member staff moved into the panoramic, glassed-in sixth floor of a new building a few blocks from the Capitol, on Massachusetts Avenue NW. Its "more collaborative" work environment features seven rows of newsroom-style desks; researchers sit in front of their computer monitors beneath fluorescent lights and exposed ceiling ducts.
"We hire former journalists, editors, Ph.Ds, political researchers, and ex-TV producers," Ari Rabin-Havt, the group's vice president for research and communications, explains. "We look for more than experience -- certain personality types who pay attention to detail."
To push an output of 350 to 400 pieces of content a week, the researchers work in three shifts beginning at 5 a.m. and ending after midnight. They are organized in five-person teams assigned to such beats as health care, energy and climate, and the Supreme Court. Each team has an editor with final authority on printed reports and statements, although Web-posting privileges are egalitarian.
Above the online sleuths and less-than-famous pundits is a bank of televisions that follow 17 networks. The center has a video archive going back six years and a custom-built suite for clipping and mounting video live on the Web in five minutes or less. At one end of the room is a radio booth that can transmit Media Matters's interviews to 100 participating stations.
A wall-mounted whiteboard summarizes the day's pending stories, labeled "smears." Those are assertions from news industry and right-wing sources for which rebuttals are in progress. On one recent day, the smear board included "Biden said 8 million jobs aren't coming back"; "Obama hates British due to torture of his grandfather"; and "Biden compared GOP to Nazis."
The casually dressed staffers are not short on self-confidence. "We have never made a major mistake as an organization," Rabin-Havt says, "and that has helped our reputation grow." Countering misleading rhetoric with hard facts and persnickety documentation, he says, shows "the respect we have for our readers."
The outfit was founded in 2004 by author and former Heritage Foundation fellow David Brock after his political conversion. He had written scathing exposes about Anita Hill and the Clintons before abandoning conservatism and morphing into Media Matters's CEO and peripatetic fundraiser.
The group won't disclose its annual budget, but various reports put it at more than $10 million. Some of the money comes from affluent individuals with ties to the Democratic Party. A 2008 New York Times report mentioned Peter Lewis, chairman of Progressive Insurance, and movie producer Steve Bing.
The Foundation Center ranked Media Matters at No. 15 in the top 50 recipients of media and communications grants in 2008 with $3.6 million. In 2009, more than a dozen foundations gave the group grants of at least $100,000 each, according to the New York Observer. Conservative media outlets frequently say that Media Matters receives direct funding from billionaire financier George Soros, an assertion the group denies.
Media Matters for America is just one of a passel of monitoring operations on both the left and right that, in the age of 24/7 news, multimedia, and instant "top" stories, provide a service that might be touted: "We watch so you don't have to."
Todd Gitlin, a journalism professor at Columbia University who writes for Talking Points Memo and The New Republic, says he is impressed that Media Matters employees "have done their homework." The group was particularly important when it started, he says. "Between Fox and talk radio, the Right had run off with the market for ideological badgering, and [Media Matters] has probably rectified some of that imbalance."
Kudos also come from press critic Jim Naureckas, editor of the liberal magazine Extra! published by the group Fairness and Accuracy in Reporting, based in New York City. "Media Matters does a great job documenting the worst of the hate-mongering and deception generated by the right-wing noise machine," he says. "When we're talking about the impact that conservative pundits have on establishment news outlets, their work is invaluable."
To no one's surprise, the group's conservative counterparts don't share that enthusiasm. L. Brent Bozell, president of the Alexandria, Va.-based Media Research Center, declined to be interviewed but dismissed Media Matters in an e-mail message as "a disreputable extension of the radical liberal megaphone, as evidenced by their outright lies, fabrications, and character assassinations."
Cliff Kincaid, editor of Accuracy in Media, based in Washington, calls Media Matters an "arm of the Democratic Party masquerading as a media watchdog organization. It has become part of the 'noise machine' that its founder David Brock once decried," Kincaid says. "Brock is a former conservative who appears to hold a grudge over the fact that conservatives rejected his gay lifestyle."
Kincaid says that his experience has led him to mistrust Brock, and he backs his charge of partisanship with a list -- taken from the Media Matters website -- of staffers who used to work for Democratic political campaigns, party organizations, and members of Congress. (Spokesman Rabin-Havt volunteered a work history that includes stints with Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., the 2004 John Kerry presidential campaign, and the Democratic National Committee.)
Brock has ready ripostes. "Conservatives are experts at conducting vicious smear campaigns," he wrote in an e-mail to National Journal. "And I would know because I am a living, breathing, ex-right-wing conspirator. During the 1990s, I was on the inside as the Right targeted every aspect of the Clintons' lives. I sought to utilize my knowledge and experience to fight back against the mountains of right-wing lies poisoning our political discourse. That's why I started Media Matters."
The group created a sister organization called the Media Matters Action Network (under a section of the tax code that allows some lobbying and campaign work) to fight "misinformation" from conservative politicians, organizations, and funders. The network's website calls itself the only organization of any political stripe that comprehensively monitors statements made on the House and Senate floors. It "fact-checked" Sarah Palin's August 2 argument on Fox News in favor of extending all of the expiring Bush tax cuts by dispassionately citing contrary statistics from Congress's Joint Committee on Taxation.
Media Matters spokesmen point to the frequent -- and seldom flattering -- comments about the organization by radio personality Don Imus and such Fox News stalwarts as Bill O'Reilly and Glenn Beck as evidence of its influence. Conservative activist Andrew Breitbart has disparaged the group on his BigGovernment.com website.
Friendlier remarks came from Rep. Paul Hodes, D-N.H., on the House floor, and from Washington Post columnist Dana Milbank, who on August 1 gave the group credit for counting the number of times that Beck had bashed a little-known liberal foundation in California that was later targeted by a gunman.
Fox News is clearly the chief villain in the Media Matters universe of politicized misinformation. "We don't use the term 'bias,' because as humans we're all biased, and this needs to be called out and combated," Rabin-Havt says. "But when a news network is acting as the arm of a political party, that's more dangerous than anything else that is wrong with the news media now."
The group's indictment of Fox is multifold and familiar -- at least among soldiers in the too-much-information wars. Among the particulars:
• Fox's agenda flows from founder and Chairman Roger Ailes's background as a negative campaign strategist for Presidents Nixon and George H.W. Bush.
• The network's interview shows drive questionable stories to the mainstream press.
• Fox News provides exposure and fundraising help to conservative candidates.
• Fox commentators such as Karl Rove, Dick Morris, and Mike Huckabee remain active in politics and often appear on camera unrebutted.
• Sean Hannity and other network stars openly promoted tea party rallies (in 300 instances), and in April 2009 the channel ran 107 commercial promotions for coverage of coming tea party gatherings.
• Fox News takes talking points directly from official Republican Party sources. In one case that Media Matters documented from February 2009, Happening Now co-host Jon Scott repeated on the air a typo from a memo issued by the Senate Republican Communications Center.
• The network's on-air photo captions can be inflammatory. On May 6, America's Newsroom captioned a scene from Congress, "House Dems vote to protect pedophiles but not veterans."
When Bloomberg News reported in August that Fox News's parent, News Corp., owned by Rupert Murdoch, had given $1 million to the Republican Governors Association, Media Matters verified the report using Internal Revenue Service filings and noted that News Corp. made no comparable gift to the Democratic counterpart. Its analyst wrote, "This large corporate donation to the GOP underscores News Corp.'s role as an appendage of the Republican Party."
The Fox News media relations office did not answer NJ's requests for comment on Media Matters's accusations. Accuracy in Media's Kincaid says that the group's attacks on Fox have "only succeeded in expanding the Fox News audience. As a conservative-oriented watchdog," he says, "we give great credit to Fox News for putting on conservative guests. Media Matters wants to return to the days when there was a liberal media monopoly that functioned largely as a mouthpiece for the Democratic Party." Kincaid contends that Fox offers ideological diversity, noting, "Greta Van Susteren and Geraldo Rivera are hardly apologists for the GOP."
What distinguishes the Fox approach from that of other networks, Rabin-Havt says, is that former political warhorses such as MSNBC's Chris Matthews and ABC's George Stephanopoulos "don't run networks; they are hosts. And they ceased their political activity" when they became on-air personalities. "Fox could shut down" its commentators' political moonlighting if it wanted to, he says, "but it decides not to."
Media Matters's loud-and-proud progressive politics draw criticism even from some admirers. Says Naureckas of Fairness and Accuracy in Reporting, "They tend to see the media through a more partisan lens than we do -- you're not likely to find them going after the media on an issue where the press and the Obama administration are basically on the same side."
Realistically, Media Matters is less likely to change Fox, Gitlin says, than to "work the ref," in the phrase of leftist media critic Eric Alterman, "to convince the mainstream press to pay attention to looking over its left shoulder as well as its right."
The group's relations with the mainstream press are cordial, Rabin-Havt says. "When most reporters realize that we're not attacking them, they realize we can have a constructive relationship. A functioning media is essential to the future of democracy, and we want to help other media be better."
This article appears in the September 4, 2010 edition of National Journal Magazine Contents.