Media Matters vs. Citizen Journalists: Who Will Win in the End?
"Where were you when George Bush was President?" You know that question well. It's been asked of each of us more times than any of us would care to count. Do you know how I usually answer it?
I was home, enjoying my life. I went to work every day and focused on doing the best job that I could do. When I wasn't working, I hung out with family and friends. I went to baseball games, and barbecues, and obscure little hole-in-the-wall joints to hear some of my favorite live music over a couple of Guinnesses. Yum.
Why? Because while George Bush was president, we had a media establishment that was challenging our government, not our citizens.
I wasn't necessarily happy with the direction of the country in those days. But I could sleep at night, knowing that we had media that pressed George Bush and our Congress on every single issue. I could know at any given moment what the "death count" was in Iraq because just about every channel splashed a persistent counter in the bottom corner of the television screen. When bills like the Patriot Act were first introduced in Congress, I never lacked for any detail on the dangers of the legislation. There was barely a single detail that went uncovered in the daily political grind. When there was a scandal to research and report, I certainly never had to do that myself. There were reporters who did all that.
Yep, I'm actually missing the Bush days now. I had so much more free time. Don’t get me wrong, I've always done my homework and researched issues on my own anyway. I recognize that all media is biased to some degree (and has been for quite some time). But I could always count on the media to challenge the government in the days of George Bush. I wrote my fair share of letters, I called and complained about the spending, even attended a few protests, but I can't say that I ever felt there just wasn't anyone challenging the president in the mainstream media. Quite the contrary, there was never any lack of DC pushback from the collective press in those days.
But we live in extraordinary times today. There now exists this giant, open cavity where that healthy pushback against government used to be. And when the mainstream media stepped away from that opening in 2008, two things happened:
- The laws of nature pulled everyday American citizens in to provide that cover, and
- The political machine took notice - and it assembled its sledgehammers
Perhaps one of the more important changes to have taken place this decade has been not only that of new media, but a shifting political infrastructure, thanks to a little PowerPoint presentation from 2003 that provided in part a blueprint for our friends over at Media Matters.
"The Conservative Message Machine Money Matrix": Precursor to Media Matters
The "conservatives" of today are probably a more varied label than that of the earlier 1950's and 1970's. I think it's a label that's a misunderstood one. Many of today's conservatives are not far right – they are fiscal and constitutional conservatives., and some would even be considered more socially liberal. (I think I fall into that category). But it is that old school conservative label – that manufactured image of the "oppressive radical far right-wingers" – that leftists love to hate. And it's that label that became the intense focus of a major Left wing initiative in 2003.
The roots of a network of organizations that belonged to that initiative was aptly recounted by author Byron York at a Hudson Institute Event on November 30th, 2006 to discuss his upcoming book, "How Vast the Left Wing Conspiracy?",
"…the thing for me started in 2003; I wrote a number of articles for National Review – and I didn’t write them as a connected series or anything, but I wrote articles on MoveOn.org, George Soros, America Coming Together, the Center for American Progress – the liberal think tank founded by the former Clinton White House chief of staff John Podesta, David Brock’s Media Matters for America – the media watchdog group, and also Air America Radio, and at some point it dawned on me that all of these were not happening separately. They were actually interrelated. And that was actually the genesis of the book, and most of those became chapters in the book, along with a few other topics like Michael Moore and the rise of guerilla documentaries.
The thing that was important to me about these groups was that they were working together. There were very consciously trying to coordinate their efforts along a variety of fronts. Shortly before the election – this is 2004 – I went to an event at the Center for American Progress and Al Franken called in to the event from the Air America studios and said, “I feel like I’m part of a team. We’re building an infrastructure incredibly quickly.” And that’s true – that’s what they were doing."
At the time, York hadn't immediately realized what he'd stumbled onto. But he knew there were too many similar activities occurring for it NOT to be coordinated.
And in fact it was coordinated - by Rob Stein, once senior strategic advisor to Democratic National Committee chairman Ron Brown, and U.S. Commerce Department chief of staff for President Bill Clinton.
In 2002, when Democrats lost the election and Republicans had gained control of Congress, Rob Stein made it his mission to find out what happened, after progressive donors and advocacy groups had poured unprecedented amounts of money into that election.
Stein set out to research and document what he believed to be the reason - an intricate network of organizations funded by a small handful of wealthy conservatives who, in his view, controlled the media in America and drove the political agenda. He invested nearly a year's worth of his time and effort, documenting over 80 organizations and studying their funders and their relationships with one another, eventually condensing his analysis into about 40 PowerPoint slides, a presentation that is now infamously titled "The Conservative Message Machine Media Matrix."
After consulting with a few Democratic operatives and wealthy investors, Stein decided to take his show on the road and bring it directly to the people who needed to see and hear it most. He targeted the rich progressive elites, appealing to their philanthropic consciences to convince them of the need to build a permanent infrastructure that would embed progressivism into the fabric of the American political system over the long-term, rather than simply offer short term campaign donations. His vision – to tear down the conservative infrastructure and replace it with a progressive one. A primary component would be a new media foundation and watchdog to force out the conservative message.
Stein teamed up with George Soros and several other financial elites to assemble a group of seventy millionaires and billionaires together for a highly confidential presentation of his material and a discussion on developing a long-term plan. By the end of the presentation, donors were already pledging their donations to a new organization that would build the necessary infrastructure to counter the "conservative message machine."
This began the first phase and the birth of the Democracy Alliance (DA), which would function as a collaborative network of elite donors to plan and provide funding to carefully selected organizations that would be supported or created to serve a specific purpose within the new progressive infrastructure.
The planners agreed that Labor Unions would be a key anchor in the infrastructure and function as the foundation for advocacy organizing. Subsequently, Change to Win President and SEIU Secretary Treasurer Anna Burger was elected as Vice-Chair of the Board of DA, and Stein its temporary Chair. Eventually, Taco Bell heir Rob McKay would become Chair. The group also stressed the importance of keeping the alliance separate from the traditional Democratic Party operations, allowing it to stand as an individual progressive unit to influence change.
Another anchor of this new infrastructure would be the issue advocacy organizations, like ACORN, which would serve as the network's mobilizing units.
And lastly of course in the progressive infrastructure would be a new media network for progressives - a media watchdog group to neutralize the conservative messaging platform, and serve as a hub for pushing information to and from the various other groups. Enter Media Matters, and some of its (extremely partisan) tentacles.
In a 2005 piece that was later written by Don Hazen, Rob Stein provides his analysis of the conservative infrastructure that the progressives would need to counter:
"Starting with just a handful of groups, including the Heritage Foundation, in the early '70s, the conservatives built a new generation of organizations – think tanks, media monitors, legal groups, networking organizations, all driven by the same over-arching values of free enterprise, individual freedoms and limited government.
Stein describes how the message machine works. If Rush Limbaugh wants something on vouchers – it's immediately in his hands; if Fox News' Bill O'Reilly needs a guest to talk about the "death tax," he's got him from one of the think tanks. Stein estimates that 36,000 conservatives have been trained on values, issues, leadership, use of media and agenda development. These are not the elected officials, but rather the cadre of the conservative network. Stein figures that the core leaders of the Big 80 groups he studied are about 2,000 people who make between $75,000 and $200,000 and have all been trained in the Leadership Institute."
Fair enough. I don't think that many would try to dispute that a body of sources exists for a variety of policy areas, much in the same way that any outlet would reach out to a university or corporation for such sources. And quite honestly, elected officials rarely provide any actual content of value and instead often spend their 3 minutes of air-time filibustering the questions; I think you’d find many who'd prefer to hear what a think-tank fellow has to say anyway.
After Rob Stein's presentation was made and the Democracy Alliance first loosely established in late 2003, Media Matters was one of the first groups to be funded, its purpose and priority in the new progressive infrastructure firmly established. While the Media Matters website was registered on October 27, 2003, the organization is publicized as being founded the following April and launched in May, 2004.
Not surprisingly, before he became a leftist, Media Matters' founder David Brock, the former conservative attack-journalist known for smearing Anita Hill and the Clintons in his previous books, penned another book titled "The Republican Noise Machine"; it may as well have been named the same thing as Stein's PowerPoint presentation. That book launched in May 2004, the same time as the Media Matters website.
It was only two years prior that Brock had released his "confessional" tell-all work, which was received by some outlets with a little less enthusiasm than his new teammates.
(Ironically, another of Brock's previous books on Anita Hill was underwritten by the John M. Olin Foundation. According to Media Matters' own Conservative Transparency website, that organization "gives large sums of money to promote conservative programs in the country's most prestigious colleges and universities." [now closed])
Hmmm. I wonder if Brock gave the money back when he switched teams? But I digress...
In the end, Rob Stein firmly believed that by having this new infrastructure in place, it would become the progressives' path to moving America to the left, away from its conservative roots.
"Conservatives have built remarkably successful institutions and strategic alliances in the 20th century that presumably are consistent with their values and, we know, are effective in promoting their beliefs.
"Progressives have different values, this is the 21st century, the conservative infrastructure is in place and will continue to grow, and so we have to do it all differently," Stein adds. "We must build from both the ground up and from the top down. We must be technologically sophisticated and new media, narrowcast-savvy. We must build institutions capable of great flexibility to deal with the rapid pace of change in the world. We need a new generation of leaders able to integrate the local/global complexity of the world to manage our institutions in 2010, 2020 and beyond."
Complete story of Rob Stein's "Conservative Message Machine Money Matrix" here.
We've entered a period in media history that I believe is unprecedented. It's a time when citizen journalists have stepped up to a duty that the traditional media abandoned for its own special interests. The result has been nothing short of amazing, as we've seen bloggers uncovering corruption and scandal, regular citizens pouring through documents and research to bring answers to the forefront and force investigations, and everyday Americans armed with their weapons of new media capturing truth on video. Citizens are pushing the issues when the hired journalists fail to step up.
Meanwhile, some of today's journalists are handicapped by their special interests. Their funders. Their political operatives. Their progressive infrastructure. Outfits like Media Matters will proclaim to be "correcting conservative misinformation", when in reality they're completely ignoring information. One can only assume they take their orders from someone, but which is it – their funders? the DNC? the White House? When a real story that truly warrants investigation begins to emerge, they seem to focus only on what they're told to look at, not on what needs to be looked at. Or worse, perhaps special interests intervene and direct the story otherwise, intentionally away from the very facts that connect it.
Like soil, that crucial information remains buried under a layer of old growth unless its tilled.
The reality is, today's everyday citizens are often better at digging up the dirt until the surface is well-tilled, raw and ripe for new growth. (Perhaps that's the Founding Fathers' farmer instinct in all of us?)
And there is a LOT of digging yet to be done.