July 25, 2013
Conservative activist Andrew Breitbart (Brendan Smialowski/Getty Images)
The late conservative activist Andrew Breitbart (Brendan Smialowski/Getty Images)

Conservative journalists are cozy with conservative operatives.

That’s among the takeaways from the latest in a series of leaks to David Corn of Mother Jones magazine. The guy who brought America the “47 percent” recording of 2012 Republican presidential nominee Mitt Romney and a secret recording of a Sen. Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) campaign huddle has now released correspondence from something called “Groundswell,” a coalition of “prominent conservatives” who get together to plot counterattacks against the Obama administration, progressive America and Republican establishment types. (Disclosure: The Erik Wemple Blog’s wife works at Mother Jones).

Corn’s story describes the “Groundswell” meetings — which take place in the offices of Judicial Watch — as “hush-hush” affairs, as if most political coalitions in Washington published the minutes of their skull sessions on strategy. Among those “guiding” “Groundswell” is Virginia “Ginni” Thomas, a conservative activist and wife of Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas. The work these folks do in their confabs will surprise no one. For instance, Corn reports that in a March session, “Groundswellers discussed several immigration-related ‘action items.’ These included attempting to link the pending reform bill to Obamacare and collecting health care reform horror stories to provide to Sen. Ted Cruz, a leading opponent of the Senate immigration reform bill. (Cruz has repeatedly compared the legislation to the health care reform law.)”

The media dimension of the “Groundswell” revelations relates to the alleged collusion between the group and journalists from right-tilting outlets. Corn specifically calls out Breitbart News — including reporter Matthew Boyle and political editor Michael Flynn — for this offense.

Part of the case against Boyle consists of self-promotion, an “offense” in which journalists try to specialize in this age of social media and link-baiting. Mother Jones dredged up an electronic mail wherein Boyle appeals to the “Groundswell” cohort with an appeal to breathe new life into a story he’d done when he worked at the Daily Caller. It addressed how the Justice Department was allegedly colluding on message — ironically, the same crime of which he’s accused by Mother Jones — with Media Matters for America, a group that monitors conservative media outlets.

The impression that emerges from Boyle’s e-mail is that he’s impressed with his work — again, no sin for a Washington journalist. He provides a road map to his journalism on Beltway cooperation between the Obama administration and left-wing interests. And he’s careful to place very little professional distance between journalist Matthew Boyle and the operatives to whom he’s reaching out:

Now, we haven’t heard ANYTHING on hearing plans/investigation plans — my calls have thus far gone un-returned. Seeing as the administration is conducting its thug tactics against Bob Woodward right now, seems relevant to bring issue back up.

While he haven’t heard anything on that front, we have had at least one victory here. Tracy Schmaler is resigning her position (she doesn’t say why she wanted a new job, but we’ve seen this pattern with everyone from DOJ/elsewhere who resigns because of their misconduct – they leave after getting caught, but don’t say why. Perfect example – Lanny Breuer.) Anyway here’s my latest piece on her and how she’s resigning: http://www.breitbart.com/Big-Journalism/2013/02/15/Holder-flackresigning-after-colluding-with-Media-Matters-to-make-Obama-s-enemies-list

Depending on your perspective, Boyle in another message: 1) Shamelessly solicited the Groundswellers for story tips; 2) Unethically offered to advance a particular agenda; 3) Both. Judge for yourself:

Guys,

This exactly what I’m talking about when I’m saying we can get pieces out fast on Breitbart. Whenever you
have an idea, email or call me with a pitch and I’ll do my best to get the story out there. Keeps us on
offense, them on defense.

Even if idea isn’t perfect, I can help massage it to get there.
This is my email address and my cell is [redacted] so call me anytime, really.

Those of you who know me well know I hardly sleep

And to round things out, Boyle, Flynn and Washington Examiner Executive Editor Mark Tapscott contributed insightful commentary when a Groundswell participant requested a round of brainstorming on how to craft messaging for voter ID initiatives.

In a chat with the Erik Wemple Blog, Flynn questioned why this business with Groundswell even qualifies as a story in the first place. Mother Jones itself, he notes, is on the record admitting that one of its own has done the same thing. Indeed: The magazine’s publisher sat in on a get-together of a coalition of three-dozen liberal groups. Corn, however, notes that the Mother Jones rep came from the business side of the organization: “Our reporters do not participate in messaging and strategizing activity with known ideological advocates and partisans,” he says.

The meat of the Flynn/Breitbart counterargument, however, stems from Breitbart’s transparency as a conservative media outlet. “We clearly have a point of view that everybody understands,” says Flynn. “It’s why I like reading Mother Jones or the Guardian UK: I know where they’re coming from. What I hate in the media is this fake veneer of objectivity. I’d rather the media be upfront about what their biases are.”

Regarding Boyle’s message-massage offer, Flynn clarifies that the reporter was not going to “make up a story for their viewpoint…. He was trying to instruct them — maybe in an inartful way — on how to get a story out.”

Flynn’s argument makes sense. The activists of Groundswell quite logically find common groundswell with journalists like Boyle and Tapscott & Co. They generally agree on things, after all. No journo-crime there whatsoever.

Yet using the first-person plural with Groundswell and jumping in with a helping hand vis-a-vis online brainstorming sessions carry vast corrupting potential. It’s one thing to agree broadly on political orientation on principles, quite another to get too comfy with a particular political group. That’s because Groundswellers are players, folks who tomorrow may be in the news for doing something wonderful or for doing something heinous. Once such a scenario plays out, how would Breitbart cover the news fairly? Would Breitbart write an honest story if Ginni Thomas went off the rails?

Try this hypothetical: The Erik Wemple Blog is a resident of the District of Columbia, and as such does not have meaningful representation on Capitol Hill. We’d love to have it. Does that mean that the Erik Wemple Blog would be inclined to participate in the proceedings of a group like D.C. Vote? Hell no. If we did, we’d never be able to cover the group’s successes or scandals.

Tapscott, who participated briefly in Groundswell, bagged the whole thing after giving it some thought: “Ginni Thomas first asked me about it, she invited me. I said I’m not going to say anything. I’ll just be there to listen. I broke my own intent,” Tapscott today told the Erik Wemple Blog. He then decided: “This is just not right. I shouldn’t be in this.” When asked about the ethical issues at play, Tapscott said, “It’s the appearance because there are all these people like Erik Wemple who’ll call you and say you were just auditing but we know better.”

Erik Wemple writes the Erik Wemple blog, where he reports and opines on media organizations of all sorts.