Last week, covering the Rush Limbaugh “phony soldiers” controversy, I described Media Matters, the liberal media watchdog group, as an “avowedly political institution.” Media Matters quickly took issue; a few hours after my article appeared on National Review Online, a posting on the group’s website declared, “Media Matters is not, as the National Review claims, ‘an avowedly political institution,’ but a nonpartisan, progressive nonprofit that is unaffiliated with any political party or candidate.”
Indeed, Media Matters has to be nonpartisan, if not nonpolitical. It is registered with the Internal Revenue Service as a nonprofit 501(c)(3) charitable institution, meaning it is tax exempt and that contributions made to Media Matters are fully tax deductible. In a feature of the tax code that benefits groups on both the left and right, a contribution to Media Matters is as tax deductible as a contribution to the Salvation Army or the Red Cross.
But how removed from politics is Media Matters? Whatever the organization says today, statements made by founder David Brock in 2004, shortly after Media Matters was formed, suggest that Brock’s intention in creating Media Matters was frankly political, with a specific electoral result in mind: to defeat Republicans and elect Democrats.
On June 15, 2004, Brock appeared at a Washington bookstore, Politics & Prose, to discuss his just-published book, The Republican Noise Machine: Right-Wing Media and How It Corrupts Democracy. Media Matters was still in its early stages at that point, and Brock explained to the audience what he hoped to accomplish. It was an unquestionably political plan.
The conservative radio host Rush Limbaugh, Brock told the small group, had “poison[ed]” the minds of swing voters, who are key to any election victory. The problem was not just people who listened to Limbaugh, Brock argued, but people who talked to people who listened to Limbaugh. “There is a viral effect of this noise machine that is difficult to quantify,” he said. “But the bottom line is that if you’ve got an office, and you’ve got ten people in an office, and just one of those people is listening to Rush Limbaugh and repeating false stories at the water cooler, you are corrupting and poisoning that entire office.”
Sooner or later, Brock said, that has an effect at the polls. “Although I think many liberals are in denial about the effect of all this,” he explained, “there are moderate, persuadable, independent and swing voters who are being systematically lied to every day.” The beneficiary was the Republican party.
Brock delivered a similar message several days earlier, on June 3, when he appeared at a panel discussion as part of the “Take Back America” conference sponsored by the liberal activist group Campaign for America’s Future. The topic was “Message and Media,” and Brock appeared with, among others, John Podesta, the former Clinton White House and founder of the liberal think tank Center for American Progress. Podesta had helped Brock start Media Matters, lending him office space and introducing him to key Democratic donors.
At the panel discussion, Brock spoke about his new organization in openly political terms. “They’re confusing voters,” Brock said of the right. “I know exactly how it works.” And again, the goal was change on election day. “There are moderate, persuadable swing voters in those audiences for the Fox News Channel,” he said. “What we hope to do is be able to educate people.”
As its educators, Media Matters hires veterans of Democratic political campaigns. Those working on the group’s current campaign against Limbaugh include one staffer who worked for the Kerry campaign, MoveOn.org, and the Democratic turnout organization America Coming Together; another who worked for the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee; and a third who worked for the Howard Dean campaign. Such backgrounds are common at Media Matters.
Despite its political strategy, and its political orientation, it’s entirely possible that Brock and Media Matters are operating entirely within the laws that govern such institutions. Those laws have been used, and exploited, for many years by groups on both sides of the political divide. But is Media Matters, as it claims, not political? Not by a long shot.