When you consider what is happening both in the media at places like E&P and also at other progressive organizations, which are struggling just to keep the doors open, we have done well,” said Eric Burns.
It was a recent Friday afternoon, and Mr. Burns, the president of the progressive media watchdog group Media Matters for America, was on the phone with The Observer. A few days earlier, news broke that after publishing for 108 years, Editor & Publisher magazine was folding. It was a telling moment for the industry, media pundits had subsequently argued. Newspapers were fading fast. And now, so too were the print publications devoted to covering them.
Not so with Media Matters.
“We’re doing fantastic,” said Mr. Burns. “Obviously, it’s been a difficult fund-raising environment. But we’ve had some incredible successes this year.”
Mr. Burns said that Media Matters-a multimedia nonprofit dedicated to monitoring and correcting conservative misinformation in the U.S. press-has raised roughly $10 million in 2009. The haul was less than the organization’s peak numbers in 2008, but still roughly double what Media Matters was taking in a few short years ago.
As it turns out, 2009 has been a fertile year not only for conservative radio and cable TV pundits (see Beck, Glenn), but also for the media outlets that monitor them. Whereas E&P suffered from the sagging fortunes of the newspaper industry it covered, Media Matters (and its conservative counterpart, NewsBusters) seems to be benefiting in part from the popularity and success of the partisan political reporting that they regularly patrol.
Back in November, following several years of epic criticism at the hands of Media Matters, Lou Dobbs announced that he was stepping down from his prime-time anchoring gig on CNN. No, the lobby of Media Matters’ new offices won’t be decorated with the gruff newsman’s taxidermied noggin, stuffed and mounted on the wall. But along with their partners in the Drop Dobbs Coalition, Media Matters had successfully taken down a big-game specimen. “The Lou Dobbs thing was huge,” said Mr. Burns.
According to Mr. Burns, Media Matters currently employs roughly 70 full-time staffers. Next month, they will move from their current headquarters in D.C.’s Dupont Circle to a more roomy office space in Chinatown. At a time when aggregation is in vogue and paying writers is somewhat passé, Media Matters publishes reams of original content and pays its writers real salaries (last year, according to tax filings, Media Matters paid columnist Eric Boehlert $121,900). In recent years, they have developed in-house, proprietary systems for recording, editing and posting video and audio clips. Now and again, they marshal the resulting documentary evidence to launch high-profile campaigns against cable news practitioners, such as the ones directed at Don Imus, Chris Matthews and ex-CNN anchor Lou Dobbs.
Media Matters, which does not accept advertising or charge subscription fees, is dependent on donations. According to Mr. Burns, Media Matters founder David Brock spends much of his time out on the road meeting in person with potential donors. At the same time, Media Matters’ in-house development staff solicit donations online. This past year, with the economy dry-heaving and individual donors becoming increasingly reluctant to part with their money, Media Matters turned to foundational support. In 2009, according to a spokesperson, Media Matters received grants of at least $100,000 from more than a dozen foundations.
The success of Fox News in the Obama era has presumably helped the mission. “Leading into the summer, we started making the case that Fox was not a news organization but a political operation,” said Mr. Burns. “The fact that we made a very compelling case along those lines was a huge victory.”
“Fox News is a multibillion-dollar enterprise,” he added. “It’s a David and Goliath situation in terms of us and Fox News.”
FINDING THE MOST outlandish pronouncements from the world of conservative punditry and re-purposing the clips for a mostly liberal audience is a round-the-clock job. According to Ari Rabin-Havt, the organization’s vice president of communications and research, on a typical day, Media Matters deploys five quick-strike teams, each of which is assigned to monitor a unique set of reliable targets (Rush Limbaugh; Fox & Friends; The Washington Times, etc.) and capable of writing, editing and posting items for the Web site.
The first team arrives at 5 a.m. The last team turns out the lights at 1 a.m. On Saturdays, the schedule is slightly pared back. On Sundays, the weekend staff swells to keep an eye on the political talk shows. Efficiency is prized, and productivity is closely monitored. In 2008, according to Mr. Rabin-Havt, Media Matters posted 4,552 pieces of content. In 2009, through the first week of December, that number had jumped to 11,258. Each item goes into a searchable archive. “You can easily pull up every clip we have of Glenn Beck and search it by topic,” said Mr. Rabin-Havt. “Our ability to do those searches quickly is a huge public service.”
The rapidly updated clips are a reliably incendiary mix. The offerings, on a recent day, included a radio clip of Rush Limbaugh explaining how a duplicitous President Obama is spitting in the eye of his “kook-fringe base”; an audio file of Glenn Beck defending tea party protesters’ use of signs referring to Hitler, Stalin and Lenin; and a sound bite of Mark Levin calling Al Gore the “Jim Jones of the environmental movement.”
Above it all a “donate” button beckons to readers.
BEING ON THE receiving end of Media Matters’ attention is no enviable position. Several network sources recently told The Observer that while they respect some of the work done by Media Matters, they also tune many of the criticisms, which tend to suffer, some said, from a perfunctory level of baked-in outrage. “There’s a boy-who-cried-wolf quality to a lot of it,” said one network insider.
Others swing back. “We’ll get attacked pretty regularly by conservative organizations,” said Mr. Rabin-Havt. “My voice-mail box typically has a few messages telling me about how I’m going to hell.”
Mr. Burns argued for the need for stepped-up vigilance. “As we’ve seen conservatives and Republicans lose at the ballot box, they’re essentially doubling down,” said Mr. Burns. “They’re pouring money into organizations, Web sites, think tanks and institutions. If we want to meet the challenge of the conservative media juggernaut that we see right now-to effectively neutralize them will require an increase in funding. That is going to be one of our goals in this next year.”
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