Media Matters, the left-wing media watchdog, has had a rough time of late. Notwithstanding its mission of “comprehensively monitoring, analyzing, and correcting conservative misinformation in the U.S. media,” it is Media Matters that has come under withering media scrutiny.
The group's troubles started in December when M.J. Rosenberg, a senior foreign policy fellow at Media Matters Action Network, a sister site, set off a media firestorm by calling Israel’s supporters “Israel firsters." Media Matters' use of the term, whose implication of loyalties to Israel first and America second echoes a classic anti-Semitic trope, was widely panned by the Jewish community and by newspapers like the Washington Post. The ensuing backlash cast a harsh light on Media Matters’ extremist politics, all the more so when neither Rosenberg nor Media Matters abandoned the slur.
Now Media Matters is once again in the crosshairs following a damning exposé by Tucker Carlson’s Daily Caller. One of the Daily Caller's more notable revelations is the extent to which Media Matters has become successful in dictating the content of left-liberal media. As documented by the Caller, newspapers like the Washington Post, the New York Times and the Los Angeles Times all take their editorial cues from Media Matters' talking points.
Prominent columnists like the Washington Post’s E.J. Dionne have been among the most receptive to Media Matters spin. Indeed, as a follow-up investigation by Front Page shows, it is remarkably easy to trace a direct line from Media Matters to Dionne. In March 2007, Media Matters' Eric Boehlert charged that Republicans and Fox News were waging “a smear campaign against NPR.” Dionne clearly got the message, because just a few months later he was reprising the charge of a Fox News “smear campaign against NPR” during an appearance on NBC’s Meet the Press and denouncing Fox as a “Republican propaganda network.” The latter attack echoed Media Matters founder David Brock’s charge that Fox was part of a “Republican noise machine.” If nothing else, Dionne's faithful recitation of the Media Matters line on Fox shows that the left-wing pundits most willing to ascribe a political agenda to the network are themselves being directed by partisan interests.
Even as it was denouncing Fox as Republican propaganda, Media Matters was putting its own propaganda on the air via left-wing networks like MSNBC. So minimal was the fact-checking and editorial supervision at MSNBC, apparently, that a Media Matters source boasted to the Daily Caller, “We were pretty much writing their prime time.” Left-wing bloggers were even more willing to serve as mouthpieces for Media Matters, most notably Washington Post blogger Greg Sargent. Embarrassingly for Sargent, Media Matters sources describe him as being so eager to rehash their editorials that the organization considered him a reliable dump for its content. As one source boasted to the Daily Caller, “If you can’t get it anywhere else, Greg Sargent’s always game.”
More troubling than the leverage it wields over left-wing outlets and columnists is the influence that Media Matters seems to exert on the White House. The Daily Caller reports that Media Matters has “regular contact with political operatives” inside the Obama White House. In June 2010, for instance, David Brock and former Media Matters president Eric Burns had a meeting at the White House with Obama advisor Valerie Jarrett and now former communications director Anita Dunn. Dunn in particular seemed to welcome Media Matters, even parroting its claim that Fox News is “more a wing of the Republican Party.” For its part, Media Matters became one of Dunn’s most determined defenders. In a typical series of over-the-top posts, Media Matters attacked Fox News host Glenn Beck for what it called a “ridiculous smear of Anita Dunn.” The alleged "smear" turned out to be nothing more than Beck’s accurate highlighting of Dunn’s professed admiration for Mao Zedong, who, along with Mother Teresa, she called “two of my favorite political philosophers” before insisting that she was being ironic. Although Dunn has since left the administration, Media Matters, joined by the Center for American Progress, continues to enjoy a “weekly strategy call with the White House.”
One likely subject of conversation at these strategy sessions is the $20 million spending spree that Media Matters plans to undertake to influence media coverage prior to the 2012 election – double the organization’s reported $10 million annual budget. How that money will be spent is not clear, but one possible clue comes from David Brock’s pledge last spring that he plans to enlist Media Matters into a campaign of “guerilla warfare and sabotage” against Fox News. Some Media Matters staffers interpreted the statement as a sign of Brock’s well-known paranoia and mental instability, but it may also have been a statement of intent. According to the Daily Caller, Brock’s animus against Fox was so extreme that Media Matters considered harassing individual Fox News employees at their homes, hiring private investigators to look into their private lives and hiring a law firm to pursue law suits against the network. Brock shows no sign of abandoning his obsession with Fox. Next week, he and co-author Ari Rabin-Havt are releasing a book that sounds a standard Media Matters theme: The Fox Effect: How Roger Ailes Turned a Network into a Propaganda Machine.
The irony is that, with its outsize influence on the mainstream media and its direct access to the White House, Media Matters is arguably more influential than its nemesis network. As the 2012 election begins in earnest, Media Matters will try to use that leverage to fashion a media landscape favorable to its brand of partisan opposition research disguised as media criticism.
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