Commentary Magazine

Press Man: Foxed Out

Media Matters, the popular left-wing “media watchdog” funded in part by George Soros and overseen by a former conservative journalist named David Brock, has announced that it is launching an explicit campaign of “guerrilla warfare and sabotage” against the Fox News Channel. And when it did so, the saga of left-wing media criticism in the U.S. entered a new and perhaps fateful phase.

Earlier this year a website called Mediaite issued a death notice for Media Matters. Brock’s group had just issued a “report” about the immorality of Fox News, as it has done with Swiss-like efficiency and regularity since its founding in 2004. But the reaction this time was different, according to Mediaite.

“The [report received] barely any mention in mainstream news outlets,” wrote Mediaite’s columnist, “and ended up serving as a stark reminder of Media Matters’s growing irrelevance in the world of media criticism.”

It has not always been thus, as the columnist pointed out. Indeed, he wrote, “Media Matters has been the place for some impactful reports over the last few years.” (I would like to see a report explaining why everybody has suddenly insisted on using the word “impactful.”) But now Media Matters is “generating lower quality content than ever before.” This decline in product, he went on, accounts for why the mainstream press no longer pays attention when the MM watchdog emits its increasingly feeble arf-arfs.

There was some truth in Mediaite’s account—mostly in its appraisal of the quality of Media Matters’ work. The MM report that the mainstream media ignored consisted entirely of a heavily edited interview with someone identified only as a “Fox News insider” and a “former Fox News employee.” The source’s words had that pristine, freshly minted precision that too-perfect quotes usually do. Fox is “a propaganda outfit,” the insider supposedly told a MM columnist, “but they call themselves news. . . . I don’t think people would believe it’s as concocted as it is; that stuff is just made up.”

Asked about his days in the Fox newsroom, our insider grew introspective, meditative, remorseful: “My internal compass was to think like an intolerant meathead. You could never error [sic] on the side of not being intolerant enough.”

Intolerant, propaganda, concocted . . . it all sounded so familiar. And then it hit me: this was one former Fox News insider who’s been reading too many Media Matters reports on the immorality of Fox News.

There was less truth—in fact, none at all—in Mediaite’s prediction of MM’s fading relevance or credibility, as subsequent events showed. Several weeks after Mediaite pronounced it dead, Media Matters sat bolt upright in its coffin and issued yet another report on Fox, and this one the mainstream press found highly relevant and credible.

Under the headline “Cruise Ship Confession: Top Fox News Executive Admits Lying On-Air About Obama,” a Media Matters press release revealed that Bill Sammon, Fox’s managing editor in Washington, gave a talk (on a luxurious cruise ship!) “boasting that he lied repeatedly during the closing days of the 2008 presidential campaign” about whether Barack Obama was a socialist.

Nearly every assertion in this breathless lede was distorted or flatly untrue, as careful attention to the transcript of Sammon’s remarks made plain. Just for starters, Sammon didn’t boast that he lied repeatedly, and one would have to begin with an unalterable belief in Fox’s bottomless depravity to imagine that he had. Who boasts about lying repeatedly? On-air during the presidential campaign, Sammon had merely said—better, reported—that Obama’s famous pledge to “spread the wealth around” sounded like incipient socialism to many Republican ears.

Which was true, and worth noting; and which many of Sammon’s colleagues in the establishment press were reporting too. At the time, Sammon later said, he privately thought the charge of socialism was “far-fetched” (though Obama’s leftward lurches have since changed his opinion). Most of his mainstream colleagues thought the Republican fear of Obama’s socialism was far-fetched, too (though I suppose few of them have changed their opinion). In any case, MM was charging Sammon with doing what MM says Fox’s reporters never do: he was reporting readily observable fact and keeping his own opinions to himself. Media Matters will get you coming or going.

This MM report about Sammon was as flimsy and fevered as the earlier “Fox insider” interview that the mainstream media ignored, perhaps on the grounds of plausibility. Yet the mainstreamers found the charge of repeated, unabashed lying on the part of Bill Sammon perfectly credible. They covered the Media Matters press release like a bedspread. “Controversy now around a top political news executive at the Fox News Channel,” Michele Norris told her listeners on NPR’s All Things Considered. “Fox News Executive Under Fire for Comments on Obama and Socialism,” read the headline over a story by Brian Montopoli for CBS News.

Of course, when Norris spoke, there was no “controversy” to report, at least none beyond the confines of the NPR newsroom; and Montopoli could find no disinterested third party that had trained its fire on poor Bill Sammon. Both were engaging in a favorite technique of mainstreamers and Foxfolk alike—the prospective assertion, by which a news-gatherer reports on something that isn’t taking place but might take place soon if he says it is taking place right now. Instant controversy, instant fire. It’s an adage as old as Dan Rather: sometimes the saying makes it so.

Equally revealing was Norris’s, or her newswriter’s, feint toward fairness and full disclosure. “Audio of [Sammon’s] lecture,” she said on NPR, “was obtained by the liberal press advocacy group Media Matters for America, a frequent critic of Fox.” This attempt at prophylaxis was admirable, maybe, but inadequate. Calling MM a frequent critic of Fox is like calling the Luftwaffe an irritant to wartime London. The Sammon non-controversy came several weeks after the Washington newspaper Politico reported MM’s new campaign of sabotage against Fox. In an interview, founder Brock described the shift in his group’s public mission. “The strategy that we had toward Fox was basically a strategy of containment,” he said. Now MM would engage in “war on Fox.”

It’s almost Reaganite, this move beyond containment, and the tactics, as Brock detailed them to Politico, are comprehensive in the Reaganite manner, from subterfuge to massive buildup. New hires would act as private investigators, “trying to disrupt [Rupert Murdoch’s] commercial interests” not only in the U.S. but overseas, compiling dossiers on Fox executives and mid-level employees to uncover dissidents and quislings, and agitate among shareholders of Fox’s parent company in hopes of inspiring an internal revolt. Media Matters, in other words, is not only criticizing Fox, it is trying to put it out of business. Yet even after Brock’s announcement, mainstreamers were happy to pass along Media Matters material with little editing and no evident skepticism.

In its original mission statement, MM described itself as a “progressive research and information center dedicated to comprehensively monitoring, analyzing, and correcting conservative misinformation in the U.S. media.” Research and information: What could be more helpful to a hardworking media reporter sweating out a deadline? Media Matters was a valuable resource for the mainstream because it did the kinds of things that no self-respecting reporter, secure in his self-appraisal as an objective professional, would dare permit himself to do. MM staffers obsessed over Fox News so he didn’t have to. And they were happy to hand over their “research” and “information” when they found something yummy.

As long as MM was a media watchdog, even one given to “liberal advocacy,” a mainstreamer could be comfortable with the stuff it coughed up. Now that the watchdog has announced it wants to change into an attack dog, the question is whether the mainstreamers will even acknowledge the change itself.

About the Author

Andrew Ferguson, our press critic, wrote last month about Donald Rumsfeld. His new book, Crazy U: One Dad’s Crash Course on Getting His Kid into College, was published last month.

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