Mediating the Message
David Brock is the author of four political books, including the forthcoming The Republican Noise Machine: Right-Wing Media and How It Corrupts Democracy (to be released this month by Crown). His preceding book, Blinded by the Right: The Conscience of an Ex-Conservative, was a 2002 New York Times best-selling political memoir in which he chronicled his years as a conservative media insider. This week, Brock launched Media Matters for America, a Web site that monitors and corrects conservative misinformation in the U.S. media.
Zachary Roth: Tell us about the thinking that led you to set up Media Matters. How did the project come about?
David Brock: Living and working inside the conservative media machine for nearly ten years, I saw firsthand false and misleading information being churned out daily and corrupting media discourse. In the process of writing my new book, Republican Noise Machine: Right-Wing Media and How It Corrupts Democracy, I realized that the right wing had spent tens of millions of dollars, going all the way back to 1969 with the founding of Accuracy In Media, on organizations that monitor the media, and that this was a huge part of their success: They succeeded in pushing the media, and public perception of the media, to the right.
As I looked into the Right's successful 30-year effort to influence the media, I realized it would take more than a book to address the problem of conservative misinformation in the media. That's what prompted me to found Media Matters for America. We have put in place, for the first time, the means to systematically monitor the media for conservative misinformation -- every day, in real time -- in 2004 and beyond.
How do you plan to measure success for the project? In other words, what's the ultimate goal, and how will you know you've achieved it?
Our goal is to educate both producers and consumers of news about the false and misleading information being generated by conservatives and dominating media of current affairs. At the very least, we would like responsible news outlets to stop repeating and relying on conservative misinformation. We believe steadily and consistently discrediting the reliability of purveyors of conservative misinformation will alter the media landscape.
As you no doubt know, since the 2000 election, a lot of "media monitoring" projects have sprung up, mostly on the Internet. How will Media Matters be different?
Media Matters for America is part of a larger group of progressive organizations with a shared mission -- leveling the playing field and going toe-to-toe with the right in all areas of debate.
I've been very impressed with a lot of the work various people have done on this general topic. I hate to name names, because for everyone I mention, there are probably three others who deserve the recognition as well, but certainly, Bob Somerby, CJR [Campaign Desk], Atrios and Scoobie Davis have all done a great job of pointing out some of the media's failings.
We will add to the reach and depth of these Internet resources by consistently and thoroughly monitoring and correcting conservative misinformation in the media. Unlike CJR, we're focusing specifically on conservative misinformation. And unlike Atrios and Scoobie Davis and many others, we're dedicated exclusively to monitoring and correcting conservative misinformation in the media -- it isn't our mission to respond to or rebut President Bush or Karl Rove or the Republican National Committee: We're focused on the media and pundit class. And our work is rooted in fact, not bias and commentary.
So, we believe our work will fortify the work of Somerby, CJR [Campaign Desk], Atrios and others. We believe the more voices speaking out against the deluge of conservative misinformation in the American media, the better, and so we hope to become a clearinghouse of sorts for some of the best work on this topic.
Some of your critics on the right (for instance Tim Graham, writing on the National Review Website) have questioned your credibility for this project. Graham argues that since you've admitted to acting with little regard for the truth during your years as a cog in the conservative media/political operation, you're not the best person to be identifying media bias. How do you respond to that? In addition, do you think the fact that your site monitors only conservative media bias makes it easier for critics to dismiss as partisan?
First, a clarification: Our goal is not to identify media "bias." Our goal is to identify and correct conservative misinformation: that is, information that furthers a conservative viewpoint and that is inaccurate, misleading, a distortion, or outrageous. We don't care whether this misinformation comes from Rush Limbaugh or Dan Rather: When we see it, we're going to correct it. Unlike our counterparts on the right, we don't plan on engaging in mind-reading to try to determine the media's intent or ideology: We're more concerned with results than motives.
For example, in 2000, many in the media inaccurately reported that Al Gore claimed to have invented the Internet. You don't have to claim that the media outlets that reported this "fact" have a conservative bias in order to say that it helped advance a conservative viewpoint, and that it was misinformation.
So we're not as concerned with bias as we are with a lot of other things, and we don't plan to monitor "only conservative media" -- that isn't our intention at all.
As for my personal qualifications, nobody knows better than I how conservative misinformation spreads through the media. The difference between many of my conservative critics and me is that I've renounced my behavior, and am now combating the misinformation many of them still spread.
What kind of response, if any, have you had from Limbaugh, O'Reilly, etc. since you started up? Do you get a lot of hate mail?
Rush Limbaugh doesn't seem to like us, which is no real surprise: One of the first items on our web page catalogued 77 of his most outrageous comments in recent weeks, including his claim that many women "actually wish" sexual harassment "would happen to them."
Overall, though, we've gotten very positive feedback: from the public in general; from the online community; even from some conservative media figures. Ramesh Ponnuru at the National Review has had some very critical comments, but he's also said "the scrutiny may help us do a better job -- so I'm actually looking forward to reading what his group puts out."
I think the fact that we aren't -- despite what some of our critics say -- particularly interested in "bias," but are focusing instead on misinformation helps make reactions like Ponnuru's possible: Reporters, commentators, pundits and columnists know that we aren't here to impugn their motives, but to correct misinformation in the media -- and many of them know that they are as much a victim of that misinformation as their readers are.
Zachary Roth is a reporter with Campaigndesk.org.