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Media Matters: Agendas, Activities, and Worldviews

By Jacob Laksin
Discover The Networks

Established in May 2004,
Media Matters is a self-styled "Web-based, not-for-profit…progressive research and information center" whose animating mission is to "systematically monitor a cross-section of print, broadcast, cable, radio, and Internet media outlets for conservative misinformation." Falling under the category of "misinformation," however, is not merely "news or commentary that is not accurate, reliable, or credible," but also that which "forwards the conservative agenda."

Functioning, in effect, as a clearinghouse for leftwing outrage, the organization's stock in trade is feigning outrage at perspectives that clash with the far-left prejudices of its directors. As a consequence, Media Matters has a well-earned reputation for portraying honest differences of opinion as lies or worse.

In this, the organization takes its cues from its founder and CEO, the self-described former "right-wing hit man" turned left-wing hit man, David Brock. A former dirt-dishing reporter for the conservative magazine The American Spectator in the 1990s, Brock today claims to have undergone a political epiphany. He has renounced his past writings, critical of liberal figures from Anita Hill to President Bill Clinton, as a confection of lies and slanders. But the evidence suggests that while he now identifies with the political left, his modus operandi is unchanged. As his tell-all books, Blinded By The Right and The Republican Noise Machine demonstrate, dishing dirt and distorting the facts remain his stock-in-trade.

A case in point is Brock's justification for Media Matters. In Brock's judgment, and against all evidence, the mainstream media has fallen under the sway of conservative ideology, thus explaining, in Brock's conspiratorial view, the many discussions about "liberal bias" in prominent media outlets. "The right wing in this country has dominated the debate over liberal bias. By dominating that debate, my belief is they've moved the media itself to the right and therefore they've moved American politics to the right," Brock says. Hence the supposed need for Media Matters: "I wanted to create an institution to combat what they're doing."

During a February 2005 talk at the leftwing Center for American Progress, Brock said: "We have seen the mainstream media increasingly accommodating conservatism and this is not an accident. This is the result of coordinated and financed effort by the right wing to pressure, push and bully the media to do that. The media today is a political issue. I believe it is conservatives that have politicized it." The same theme pervades Brock's 2004 book, The Republican Noise Machine: Right-Wing Media and How It Corrupts Democracy, in which he claims that the "most important sectors of the political media—most of cable TV news, the majority of popular op-ed columns, almost all of talk radio, a substantial chunk of the book market, and many of the most highly trafficked Web sites," provide a "structural advantage for the GOP and conservatism." It does not seem to occur to Brock that such alternative media outlets, unlike the ostensibly non-partisan news media that they charge with liberal bias and that reach many times the audience, are designed specifically to express conservative opinions.

Although polls indicate that Americans overwhelmingly reject the assertion that mainstream media outlets espouse a conservative bias, the claim has found an enthusiastic audience among increasingly bitter Democrats and leftwing political operatives eager to account for the diminished fortunes of the Democratic Party and the dwindling appeal of welfare-statism and liberal appeasement attitudes as a governing ideology. So when Brock announced his intention to counter the supposedly bullying influence of conservatives on the media, leftwing billionaires lined up to bankroll his cause.

Standing behind Brock was John Podesta, a former chief of staff in the Clinton administration and the head of the "progressive" Washington DC think tank, the Center for American Progress. Beyond helping Brock develop Media Matters, Podesta provided Brock with office space in the capitol for his fledgling outfit. Well-to-do liberals followed in short order. Media Matters received over $2 million in seed donations from a roster of affluent donors. (This was a sum larger than a ten year budget for a site like www.frontpagemag.com.)

The list of Brock's donors included Leo Hindery Jr., a former cable magnate; Susie Tompkins Buell, a co-founder of the fashion company Esprit and a close ally of Senator Hillary Rodham Clinton of New York; James Hormel, a San Francisco philanthropist who nearly served as ambassador to Luxembourg during the Clinton administration; Bren Simon, a Democratic activist and the wife of shopping-mall developer Mel Simon; and New York psychologist and philanthropist Gail Furman. Media Matters, which can accept tax-deductible contributions under section 501(c)(3) of the tax code, has also benefited from the patronage of Peter Lewis, chairman of Progressive Corp. Lewis, a longtime consort of leftwing financier George Soros, has disbursed more than $7 million to so-called "527s," activist groups that affect political neutrality in order to solicit unlimited contributions under a provision of the Internal Revenue Service tax code.

Media Matters has not always been forthcoming about its high-profile backers. In particular, the group has long labored to obscure any financial ties to George Soros. The tactic met with success until December 1, 2004, when conservative journalist and author David Horowitz published a column in Front Page Magazine connecting Media Matters to Soros. Horowitz's allegations prompted an indignant response from Media Matters, subtlely titled "Proven Liar Horowitz said Media Matters Ignores the Facts," accusing him of dealing in "outright falsehood." Wrote Media Matters: "Horowitz asserted that Media Matters has received funding from billionaire philanthropist George Soros. To date, neither Media Matters nor its president and CEO David Brock has received any money from Soros or from any organization with which he is affiliated." (emphasis added)

But in March 2003, the Cybercast News Service (CNS) had detailed the copious links between Media Matters and several Soros "affiliates"—among them MoveOn.org, the Center for American Progress and Soros confederate Peter Lewis. Confronted with this story, Media Matters was forced to retreat from its phony defense (but did not offer any apologies to Horowitz). A Media Matters spokesman cautiously explained that "Media Matters for America has never received funding directly from George Soros" (emphasis added), a transparent evasion.

Nor were groups cited by CNC the only connection between Media Matters and Soros. As investigative journalist Byron York has noted, another Soros-affiliate that bankrolled Media Matters was the New Democratic Network. In addition, Soros is reported to be involved in the newly formed Democracy Alliance, a partnership between some 80 affluent leftwing financiers who have each vowed to contribute $1 million or more in order to build up an ideological infrastructure of leftwing thinks tanks and advocacy groups. News reports reveal that one of the main beneficiaries of the Alliance's funding will be Media Matters. Brock, for his part, has no hesitation about conscripting his organization into the embryonic movement that aims to amplify the agenda of the political left. "I view Media Matters as part of a large machine that's being built," Brock told an interviewer in August of 2004. The organization's budget has kept pace with its escalating importance to the political left. By August of 2004, Media Matters' operating budget had already doubled to $4 million.

Much of this success is attributable to Media Matters' nakedly partisan mission. That mission is essentially to smear and defame every conservative spokesperson, reporter, TV anchor or public figure that comes in its sights. Typically Media Matters labels any conservative viewpoint as "a lie" "false" "a smear" "racist" or some other anti-intellectual epithet designed to discredit rather than dispute its political opposition. Media Matters compiles an archive of these distortions which the leftwing network spreads throughout the Internet.

An August 19, 2005 posting on the Media Matters website was headlined "The Angry Right Smears Cindy Sheehan." It focused on remarks made by conservative commentators critical of the anti-war activist. Notably, however, Media Matters made no effort to rebut the arguments advanced by those commentators, evidently deeming it axiomatic that the mere reproduction of conservative opinion was sufficient demonstration of its falsehood. Indeed, the only "smear" that appeared on the site was the one hurled by a Media Matters writer at David Horowitz, whom the organization denounced as "reliably offensive." Earlier, in December of 2004, Media Matters had attempted to convict Horowitz of "racial insensitivity." The organization provided no evidence for the incendiary charge. Instead, it adduced several instances in which Horowitz had criticized public figures, including Democratic Party figures like Jesse Jackson and Al Sharpton for expressing racist opinions themselves.

Besides Horowitz, Media Matters nurses a special contempt for conservative and nationally syndicated radio host Rush Limbaugh. Inevitably in its zeal to shatter Limbaugh's credibility, Media Matters routinely engages in unwarranted attacks. In June of 2005, for instance, the organization lashed out at Limbaugh for his opinion on the so-called Downing Street memo, which accused the Bush administration of manipulating evidence and otherwise fudging facts in order to promulgate its policies. "Limbaugh baselessly suggested Downing Street memo 'may be a fake,'" screamed a Media Matters headline. Yet, as Media Matters was forced to acknowledge in the compass of its attack, Limbaugh's remarks, far from being "baseless," were actually derived from a report that had appeared in the Associated Press. Moreover, Media Matters itself was unsure of the veracity of the AP's account, describing it tentatively as an "apparently inaccurate AP account." This did not lead it to exonerate Limbaugh, however.

It is a measure of Media Matters' disdain for Limbaugh that the organization has put its website at the service of his most virulent critics. When liberal MSNBC host Keith Olbermann pronounced host Rush Limbaugh the "worst person in the world" in August of 2005, Media Matters gleefully splashed the slander on its website. In 2004, David Brock even hired Democratic pollster Geoffrey Garin to conduct a survey focusing on, among other media-related topics, public perceptions of Limbaugh. Journalist Byron York recounted the survey's not quite earth-shaking revelations: "Among other things, Garin found that a majority of those surveyed believe Limbaugh often presents views that are biased, 'rather than impartial and balanced.' Garin also found that a large part of Limbaugh's audience is politically conservative." York noted that Media Matters assigns two full-time researchers to monitor Limbaugh's statements and transcribe his program. That's something money can definitely buy.

Media Matters' zeal to bury conservative viewpoints under a mountain of smears is not surprisingly accompanied by a disdain for the First Amendment. In August 2004, Tim Chavez, a columnist for The Tennessean, reported receiving an email from a Media Matters employee named Melissa Salmanowitz. In it, Salmanowitz, a Deputy Director of Media Relations at Media Matters, pressed Chavez to write about Media Matters' efforts to get chain book retailers to ban sales of Unfit for Command, a book critical of Democratic presidential candidate John Kerry. Chavez did not comply. Media Matters launched a month-long assault on Unfit for Command and the "Swift Boat Veterans for Truth," the group responsible for the book, devoting its website to a blitz of denunciatory articles that attempted to discredit its members as, alternatively, Republican shills and liars.

Driving Media Matters' fusillades against the Swift Boat veterans was its partisan support for Democrat John Kerry. Even as it paid lip service to fairness,
stressing that "honest scrutiny of [John Kerry's] record might be 'fair game,'" its provenance as a Democratic Party hit squad made the Media Matters team's gesture of objectivity seem even more empty than usual. Media Matters spent the months leading up to the 2004 presidential campaign dismissing conservative criticism of Kerry as nothing more than "distortions." To take one example, Kerry's critics disproved his claims that he spent Christmas of 1968 "sitting on a gunboat in Cambodia." Rather than making a concession to this reality - which was generally conceded -- Media Matters brazenly portrayed all attacks on Kerry's record as "unfounded, contradictory, and discredited." The leftwing Tides Foundation, evidently impressed by Media Matters' willingness to place pro-Democratic partisanship above accuracy, gave Media Matters $100,000 in 2004 for what it described as "voter education."

The length to which Media Matters went to protect Kerry from conservative critics was representative of its intimacy with the Democratic Party, whose operatives, led by Podesta, were in fact responsible for its creation. Prior to founding Media Matters, David Brock met with a number of leading Democratic Party figures, including Senator Hillary Clinton, former Senator Tom Daschle of South Dakota, and former Vice President Al Gore. Today, more than a few of the organization's roughly 30 staff members are Democratic operatives. To cite just a handful of examples, Dennis Yedwab, the chief communications strategist for Media Matters, is the erstwhile director of strategic resources at Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee. Similarly, Brock's personal assistant, Mandy Vlasz is a Democratic pollster and a veteran consultant to Democratic campaigns, including the 2000 Gore/Lieberman campaign. Katie Barge, the director of research at Media Matters, formerly presided over opposition research for Senator John Edwards' unsuccessful 2004 presidential campaign.

In its short history, Media Matters has established itself as one of the most vocal and irresponsible combat organs of the Democratic Party. In 2004 the organization boasted that its website had elicited some 150,000 comments in its discussion forums and that over 22,000 subscribers had registered to receive its e-mail alerts. Brock has also become a regular feature on leftwing radio stations like Air America, where he appears every Wednesday. The show, according to Brock, "is a great means for us to be able to disseminate our material…" More specifically, programs like those of Air America provide Brock with a venue to defame conservatives as individuals who "are simply willing to lie," and who "are not necessarily trying to win these arguments on a factual level" - a perfect self-description. Media Matters staffers are also favorites of such supposedly non-partisan radio programs as National Public Radio's On The Media, which invites them to complain, as Media Matters senior advisor Jamison Foser did during a July 2005 appearance, that media coverage of the Bush administration is insufficiently critical.

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