The “investigative series” that the conservative Daily Caller commenced this week about the liberal media watchdog outfit Media Matters for America and its founder David Brock accomplishes the impossible: It makes me sympathize with Media Matters and Brock.
This is no small accomplishment, as I’ve never thought much of Media Matters’ style of watchdogging or Brock’s journalism. I don’t mind Media Matters’ partisanship. Partisans often serve journalism by spotting unseen truths. I don’t dislike anybody over there; a couple of veteran journalists of my acquaintance produce copy for it. And I’ll be the first to admit that Media Matters’ giant media trawler captures much embarrassing — and occasionally useful — information about conservatives and conservative media.
That said, I always approach the group’s findings with the same reservations I do prosecutorial briefs or opposition research. What are the authors leaving out? Media Matters, like so many think tanks and watchdogs, is in the propaganda business. Yet even a propagandist deserves a fair hearing in the press. But the Daily Caller fails to clear even that low hurdle. As someone who routinely finds valuable nuggets in partisan media squabbles, I kept waiting to be shown something that wasn’t predictable political point-scoring. But it has yet to emerge.
The first installment in the series, which appeared on Sunday, relies on conjecture and anonymous sources to portray founder David Brock as a paranoid loon who hired bodyguards to protect him from death threats. Brock may indeed be bonkers, but you’ll find no proof of it here, only whispers. The piece claims Brock “struggles with mental illness,” but presents no evidence outside of anonymous sources referring to his alleged “bouts of what appeared to be mania” and a 2002 Drudge Report item that maintains he had a breakdown in 2001 and was treated in a psychiatric ward.
Another anonymous source tells the Daily Caller that Brock “completely lost his shit” in a 2008 meeting outside of San Diego, causing “a lot of conversations about David’s mental health.” Another anonymous source — a “prominent liberal,” no less — tells the Daily Caller that Brock was “erratic, unstable and disturbing” at a 2010 meeting. The piece, written by Daily Caller Editor-in-Chief Tucker Carlson and staffer Vince Coglianese, also claims that: “At some point, Brock received a prescription for his condition” and cites an anonymous friend who says Brock wasn’t “trying to keep” his illegal drug use (including cocaine) “a secret.”
A Washington figure given to erratic behavior? On prescribed meds? Rumored to be imbibing illegal drugs? Given to grandiosity and terrorizing his staff? It sounds pretty standard to me and not much of a story. Stitched together with this anonymously sourced crap is the assertion that several prominent journalists and news organizations are pushovers for Media Matters findings, including MSNBC, Washington Post blogger Greg Sargent, Ben Smith (formerly of Politico and now editor of BuzzFeed), James Rainey of the Los Angeles Times, Sam Stein and Nico Pitney of the Huffington Post, Brian Stelter of the New York Times and Joe Garofoli of the San Francisco Chronicle.
The Daily Caller doesn’t bother to quantify in any way the alleged lapdogism of these reporters and outlets. Have they run with hundreds, scores or dozens of Media Matters tips? Or just a few newsworthy ones? A textual analysis backed by a Nexis dump could help prove the assertion, but the Daily Caller doesn’t bother to do the work, preferring to allow anonymous sources to call Smith, Sargent and others Media Matters dupes without testing the proposition.
Another installment in the series includes a breathless piece about an internal Media Matters memo to Brock and Media Matters President Eric Burns that called for the hiring of private investigators to probe the personal lives of Fox News Channel employees, the harassment of Fox News with “trackers” staking out the private and public spheres of Fox News employees and contributors, the deployment of “detailed opposition research” of Fox staff and executives, and attacks on them on Facebook. The Daily Caller confesses that its sources inside Media Matters “either don’t know or won’t say” how much of the memo was acted on beyond the fact that trackers went to events featuring Fox News employees, including Rupert Murdoch. Big deal!
More weak tea: One Daily Caller story claims that Ben Smith “curiously withheld key parts of the 89-page [planning] document” from the piece he published in Politico in March 2011 as “Media Matters’ war against Fox.” The implication here is that Smith’s failure to fully decant the document at the time or follow all of its leads makes him some sort of Media Matters lackey. That line of innuendo depends on believing that Media Matters is or was so important to the Ben Smith franchise that he would “curiously” withhold key parts of a document just to stay on the good side of Media Matters. Anything is possible in this universe, but I have a hard time imagining that Smith, whose cup overflows with material, would become beholden to Media Matters in a way that would cause him to spike newsworthy material. Smith declined to explain to the Daily Caller why he used some but not all of the memo material, but he need not be defensive: Usable material ends up on the journalistic cutting-room floor all the time for reasons of selection, the swing of the news cycle and happenstance. Case not proved.
The most laughable Daily Caller revelation comes in a piece titled “Inside Media Matters: David Brock’s enemies list,” which is based on an internal memo from the organization. The “enemies” include all of the usual Media Matters targets — Fox, Fox employees, conservative donors, conservative news sites, conservative think tanks and conservative politicians. A left-wing advocacy organization has chosen right-wing individuals and institutions as its enemies? So what?
The Daily Caller may still get the goods on Media Matters, although the journalistic tradition of leading a series with your strongest material argues against it. So far, the Daily Caller is attacking Media Matters with bad journalism and lame propaganda. As a great fan of the political hatchet job, all I can say is that David Brock’s organization deserves better.
Erik Wemple scored a funny riff on the Daily Caller’s claim that some Washington journalists roll over for Media Matters, confessing in a “formal statement of guilt” that he too has picked up stories based on the group’s work. Send your confessions to Shafer.Reuters@gmail.com and use my Twitter handle to feed me attacks on Fox News. Sign up for email notifications of new Shafer columns (and other occasional announcements). Subscribe to this RSS feed for new Shafer columns and subscribe to this hand-built RSS feed for corrections to my column.
PHOTO: David Brock, courtesy Media Matters