Brock has used his buck-raking ability to turn Media Matters into a political force. What began in 2004 as a ten-person shop with a $3 million annual budget now has around 90 employees and plans to spend $15 million this year. In a fancy office building on Massachusetts Avenue, the organization’s researchers work in six-hour monitoring shifts, from five in the morning till one at night, watching Fox or listening to talk radio in the hope that Rush or Sean or some other conservative yakker will step in it. They’re seldom disappointed. “I knew that as soon as you started shining a light on these people,” Brock says, “there was enough outrageous and despicable and offensive and false commentary that you could make a splash.”
Think of any conservative-media scandal of the past few years—from Don Imus’s “nappy-headed hos” comment to Dr. Laura’s N-word rant to Mike Huckabee’s slip that Obama had “grown up in Kenya”—and it’s a good bet that a Media Matters researcher flagged the offending clip, uploaded it to the group’s website, and got the party started. “They would essentially listen to Limbaugh and watch Beck for us,” says the former MSNBC anchor David Shuster. “There were times Beck would say something outrageous, we’d hear about it, and we’d be able to find the clip because Media Matters already had it. They were an invaluable resource.”
Part of Media Matters’ strength is its staff’s almost unfathomable endurance. “People who work here have to have a personality that enjoys getting angry watching Fox for six hours every day but then being patient enough to want to fact-check every second of it,” explains Ari Rabin-Havt, Media Matters’ executive vice-president. The group demands accuracy from those staffers. Last year, according to Rabin-Havt, Media Matters produced 20,000 pieces of content and issued only 24 corrections. “There’s the expectation that you can’t get something wrong,” he says. “There are consequences for mistakes. One person was fired for an error last year.”
“Do you think David Plouffe and David Axelrod are going to let David Brock build an empire?”
All of this has earned Brock the grudging respect of a group that once loathed him no matter what political team he happened to be playing for: journalists. When he founded Media Matters, Brock concedes, “there was clearly a lot of baggage that I had from the past. Could someone who had admitted fatal journalistic errors set himself up as an arbiter of media criticism? It sounds counterintuitive.” At the Republican and Democratic conventions in 2004, political reporters literally threw Media Matters press releases back at the person who was handing them out.
But over time, Brock and his group have come to be viewed as relatively responsible arbiters. “They beat the shit out of me in 2008, but it was fair, and I made sure not to make that mistake again,” says Shuster, who was suspended from MSNBC that year for accusing Hillary Clinton of “pimp[ing] out” Chelsea. “Some people like to describe David as a partisan, but I think of him as the consummate ombudsman.”
Of course, there’s only so much glory to be had in accurately transcribing Sean Hannity’s latest whopper. And so Brock, for his new crusade against Fox, plans to assemble a team of lawyers to assist former network employees, and others who have clashed with the network, with legal actions they might want to take against the news channel. He recently hired Ilyse Hogue, who, as MoveOn.org’s former director of political advocacy, has plenty of experience with pressure campaigns. “We want to drive up the cost of Fox for Rupert Murdoch and the News Corp. board of directors,” Hogue says one day in her office, which is dominated by a large white board containing her team’s latest brainstorms: persuading Alwaleed bin Talal, the Saudi prince who’s the second largest News Corp. shareholder, to divest from the company over Fox’s coverage of Muslims; reaching out to the cast of Glee to protest the news channel; etc.
Brock has also brought on two journalists who will make Fox their beat, developing sources and producing scoops—a move that’s led to a Media Matters web feature called FOXLEAKS, which publishes internal Fox documents designed to embarrass the network and, perhaps more important, exacerbate Roger Ailes’s already overdeveloped paranoia. “We’re sitting on a number of e-mails that we’ll put out when the time is right,” Rabin-Havt promises.
Last month, Media Matters scored what it considers to be its biggest victory to date against Fox when the news channel and Glenn Beck decided to end his show. Beck had become the face of the Media Matters anti-Fox campaign. Not only did the group keep a running tally of Beck’s most offensive statements, but it was also part of an effort to persuade more than 300 advertisers to boycott Beck’s show—which, Brock believes, is what ultimately convinced Fox that it could no longer afford to have Beck on its air. With Beck’s departure, Media Matters has lost a useful bogeyman, but the episode served to demonstrate that the pressure strategy is paying off. Indeed, Brock received the news of Beck’s departure just as he was about to walk into a meeting with potential donors at a hedge fund in midtown. “I told them right away,” he recalls. “I thought it was a pretty good opening story.”