The transformation of Media Matters
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.
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Press Man: Foxed Out
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Banality and evil.
A week ago, I wondered what was going on in Sunspot, New Mexico. The FBI had swept into this mountain-top solar observatory, complete with Black Hawk helicopters, evacuated everyone, and closed the place down with no explanation whatever. Local police were politely told to butt out. It was like the first scene in a 1950’s Hollywood sci-fi movie, probably starring Walter Pidgeon.
Well, now we know, at least according to the New York Post.
If you’re hoping for little green men saying, “Take me to your leader,” you’re in for a disappointment. It seems the observatory head had discovered a laptop with child pornography on it that belonged to the janitor. The janitor then made veiled threats and in came the Black Hawks.
In sum, an all-too-earthly explanation with a little law-enforcement overkill thrown in.
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The demands of the politicized life.
John Cheney-Lippold, an associate professor of American Culture at the University of Michigan, has been the subject of withering criticism of late, but I’m grateful to him. Yes, he shouldn’t have refused to write a recommendation for a student merely because the semester abroad program she was applying to was in Israel. But at least he exposed what the boycott movement is about, aspects of which I suspect some of its blither endorsers are unaware.
We are routinely told, as we were by the American Studies Association, that boycott actions against Israel are “limited to institutions and their official representatives.” But Cheney-Lippold reminds us that the boycott, even if read in this narrow way, obligates professors to refuse to assist their own students when those students seek to participate in study abroad programs in Israel. Dan Avnon, an Israeli academic, learned years ago that the same goes for Israel faculty members seeking to participate in exchange programs sponsored by Israeli universities. They, too, must be turned away regardless of their position on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.
When the American Studies Association boycott of Israel was announced, over two hundred college presidents or provosts properly and publicly rejected it. But even they might not have imagined that the boycott was more than a symbolic gesture. Thanks to Professor Cheney-Lippold, they now know that it involves actions that disserve their students. Yes, Cheney-Lippold now says he was mistaken when he wrote that “many university departments have pledged an academic boycott against Israel.” But he is hardly a lone wolf in hyper-politicized disciplines like American Studies, Asian-American Studies, and Women’s Studies, whose professional associations have taken stands in favor of boycotting Israel. Administrators looking at bids to expand such programs should take note of their admirably open opposition to the exchange of ideas.
Cheney-Lippold, like other boycott defenders, points to the supposed 2005 “call of Palestinian civil society” to justify his singling out of Israel. “I support,” he says in comments to the student newspaper, “communities who organize themselves and ask for international support to achieve equal rights, freedom and to prevent violations of international law.” Set aside the absurdity of this reasoning (“Why am I not boycotting China on behalf of Tibet? Because China has been much more effective in stifling civil society!”). Focus instead on what Cheney- Lippold could have found out by Googling. The first endorser of the call of “civil society” is the Council of National and Islamic Forces (NIF) in Palestine, which includes Hamas, the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine, and other groups that trade not only in violent resistance but in violence that directly targets noncombatants.
That’s remained par for the course for the boycott movement. In October 2015, in the midst of the series of stabbings deemed “the knife intifada,” the U.S. Campaign for the Academic and Cultural Boycott of Israel shared a call for an International Day with the “new generation of Palestinians” then “rising up against Israel’s brutal, decades-old system of occupation.” To be sure, they did not directly endorse attacks on civilians, but they did issue their statement of solidarity with “Palestinian popular resistance” one day after four attacks that left three Israelis–all civilians–dead.
The boycott movement, in other words, can sign on to a solidarity movement that includes the targeting of civilians for death, but cannot sign letters of recommendation for their own undergraduates if those undergraduates seek to learn in Israel. That tells us all we need to know about the boycott movement. It was nice of Cheney-Lippold to tell us.
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Convenience, wrote Columbia University law professor Tim Wu, is a tyrant. It makes our lives easier and more enjoyable, but everything comes with a price tag. We may not recognize that which we are sacrificing in the pursuit of convenience, but we are sacrificing nonetheless.
The instant gratification associated with on-demand society has made America’s shared cultural moments a thing of the past. The explosion of online shopping has eliminated the time consumers wasted traveling from store to store, but physical retail is dying as a result. The modern public square and the daily human interactions that it encouraged will disappear along with it. Machine learning has the power to introduce a “more compassionate social contract” and reduce physical risk associated with workplace hazards or lifestyle choices. But risk is just another word for freedom and, in the pursuit of convenience, we risk sacrificing our independence along with our hardships.
“We’re really reinventing the traditional insurance model with our vitality program,” said Marianne Harrison, the CEO of one of North America’s largest life insurers, John Hancock, in a recent appearance on CNBC. The beaming insurance executive boasted of her firm’s effort to marry a “technology-based wellness program” with an “insurance product.” That’s a loaded way of saying that this American insurer is soon going to charge based on the real-time monitoring of your daily activities. Behavior-based insurance will track the health data of policyholders through wearable devices or smartphones and distribute rewards based on individual choices. You don’t have to wear a tracking device to participate in this program—at least, not yet. Harrison assured skeptics that they could also dole out rewards to policyholders who take simple steps like reading preapproved literature, the consumption of which they presumably track.
This innovation is optional today, but the savings it yields for both consumer and insurer guarantee that it will soon become a standard feature of the insurance landscape. Your freedom to eat poorly, use tobacco products, drink alcohol, or perform any number of physical activities that include varying levels of risk are not limited. You’ll just have to pay for them. And if Democratic policymakers succeed in nationalizing the private health insurance industry under the auspices of Medicare-for-all or single-payer or whatever other euphemisms they apply to the public confiscation of private property, these “tools” will only become more pervasive.
A similar rationale—the primacy of collective health—can be applied to any number of activities that invite unnecessary risk that technology can mitigate. Foremost among these is the terribly dangerous American habit of driving a car.
In 2017, there were over 40,000 automobile-related fatalities. This was the second consecutive year in which the roads were that deadly and, if observers who attribute this rate of fatal traffic accidents to an increase in smartphone ownership are correct, there will not be a decline anytime soon. A 2015 study purported to show that replacing manual vehicles with autonomous cars or vehicles with advanced driver-assistance systems could eliminate up to 90 percent of all fatal accidents and save as many as 300,000 American lives each decade. It is perhaps only a matter of time before the option to own a driverless vehicle becomes a mandate with a hefty financial penalty imposed on those who opt out.
“[T]he threat to individual freedom that the driverless car is set to pose is at this stage hard to comprehend,” wrote National Review’s Charles C.W. Cooke. Presently, the car transports its diver to wherever they’d like to go, whether there are roads to facilitate the journey or not. In a driverless world, as Cooke noted, the driver becomes a mere occupant. They must essentially ask the car for permission to transit from point A to point B, and the whole process is monitored and logged by some unseen authorities. Furthermore, that transit could ostensibly be subject to the veto of state or federal authorities with the push of a button. That seems a steep price to pay for a little convenience and the promise of safety.
The pursuit of convenience, as Professor Wu explained, has resulted in remarkable social leveling. We enjoy more time today for “self-cultivation,” once only the province of the wealthy and aristocratic, than at any point in history. And yet, we cannot know true liberty without hardship. “The constellation of inconvenient choices may be all that stands between us and a life of total, efficient conformity,” Wu concluded.
There is more to celebrate in the technological revolutions of the last quarter-century than there is to lament. But in the pursuit of convenience, we’ve begun to make spontaneity irrational. In life, the rewards associated with experience are commensurate with that which is ventured. In a future in which the world’s sharp edges are bubble-wrapped, your life may exceed today’s average statistical length. But can you really call it living?