As a young journalist in the 1990s, David Brock was a key cog the Republican noise machine. Writing for the American Spectator, a conservative magazine funded by billionaire Richard Mellon Scaife, Brock gained fame for his attack pieces on Anita Hill and President Bill Clinton. Then, in 2002, Brock came clean. In his memoir, Blinded by the Right, Brock admitted that his work was based on lies and distortion, and part of a coordinated smear campaign funded by wealthy right wing groups to discredit Clinton and confuse the public.
Since then, Brock has continued to expose the conservative media onslaught. In his newest book, The Republican Noise Machine, Brock documents how right-wing groups pressure the media and spread misinformation to the public. It’s easy to see how this is done. Fringe conspiracies and stories will be kept alive by outlets like Rush Limbaugh, the Washington Times, and the Drudge Report, until they finally break into the mainstream media. Well-funded think tanks like the Heritage Foundation overwhelm news reporters with distorted statistics and conservative spin. Mainstream cable news channels employ staunchly rightwing pundits — like Pat Buchanan and Sean Hannity — to twist facts and echo Republican talking points, all under the rubric of “balance.” Meanwhile, media groups like Brent Bozell’s Media Research Center have spent 30 years convincing the public that the media is, in fact, liberal. As Brock says, it’s all a sham: “I have seen, and I know firsthand, indeed from my own pen, how the organized Right has sabotaged not only journalism but also democracy and truth.”
Not content to merely complain, Brock launched Media Matters for America in May, a media watchdog organization devoted to exposing rightwing distortions in the news, and to chart undue conservative influence in the media.
Brock recently chatted with MotherJones.com about Media Matters, Swift Boat Vets, convention coverage, and the conservative stranglehold on the media.
MotherJones.com: What’s your impression of the campaign coverage so far?
David Brock: I’ve been interested in watching the level of conservative misinformation that circulates through the media. Now before Media Matters launched, I talked for quite some time in my book about the last election, where certain messages and themes would start in the Republican Party and then get into the media. The Republicans knew they couldn’t win on the issues in 2000, so they developed an explicit strategy to attack Gore’s character — and that ultimately seemed to have worked. If you looked at the exit polls from 2000 you see that on all the issues — even on taxes — voters preferred Gore and his policies, but the election was lost on the issues of trust and integrity. So it has always been my working theory that the same thing would happen this year, no matter who the candidate was.
MJ.com: So when did the “Republican noise machine” start attacking John Kerry?
DB: Well, it seemed to me that, in the first few months leading up to the Democratic National Convention, the conservative attack machine was very busy trying to shore up President Bush and hadn’t really turned its guns on John Kerry. Then during the spring, after it was clear that Kerry would be the nominee, I think they were still throwing various things at him and kind of hoping that something would stick and didn’t really find anything.
MJ.com: And with the Swift Boat story, they’ve finally found something.
DB: Right. I think the dynamic that has unfolded for the last three weeks is one that is very familiar to me, resembling the worst of the anti-Clinton activities that I was involved in. Back then, we were able to create a so-called story that had a lot of political motivation behind it, had partisan money behind it, and we were able to take that and get a lot of attention for it in explicitly conservative media — on radio talk shows, on internet sites like the Drudge Report. Eventually the story would spill over into the regular media.
I think the exact same thing has happened in the last three weeks, whereby a supposedly outside group, the Swift Boat Veterans for Truth, had been working as early as the spring, through a rather small ad buy and book published by Regnery –a publisher, note, that has the worst record in terms of putting out books filled with falsehoods. Then the group was able to get a lot of free media time for it — first starting on the internet and radio, then moving to cable shows like Fox, and finally getting into the New York Times and NBC News. And so you have something that has very little basis in fact spreading like a virus, and it’s creating doubt about Kerry’s character that didn’t seem to be there in the polls until very recently.
MJ.com: Now to me, it seems like some of the newspapers — the New York Times, the Washington Post — have actually been dissecting some of these claims. Does it seem like the mainstream media is no longer willing to follow conservative talking points quite so blindly?
DB: Well more so in this case than in the case of Gore, when there were either quotes made up and put in his mouth that he never said or quotes taken out of context like his Internet remarks. And it’s nothing like the coverage in the mainstream media of Whitewater. So it does seem in this case that the regular media has been trying to play the role of adjudicator of fact. Unfortunately, that didn’t really come about until the Swift Boat Vets had the conservative media echo chamber to themselves for about 10 days.
So when the newspapers finally got around to it, they found that by and large the charges don’t check out. But it seems like a losing battle in the sense that there’s so much noise about all this. You get to a point where the factual adjudication doesn’t matter because there are all these other outlets that are far less responsible, all talking about the ad, some of which have a political reason for promoting it.
MJ.com: So it’s no longer about who’s right, but who can scream the loudest?
DB: Sure. You can’t fault some of the reporting in the major papers. But there are so many sources and information, particularly with the internet, that stories like the Swift Boat ads take on a life of their own. The New York Times has much less authority nowadays when they say we don’t find the charges valid. So that’s the effect of what the conservatives have built up in terms of their ability to communicate a message that they want out there.
Part of it comes from this phony notion of balance — that we need to hear all sides of a story, and that everyone’s entitled to express their opinion. Conservatives have tried to write all this off by saying who can be against their right to say what they want to say? Of course, nobody’s against their right to say they don’t think John Kerry would be fit to command. But to make specific allegations and then have no records to back them up is a significant problem. And the viewer and casual radio listener may not be reading the 7000-word dissection in the Washington Post. So you’ve got two medias going on. And I know from my involvement in the anti-Clinton stuff that often the goal is just to confuse people, and to take the political opponent off his or her game, and to not let them talk about what they want to talk about. All those things seemed to have been achieved here. Even if at the end of the day the whole thing is viewed as a hoax, by the time we get there, the election may be over.
MJ.com: Turning to the Republican convention, what will Media Matters be paying attention to?
DB: We’re tracking TV coverage, for one. We did a study of cable coverage of the Democratic Convention and found that CNN and MSNBC made close to the same decisions about how much time they would devote to the speeches, while Fox decided to hold less live coverage. We’re eager to see whether Fox will allot the same time for Republicans, or whether they decide to devote more time because of the ideological composition of their audience.
MJ.com: I noticed Media Matters was wondering whether CNN would have a Democratic operative to speak on TV after each Republican speaker.
DB: Right, during the Democratic Convention, after Senator Edwards spoke, they switched to Ralph Reed of the Christian Coalition. And right after John Kerry spoke, they went to Ed Gillespie, [chairman of the Republican National Committee]. So we’re looking to see whether CNN will give time to Terry McAuliffe or another Democratic operative to come on and rebut Bush after he speaks.
MJ.com: Do you think that the Kerry campaign might not be as adept at using the media to its advantage?
DB: I do think you have to hand it to the Republicans in terms of their ability to work the media and to get the media to do what they want it to do. That ranges from having a more disciplined delivery system to actually voicing complaints about the media. As you may have noticed, former president Bush was bashing the New York Times in an interview on Monday, and Rudy Giuliani disparaged the media in his speech.
The Democrats seem to shy away from taking on the media in that way. If the Republicans were in Kerry’s position, facing a smear ad being given free airtime and uncritical coverage, they would be kicking and screaming about holding the media accountable. That doesn’t go on with the Democrats, I think partly because they have subconsciously accepted this critique that the media’s liberal. So maybe they feel that they’re going to get a fair shake. But in reality, there are a lot of biases in the media that trump whatever ideology reporters may hold. In the Swift Boat Case, the media is biased towards airing a dramatic story — and in this case, you’ve got a bunch of angry veterans, some dramatic accusations. It makes for good TV.
MJ.com: In addition to the Republican party, you’ve talked about a lot of well-financed conservative groups — think-tanks, media advocacy firms — that can influence media coverage. What role are they going to play in this election?
DB: Well, the conservative Media Research Center is planning to spend $2.8 million in an advertising campaign before the election, basically to attack the so-called liberal media. Their goal is to bully and intimidate the media, and it’s been very effective, because in a lot of newsrooms there’s concern shading into fear of being seen as liberal, and these reporters end up accommodating conservatism. It was particularly noticeable after 9/11 when the Media Research Center had a direct mail campaign promising to target network anchors and producers who were deemed insufficiently supportive of Bush’s aims in the war on terror. Those kinds of activities do end up coloring the coverage, and partly explains why questions about the war in Iraq weren’t asked at the time. There was a symposium of network anchors at Harvard back in July, and a panel was discussing rightwing pressure on the media, and how it causes people to think twice or not be as aggressive as their journalistic integrity would otherwise lead them to be.
So part of the idea behind Media Matters was to try to balance that criticism and pressure from the progressive side. You simply can’t have 90 percent of email and phone and fax traffic coming into a newspaper ombudsman from just one ideological perspective. That will inevitably change the culture of the institutions over time. So if we could empower progressives to voice their own concerns about what they’re seeing, over time you might get a 50-50 balance in terms of pressure, and that would give us a better product.
MJ.com: What sort of impact do you expect Media Matters will have on the media?
DB: I’ll tell you about one short-term effect we’ve had. One of the central ideas behind the organization was to capture the content of the top talk radio show hosts in the country. Radio content is never captured and catalogued in a systematic way, so there’s no way to hold radio show hosts accountable for their words. But on the week we launched, the Abu Ghraib prison photos were released, and we had our system in place to record and professionally transcribe Rush Limbaugh’s reaction. So we were able to catch a whole string of comments in which he said that torture was a brilliant maneuver and compared the abuse to a college fraternity prank. It was offensive across the board, and showed how out of the mainstream Limbaugh is. That got a lot of attention, Limbaugh spent time defending himself, and in the end, there was legislation introduced in the Senate because of it. Basically, Limbaugh broadcasts on Armed Forces Radio and Television Services — which is a taxpayer funded service — and he’s the only partisan host to get a full hour of time. So we started a position to get him pulled off the air and stop propagandizing our troops, and the new legislation that passed in the Senate will at least force the broadcasts to offer opposing points of view.
We have other goals that might be harder to measure. One of the things that conservatives have successfully done over the years is to anesthetize people to the fact that they are extreme. Limbaugh has engaged in a process of mainstreaming himself, to the point where during the November 2002 election, NBC News had Limbaugh on as an election night analyst. But when we monitor his show, we find that he’s the same old Limbaugh, making racist and sexist comments on his program every day. It’s possible that NBC doesn’t even know what goes on in his show, so by hiring him, everybody just accepts the fact that he’s a leading conservative and he should be on mainstream television. We want to reverse that mainstreaming process and let people understand exactly who these conservative pundits really are.
Also, when we correct misinformation that’s out there, we make an effort to deliver these corrections to people debating on TV. For example, we did some original research on the co-author of the Swift Boat book, Jerome Corsi, and we found that he had made all these bigoted postings to a rightwing website. So we try to deliver that to people, let people know that’s out there, and in this case we saw a lot of pundits who were debating the book and saying maybe that’s something we should consider when we’re weighing the credibility of the book. So that has an impact.
In the longer term, we want to ask whether its possible for those people we’re monitoring to be more responsible. Take the case of Bill O’Reilly, who probably has the highest rate of false statements of anybody that we monitor in the media. O’Reilly was on Tim Russert’s show with Paul Krugman a few weeks ago. Krugman was able to go to our website, get transcripts of O’Reilly’s radio show, and hold O’Reilly accountable for things he had previously said. O’Reilly knew exactly where those transcripts came from, because we’re the only ones who are doing that, and he blew his top. Now the question is, if O’Reilly knows he’s being monitored, will that induce him to be more careful? Right now, we’re too young to really know. Our role is to let his listeners know that they’re getting information that is incorrect. Over time we’re trying to reduce the impact of the false information on people who are making decisions about what policies and candidates they support.
MJ.com: What do you think viewers of the convention should be watching out for?
DB: The main thing is to look for the susceptibility of the mainstream media to adapt storylines that are advancing the agenda of the conservatives. For example, one of the emerging themes from the Republican camp seems to be that, because Kerry talked about his Vietnam record at his convention, somehow he induced or invited people to make up lies about him. Over time this is how conventional wisdom gels in the media, and before you know it, it will have been Kerry’s fault that he was the subject of a vicious and false attack. Those are the kinds of things people should be looking for and be very careful and concerned about.