“Media Matters” ; by Jamison Foser

I generally avoid using this column to reply at length to Media Matters' conservative critics, in part because there tend to be more important topics than “why Jonah Goldberg is wrong about Media Matters” and in part because his arguments are often so self-discrediting as to make rebuttal unnecessary.

I generally avoid using this column to reply at length to Media Matters' conservative critics, in part because there tend to be more important topics than “why Jonah Goldberg is wrong about Media Matters” and in part because his arguments are often so self-discrediting as to make rebuttal unnecessary.

But the recent spate of right-wing attacks on Media Matters deserves scrutiny for what they reveal about the attackers themselves. Just as this week's swift-boating of a 12-year-old revealed more about the Republican operatives and conservative activists behind the smear campaign than about the merits of SCHIP, Goldberg, Tucker Carlson, and others who have taken aim at Media Matters in recent days have succeeded only in demonstrating their own stunning indifference to fact and reason.

Yesterday, Daniel Henninger used his perch as deputy editor of The Wall Street Journal's editorial page to suggest that Media Matters favors government suppression of speech. In doing so, he exposed his own double standards. Complaining about Democratic senators' criticism of Rush Limbaugh for his recent suggestion that members of the military who oppose the Iraq war are “phony soldiers,” Henninger wrote:

If you are Media Matters, if you are a man or woman of the Left, does state pressure on someone's political speech discomfort you? Or is it a welcome, even defensible, repression of harmful right-wing speech?

Well, as a “man of the Left,” yes, state pressure on political speech discomforts me. That's why I wrote the following in response to the U.S. Senate's formal condemnation of MoveOn two weeks ago:

Whether one agreed with the substance of the MoveOn ad or found the wording offensive, there should be something disconcerting about a government body formally condemning private citizens for criticizing the government.

Surely journalists, of all people, should recognize how chilling it is for the Senate to take such action. But I can find not a single journalist who has made that point, or even raised the question of the appropriateness of such a government action in a free society. Nor did most of the news reports about the vote include necessary context. I have not seen a single news report, for example, that told readers how frequently the United States Senate condemns citizens for speech acts critical of the government. I suspect (and hope) it is quite rare. But that context was absent from media coverage of the vote.

Oddly, Henninger didn't mention the formal congressional condemnation of MoveOn's political speech in his column criticizing us. But surely, given his apparent discomfort over the criticism of Limbaugh by some Democratic senators, Henninger must have recently written a column denouncing a formal congressional vote condemning MoveOn, right? No. No, Henninger did not.

The contrast could not be more clear: Henninger is outraged that Democratic senators criticized Limbaugh for his “political speech.” But he has expressed no such outrage that the House and Senate both actually voted to condemn MoveOn for its political speech.

Media Matters has not taken a position on the congressional resolutions condemning MoveOn (which were voted on) and Limbaugh (which was not), just as the organization does not take a position on the vast majority of congressional votes. I can't think of an actual vote on which we have taken a position. Speaking only for myself, I find the idea of a resolution condemning Limbaugh for his speech as troubling as I found the anti-MoveOn resolution. (On the other hand, if Congress wants to do something about Limbaugh being broadcast on Armed Forces Radio at taxpayer's expense, I'm all for that.) I have friends and colleagues who disagree with me on that, and who make good arguments -- arguments often based on the importance of consistency. If Congress is going to condemn MoveOn, they argue, Congress should condemn all similar speech. That's a compelling view, and an honest and consistent and respectable one.

Henninger, on the other hand, wrote an entire column about “Rush Limbaugh's speech rights” and how they are threatened by criticism from members of Congress, while not once mentioning that Congress actually voted to condemn MoveOn for exercising its speech rights -- and despite his transparent double standard, he suggests that this demonstrates there is something wrong with Media Matters! He uses it to suggest Media Matters believes that “anything the right does is bad and should not be tolerated; anything the left does is good and should be welcomed.” Switch around the words “right” and “left,” and you have a perfect description of Henninger's own reaction to the MoveOn and Limbaugh controversies. Henninger displays the very traits he condemns.

Henninger's column was quickly followed by an Investor's Business Daily editorial headlined “The Plan To Rein In Free Speech.” IBD, following in Henninger's footsteps, accused Media Matters of a “radical, anti-free speech agenda.”

IBD's 1,100-word editorial purported to expose Media Matters' allegedly radical agenda and contemptible tactics. It accused us of being a “nuisance” group, of making “silly” claims, of having “screamed” about Limbaugh, of being guilty of “distortion,” of lacking “facts” to back up our claims, of “branding all mainstream media reporters who don't toe its radical line as hopelessly right wing,” of “maintain[ing] a de facto McCarthy-like blacklist,” of “angry rants,” and more.

But here's something Investor's Business Daily didn't do: it didn't quote a single statement from Media Matters to back up its claims. In 1,100 words accusing us of making silly claims, IBD quoted not one such claim. In 1,100 words accusing us of being “angry” and having “screamed,” IBD quoted not one such “rant.” In 1,100 words accusing us of “distortion,” IBD provided not one example. In 1,100 words accusing us of lacking “facts” to support our claims, IBD provided none to support most of its claims. Like Henninger, Investor's Business Daily simply displayed the traits it accused us of possessing.

Then again, it might not have mattered much if IBD had quoted us; it may well have misrepresented our words anyway. Here's how IBD presented Rep. Henry Waxman's office's denial of an American Spectator report that it is investigating Limbaugh and other “right-wing commentators” : “Of Limbaugh, it said: 'There is not now nor has there ever been any investigation of this subject,' suspiciously using the present tense as Bill Clinton once did to parse his own scandal denials.”

Waxman's office said, “There is not now nor has there ever been any investigation of this subject.” IBD characterized that as “suspiciously using the present tense,” suspiciously ignoring the third of the sentence that referred to the past.

For the record, Media Matters does not “brand[] all mainstream media reporters who don't toe its radical line as hopelessly right wing,” as IBD falsely claimed. Media Matters focuses on the content of news reports, not on trying to ascertain the intent behind those who report them.

When we critique, for example, The New York Times for getting something wrong, we do not say that they are conservatives. We simply say that they have gotten something wrong in a way that helps conservatives, or hurts progressives. We generally don't try to read their minds to guess why they did so. (There are, to be sure, obvious exceptions: we don't pretend that Rush Limbaugh is anything other than a conservative propagandist.) The items that we post each day very rarely say anything at all about the motivations behind the misinformation we identify, for the simple reason that we don't know what the motivations are.

This is one of the basic principles behind what we do. So much so that when In These Times magazine asked Media Matters to contribute a cover essay about "Five Ways to Combat Conservative Media" for its April 12, 2005, issue, the very first words I wrote were “Stop talking about 'bias' ” :

1. Stop talking about “bias.”

Inaccurate, distorted and misleading news reports that further a conservative agenda or undermine progressive ideas dominate our newspapers and airwaves. But this isn't necessarily because reporters or media outlets are biased towards conservatives.

For every Rush Limbaugh and Sean Hannity, there are dozens of reporters who don't have an ideological axe to grind, but whose work contains conservative misinformation anyway.

[...]

The Right has spent decades framing the debate over media coverage as one of ideological bias, and it has worked for them. But that's an overly simplistic view of the media. Rather than mimicking conservatives, progressives should recognize that we can't read reporters' hearts and minds -- but we can read their articles and columns.

Investor's Business Daily's claim that we “brand[] all mainstream media reporters who don't toe its radical line as hopelessly right wing” is not only false, it is also a perfect illustration of the way many conservative media critics have historically operated. They don't assess the content of news reports on its merit; they simply assert that it must be flawed, because it came from the “liberal media.”

Nearly two years ago, I used a column by one of the leading conservative media critics to illustrate the difference in approaches taken by Media Matters and many of our counterparts on the right:

In a December 5 column, Accuracy in Media's Cliff Kincaid wrote:

I didn't need to read any transcripts of the Chris Matthews MSNBC Hardball show to know what's he's been doing. It's a safe bet he was hyping some Bush-related “scandal.” The former Democratic congressional staffer does what he does best -- make Democrats into heroes and Republicans into villains.

Kincaid didn't even need to look at what Matthews said; he just knew Matthews was making “Democrats into heroes and Republicans into villains.”

At Media Matters, we go the extra mile and actually read and watch the news reports we critique. It isn't quite as fast or easy as simply making things up, but we think it's worth it. And because we put in the effort, we found that -- rather than making “Democrats into heroes and Republicans into villains” -- Matthews has recently called those who dislike Bush "real whack-jobs," gushed that Bush “glimmers” with "sunny nobility," derided Democrats as "carpers and complainers," and smeared Democrats.

Investor's Business Daily is correct to suggest that it would be wrong to attach a dismissive label to all reporters who don't toe an ideological line. That's why we don't do it. But IBD -- and countless other conservative media critics -- do it all the time. Almost exactly a year ago, for example, IBD ran an editorial titled "Can You Trust The National Media?" IBD explained:

In July and August 2004, leading up to that year's presidential election, we ran a series of editorials on bias in the mainstream media. In view of the fact that the situation hasn't changed, and may have worsened heading into the Nov. 7 election, we are repeating the series over the next several days.

[...]

But can you trust and rely on our national news media? Are they presenting the whole story, unbiased, evenhanded and objective? Yes, if you are a liberal Democrat.

[...]

The crucial question now is: At a time of war and future terrorist risk to our country's safety and open way of life, will the liberal media's bias help defend and protect us or weaken and undermine us?

IBD's multi-part editorial series about the “liberal media's bias” comprised nearly 4,000 words. And yet it included not a single direct quote of a single flaw in a single news report. IBD spent those nearly 4,000 words cataloguing allegations of bias, rather than examples of specific flawed news reports.

Again: Investor's Business Daily demonstrates the very traits it falsely accuses Media Matters of possessing.

IBD ended its series by suggesting that the media right itself by following conservative media critic Bernard Goldberg's “12-step program.” The final of Goldberg's suggestions approvingly reprinted by IBD? “Stop taking it personally. Take Benjamin Franklin's words to heart: 'Our critics are our friends; they show us our faults.' ”

That's what Investor's Business Daily said about conservative media critics. Unfortunately, IBD doesn't apply that sentiment consistently.

The Henninger and IBD attacks are only the most recent deeply flawed news reports criticizing Media Matters. Last weekend, the New York Post published a 2,000-word hit piece by Jonah Goldberg. Like IBD, Goldberg didn't contest much of the actual content of our website: Direct quotes from Media Matters' site account for only 20 words in the article.

Goldberg wrote that Media Matters “tried to paint Bill O'Reilly as a racist dunderhead by slanderously distorting his comments about having dinner in Harlem.”

“Slanderously distorting” sounds pretty bad, doesn't it? But Goldberg didn't actually quote what Media Matters said or wrote that was supposedly “slanderous” ; he merely asserted that we slandered O'Reilly by “distorting his comments.” No proof, just assertion. (In an info box accompanying the article, Goldberg wrote that “Media Matters posted the quotes, saying they were 'ignorant and racially challenged.' ” It was one of the very few times Goldberg bothered to quote Media Matters in his hit piece, and he got it wrong. In fact, the quote wasn't “ignorant and racially challenged,” it was “ignorant and racially charged.” )

Goldberg asserted that Media Matters “churns out polemic and spin gussied-up as media criticism.” But his article is little more than polemic and spin -- he doesn't quote Media Matters work directly in order to point out flaws; he simply makes broad assertions. Compare that to, for example, this item about MSNBC's Chris Matthews. Media Matters quoted a specific statement Matthews made, then pointed out specific facts that contradict that statement. So: who is guilty of “polemic and spin” and who is engaged in fact-based criticism?

On the October 3 edition of MSNBC's Tucker, host Tucker Carlson interviewed Media Matters Senior Fellow Paul Waldman. Introducing the segment, Carlson had said: “What is Media Matters' version of the Rush Limbaugh controversy? Joining us now, senior fellow and director of special projects at Media Matters, Paul Waldman.” He began the show by giving a summary of the Limbaugh controversy, then saying “So, who is telling the truth? Who's right? ... In a moment, General [Wesley] Clark will join us, as will a representative of mediamatters.org, the blog that started this tempest.”

But Carlson didn't ask Waldman a single question about Limbaugh or Limbaugh's comments. Not one question. Instead, he almost exclusively asked Waldman about Media Matters and about Waldman's qualifications as a media critic. He repeatedly described the organization as “shills.” And when Waldman tried to address the issues the segment was ostensibly about -- “What is Media Matters' version of the Rush Limbaugh controversy?” "[W]ho is telling the truth? Who's right?" -- Carlson interrupted him to make assertions about Media Matters' motives:

WALDMAN: We are a progressive group.

CARLSON: Then why would I care what you say? You're helping to elect a party.

That exchange is telling: Tucker Carlson doesn't care what Media Matters says solely because we are a progressive organization. As Waldman explained, we provide audio and video evidence, transcripts, direct quotes, and other evidence to support our items. But Carlson says he doesn't care about any of that, because we are a progressive organization.

Media Matters has never hidden the fact that we are a progressive organization, and we see no reason to do so. We announced it in the very first sentence of the open letter from David Brock that we posted on our website upon launching in 2004. Just as we focus on the content of the news reports we critique rather than on trying to ascertain the motives of the journalists in question, we believe our work speaks for itself. We provide factual refutations of specific flaws in specific news reports. People can assess those facts for themselves. We provide audio, video, and transcripts so people can assess the validity of our criticism for themselves. When we get something wrong -- and, with thousands of items posted to our website, it is inevitable that we will on occasion -- our readers can see it for themselves.

The fact that we are a progressive organization isn't particularly relevant in assessing the typical Media Matters item. Take that Chris Matthews item noted above, for example. We quoted Matthews making a claim about public opinion. We posted video of him doing so, so readers could assess whether we had accurately quoted him. We provided details of several public polls that undermined Matthews' assertion. We included links to the polls in question so readers could assess whether we had accurately represented the results.

But Tucker Carlson seems to think that none of that matters -- that the only thing he needs to know is that Media Matters is a progressive organization, so he has no reason to care what we have to say. Just as AIM's Cliff Kincaid didn't need to watch Chris Matthews to “know” that Matthews had been attacking Republicans and touting Democrats, Tucker Carlson apparently doesn't need to assess any evidence to dismiss our work. Incredibly, during the same segment, he referred to Waldman as a “hack.” As with Henninger and Investor's Business Daily and Goldberg, Carlson accused Media Matters of something that seems to better describe himself.

That attitude isn't unique to Carlson. The spate of recent attacks by conservative journalists on Media Matters have been light on specific rebuttals of specific Media Matters items, but they have been chock-full of efforts to “expose” the political and ideological ties of Media Matters and its staff -- typically using biographical information we have deviously hidden in the "About Us" section of our website.

Writing for National Review, Byron York was even more explicit than Carlson: "[I]ndependent-minded critics who look at Media Matters might conclude that its political motivations are simply too strong to merit serious consideration."

That's one school of thought, as we have seen. Another is that our work -- like the journalism we critique -- should be judged on the merits of its content; that it wouldn't much matter if our work was written by a committee consisting of George Soros, Bill Clinton, and Jane Fonda, as long as it was factual and accurate.

Although York listed prior political work of several Media Matters staffers, and Carlson seemed to find it significant that Waldman has not worked as a journalist, neither mentioned that there are more than a dozen Media Matters employees who do have journalism backgrounds. Our staff includes people who have taught classes about the media, who have earned journalism degrees, who have written books about the media, and who have worked as journalists. Media Matters staffers who do not have journalism backgrounds have a range of expertise and training in communications, policy, politics, economics, law, and more. Our staff also includes people who have worked for George W. Bush and John McCain.

In short, Media Matters staff has at least as much standing to critique the media as does someone who suggests, as did Carlson and York, that it is adequate to consider only the source of a statement and not the factual basis of the claim.

In indicating that Media Matters shouldn't be taken seriously because we are an avowedly progressive organization, Carlson and York -- like Henninger, IBD, and Goldberg -- purported to diminish our credibility, but only ended up damaging their own. They suggested that Media Matters should be assessed based on who we are, rather than on the merits of what we say.

Jamison Foser is Executive Vice President at Media Matters for America.