The Real War on Fox
The White House may be in a cold war with Fox News. But Media Matters is on the front lines. Benjamin Sarlin on the latest ways David Brock’s group has hit the right’s house network—and aided the White House counterattacks.
The White House's war on Fox News may be a new chapter in the administration’s relationship with the media. But bashing the conservative press has been an Olympic sport among liberals for years. And no one has done it better than Media Matters.
Founded in 2004 by right winger-turned-liberal crusader David Brock, the site and its staff of about 70 employees have relentlessly hounded Fox and other news outlets by deploying research teams to quickly fact-check their hosts' claims and publicize their gaffes. Now with the White House turning the debate over Fox’s objectivity and accuracy into a major news story, Media Matters is putting its thousands of articles, transcripts, and clips of the network's contributors to use in support of Team Obama’s effort.
“We're the first line of defense for the progressive movement,” Brock says.
As a 501c(3), Media Matters is prohibited from coordinating activities with the White House. But Brock takes credit for setting the stage for the White House's Fox wars indirectly and providing the ammunition for the network's critics to aggressively rebut conservative counterattacks.
“Obviously when the White House makes a case like this, it gets a lot more attention,” Brock told The Daily Beast. “But the factual groundwork had been laid by us and the rhetorical case as well.”
• Lloyd Grove: Shep Smith, Fox News’ Man of Reason In an effort to undermine Fox's claims that its editorial and news reporting are separate, Brock’s site has launched a video series of Fox clips Media Matters sees as anti-Obama—using the tagline, “Fox is not news. It's a 24/7 political operation.” That’s a problem he thinks has grown much more pronounced since the 2008 election. But perhaps most importantly, his group has played a major role in defending administration officials from Fox attacks—sometimes more effectively than the White House itself has.
Earlier this month, White House Communications Director Anita Dunn, who has spearheaded the anti-Fox effort, came under fire from Glenn Beck for a recent speech in which she referred to Mao Zedong and Mother Theresa as her two “favorite political philosophers.” Anticipating the story could have legs, Media Matters staffers raced into action, frantically scouring the Internet for examples of conservatives citing Mao themselves, and published their first quotes within a half hour of the show ending. By the time Beck tried to extend the attack later that week to another Obama official who had cited Mao, “manufacturing czar” Ron Bloom, the list of similar Republican quotes included John McCain, Newt Gingrich, and Ralph Reed. Beck's story bounced around the right-wing press for several days but failed to migrate to the mainstream media.
Brock believes that effort helped contain the story’s spread. “Speed was of the essence here,” he said. “We're the first line of defense for the progressive movement.”
Earlier this month, Media Matters rallied around another one of Fox News' top White House targets, education official Kevin Jennings. Sean Hannity called for him to be fired for reportedly failing to report a statutory rape case to the authorities when a 15-year old gay student asked for Jennings' advice on a relationship with an older man. But Media Matters quickly confirmed with the student in question himself that he was 16 at the time, the legal age of consent in the state, and that he denied any sexual contact with the person in question. The group then posted a Facebook exchange between the student and a Fox News reporter in which the network inquired about his age. Fox issued a correction and without a criminal angle the story failed to gain traction outside of the conservative press. The Atlantic's Chris Good reported that Media Matters' reporting was the key to deflating the attack—especially given the White House's reluctance to rebut the Fox accounts directly.
“What you saw in the Kevin Jennings case is that it can be done,” said Brock. “It is not impossible to defend against these right-wing attacks. You just have to do the work.”
Brock knows a thing or two about right-wing attacks. He leveled a few of his own, when he was a conservative cub reporter for the American Spectator. Brock’s reporting on Paula Jones and “Troopergate” helped trigger an investigative tide that eventually led to impeachment proceedings against President Clinton. But in subsequent reporting on Hillary Clinton, Brock had a crisis of conscience; after being lambasted by the right for failing to dig up sufficient dirt on her, he came to believe that much of what had been alleged against the Clintons was baseless—and became a liberal convert.
Today, Brock and his team—fueled by millions in donations from big-name Democratic donors like producer Steve Bing and cable TV giant Leo Hindery—are hard at work to limit the damage done by the right. “We've always had a 'containment' strategy regarding Fox,” Brock explained. “We don't necessarily think you can change their behavior, but you can change the behavior of the rest of the media in relation to Fox. I think that's the important subtext to this White House/Fox story.”
Of course, many members of the media have come to Fox News’ defense since the White House began singling the network out. ABC's Jake Tapper, for example, challenged White House Press Secretary Robert Gibbs on the issue, calling Fox “one of our sister organizations,” and asked “why it’s appropriate for the White House to decide that a news organization is not one.”
Brock says he’s not surprised. “It does seem like there’s been a little circling of the wagons around Fox by some people in the press and I guess that’s to be expected, in the sense that the press is always uncomfortable when politicians seem to be attacking them,” he said. “But the idea that this is some kind of unprecedented White House attack or pushback on the press is just baloney.”
A representative for Fox declined to comment on Media Matters' criticisms. But the group has come under fire throughout its existence for its openly liberal angle and combative approach to its subjects. Bill O'Reilly, a frequent target of their ire, once described them on his show as “a far-left swamp pit,” and “a disgusting Web site that just attacks people with whom they disagree and takes things out of context all day long.”
Fox News contributor Tucker Carlson, who has also worked for CNN and MSNBC and has been criticized many times by Media Matters for his on-air comments, says he believes the group is disingenuous.
“I don't have a problem at all with lefties critiquing the news from a left-wing point of view,” said Carlson, who has also written for The Daily Beast. “What sets Media Matters apart is it's doing the bidding of a political party and specific politicians. That's by definition dishonest.”
Carlson says he admires the group’s industry. But he feels they go too far in their sensitivity to perceived racism and sexism on-air quotes. The site called out Carlson at one point for saying on MSNBC that "It takes a lot of guts for a rich, privileged white lady who is one of the most powerful people in the world to claim that she is a victim of gender discrimination."
“They were outraged by anybody criticizing Hillary: You don't like Hillary, you don't like women,” he said. “I got three daughters and a wife, I don't like women? It's so ludicrous.”
Brock contends that his site's biases are out in the open and that its factual reporting is consistently accurate.
“Unlike Fox, we're not trying to have it both ways; we are a progressive organization and there's no fig leaf,” he said. “We're here to defend progressive ideas and progressive leaders in a climate that's very hostile.”
Benjamin Sarlin is a reporter for The Daily Beast. He previously covered New York City politics for The New York Sun and has worked for talkingpointsmemo.com.