Tuesday, December 20, 2016

Fake News and Media Matters: Wandering In Their Own Wasteland

Was Media Matters actual "liberal"? Or merely sucking at Hillary's fat financial teat?
What Happens to Media Matters in a Post-Hillary World?
The media watchdog was Clinton's biggest defender this election season. Now it's seeking a new identity.


In our numerous conversations with past Media Matters staff, there was a consensus that in the lead-up to Clinton’s announcement of her candidacy in 2015, the organization’s priority shifted away from the mission stated on its website—“comprehensively monitoring, analyzing, and correcting conservative misinformation”—and towards running defense for Clinton. The former staffers we spoke to largely felt that this damaged Media Matters’s credibility and hurt the work it did in other areas. “The closer we got to the 2016 election the less it became about actually debunking conservative misinformation and more it became about just defending Hillary Clinton from every blogger in their mother’s basement,” one former staffer told us. This was, moreover, a repeat of what Media Matters did in 2008, when there was a rift between staffers and management over the favoring of Clinton in her race against then-Senator Barack Obama.
“There was actually like a really big fight in our research room that day because nobody wanted to go after Terry Gross.”

The former staffers pointed to Media Matters’s attack on NPR’s Terry Gross as a clear example of editorial standards being ignored to protect Clinton from criticism. All the way back in June 2014, in an interview with Clinton that occurred months before her formal announcement of a presidential run, Gross brought up the fact Clinton opposed same-sex marriage as a senator, before supporting it in 2013 when she was secretary of state. Gross asked, “Would you say your view evolved since the ‘90s or that the American public evolved allowing you to state your real view?” Gross’s question seemed like an alley-oop—it’s hard to imagine a friendlier way of framing a change in position. But Clinton was caught off-guard. After Gross tried to clarify Clinton’s responses multiple times, the interview became tense, with Clinton finally snapping, “I don’t think you are trying to clarify. I think you are trying to say that I used to be opposed and now I am in favor and I did it for political reasons. And that’s just flat wrong.”

In response, Media Matters published a piece titled “How NPR’s Terry Gross Created A False Impression That Hillary Clinton Stonewalled On Marriage Equality.” The article pointed out that Clinton supported civil unions for same-sex couples as a senator and claimed that Gross was being unfair in repeating the same question, since Clinton “consistently and repeatedly answered Gross’s question.” She didn’t, as you can see for yourself.

“There was actually like a really big fight in our research room that day because nobody wanted to go after Terry Gross,” one former staffer told us. “She had a total right to ask Hillary Clinton about this. … Our researcher director ended up having to be the one to write it because no one else wanted their name on it.” Another said, “It was a situation where the researcher assigned to it was like, ‘I’m not writing this. I’m not going to attack Terry Gross for asking Hillary Clinton questions.’”

The former staffers said the reluctance of researchers to byline pieces was not unique to this instance. While it didn’t happen daily, it happened enough that “there was just a sense of ‘I really don’t want to be associated with this,’” one said. Media Matters in effect criticized Gross for doing her job—and nearly everyone we spoke to who worked there at the time felt that a similar article would not have been written about a different politician.
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In March of 2015, The New York Times broke the news about Clinton’s use of a private email server during her tenure as secretary of state, which in retrospect turned out to be the most damaging story of the entire campaign. In response, Media Matters flooded its site with posts attempting to counter the narrative that was quickly forming—that Clinton had broken the rules and had something to hide. “It was all hands on deck,” one former staffer said. “Everyone was just supposed to be looking out for Clinton stuff all the time.” Left unaddressed was whether the story itself was guilty of conservative misinformation.

Employees were asked to stay late or work on the weekends specifically to cover Clinton, which many felt came at the expense of other stories and the organization’s mission. Nearly every former staffer we spoke to felt that researchers, in particular, were underpaid and overworked, and that these problems often surfaced when they were forced to work on stories they felt were dubious. As one former staffer described it, “They were paying me $35,000 a year to watch Fox all the time and to do rotating shifts where I’d have to change from a day shift to a night shift every two weeks. It was just a miserable job.”

When it came to the organization’s research standards, most former staffers we talked to agreed that they were lowered when it came to Clinton-related content. One former staffer told us that, compared to “the amount of evidence we would have to collect to go after another story,” Clinton pieces had a “much lower bar. It literally just had to involve Hillary Clinton and that was it.” Another said that they often weren’t allowed to publish Clinton-related pieces “until they had been read by someone in leadership.”

Then there was James Carville’s guest column for the site. In his inaugural post, the longtime Clinton ally stated his intention was to use the space to defend the Clintons: “That’s what happens when you have one standard for the Clintons, and a different one for everybody else, which is why I’ll be writing regularly in this space.” (Bradley Beychok, who was president of Media Matters from 2013 until early December, and who was thought responsible for enforcing the site’s pro-Clinton bent, is close to Carville.) Media Matters derives its credibility from its objectivity—its posts are dry, often consisting almost entirely of transcripts that aim to show how conservative media is misleading the public. Media Matters is also classified as a 501(c)(3) nonprofit group in the tax code, which means that it cannot explicitly advocate for a political candidate. The organization is careful not to step over that line, always framing pieces with a media angle—for example, “New York Times’s Maureen Dowd Writes Yet Another Anti-Clinton Column.” But with Carville’s column, that veneer of objectivity was tossed aside. Media Matters also had one standard for the Clintons, and a different one for everybody else.

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