I, Eli

Poor Misunderstood Media Matters

Why would a liberal group defend the Justice Department’s targeting of journalists? By Eli Lake.

Cliff Owen/AP

David Brock would like you to know that his liberal organization, Media Matters for America, “recognizes that a free press is necessary for quality journalism and essential to our democracy.” What’s more, Brock said today in a statement, Media Matters stands with the 52 news organizations that objected this week to the Justice Department’s broad subpoena of phone records for 20 Associated Press reporters.

It’s good that he cleared that up because many reporters were confused. This morning, several of them—myself included—were alarmed when we saw a set of talking points issued by the Media Matters Action Network. The talking points were for progressives who were planning to publicly discuss the dispute between the AP and the Justice Department—and some of the talking points evinced a lot more loyalty to a Democratic administration than to the traditionally liberal principle of press freedom. “If the press compromised active counter-terror operations for a story that only tipped off the terrorists, that sounds like it should be investigated,” said one talking point. “It was not acceptable when the Bush Administration exposed Valerie Plame working undercover to stop terrorists from attacking us. It is not acceptable when anonymous sources do it either,” said another. (When I asked to interview Brock, a spokesperson simply sent me a copy of this statement.)

I know what you might be thinking. Don’t those talking points from May 14 contradict Brock’s defense of press freedoms issued on May 15? Well, not to worry. Brock explained all in his statement. “Media Matters for America monitors, analyzes, and corrects conservative misinformation in the media and was not involved with the production of the document focusing on the DOJs investigation,” he said. “That document was issued by ‘Message Matters,’ a project of the Media Matters Action Network, which posts, through a different editorial process and to a different website, a wide range of potential messaging products for progressive talkers to win public debates with conservatives.”

Now I get it. I nearly succumbed to conservative misinformation and fixated on the fact that David Brock is the chair of both groups, and both organizations have “Media Matters” in their titles. Good thing I can now clarify the distinction.

But then another thought occurred to me. Brock, you may recall, began his journalism career as a conservative who attacked Anita Hill and worked for the right-wing American Spectator. But in 1997, he famously broke ranks with conservatives and restarted his career as a liberal activist.

So I wondered: what if yesterday’s Message Matters talking points—which had a distinctly conservative ring to them—proved to be the first step in Brock’s journey back to the right? Would Brock’s old comrades take him back? I contacted Brock’s old editor at the Spectator, R. Emmett Tyrrell, to find out.

It turns out that while the 1990s were a long time ago, the memory of Brock’s betrayal is still vivid for Tyrrell. He quoted E.M. Forster—“If I had to choose between betraying my country and betraying my friend I hope I should have the guts to betray my country”—and suggested that he thought Brock had done both. “His mind operates a little different than yours or mine,” he added.

In short, Tyrrell did not think Brock would be welcomed back into the conservative mainstream. But Brock shouldn’t worry. Even if mainstream conservative groups won’t have him, he apparently already has his own right-wing outlet: Media Matters Action Network. Which, please bear in mind, has a separate editorial process from those liberals at Media Matters for America.