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What Happens to Media Matters in a Post-Hillary World?

The media watchdog was Clinton's biggest defender this election season. Now it's seeking a new identity.

STEPHEN B THORNTON/The New York Times/Redux

On December 6, exactly four weeks after Hillary Clinton lost the presidential election, Media Matters for America, a nonprofit organization dedicated to combating conservative misinformation in media, announced it would be undergoing a makeover. In its twelve-year history, Media Matters’s main antagonist had been Fox News—a worthy, if unsurprising target for an organization devoted to conservative bias. But after surveying the media landscape in the aftermath of Clinton’s surprising defeat, Media Matters decided that it would focus on exposing falsehoods circulated online. “It used to be simple, Fox News was the gatekeeper ... but now there are so many potential bad actors,” Angelo Carusone, who was made president of Media Matters at the time of the announcement, told Politico. “Now there are places like Facebook who aren’t bad actors but can be enablers of misinformation.”

It would seem to be a logical next step for the media watchdog. In an interview, Carusone told the New Republic that Media Matters was already pivoting in this direction. But in a subtle way, the shift was actually a significant reinvention. The organization had long ceased to be a mere watchdog, having positioned itself at the center of a group of public relations and advocacy outfits whose mission was to help put Clinton in the White House. Seen in this light, the shift to focusing on the country’s much-discussed fake news problem, which allegedly facilitated Donald Trump’s victory, is a way of keeping in business after Media Matters and its founder David Brock had little to show for years of being Clinton’s first line of defense. In fact, this wasn’t even the first time Media Matters had declared it was going to stop focusing on Fox News.

The allegiance to the Clintons has always sat uncomfortably beside Media Matters’s ostensible goal of holding media accountable. Any journalist on Twitter knows that even mild criticisms of Clinton would almost instantaneously raise the hackles of some Media Matters staffer, giving the distinct impression that the whole project was about protecting Clinton from unflattering press rather than ensuring journalistic integrity. But Media Matters depended heavily on its association with the Clintons. Brock, a formerly conservative journalist who wrote a biography of Clinton that portrayed her as a hardcore leftist Lady Macbeth, has always been an object of suspicion among liberals, his conversion reeking of snake oil. His elevated stature in the world of Democratic politics comes not from any deep roots in liberalism, but the fact that the Clintons blessed his enterprise. That Media Matters both checks conservative media and protects the Clintons has been instrumental in Brock’s ability to raise money for his network of organizations, which also includes the website Shareblue (formerly Blue Nation Review) and the super PACs Correct the Record and American Bridge. (Brock did not respond to multiple requests for comment for this story.)

That tension, according to more than half a dozen former staffers of Media Matters, comes from Brock, despite the fact that he was rarely involved in day-to-day operations. (Most staffers agreed to talk about Media Matters and Brock only on condition of anonymity, due to the fact that they were required to sign a non-disclosure agreement.) Media Matters faces a series of questions going forward. What is its identity now that Hillary Clinton’s political career is effectively over? Will liberal donors buy into this new identity, fashioned by a group whose leaders have shown no real investment in liberalism as a governing project? And can it fulfill its core mission—which nearly every former staffer we spoke to believes is important—with Brock at the helm?

In our numerous conversations with past Media Matters staff, there was a consensus that in the lead-up to Clinton’s announcement of her candidacy in 2015, the organization’s priority shifted away from the mission stated on its website“comprehensively monitoring, analyzing, and correcting conservative misinformation”—and towards running defense for Clinton. The former staffers we spoke to largely felt that this damaged Media Matters’s credibility and hurt the work it did in other areas. “The closer we got to the 2016 election the less it became about actually debunking conservative misinformation and more it became about just defending Hillary Clinton from every blogger in their mother’s basement,” one former staffer told us. This was, moreover, a repeat of what Media Matters did in 2008, when there was a rift between staffers and management over the favoring of Clinton in her race against then-Senator Barack Obama.

The former staffers pointed to Media Matters’s attack on NPR’s Terry Gross as a clear example of editorial standards being ignored to protect Clinton from criticism. All the way back in June 2014, in an interview with Clinton that occurred months before her formal announcement of a presidential run, Gross brought up the fact Clinton opposed same-sex marriage as a senator, before supporting it in 2013 when she was secretary of state. Gross asked, “Would you say your view evolved since the ‘90s or that the American public evolved allowing you to state your real view?” Gross’s question seemed like an alley-oop—it’s hard to imagine a friendlier way of framing a change in position. But Clinton was caught off-guard. After Gross tried to clarify Clinton’s responses multiple times, the interview became tense, with Clinton finally snapping, “I don’t think you are trying to clarify. I think you are trying to say that I used to be opposed and now I am in favor and I did it for political reasons. And that’s just flat wrong.”

In response, Media Matters published a piece titled “How NPR’s Terry Gross Created A False Impression That Hillary Clinton Stonewalled On Marriage Equality.” The article pointed out that Clinton supported civil unions for same-sex couples as a senator and claimed that Gross was being unfair in repeating the same question, since Clinton “consistently and repeatedly answered Gross’s question.” She didn’t, as you can see for yourself.

“There was actually like a really big fight in our research room that day because nobody wanted to go after Terry Gross,” one former staffer told us. “She had a total right to ask Hillary Clinton about this. … Our researcher director ended up having to be the one to write it because no one else wanted their name on it.” Another said, “It was a situation where the researcher assigned to it was like, ‘I’m not writing this. I’m not going to attack Terry Gross for asking Hillary Clinton questions.’”

The former staffers said the reluctance of researchers to byline pieces was not unique to this instance. While it didn’t happen daily, it happened enough that “there was just a sense of ‘I really don’t want to be associated with this,’” one said. Media Matters in effect criticized Gross for doing her job—and nearly everyone we spoke to who worked there at the time felt that a similar article would not have been written about a different politician.

In March of 2015, The New York Times broke the news about Clinton’s use of a private email server during her tenure as secretary of state, which in retrospect turned out to be the most damaging story of the entire campaign. In response, Media Matters flooded its site with posts attempting to counter the narrative that was quickly forming—that Clinton had broken the rules and had something to hide. “It was all hands on deck,” one former staffer said. “Everyone was just supposed to be looking out for Clinton stuff all the time.” Left unaddressed was whether the story itself was guilty of conservative misinformation.

Employees were asked to stay late or work on the weekends specifically to cover Clinton, which many felt came at the expense of other stories and the organization’s mission. Nearly every former staffer we spoke to felt that researchers, in particular, were underpaid and overworked, and that these problems often surfaced when they were forced to work on stories they felt were dubious. As one former staffer described it, “They were paying me $35,000 a year to watch Fox all the time and to do rotating shifts where I’d have to change from a day shift to a night shift every two weeks. It was just a miserable job.”

When it came to the organization’s research standards, most former staffers we talked to agreed that they were lowered when it came to Clinton-related content. One former staffer told us that, compared to “the amount of evidence we would have to collect to go after another story,” Clinton pieces had a “much lower bar. It literally just had to involve Hillary Clinton and that was it.” Another said that they often weren’t allowed to publish Clinton-related pieces “until they had been read by someone in leadership.”

Then there was James Carville’s guest column for the site. In his inaugural post, the longtime Clinton ally stated his intention was to use the space to defend the Clintons: “That’s what happens when you have one standard for the Clintons, and a different one for everybody else, which is why I’ll be writing regularly in this space.” (Bradley Beychok, who was president of Media Matters from 2013 until early December, and who was thought responsible for enforcing the site’s pro-Clinton bent, is close to Carville.) Media Matters derives its credibility from its objectivity—its posts are dry, often consisting almost entirely of transcripts that aim to show how conservative media is misleading the public. Media Matters is also classified as a 501(c)(3) nonprofit group in the tax code, which means that it cannot explicitly advocate for a political candidate. The organization is careful not to step over that line, always framing pieces with a media angle—for example, New York Times’s Maureen Dowd Writes Yet Another Anti-Clinton Column.” But with Carville’s column, that veneer of objectivity was tossed aside. Media Matters also had one standard for the Clintons, and a different one for everybody else.

Carusone rejected the idea that Media Matters focused too much on Clinton, telling us, “It’s a perspective that people have and it’s convenient, but I don’t really think it’s backed up by the data.” He pointed to the broad array of issues that Media Matters covers—LGBT rights, the NRA, climate change, and right-wing extremism. “I’m really comfortable standing on the totality of the content,” he said. Carusone noted that Media Matters published 7,000 pieces in the last year—hundreds were about coverage of Clinton (who, in fairness, was a major party nominee for president), but many more were about other topics.

However, when asked if Media Matters had different editorial standards for Clinton, Carusone hedged. “There’s not a shift in editorial standards. The editing process is the editing process,” he said. “The strategies are different. ... I’m comfortable that the standards are the same and uniform but certainly the strategies are different. It has to be. The audiences are different.”

One former staffer, Carlos Maza, who worked at Media Matters from 2011 until last week, told us that, in his experience, “there was never a directive from on high to write about the Clinton campaign or be tied with it.” Maza also disagreed that research standards were lowered for Clinton—the opposite, in fact. He said, “I think because we had a fear that we were being seen as Clinton shills, there was an extra emphasis on every Clinton thing we were writing being super, super tight and making sure the evidence is really solid for it.”

Contra Maza, the other former staffers pointed out several stories that fell within Media Matters’s ambit that should have been better covered, including the rise of Breitbart, Roger Ailes’s sexual harassment scandal, and Facebook’s fake news problem. Another example of its tilt: On the site, there are 1,468 posts tagged with “Hillary Clinton” as opposed to just 26 tagged “Bernie Sanders.”

With the proliferation of conservative misinformation and the rise in popularity of far-right websites like Breitbart, there is a need for organizations like Media Matters now more than ever. However, having a partisan like Brock behind the curtain has only damaged the organization’s credibility. The former staffers we spoke to believe that the only way for Media Matters to fulfill its original mission is if Brock takes a step back. “Media Matters could be really good and there is good work that goes up on that website,” one former staffer told us. “But when you go so far off on a tangent about Terry Gross, then when you have a legitimate complaint, nobody listens to you because you wasted all your good will.”

Brock’s recent assertion that he wants to make his social media platform, Shareblue, a “Breitbart of the left” reveals a man who sees himself more as a propaganda minister than someone who takes journalism seriously. Asked if Media Matters should continue with Brock at the helm, one former staffer said, “Based on everything that I’ve seen from him since the election, I would say it can’t happen with him because there seems to be a lack of understanding of where the problem actually was. I guess he’s angry; he didn’t get his ambassadorship that he’s been working for 12 years now. I just don’t see how throwing money at him can be a viable strategy for anyone, in terms of advancing the Democratic Party.”

In a 2011 interview with Jason Zengerle in New York magazine, Brock said, “I’m still more pitched at fighting the right than I am about building a progressive platform for the future. It’s fair to say that that conversation doesn’t interest me as much.” But is it possible to combat the right without having something to proactively fight for, other than money and influence? As one former staffer noted, the path for Media Matters going forward is simple: “You need to put somebody in charge who actually does have a guiding progressive compass.” Throughout his career, as a conservative journalist and a Democratic-aligned impresario, Brock has been guided almost entirely by his disdain for his opponents. Twelve years after Media Matters was founded, that may not be enough.

Editor’s note: A previous version of this article inaccurately stated that Bradley Beychok, the former president of Media Matters, was James Carville’s godson. It also mistakenly said Brock’s website Shareblue was a nonprofit venture. We regret the errors.