Media Matters for America (MMFA) was created in spring 2004 in time for the presidential election campaign. Funded by an estimated $2 million in contributions, the group promotes itself as an online watchdog protecting the public from the deceptions and errors of the mass media that has been bullied or blinded by conservatives.
In fact, MMFA is a cog in the growing machine of “progressive” activist and advocacy non-profits, including the online radical agitators at MoveOn.org, the liberal policy wonks at the Center for American Progress and the Democratic get-out-the-vote forces at America Coming Together. These groups were obsessed with defeating President George W. Bush in the 2004 election. Having failed, they have grown increasingly angry and determined.
MMFA has a staff of 59 and is headquartered at 1625 Massachusetts Avenue, N.W. in Washington, D.C. MMFA employees have at various times worked for Al Gore, John Edwards, Barney Frank, Wesley Clark, the National Organization for Women (NOW), the Center for American Progress, Greenpeace, the Democratic National Committee, the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee, the Association of Trial Lawyers of America (recently rechristened the American Association for Justice) and the Alliance for Justice.
Led by a Confessed Liar
MMFA is the creation of David Brock, a self-described “hit man” and self-confessed liar and gossip peddler. Brock’s own past casts a shadow over his current self-proclaimed dedication to truth-telling. At one time or another, Brock has viciously attacked the Clintons and the Bushes, Anita Hill and Clarence Thomas, Rush Limbaugh and National Public Radio, the New York Times and the Wall Street Journal. Each time he recants a prior assault, he lunges out at a new political enemy.
Brock puts himself in the position of someone who says, “I’m a liar. Believe what I tell you.” Reviewing Brock’s 2002 memoir, Blinded by the Right, journalist Christopher Hitchens wrote, “I would say without any hesitation that he [Brock] is incapable of recognizing the truth, let alone of telling it. The whole book is an exercise in self-love, disguised as an exercise in self-abnegation.” Cultural critic Camille Paglia, a left-leaning Democrat, ridiculed Brock’s confession: “Behold, the writhing snake pit of amoral media ambition!”
Brock’s media career began on the right. Born in 1962, Brock was a conservative student at the University of California, Berkeley, and active in conservative campus journalism. Upon graduation, he entered the national conservative movement, working in the 1980s at the Heritage Foundation, Wall Street Journal, and the Washington Times. He made a name for himself in 1992 when the American Spectator published his article attacking the truthfulness of Anita Hill, whose allegations of sexual harassment against Supreme Court nominee Clarence Thomas transformed his Senate confirmation hearings into what Thomas denounced as a “high-tech lynching.” A year later, Brock’s book, The Real Anita Hill, extended his attack on Hill’s claims and character. It stayed on the New York Times bestseller list for 14 weeks despite scathing reviews from the liberal media. Paglia, always independent, defended the book as “solidly researched” and dismissed Hill’s defenders as “the feminist establishment.”
Even as the book earned attention and headlines, Brock whipped up another perfect storm by penning an article in the January 1994 issue of the American Spectator telling the sleazy tale of “Troopergate,” the allegation by Arkansas state troopers that they arranged sexual liaisons for then-Gov. Bill Clinton. One was with a woman identified only as Paula. The story caused Paula Jones to file a lawsuit against President Bill Clinton, alleging that Clinton had sexually harassed her. Subsequently, the Paula Jones story became entangled in the Whitewater investigations of Justice Department special prosecutor Kenneth Starr and led to, well, so much more. Brock’s stories were responsible for the American Spectator’s nearly fourfold increase in circulation. Brock was riding high, observed journalist Laura Kipnis writing in Slate, and he was earning an “unheard of $500,000 three-year contract at the Spectator.”
Then came Brock’s personal Road to Damascus — the political transformation he has told, and re-told — as a sequence of vivid eye-opening events.
With a $1-million advance from a conservative subsidiary of Simon and Schuster, Brock was commissioned to produce a biography of Hillary Clinton. What he wrote was not what the signers of the check had bargained for. Rather than a hit-piece, a la The Real Anita Hill, Brock offered up, in 1996, The Seduction of Hillary Rodham. Brock portrayed the then-First Lady as an earnest do-gooder, a hapless Middle America nerd, devastated and walked down the primrose path by her slimy, philandering husband. The book generated little controversy, and years later, Brock claimed the book was tame because he could find no evidence of wrongdoing by Hillary Clinton. Others, however, suggest he was simply not able to find sources who would speak to him and, with a tight deadline from his publishers, could not produce the spectacular revelations everyone was expecting.
Brock’s journalistic career stalled. In need of a jumpstart, he produced a series of self-dramatizing mea culpas published in Esquire magazine. The first, “Confessions of a Right-Wing Hit Man” (July 1997), proclaimed his disillusion at conservatives’ disdainful reaction to his Clinton book. Brock confessed his feelings were hurt when the late Barbara Olson disinvited him to a dinner party she was hosting for a select group of Washington conservatives. The second Esquire article (April 1998) apologized to Bill Clinton for the “Troopergate” exposé, which he blamed on conservatives who had manipulated his desire for a good story. Brock said he regretted his attacks on Clinton’s sexual behavior, which he should have treated as a private matter.
Subsequently, Brock wrote two more works that completed his political conversion: Blinded by the Right: The Conscience of an Ex-Conservative, yet another self-serving memoir, and The Republican Noise Machine, an anti-conservative screed that claimed the public’s support for Republican candidates was actually a brain-washed reaction to incessant conservative chatter in magazines, think-tanks, websites, cable TV and radio talk shows. Brock said conservatives had created an intellectual infrastructure — a Republican noise machine — that was dominating the news media and overwhelming any alternative political commentary.
Right-Wing Mainstream Media?
The arguments in The Republican Noise Machine inspired Brock to establish Media Matters, an Internet-based watchdog project dedicated to attacking the conservative media for lying and to attacking the mainstream media for uncritically repeating conservative lies.
The MMFA site has no lack of political opinions. However, one of the first things that strikes you when you visit Brock’s creation is its reliance on personal attacks in lieu of substantive or fact-based arguments. Entire sections are devoted to assailing specific media personalities. What results is not fair comment or analysis of what they say or write, but personal scrutiny, including minute parsing of every comment and its presumed meaning. Conservatives are attacked as though their opinions are inherently offensive and necessarily dangerous.
Mainstream media figures such as Katie Couric, Matt Lauer and Chris Matthews also are put on a Media Matters watch list. Apparently, their crime is that they do not always and immediately contradict conservatives’ assertions. Brock’s group searches out moments whenever the media says anything less than supportive of liberals and Democrats.
For instance, in 2005 MMFA named MSNBC commentator Chris Matthews its “Misinformer of the Year.” Matthews was once an aide to the late House Speaker Tip O’Neill, the legendary liberal Democrat from Massachusetts. He also was a speechwriter for Jimmy Carter and Walter Mondale. He has been highly critical of the Iraq War and has fawned over anti-war activist Cindy Sheehan in interviews. Anyone who regularly watches Matthews knows he is quite open about his liberal political leanings and more or less endorsed John Kerry in 2004. Matthews’s offense? Well, he occasionally said nice things about George W. Bush (“Everybody sort of likes the President, except for the real whack-jobs, maybe on the left. I mean, likes him personally.”) Matthews called one Bush speech “brilliant,” and on occasion, he has criticized Democrats, including Hillary Clinton.
Then there is MMFA’s 2006 “Misinformer of the Year”: the ABC television network.
Media Matters points an accusing finger at ABC News political director Mark Halperin who appeared on the Fox News shows “Hannity & Colmes” and “The O’Reilly Factor” and admitted that “old media” (meaning TV network news and newspapers) were “biased against conservatives.” MMFA endorses media fairness in theory, but in practice it treats an admission of past news media bias against conservatives as evidence of current media bias against liberals!
Another ABC crime was its airing of The Path to 9/11, a two-part docudrama that pointed out Clinton Administration failings in dealing with the threat of Osama bin Laden and other terrorist groups. As proof of bias, Media Matters observed that ABC Vice President Judith Tukich was an evangelical Christian who accepted an award from the conservative Liberty Film Festival for helping to produce and promote The Path to 9/11.
Strange as it may seem, MMFA claims that the American mainstream media are overtly conservative. MMFA essentially agrees with radical journalist Eric Alterman, author of a 2003 book, What Liberal Media? The Truth About Bias and the News, who argues that the mainstream media are biased in favor of the right. From Alterman’s perspective, New York Times Editor Bill Keller is a “neoconservative” and the New Republic magazine is right-wing. This would likely come as news to both Keller and the New Republic.
If you add Brock’s slippery hold on the truth to Alterman’s radical political outlook, you get MMFA’s unique contribution to American journalism. MMFA’s typical mode of operation is to isolate a small facet of a media story that can be twisted in such a way as to suggest that the reporter or news commentator is a liar or hypocrite. That is then used to suggest that everything he says must be false and deserving of censure.
One of the earliest Media Matters targets was talk-radio host Rush Limbaugh. Radio’s most listened-to talker, Limbaugh is a predictable object of attack. In the aftermath of the initial Abu Ghraib revelations, Limbaugh made comments comparing the behavior of the soldiers at the prison to fraternity initiations. He suggested that military personnel were merely “blowing off steam” and that their actions were all-too-understandable.
These comments became a pretext for Brock and MMFA to launch an anti-Limbaugh campaign. They spent $100,000 to broadcast anti-Limbaugh ads on Fox, CNN, MSNBC, CNBC and ESPN. Brock wrote to Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld, asking that Limbaugh’s program be removed from the American Forces Radio and Television Service (AFRTS), the Defense Department’s broadcasting service to American forces overseas. Limbaugh had “condoned torture,” argued Brock, and American troops needed to be shielded from his ideas.
In challenging the Defense Department to remove Limbaugh’s show from its broadcast line-up, Brock and MMFA showed they were not afraid to create controversy or stage a major confrontation. Brock and MMFA pronounced AFRTS guilty of leaning politically to the right. In reality, most of the AFRTS broadcast programming is music. AFRTS does offer a standard sampling of radio and television programs from back home. A soldier can hear pretty much the same sort of news broadcast in Baghdad, the Korean DMZ, Okinawa or Kabul as he would hear in Ohio or Hawaii. National Public Radio (NPR) is well-represented, but so is Limbaugh.
Media Matters also took on Republican-leaning Sinclair Broadcasting, which broadcast a film called Stolen Honor: Wounds that Never Heal on its 62 stations during the 2004 election cycle. The documentary featured Vietnam veterans who had been prisoners of war. They said their captors’ cruelty was fuelled by John Kerry’s anti-war posturing after he had served his tour of duty. MMFA called Sinclair unfair and said the film lacked “balance.” In December 2004, a mysterious website appeared that criticized the film and provided e-mail addresses and phone numbers for Sinclair’s biggest advertisers—Staples, Kraft Foods Inc., Target, Geico, Sprint and McDonald’s. One month later, in January 2005, Staples pulled its advertising from Sinclair news broadcasts and “The Point,” a daily conservative commentary. Staples said it received “numerous” e-mail complaints about Sinclair. Though the office supply chain did not mention the website, MMFA was happy to take “partial” credit for the outcome, saying that while it had not intended a boycott, it was happy to raise advertiser awareness of Sinclair’s actions.
MMFA’s triumph was brief, however. A few weeks later, as the story got out among conservative websites and talk radio, the backlash Staples experienced compelled the company to restore the advertising.
MMFA has congratulated itself for helping instigate the firing of radio personality Don Imus and has prepared a blacklist of other talk-radio hosts who merit dismissal. According to the Wall Street Journal, Media Matters researcher Ryan Chiachiere was “assigned to monitor Imus’ program.” Watching “Imus in the Morning” as the host made his “nappy-headed hos” comment, Chiachiere promptly posted online a transcript and video of the remark and sent e-mails to the press and activist contacts. Soon after, MSNBC began fielding angry calls and messages. When CBS radio announced it had fired Imus, MMFA posted, under the title “It’s Not Just Imus,” a list of pundits who should meet a similar fate. The list included Glenn Beck, Neal Boortz, Rush Limbaugh, Bill O’Reilly, Michael Savage, Michael Smerconish and John Gibson.
Following the Money
Brock’s confessional writings make clear that he yearns to schmooze. Deeply wounded when the conservative A-list turned against him, he now associates with Hollywood glitterati, champagne Socialists and establishment movers and shakers who are financing his online mud-wrestling at MMFA. According to the New York Times, MMFA received “more than $2 million from wealthy liberals” as start-up money in 2004. Initial donors included cable executive Leo Hindery, Jr., philanthropist James Hormel, shopping mall magnate Bren Simon, and Susie Tompkins Buell, who with her husband Douglas co-founded the Esprit clothing chain. Buell, who met Brock at a get-together of Hillary Clinton supporters, held a fundraiser for him at her San Francisco home.
Brock has been less than open about MMFA’s financing. At first Media Matters spokeswoman Sally Aman insisted that “neither Media Matters nor its president and CEO, David Brock, has received any money from [George] Soros or from any organization with which [Soros] is affiliated.” But George Soros has been a major force in funding MMFA—indirectly perhaps, but powerfully. In early 2005, MMFA, through a spokeswoman, allowed that “the group is no longer disavowing any connection” with groups “affiliated” with Soros.
The decision to come clean, more or less, was preceded—or perhaps, expedited—by Cybercast News Service, which looked into MMFA’s financial ties. According to a March 3, 2005, CNS article, “there were numerous and extensive links between Media Matters and several Soros ‘affiliates’ such as MoveOn.org, the Center for American Progress and Soros ally Peter Lewis.”
And in an e-mail to CNS regarding MMFA’s financial backers, Aman wrote: “In response to your query regarding donor funding, Media Matters for America has never received funding directly from George Soros.” Aman acknowledged support from MoveOn.org and the New Democrat Network. She also named as a donor Soros’s friend Peter Lewis, the insurance tycoon who founded Progressive Corp. Soros and Lewis were the top two donors to anti-Bush “527” political pressure groups during the 2004 election campaign. Each gave more than $20 million to the ostensibly independent organizations.
Another Soros-backed think tank, the Center for American Progress (CAP), has also supported MMFA. John Podesta, CAP’s president and Bill Clinton’s former chief of staff, told the New York Sun that in 2004 CAP aided Brock by offering office space and administrative assistance.
According to its tax records, MMFA took in $155,100 in grants in 2003 and $3,564,471 in grants in 2004. Its tax return dated December 31, 2005, lists income of $8,489,663 and assets of $6,344,165.
Major funders of MMFA include the Schumann Center for Media and Democracy, whose president is PBS pundit Bill Moyers, the Gruber Family Foundation, the Barbra Streisand Foundation, the Arca Foundation, the Bernard & Audre Rapoport Foundation, the Bohemian Foundation and the Glaser Progress Foundation. At least two funders—the Stephen M. Silberstein Foundation and the Susie Tompkins Buell Foundation—gave money to MMFA through the Tides Foundation, which serves as a financial intermediary for left-wing non-profits and foundations.
According to press reports, the Democracy Alliance, the Soros-inspired consortium of extremely wealthy liberal donors, has committed to give $50 million to selected left-wing think tanks and advocacy organizations. MMFA and the Center for American Progress were among the first beneficiaries.
While purporting to hold the media to high standards, Media Matters traffics in gossip and finger-pointing. It’s striking that so many wealthy liberal donors and foundations have committed major sums to this online start-up operation created by a discredited political operative. That they are prepared to get down and dirty testifies to the anger and desperation they must feel.n