If you believe former Fox News host Bill O’Reilly, Media Matters for America is the nation’s “most dangerous organization,” which would be quite a feat for a modestly funded nonprofit whose 80 employees spend a lot of their time quietly watching cable news at their desks. The 15-year-old, left-leaning news-watchdog group’s mission of combating “conservative misinformation” extends to minute-by-minute scrutiny of right-wing media — Fox News, in particular — and its stars, who do not, as a rule, enjoy the attention. Sean Hannity accused MMFA of “liberal fascism,” and said it’s pressuring his advertisers to drop his show; the second part is entirely accurate.
Jeffrey Lord, the mega-MAGA former CNN personality who once inspired Anderson Cooper to blurt that if Trump “took a dump on his desk, you would defend it,” called Media Matters “anti-free press…the tip of the spear in the arsenal of the Leftist State Media” in a screed published after CNN fired him for sarcastically tweeting the phrase “Sieg Heil!” at Media Matters’ president.
The organization’s staff can’t help rolling their eyes at it all. “They either think we’re in our parents’ basements,” says senior researcher Andrew Lawrence, “or we’re a nefarious group trying to control the world.” Much of the right is also convinced that MMFA is subsidized by left-wing billionaire George Soros; though he has contributed, it relies on a network of donors and constant fundraising for its $14 million annual budget.
“We are reporting on commentary happening on national news outlets,” says senior fellow Matthew Gertz, who won attention for documenting the astonishing extent to which Trump’s tweets, many of them policy-setting, are direct responses to Fox News segments. “This is not some sort of sinister act. This is pretty basic.”
Media Matters’ headquarters is a single floor of a downtown Washington, D.C., office building. Its rows of desks, under exposed ductwork and fluorescent lights, could belong to any media company or tech startup, as could the youngish, earnest, business-casual staff. A Pride flag decorates one workspace, an American flag another. By the windows, a life-size cardboard cutout of Chris Evans as Captain America keeps watch.
The employees work in actual shifts monitoring the media, with the morning crew logging in at 6 a.m. and the evening team coming in around 4:00 and leaving at 11. A “media intelligence” team tracks just about everything broadcast on cable news; its director, Lis Power, can tell you how many times Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez’s name was uttered on Fox News in a random two-week period in April (the answer: 299).
On a spring afternoon, Media Matters’ president of three years, Angelo Carusone — a trim, fast-talking law-school grad who comes off as a light-side-of-the-Force Michael Avenatti — is gathering a group of senior staffers for a six-month planning meeting. In front of each attendee is a box lunch from Jimmy John’s and a printed list of 2019 organizational goals. One top goal couldn’t be clearer: “Successfully execute and complete Phase 2 of campaign to neutralize/undermine Fox News’ destructive power.” That’s where the “dangerous” part comes in. “I don’t think they’re wrong to be a little scared,” says Carusone.
In addition to monitoring broadcasts in real time, Media Matters has a history of unearthing damning past comments by conservatives. Fox’s Tucker Carlson became the latest target in March, when MMFA published his early-2000s sexist and racist on-air banter with shock jock Bubba the Love Sponge (in one clip, Carlson called Iraqis “semiliterate primitive monkeys”). He’s been losing advertisers ever since, which was the goal.
Media Matters has been at war with Fox News since May 2004, when the watchdog was founded by David Brock — the singular D.C. fixture who went from right-wing anti-Clinton muckraker to left-wing Clinton insider. He envisioned MMFA as a fact-based, progressive counterweight to the Media Research Center, the conservative group that spent decades claiming to find liberal bias in the media. Working the refs paid off for the right in credulous coverage of everything from the Iraq War to Paul Ryan’s purported policy prowess: “The right wing…has dominated the debate over liberal bias,” Brock said at the time. “They’ve moved the media itself to the right and therefore they’ve moved American politics to the right.”
Brock stepped back in the wake of the 2016 election and accusations that Media Matters had transformed itself into a Hillary Clinton fan site, to the point of bringing on James Carville as a guest columnist. But the organization’s core battle is more urgent than ever, to say the least. The Trump presidency is arguably the end result of years of reality manipulation by Fox News and its ilk, with Trump’s supporters convinced he’s rescued them from migrant caravans, Obama’s assault on American values, and the war on Christmas, while any contrary information is, of course, fake. Trump, once a supposed Democrat, seems to have reshaped much of his worldview over the past decade to conform to Fox News’ opinion hosts, even as they now adapt some of their views to match his heterodox ideas. (Talking to dictators without preconditions, for instance, is now double-plus-good.)
“Fox News’ prime-time hosts are Trump’s advisers,” says Lawrence. “It became extremely important to keep up with what they’re saying, because the president of the United States is watching this shit. And MSNBC and CNN are just not as important. Like, the guy with the nuclear codes isn’t taking advice from Don Lemon.”
CARUSONE WAS on his way to a law career circa 2010 when he found himself obsessed with Glenn Beck, then a rising star on Fox News whose ratings seemed to climb the more he pushed toward the conspiratorial, Obama’s-FEMA-camps fringes. Carusone, a college debate champion, recognized Beck’s rhetorical skill. “He was dangerous and effective,” Carusone says. “And there was a perverse incentive for him to get worse.”
Part of it, Carusone admits, was pure procrastination — anything to put off law-school homework. But he also found Beck “uniquely terrifying.” He started a @stopbeck Twitter account and began publicly shaming advertisers, becoming so obsessed with the crusade that he quit a Wisconsin Supreme Court clerkship to focus on it. In May 2011, Media Matters made Carusone its director of online strategy; by that point, more than 300 advertisers had dropped Beck’s show, and he would be off the air the next month.
In 2012, Carusone found another extracurricular mission. Apprentice host Donald Trump had become a vocal Obama birther, and Carusone launched a campaign for Macy’s to drop his clothing line. Trump would prove a more formidable opponent than Beck. Carusone says Trump’s reps accused him of forging petition signatures and threatened a $25 million lawsuit, leaving Carusone struggling to find a lawyer willing to take the case. “It was a really good lesson in how effective Trump was,” Carusone says. “And how scared he made people.”
Macy’s kept its deal with Trump until 2015, when his comments about Mexicans at his presidential campaign launch finally crossed the line for the company. Carusone considers it a victory and has a huge framed article on the battle in his office. “Not many people beat Trump, truly, in a head-to-head fight,” he says. “And so I take great pride on a personal level.”
In the 2016 campaign, Carusone became convinced that few in the media were taking Trump seriously enough. MMFA would flag calls to violence from Trump at rallies — or the time a voter asked if he would “get rid” of Muslims and he responded, “We’re going to be looking at a lot of different things” — but Carusone felt most reporters went into reflexive denial. After November 8th, 2016, the days of underestimating Trump were over, and Carusone’s history with him helped fuel his rise to the top of MMFA. (Carusone faced his own scandal when, ironically enough, right-wingers found racial and transphobic slurs on his old blog; he’s repeatedly apologized and claimed they were satire.)
Media Matters’ efforts to hammer away at Fox News’ advertiser base picked up speed after founder Roger Ailes left in 2016. For all the extremism he allowed, Ailes also kept the network on message, and periodically pulled the reins in on his hosts. Without him, they ran wild. Hannity provided grist for a boycott by pushing the discredited theory that the DNC hack was an inside job by the late Seth Rich, victim of a still-unsolved murder; Laura Ingraham compared detention centers for child migrants to “summer camps.”
Media Matters estimates that Fox News has lost as much as $200 million in potential ad revenue since 2017. (Fox News denies it, providing data that show some year-to-year growth in their ad revenue.) Carusone hopes shareholders will sue Fox for breach of fiduciary duty, arguing its programming is so irresponsible it represents inadequate stewardship of the business. “Fox doesn’t have their entertainment side to bury these losses anymore,” says Carusone, referring to the March sale of Fox’s movie and TV assets to Disney. “If I’m a shareholder, I don’t want to subsidize Rupert Murdoch’s political agenda.” The network responds: “Fox News reached an all-time record in advertising revenue in the latest fiscal year, which just ended June 30th. Any insinuation our business has been impacted is provably false.” A recent PolitiFact report cast doubt on the general efficacy of these boycotts, pointing out that Fox News earns more from cable subscribers than advertising, and that controversies might actually help its ratings – it remains the highest-rated cable-news network.
Media Matters also monitors the mainstream media, which it views as highly susceptible to right-wing story lines — one of the goals on the 2019 planning memo is pushing news organizations to stop putting Trump’s false claims into headlines and tweets, unchallenged. According to a May MMFA study, “Outlets amplified false or misleading Trump claims without disputing them 407 times over the three weeks of the study, an average of 19 times a day.”
Social media is another target. Media Matters argues that Facebook and Twitter are facing the same bad-faith accusations of bias from the right that the mainstream media always has — witness how much time Mark Zuckerberg spent in his 2018 congressional appearance addressing Facebook’s apparently accidental ban of the right-wing personalities Diamond and Silk. The platforms end up working so hard to avoid perceptions of left-wing bias that they make nonsensical decisions, e.g., reports of Twitter declining to algorithmically remove racist accounts because some Republican politicians could be flagged.
Far more daunting is the broader internet. Fox News, with its shareholders, corporate structure, and advertisers, is an easy target compared with an entire universe of disintermediated disinformation, from QAnon YouTube videos to alt-right Twitter personalities. “It’s terrifying,” Carusone admits. Media Matters has a department coming up with strategies to at least monitor the threat, with, for instance, a new tool that archives posts on 4chan and 8chan. “Having the technical capability to scrape those boards, and then search that content makes a huge difference to our ability to track the food chain,” says Cynthia Padera, who leads those efforts. “And the food chain is no longer just a ladder — it’s a circle.” A right-wing narrative, she says, will “start on 4chan, then hit Facebook, and then end up on Tucker. And that’ll start a second wave of it back on Facebook.”
All of this data collection and scolding may add up to more than preaching to the converted. Never-Trump Republicans who spent years bashing Media Matters now admit to finding it useful. And once in a while, an unexpected source will use Media Matters info in culture-shaking ways, as when podcaster Joe Rogan cited its data to pin down Alex Jones on his Sandy Hook denialism. “You might disagree with our point of view,” Power says, “but you can’t disagree with our data.”
SPENDING YOUR evenings logging cable news is a weird job. Media Matters’ night-shift crew is a younger and looser group, at least by D.C. standards. There are some baseball caps, and among the button-downs, two dudes wearing P-Funk T-shirts. And there’s Madeline Peltz, 25, in a gray sweater and gothy lipstick. She watches Carlson’s show every night and argues he’s slipped into full-blown white nationalism (a label he has vociferously rejected) — she’s also the one who dug up the Bubba the Love Sponge recordings.
At 8 p.m. it’s airtime for Tucker Carlson Tonight. Peltz and her colleague Rebecca Martin are at their desks, ready to watch. Tonight, Carlson has a guest who claims polar bears are doing just fine; two seconds of Googling reveals that her work has been widely discredited by experts. “That happens all the time,” Peltz says. “Another extreme example was when O’Reilly brought on someone he said was a member of the Swedish government, and he was literally just some random guy.”
No one at Media Matters admits to much psychological wear and tear from their immersion in an ocean of alternative facts. “Since the 2016 election, I’ve felt like we’re on the front lines,” says deputy editorial director Pam Vogel. “I’m coming to work every day and I’m doing something. That helps. And a lot of us have a sort of warped sense of humor about it. It’s like a coping mechanism.”
It all might be more amusing, if not for the bizarre importance of these shows in our current reality. “Fox News not only regained its agenda-setting role in the conservative media,” says Martin. “Fox News has become the agenda-setter for everyone else.”