Editor’s note: The controversy over Rush Limbaugh’s “phony soldiers” remark has brought new prominence to Media Matters for America, the left-wing media watchdog founded by former right-wing media star David Brock. Media Matters is an avowedly political institution, part of a group of institutions the Center for American Progress, MoveOn.org, and others that have become increasingly important in Democratic politics. In 2004, Byron York revealed the origins of Media Matters and the big Democratic party donors who helped Brock bring it to life.
Susie Tompkins Buell was very, very impressed with David Brock. A California businesswoman who co-founded the fashion giant Esprit and went on to become a major donor to Democratic causes, Buell was in Washington last fall attending a meeting of friends and supporters of Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton when she met Brock, the self-described former “right-wing hit man.” Buell listened as Brock, now a defector to “progressive” causes, presented plans for Media Matters for America, his new Internet-based project to monitor and criticize conservative media. In a short time, she was sold.
“It just made so much sense to me,” Buell recalls. “All this garbage that’s coming out of the Right is like the worst contamination of this country. . . . He brought so much understanding of what goes on over there. He’s very articulate, and very, very bright.”
After Brock’s presentation, Buell introduced herself and offered to hold a fundraiser for him at her home in San Francisco. Brock accepted, and at that gathering Buell introduced him to other potential contributors, whose donations would become part of the more than $2 million Brock has so far raised for Media Matters.
Launched in early May, the organization says its purpose is to keep an eye on “conservative misinformation” in the American media. “Conservative misinformation,” according to the group’s mission statement, is defined as “news or commentary presented in the media that is not accurate, reliable, or credible, and that forwards the conservative agenda.” While in its first few weeks of operation Media Matters published attacks on the usual targets — Fox News, for example — Brock seems to be devoting particular energy to what he calls an “aggressive ad campaign” against radio host Rush Limbaugh.
In addition to a series of critiques on the group’s website, Brock has produced a television commercial attacking Limbaugh for comments he made about the Abu Ghraib prison-abuse scandal. Media Matters spent $100,000 to air the spot on CNN, MSNBC, Fox, and a few other television outlets. Brock also commissioned Democratic pollster Geoffrey Garin to conduct a survey on a variety of media issues, including perceptions of Limbaugh. Among other things, Garin found that a majority of those surveyed believe Limbaugh often presents views that are biased, “rather than impartial and balanced.” Garin also found that a large part of Limbaugh’s audience is politically conservative.
Conservatives — anyone, actually — might question whether such insights are worth whatever Brock paid for them, but the poll, together with Brock’s anti-Limbaugh television ad campaign, suggests that Media Matters is much more than a traditional media watchdog group. Indeed, it is probably more accurate to view Media Matters as part of the constellation of groups — the so-called “527” organizations, the voter-turnout group America Coming Together, John Podesta’s liberal think tank the Center for American Progress, MoveOn.org, liberal talk radio, and others — that have come together on the left in the last year or so, all aimed at electing a Democratic president this November.
Certainly some of Brock’s donors see it that way. Leo Hindery Jr., a cable-television executive who contributes to Democratic causes, says he sees Media Matters as part of a coordinated action on the left. “I thought this was a piece of the puzzle,” Hindery says. “There are people like Mike Lux [a Democratic consultant who runs an important ad agency], who are into the strategy point of view, there’s Podesta, who’s into the think tank/intellectual side, and I think the third part of the triangle is David’s initiative.”
Brock’s donors read like a Who’s Who of those who have financed the new, activist Left. Besides Buell and Hindery, donors to Media Matters include Peter Lewis, chairman of Progressive Corp., who has contributed more than $7 million to the 527s in partnership with his friend, the financier George Soros. There is Democratic activist Bren Simon, wife of shopping-mall tycoon Mel Simon, New York psychologist and donor Gail Furman, California philanthropist James Hormel, and others. Two anti-Bush organizations, the New Democratic Network and MoveOn.org, have also contributed to Brock’s project.
In addition to his donor list, Brock’s staff at times resembles that of a political campaign. In the group’s K Street offices, there are a number of veterans of Democratic causes. One Brock aide did opposition research for the recent presidential campaign of Sen. John Edwards; another did the same thing for the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee; yet another worked on the Wesley Clark presidential campaign; another worked for Massachusetts Democratic representative Barney Frank, and so on.
Given all that, it seems fair to say that Media Matters is only partly about the media. It is also very much about defeating George W. Bush.
Whatever its political orientation, Media Matters is what is known as a 501(c)(3) charitable organization, meaning it is tax-exempt and can accept tax-exempt contributions (similar tax-exempt strategies are used by groups on both the left and the right). But since Media Matters has just been formed, it does not yet have the formal structure in place to accept tax-deductible donations, so, like other new charitable organizations, it has had to form a “fiscal sponsorship” relationship with an existing charity, which is already set up to accept such contributions. For that, Brock turned to the Tides Foundation, a wealthy but little-known institution that funds a variety of left-wing causes.
Finally, the creation of Brock’s new organization happens to coincide with his drive to publicize his new book, The Republican Noise Machine: Right-Wing Media and How It Corrupts Democracy. The book purports to tell Americans that the “verbal brownshirts” of the Right are far more dangerous than many believe. In Brock’s telling, conservatism is close to an all-powerful political movement, while liberalism, once formidable, now “seems a fringe dispensation of a few aging professors and Hollywood celebrities.”
The right wing is so dominant, Brock writes, that even if Democrats win the presidency this year “they still face the prospect of being brutally slammed and systematically slandered in such a way that will make governing exceedingly difficult.” The brutal conservative noise machine will keep going, Brock warns, “until its capacities to spread filth are somehow eradicated.”
Hyperbole aside, it should be said that some of Brock’s supporters genuinely believe such things. But at least so far, their faith in Brock does not appear to be shared by the mainstream press. Other than a friendly interview by the Today show’s Katie Couric, Brock has received far less attention for his new project than he received in 2002 when he published Blinded by the Right, the book in which he confessed to having lied in some of the stories he wrote for conservative publications in the 1990s.
The book did what many — even those on the left who share Brock’s contempt for conservatives — consider fatal damage to Brock’s credibility. When Blinded by the Right appeared, Timothy Noah, the liberal “Chatterbox” columnist for Slate, wrote that “Chatterbox yields to no one in his eagerness to believe the awful things Brock is now saying about himself and the conservative movement in America. But the more Brock insists that he has lied, and lied, and then lied again, the more one begins to suspect Brock of being, well, a liar.”
Now that same David Brock is trying on a new role as guardian of accuracy in media. It all seems, well, a little much. But in this year of 527s, mega-donors, and Democrats determined to “fight back,” it appears that anything is possible.