03.29.11

The Era of Sound-Bite Warfare

Mike Huckabee's remarks about Natalie Portman's out-of-wedlock pregnancy weren't incendiary—until Eric Hananoki got his hands on them and found just the right snippet to get the media fired up. Howard Kurtz on how partisan groups are deploying sound bites to discredit public figures.

Mike Huckabee, whose nonstop book-flacking is keeping him on the political radar, was doing a routine radio interview when the talk briefly turned to Natalie Portman.

Seattle host Michael Medved questioned how the 29-year-old actress could tout her pregnancy at the Oscars when she had not yet married her fiancé. The once-and-maybe-future presidential candidate replied that it was "troubling" to see "a Natalie Portman or some other Hollywood starlet who boasts" of having a child out of wedlock, because "there aren't really a lot of single moms out there who are making millions of dollars every year for being in a movie."

And then—nothing happened. But three days later, in a glass-sheathed building atop Washington's Buddha Bar, Eric Hananoki, a 27-year-old with a growth of stubble, discovered the audio on his computer. At 5:41 p.m., he posted a blog item for the liberal advocacy group Media Matters, declaring that Huckabee had "attacked actress Natalie Portman for having a child 'out of wedlock.'" Five hours later, MSNBC's Ed Schultz was skewering Huckabee, and the story quickly ricocheted from TMZ to Politico to Stephen Colbert.

We have entered the era of sound-bite warfare on steroids. No longer can a public figure get away with an ill-chosen phrase or factual flub on some obscure cable show in the boondocks. Everything gets the mighty megaphone treatment. And if the utterance in question isn't all that incendiary, political adversaries can be counted on to wrench it out of context.

"It's making politicians more phony, more plastic," says Democratic analyst Paul Begala, a Daily Beast contributor. "Then the media bemoan that there are no authentic characters left in American politics."

Why wait for your opponents to do something stupid when you can bait them into it, packaging the resulting fracas for media consumption?

Once, it was left to rival campaigns and investigative reporters to dig up the dirt. But well-heeled, partisan organizations—like Media Matters and Think Progress on the left, and Newsbusters and Andrew Breitbart's Big Government on the right—are the new oppo researchers, vacuuming up controversial remarks and spewing them into the atmosphere.

David Brock, who rose to fame as a conservative attack dog against Anita Hill, founded Media Matters seven years ago after a dramatic conversion to liberalism. With help from left-wing philanthropist George Soros, he has built a $14 million organization that hounds his former allies on the right. "The strategy is to 'out' content in the conservative media to the rest of the media and the public," Brock says. "These are not hit jobs. By making our research transparent, our readers can decide for themselves whether we've provided the full context."

The nerve center is a cavernous room of 22 rows of makeshift wooden desks, filled with casually dressed young staffers in headphones who work in shifts from 5 a.m. to 1 a.m. Most of the 84 employees are divided into teams with nicknames like "Puppet Masters" and "Ministry of Truth," and when their Snapstream software (which can record 14 channels at once) picks up a controversial comment, they fire off a specially marked email called a "Batsignal"—up to 500 of them a day, reviewed by their bosses.

"I thought this was something liberals always needed to combat misinformation in the media," Hananoki says while downloading another Huckabee radio appearance. It was Hananoki who discovered Huckabee telling New York radio host Steve Malzberg that Barack Obama grew up in Kenya, forcing the former Arkansas governor to spend days explaining a dumb mistake.

On the Portman flap, Huckabee tells The Daily Beast that news outlets "take at face value a breathless blog post from a highly partisan and distorted source like Media Matters and treat it as a 'source.' Then it's electronically photocopied by what used to be legitimate journalists who now lack "integrity and fact-checking." (In fairness, Media Matters posted the complete transcript and audio.) Medved blames "that intoxicating mix of glamour and politics—any time you can show Natalie Portman's beautiful face in an update on politicians, you're ahead of the game."

In Alexandria, Virginia, Newsbusters, a project of the Media Research Center, has amassed 400,000 hours of recorded programming since the group was founded in 1987. "It's become the go-to resource for conservatives, not just in the activist world but in the information world. Talk-show hosts tell me that all the time," says Brent Bozell, the center's president. Last week, for instance, Newsbusters chided the network newscasts for barely mentioning the lack of congressional consent for President Obama's military intervention in Libya—and posting a video montage of anchors asking why George W. Bush hadn't sought Hill approval for the pending invasion of Iraq.

Bozell envies Media Matters' fundraising success—his budget is under $12 million, and he employs a staff of 50—but not its style. "They are smash-mouth in the way they do things," he says.

Yet Bozell isn't always comfortable with the tone of the "younger techno-set" on his own site. "It can be snarky," he says. "Sometimes I cringe a little when I read the content. But if it weren't for me putting brakes on this a little bit, it'd be a lot racier than it is now. We banish people who are potty mouth."

Beyond the rise of these monitoring groups, the digitizing of our lives is accelerating the airing of once-hidden dirty laundry. When Krystal Ball ran for Congress last year in Virginia, a conservative blog posted decade-old party photos of her in a Santa hat, fellating a plastic reindeer nose.

"It was horrific—one of the most difficult experiences of my life," Ball says. "As a young woman I'd worked so hard to be taken seriously. I became the second-most Googled term in the world." But she says people should get used to such foibles: "I don't want my representatives to be so polished or uninteresting that they've never lived a life."

It's been five years since George Allen's Senate reelection campaign was derailed when he hurled the word "macaca" at an Indian-American who taped the incident—and turned out to be a volunteer for Allen's Virginia opponent. Now that episode seems almost quaint in light of today's political provocateurs.

Breitbart threw his Web muscle behind James O'Keefe, the young activist who posed as a pimp during an undercover sting against ACORN, and scored again this month with hidden-camera video of a National Public Radio executive trashing the Tea Party.

Breitbart defends the deception involved, saying he and O'Keefe "stick our fingers in the eye of the mainstream media," which he says perpetrates "the most ludicrous double standard known to humankind."

Last year, Breitbart posted footage of two young men confronting Rep. Bob Etheridge and refusing to identify themselves, prompting the North Carolina lawmaker to lose his cool and grab one of them by the neck. (Etheridge later apologized.) Why wait for your opponents to do something stupid when you can bait them into it, packaging the resulting fracas for media consumption?

Such tactics aren't the sole province of the right. Buffalo blogger Ian Murphy delighted the left when he recorded a call to Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker—who is battling the state's public-employee unions—posing as one of the billionaire Koch brothers.

But it doesn't take an impersonator to make politicians sweat these days, not when their every utterance seems to be monitored by such groups as Media Matters.

On a recent morning, Julie Millican, who heads the 5 a.m. team, had challenged the notion that Wisconsin students were being indoctrinated against their governor, linking to a conservative blog item headlined: "Far Left Loons Teach Kids to Chant Against Scott Walker." Matt Finkelstein, who runs the group's Political Correction unit, was compiling a list of gaffes by Michele Bachmann after the Republican congresswoman mistakenly placed the battles of Lexington and Concord in New Hampshire, not Massachusetts.

Sometimes the group goes too far. Last summer, Media Matters reported that Glenn Beck's radio sidekick had linked MSNBC's Keith Olbermann to a shooting rampage in California; the group apologized for not explaining that the comments were satirical. Providing the proper context is crucial, says vice president Ari Rabin-Havt, and "we have disciplined people very severely for not doing that."

Newsbusters, too, can miss the mark. One of its columnists, Noel Sheppard, attacked MSNBC commentators David Corn and Chris Matthews as anti-Semitic last week after Corn joked that evangelical Christians want Israel to be strong, but "not because they like Jews or Israelis." Sheppard has apologized for misinterpreting the exchange.

Howard Kurtz is The Daily Beast's Washington bureau chief. He also hosts CNN's weekly media program Reliable Sources on Sundays at 11 a.m. ET. The longtime media reporter and columnist for The Washington Post, Kurtz is the author of five books.