DaRK PaRTY is pleased to announce a new feature called “5 Questions About” an occasional question and answer interview with interesting people on pressing issues and trends. The first “5 Questions About” is on the right-wing media and features Matt McLaughlin, senior editor at Media Matters for America. McLaughlin has worked as a reporter and editor for newspapers since 1989, covering government, courts, education, and technology, among other issues. He holds a bachelor's degree in English and mass communications from Towson University. The opinions expressed by Matt in the following interview are his own and don’t necessarily reflect the opinions of Media Matters. DaRK PaRTY:Media Matters monitors the mainstream press for any conservative biases and right-wing misinformation. Is the conservative press like FOX-TV and talk radio hosts like Rush Limbaugh and Michael Savage more likely to distort the truth than other media outlets? Matt McLaughlin: The first part of your question is inaccurate. Media Matters does not monitor for or identify bias. Bias is something that you can’t prove; although some of the right-wing media watchdogs, such as the Media Research Center, claim to do so. Bias is in someone’s head. If you read Media Matters, you’ll see that we don’t accuse media figures of a conservative bias. Instead, we identify conservative misinformation and correct it.
The second part of your question is more a matter of credibility than likeliness to distort the truth. Throw Michael Savage out because I don’t think even his loyal listeners take him seriously. He’s a foaming-at-the-mouth ranter, and it’s hard to tell if he’s even serving up misinformation that’s correctable, since he’s barely coherent. He bases his arguments on invective rather than facts. In my opinion, his popularity stems from his ability to touch the basest instincts in his listeners. A part of all of us is selfish, mean and ugly. Savage tells his listeners that that part of them is right and should be heeded, even heralded.
Rush is a little different. He certainly spews plenty of bile and misinformation, but at least you know where he stands. Rush almost comes right out and admits that he’s reading the Republican talking points Karl Rove sent out that morning. He’ll back up those talking points with false or misleading claims, but ultimately, even if you don’t know the facts, you at least understand that he’s spinning you. He’s tried in recent months to change that fact by offering images of himself as a serious news vendor (he bought full-page ads in TIME magazine billing himself as “America’s Anchorman”), but I don’t think anyone except his hard-core fans are likely to buy that.
For my money, FOX News is the most insidious offender of the truth. FOX is a cable channel devoted 24/7 to promoting the Republican party line, but it pretends that it’s “fair and balanced.” Although FOX features a handful of token liberals on some of its commentary shows, it’s easy to poke holes in its ridiculous claims of fairness and balance. Yet that hasn’t kept FOX’s influence from growing as its audience has increased. A University of Maryland 2003 study determined that FOX News viewers held inaccurate views about the war in Iraq at much higher rates than viewers of other TV news outlets. I’ll add that our managing director, Jamison Foser, wrote a terrific rant about the state of the media last week. It’s definitely worth a read.
DP:By constantly reacting to news stories and broadcasts and publicizing what it sees as distortions or misinformation, couldn't Media Matters be accused of undermining all news outlets by creating an impression that all press outlets have an agenda and can't be trusted to tell the truth?
MMc: I’ve heard that criticism before, but I don’t think it holds much water. There’s been an organized effort by conservatives to tar the media as “liberal” for about 30 years. It’s had the effect of intimidating the media into erring on the side of conservatives in many cases. For years, liberals and Democrats (perhaps sharing your concern that criticism may undermine the media’s credibility in general) have been waiting for the media to recognize this and self-correct. It simply hasn’t happened and hoping that it will is delusional. If liberals and Democrats want a properly functioning media, we have to demand it and hold the media accountable when they get things wrong.
But the point in your question is valid. Criticism from both sides tends to set up cognitive dissonance that undermines the credibility of the media in general. If the Media Research Center says the media holds a liberal bias, and Media Matters identifies media misinformation that favors conservatives, who’s to know what the truth is? Well, I would hope that someone looking at the products of Media Matters versus those of the MRC would use his or her critical thinking skills to determine what’s more credible and judge the news based on the merits of those arguments.
DP:Broadcast news stations like CNN and FOX-TV really aren't "news stations" as they spend an inordinate amount of air time commenting on and analyzing the news. Is there a difference between news reporting and commentary on the all-news networks and has the line been so distorted that most people can't tell the difference anymore?
MMc: Obviously there’s a difference between news and commentary from any news outlet. I don’t get the sense that all-news networks like CNN or MSNBC blur the line any more than do the major broadcast networks, although the fact that you have 24 hours of news versus a few hours a day may make it seem like there’s a difference.
However, FOX is another story. I’ve heard critics complain that it’s conservative, but I disagree -- it’s Republican. The way FOX News approaches news and commentary seems intended to benefit Republican politics and harm Democratic politics, regardless of ideology. Cripes, a few weeks ago, Neil Cavuto, the host of a business news show on FOX, asked, “Are Democratic leaders who criticize the war in Iraq actually aiding the terrorists?” That’s not news, but it helps Republicans, so it’s on FOX.
DP:Conservative media outlets like FOX-TV and many talk radio hosts claim to be leveling the playing field because CNN, the New York Times and most major dailies are liberally biased. Is there any truth to that claim?
MMc: I haven’t seen any creditable studies supporting such a claim and in my own opinion the answer is no. From an anecdotal standpoint, it’s difficult to believe that the networks and newspapers that pimped the Bush administration’s bogus claims about Iraq’s weapons of mass destruction or the various phony “scandals” that plagued the Clinton administration are liberal or pro-Democrat.
Some reporters are liberal and others are conservative their biases may occasionally creep into their reporting. But in general, I don’t think this is on purpose or that they’re trying to advance an ideology or political party. What I will say is that reporters can be lazy and uncreative. They often rely on predetermined storylines and don’t reach their own conclusions while following a story. Once a storyline takes hold in the media’s conventional wisdom, it’s difficult to shake it loose.
Take, for example, the idea that the “culture of corruption” in Washington has taken root. The main face of this corruption has been Jack Abramoff, a Republican operative who never donated a single dime to Democrats. But that hasn’t prevented major media figures such as the Washington Post ombudsman Deborah Howell, Pulitzer-prize winning Post reporter Susan Schmidt, and NPR correspondent Mara Liasson from claiming that Abramoff donated money to Democrats as well as Republicans. I don’t believe any of them had an agenda, but I do suspect that they were trying to portray a “balanced” look. By the way, balance is crap. Reporters should strive for fairness and truth. That means getting all sides of the story, of course, but you have to get it right. If that means one side of the story comes out looking worse, so be it.
In other cases, there’s a level of laziness that borders on negligence. After Hurricane Katrina, a “senior Bush official” told the Washington Post that Louisiana Gov. Kathleen Blanco did not declare a state of emergency even after the hurricane hit, delaying federal aid to the area. It was a blatant falsehood. Copies of Blanco’s emergency declaration, which had been filed BEFORE Katrina made landfall, were available online at the time. The Post failed to check and went on to repeat this administration falsehood as if it were the truth.
The bottom line is that overcoming spin and misinformation requires brains and hard work. If our media can’t or won’t do that, it hurts our country (no matter who’s doing the spinning).
DP:In your opinion, what right-wing media figures are the biggest distorters of the truth?
MMc: Wow. There are so many. You can pretty much count on hearing Republican talking points from Rush Limbaugh and Sean Hannity. Bob Novak offers something a little different. Novak seems so far on the inside that I get the impression he’s helping Karl Rove devise the talking points, not merely disseminating them. There was a reason why Comedy Central’s Jon Stewart named Novak the “Douchebag of Liberty.” And I’ll add that Media Matters has a special relationship with FOX-TV’s Bill O’Reilly. We really seem to get under his skin.
But ultimately, I’d have to go with Rush. Not because he lies more than the others, although you could make a pretty good case, but because I don’t think anyone works quite as hard or is quite as successful in dividing our country. Liberals and Democrats, Rush tells his 20 million listeners, are godless, lazy, stupid, evil, selfish, hateful. I’d also like to add that one of the things that has perplexed me is how often conservative media figures portray Media Matters as angry. We’ve frequently been called “rage mongers” or “the angry left.” I’ll grant that some of our readers who comment on our forums can get be a little shrill, but with the possible exception of a once-a-week column by Jamison Foser, all our items are pretty dry. People here can be outraged by some of the outrageous stuff we see (often when we post the full video and transcript of someone saying something stupid or wrong, only to have them deny having said it). But we aren’t walking around angry all the time. I’m interested to know if DaRK PaRTY readers think Media Matters appears angry in the content we publish.