Screenshot from Media Matters for America (April 14, 2009)
Media Matters for America (MMfA) is a politically progressive media watchdog group that says it is "dedicated to comprehensively monitoring, analyzing, and correcting conservative misinformation in the U.S. media". Set up as a tax-exempt, nonprofit organization, MMfA was founded in 2004 by journalist and author David Brock. Eric E. Burns served as MMfA's president until 2011.
Media Matters for America defines "conservative misinformation" as "news or commentary presented in the media that is not accurate, reliable, or credible and that forwards the conservative agenda".
Media Matters analyzes the dominant American news sources including NBC, ABC, CBS, PBS, CNN, MSNBC, CNBC, and Fox News Channel. Its techniques include content analysis, fact checking, monitoring, and comparison of quotes or presentations from media figures to primary documents such as Pentagon or Government Accountability Office reports.
On February 14, 2006, the organization released a study of the guest appearances on ABC's This Week, CBS' Face the Nation, and NBC's Meet the Press from 1997 through 2005. This study examined over 7,000 guests as either Democrat, Republican, conservative, progressive, or neutral. Media Matters stated: "The conclusion is clear: Republicans and conservatives have been offered more opportunities to appear on the Sunday shows—in some cases, dramatically so." The American Spectator criticized the study's characterization of commentators such as Dan Rather as "neutral".
A second analysis was released April 4, 2006 examining Sunday news programs from January through March 2006. Media Matters reported: "Republican and conservative dominance continued unabated, as those from the right outnumbered Democrats and their progressive compatriots." Besides the political stance of the guests, "the Sunday shows feature panel discussions comprising conservative journalists and opinion writers 'balanced' by reporters for mainstream news outlets—with no progressive journalist."
The third study was released July 20, 2006 concluding "Republicans and conservatives dominated on all three Sunday shows." Media Matters stated, "Republicans and conservatives outnumbered Democrats and progressives in total guest appearances," more particularly Face the Nation "featured nearly twice as many Republicans and conservatives as Democrats and progressives during the second quarter".
On September 12, 2007, Media Matters released its study of 1,377 U.S. newspapers and the 201 syndicated political columnists the papers carry on a regular basis. Media Matters said "in paper after paper, state after state, and region after region, conservative syndicated columnists get more space than their progressive counterparts."
John Diaz, editorial page editor of the San Francisco Chronicle, said by over-factoring conservative columns in smaller newspapers, Media Matters' study had overestimated how many conservative columns appeared in daily newspapers. Diaz also said Media Matters had obscured the nuanced ideological positions of some columnists classified in the study as conservative.
An annual feature on the Media Matters website is the title of "Misinformer of the Year", which is awarded to the journalist, commentator, and/or network that, in the opinion of Media Matters, was responsible for the most numerous and/or grievous factual errors and claims made. They have been awarded almost every year since Media Matters started in 2004.
The recipients of this award have included:
MMfA started with the help of $2 million in donations from liberal philanthropists connected to the Democratic Party. According to Byron York, additional funding came from MoveOn.org and the New Democrat Network.
In 2004 MMfA received the endorsement of the Democracy Alliance, a partnership of wealthy and politically active donors. The Alliance itself does not fund any of its endorsees, but many wealthy Alliance members acted on the endorsement and donated directly to MMfA. Media Matters as a matter of course has a policy of not comprehensively listing donors. Six years after the Alliance endorsed MMfA, financier George Soros—a founding and continuing member of the Alliance—announced in 2010 that he was donating $1 million to MMfA. Soros said: "Despite repeated assertions to the contrary by various Fox News commentators, I have not to date been a funder of Media Matters." Soros said concern over "recent evidence suggesting that the incendiary rhetoric of Fox News hosts may incite violence" had moved him to donate to MMfA, which thanked Soros for announcing his donation "quickly and transparently".
Former chief of staff to president Bill Clinton John Podesta provided office space for Media Matters early in its formation at the Center for American Progress, a Democratic think tank that he had created in 2002. Hillary Clinton advised Media Matters in its early stages out of a belief that progressives should follow conservatives in forming think tanks and advocacy groups to support their political goals.
Media Matters hired numerous political professionals who had worked for Democratic politicians and for other progressive groups. In 2004 article on Media Matters the National Review referred to MMfA staffers who had recently worked on the presidential campaigns of John Edwards and Wesley Clark, for Congressman Barney Frank, and for the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee.
David Brock established Media Matters Action Network to track conservative politicians and organizations. Organized as a 501(c)(4) nonprofit group, the organization can lobby and engage in political campaign work. The New York Times reports that it is "set to take on an expanded role in the 2012 elections, including potentially running television ads".
Media Matters Radio, an hour-long radio show, is aired on Sirius XM Left and hosted by Ari Rabin-Havt and Bradley Herring.
In 2009 Media Matters Action Network launched the Conservative Transparency website, aimed at tracking the funding of conservative activist organizations. Media Matters Action Network established the Political Correction project with the goal of holding conservative politicians and advocacy groups accountable.
In December 2010 Media Matters Action Network started EqualityMatters.org, a site "in support of gay equality". At launch the site fully incorporated Media Matters's content on LGBT issues. Designed to provide talking points for liberal activists and politicians, David Brock set up the Message Matters project. Media Matters runs the website DropFox.com and works to get advertisers to boycott the Fox News Channel. One target, Orbitz, initially referred to Media Matters' efforts as a "smear campaign", then on June 9, 2011 agreed to "review the policies and process used to evaluate where advertising is placed".
In 2008 Jacques Steinberg of The New York Times reported on how Media Matters is viewed. David Folkenflik of National Public Radio told him that though Media Matters looked "at every dangling participle, every dependent clause, every semicolon, every quotation" for the benefit of "a cause, a party, a candidate, that they may have some feelings for", they were still a useful source for leads, partly due to the "breadth of their research". Conversely, political analyst and columnist Stuart Rothenberg told Steinberg that he did not pay attention to them, as he had no confidence in "ideological stuff". In Steinberg's view, Media Matters was a new weapon for the Democratic party employing "rapid-fire, technologically sophisticated means to call out what it considers 'conservative misinformation' on air or in print, then feed it to a Rolodex of reporters, cable channels and bloggers hungry for grist". According to an Economist blog posting, "because it is dedicated to critiquing distortions by conservatives, its critiques carry no weight with conservatives."
Some news organizations have cited Media Matters reports and credited it for bringing attention to issues including the story of James Guckert, formerly a reporter for the web-based Talon News. During George W. Bush's administration, Guckert gained White House press access using the pseudonym Jeff Gannon and attended 155 White House press briefings. It was revealed that he had also worked as a prostitute soliciting male clientele on the internet with photos of himself fully naked. Liberal op-ed writers such as Molly Ivins and Paul Krugman have cited Media Matters or identified it as a helpful source.
On April 4, 2007, Media Matters posted a video clip of Don Imus calling the Rutgers University women's basketball team members "nappy-headed hoes" and made their discovery known in Media Matters' daily e-mailing to hundreds of journalists. The next day, according to The Wall Street Journal, "top news outlets didn't mention the incident." But objections made to CBS Radio by the National Association of Black Journalists led to an on-the-air apology from Imus. Nonetheless, MSNBC, while calling Imus's comments "racist" and "abhorrent", suspended Imus' TV show, and within minutes CBS suspended Imus's radio show. The Wall Street Journal said Imus's apology "seemed to make matters worse, with critics latching on to Mr. Imus's use of the phrase 'you people.'" Included among those dissatisfied with Imus's apology and suspension were the coach of the Rutgers team and a group of MSNBC African-American employees. After Procter & Gamble pulled advertising from all of MSNBC's daytime schedule, and other advertisers, including General Motors and American Express requested CBS to cancel any upcoming advertising they had bought for "Imus in the Morning", MSNBC and CBS dropped Imus's show.
Media Matters' reported radio talk show host Rush Limbaugh in 2007 saying that Iraq war veterans opposed to the war as "the phony soldiers". Limbaugh later said that he was speaking of only one soldier, Jesse MacBeth, who had falsely claimed to have been decorated for valor but, in fact, never saw combat. Limbaugh also said he was the victim of a "smear" by Media Matters, which had taken out of context and selectively edited his comments. After Limbaugh published what he said was the entire transcript of phony soldiers discussion, Media Matters noted that over a minute and 30 seconds was omitted without "notation or ellipsis to indicate that there is, in fact, a break in the transcript". Limbaugh told the National Review that the gap between referring to "phony soldiers" and MacBeth was a delay due to his staff printing out an ABC news story that reported on what it also called "phony soldiers", and that his transcript and audio edits were "for space and relevance reasons, not to hide anything".
The Associated Press, CNN and ABC reported on the controversy, as political satirist and fictional pundit Stephen Colbert lampooned Limbaugh and his defenders saying: "Hey, Media Matters, you want to end offensive speech? Then stop recording it for people who would be offended."
In October 2007 television and radio host and commentator Bill O'Reilly said a Media Matters' headline declaring O'Reilly surprised "there was no difference" between Harlem restaurant and other New York restaurants took out of context comments he made regarding a pleasant dinner he shared with the Rev. Al Sharpton at a Harlem restaurant. O'Reilly said Media Matters misleadingly took comments spoken five minutes apart and presented them as one. In an appearance on NBC's Today with Matt Lauer, Media Matters senior fellow Paul Waldman responded that they had included "the full audio, the full transcript, nothing was taken out of context".
On August 12, 2010, Media Matters reported that radio host Laura Schlessinger said "nigger" eleven times during a discussion with an African-American woman, continuing to say it after the caller took offense at the word. Schlessinger told the woman she was too sensitive, and that a double standard determined who could say the word. Schlessinger also said that those "hypersensitive" about color should not "marry outside of their race". The caller had earlier in the discussion said her husband was white. Schlessinger apologized for the epithet the day after the broadcast. A joint statement of Media Matters and other organizations noted that though Schlessinger "attempted to apologize for using the epithet, the racist diatribe on Tuesday's show extends far beyond the use of a single word" and urged advertisers to boycott Schlessinger's show. After General Motors, OnStar, and Motel 6 pulled their advertising, Schlessinger said she would not renew her syndication contract set to expire December 2010. In January 2011 her show resumed on satellite radio.
Schlessinger held Media Matters responsible for the boycott, which she called a typical tactic of the group to fulfill its "sole purpose of silencing people". She also said the boycotts' "threat of attack on my advertisers and stations" had violated her First Amendment free speech rights. Media Matters said that since the boycott was not "government-sanctioned censorship", her First Amendment rights were untouched.
In 2010 MMfA declared a "War on Fox". Brock said MMfA would focus its efforts on Fox and select conservative websites in what Brock called an "all-out campaign of 'guerrilla warfare and sabotage'" against Fox News. MMfA said the greater attention given to Fox was part of a campaign to educate the public about distortions of conservative media, and the greater attention given to Fox was in line with its prominence. MMfA said its Drop Fox campaign for advertisers to boycott Fox was also part of its educational mission. MMfA also said that changing Fox's behavior, not shutting it down, was its goal.
In December of 2013, the War on Fox was officially considered to be over, with Media Matters for America Executive Vice President Angelo Carusone saying, "The War on Fox is over. And it's not just that it's over, but it was very successful. To a large extent, we won."
Saying that MMfA's War on Fox—as well as its partisan activities—was not primarily educational as MMfA had insisted, but was instead "unlawful conduct", former White House counsel for George H. W. Bush and Fox consultant C. Boyden Gray sent a letter to the IRS asking that MMfA's tax-exempt status be revoked.
Prior to Gray's IRS petition Politico reported that Fox News had run "more than 30 segments calling for the nonprofit group to be stripped of its tax-exempt status". In another report Politico said Fox News and Fox Business campaigns held, "The non-profit status as an educator is violated by partisan attacks. That sentiment was first laid out by a piece written by Gray for The Washington Times in June." In an interview with Fox News Gray seemed to change his view of MMfA's conduct; he said "It's not unlawful. It's just not charitable."
MMfA vice-president Ari Rabin-Havt said "C. Boyden Gray is Koch-affiliated, former Fox News contributor whose flights of fancy have already been discredited by actual experts in tax law." Gray denied having been on Fox's payroll while he was a Fox consultant in 2005, though at that time Fox had said Gray was a contributor, adding: "We pay contributors for strong opinions."
Marcus Owens, former director of the IRS's Exempt Organizations Division, told Politico that the law is on Media Matters's side. Owens told Fox Business that only an IRS probe could reveal if partisan activity takes up a substantial enough part of MMfA's operations to disallow its tax-free status; the IRS does allow limited political activity at nonprofits, so long as it does not take up a substantial amount of their operations.
With regard to the War on Fox, Politico reported:
Owens emphasized that there is nothing in the IRS rules that prohibits tax-exempt educational nonprofits from attacking specific companies or from zeroing in on one company—as long as there is no private benefit to that company's competitor—so Media Matters' increasing focus on Fox News over the past few years does not trigger a violation.