James Carville made a stark declaration in his first column as a guest contributor for the Web site of Media Matters for America. No, it wasn’t the baloney about how Hillary Clinton’s private e-mail usage during her tenure as secretary of state was a “made-up scandal.” Nor the part about how there was “nothing in the law” prohibiting her use of the account for official business. It was this line, about how the media is invariably tougher on a Clinton than on other politicians: “That’s what happens when you have one standard for the Clintons, and a different one for everybody else, which is why I’ll be writing regularly in this space.”
Logical enough: From the looks of things, Clinton is the prohibitive favorite to run away with the 2016 Democratic presidential nomination. So why not have a guest contributor like Carville, steeped in Clintoniana?
Hold on a minute, though. Media Matters for America is an IRS tax-exempt 501(c)(3) organization launched in 2004 with a stated mission of “comprehensively monitoring, analyzing, and correcting conservative misinformation in the U.S. media.” How does a column whose stated purpose is to stick up for a single family square with this broader mission under U.S. tax law?
“It’s not a sole decision based on Hillary Clinton,” said Media Matters President Bradley Beychok when asked about Carville’s contributorship. “He’ll be writing on a broader array of topics than people think.”
Securing Carville’s services required little in the way of introductions: Beychok, a veteran of several Democratic House and Senate campaigns, counts the Cajun as a “personal friend and professional mentor.” And Media Matters founder and chairman David Brock, a supporter of Hillary Clinton, is familiar with the work of Carville, who helped Bill Clinton win the presidency in 1992. “This was a decision that David and I agreed on,” says Beychok.
Brock is founder not only of Media Matters but also of American Bridge 21st Century, a super PAC that figures among the leading pro-Clinton groups. American Bridge supports a site named “Correct the Record,” which calls itself “the Leading Rapid Response and Research Organization Focused on Electing a Democratic President in 2016” — meaning, it publishes a lot of pro-Clinton pieces.
Adding to the proximity, Clinton herself in 2007 claimed at the YearlyKos Convention that she’d assisted in building “progressive infrastructure — institutions that I helped to start and support like Media Matters and Center for American Progress.”
Accordingly: MediaMatters.org in the months approaching November 2016 will host a scrutiny party of sorts. Those seeking to tear down not only Clinton but also one of the Beltway’s most effective nonprofits will patrol the site for the slightest hint of tax-law-violating behavior. “We take this institution that has become an important part of the progressive infrastructure very seriously,” says Beychok of Media Matters. “We’ll follow the letter of the law to a ‘T.’ There are a lot of detractors out there waiting for us to slip up, so I take this very seriously.”
Detractors have a heavy reading load. Take a look at the Media Matters linkage that hit the Internet in the first days of the Clinton e-mail scandal:
- “The New York Times’ Deceptive Suggestion That Hillary Clinton May Have Violated Federal Records Law.“
- “Media’s Double Standard On Transparency For Hillary Clinton.“
- “David Brock Calls On The New York Times To Issue ‘Prominent Correction’ To Sloppy Clinton Email Reporting.“
- “On MSNBC’s All In, Eric Boehlert Explains That NY Times Story On Clinton Emails ‘Omitted Key Facts’ To Suggest Illegality.”
- “On MSNBC’s Morning Joe, David Brock Calls On The New York Times To Correct Sloppy Clinton Email Story ‘Based On A False Premise’.”
- “On MSNBC Live, David Brock Chides Media For ‘Manufactured Controversy’ Over Clinton Emails.“
- “Fox Legal Experts Agree: Hillary Clinton Did Not Violate The Law With Email.“
- “The New York Times Doubles Down In Defense Of Sloppy Reporting On Clinton Emails.“
- “Karen Finney On CNN: NY Times Source Quoted In Clinton Email Story Made Clear That Clinton Did Not Break Any Laws.“
- “On MSNBC’s The Ed Show, Brad Woodhouse Explains Clinton Email Controversy Is All About Benghazi.“
- “David Brock Warns Media: Clinton Email Story Is ‘Republican Operation From Top To Bottom.‘”
- “The Clintons And Another Media Guttural Roar.“
- “Fox Revives Debunked Conspiracy About Benghazi Documents To Scandalize Hillary Clinton’s Use Of Personal Email System.”
- “New York Times Digs In On Email Double Standard And Gives Jeb Bush A Pass.”
- “David Brock Calls Out The Media’s Email Transparency Double Standard Against Hillary Clinton.“
- “Conservative Columnist Uses Clinton Email Investigation To Revive Bigoted Muslim Brotherhood Conspiracy.“
- “The Conservative Myth Of The Ambassador Ousted Over A Personal Email Account.“
- “On MSNBC’s The Ed Show, Eric Boehlert Highlights The Media Circus Rushing To Scandalize Clinton’s Emails Without Facts.“
- “CNN Debunks The ‘Clear-Cut’ Clinton Email Narrative.“
- “How NY Times Kicked Off A Revival Of The Benghazi Witch Hunt.“
- “On CNN’s OutFront, Karen Finney Highlights Media’s Transparency Double Standard Against Hillary Clinton.“
- “Times ‘Not Without Fault’ Says Public Editor.”
- “On MSNBC’s Up With Steve Kornacki, Media Matters’ Eric Boehlert Calls Out Media For Context-Free Clinton Coverage.“
- “The Troubling Story Of The AP’s Flawed Clinton Email Report.“
- “On CNN, Media Matters’ Karen Finney Sets Facts Straight On Hillary Clinton Email Feeding Frenzy.“
- “The New York Times Turns To GOP Talking Points To Call Into Question Hillary Clinton’s Record As An Advocate For Women And Gender Equality.“
- “Media’s Baseless Speculation That Clinton May Have Broken Laws With Email Use.“
- “FLASHBACK: When Millions Of Lost Bush White House Emails (From Private Accounts) Triggered A Media Shrug.”
- “On CNN’s The Lead, Karen Finney Highlights Media’s Unfair Scrutiny Following Hillary Clinton’s Email Press Conference.“
- “Fox News Adopts Gowdy’s Fallacy To Accuse Clinton Of Hiding Emails.“
- “Fox Host Said Clinton Was ‘Lying,’ But She Couldn’t Use Two Email Accounts On A BlackBerry In 2009.“
- “How Not To Cover A Scandal: 4 Media Outlets Walking Back Reports In The Clinton Feeding Frenzy.“
- “David Brock On MSNBC’s The Ed Show: ‘The Media Is Implicated’ In GOP’s Attempt To Scandalize Clinton’s Emails.“
- “O’Reilly: ‘Let’s Be Frank,’ Hillary Clinton Email Scandal Is About Benghazi.“
That’s coverage by volume — a URLification of a hot-button political issue. Scale makes it all possible: Media Matters has about 75 employees milling around a field of screens on Massachusetts Avenue; the group responds to the news more aggressively than do many newsrooms. Which is to say that the Clinton e-mail crisis blog-post-apalooza at Media Matters wasn’t anomalous — the organization has stretched the Internet with this form of relentlessness over any number of big issues, such as Benghazi, the IRS controversy, Bill O’Reilly’s credibility and on and on.
Yet something about the Clinton outburst looked out of step with a Media Matters obsession. The group’s playbook involves calling out large distortions and falsehoods originating in conservative media and threatening to bleed into the mainstream media. Think about how Fox News host Sean Hannity railed repeatedly and inaccurately about how the Obama State Department watched the Benghazi attacks in real-time video — or about how Fox News spread nonsense about “no-go zones” in Europe following the Charlie Hebdo massacre in France in January.
In the case of the Clinton e-mails, however, Media Matters was spotlighting alleged smaller distortions from the mainstream media, most notably the New York Times, which broke the story on March 2. That piece said that Clinton’s e-mail habits as secretary of state “may have violated federal requirements that officials’ correspondence be retained as part of the agency’s record.” Brock blasted the paper for such insinuations and pressured it for a correction.
Whatever the interpretation on rule-breaking, however, there’s little dispute that the private e-mail habit circumvented numerous records requests, raising questions about the secretary of state’s commitment to transparency. And Clinton’s own case has faltered in recent weeks: Though the former secretary herself professed that it was “my practice” to correspond with government colleagues on their official accounts, Gawker and the New York Times have reported that some of her aides have used private e-mail accounts to communicate with her.
So just how was Media Matters combating conservative misinformation here? Beychok responds that New York Times Public Editor Margaret Sullivan noted that the piece wasn’t “without fault.” “Once that feeding frenzy starts,” says Beychok, “you have to knock false information down in real time … it’s containment of misinformation for us.”
Media Matters’ status as a 501(c)(3) hinges on battling feeding frenzies, as well as refraining from participation “in any campaign activity for or against political candidates.” When asked if group is in danger of tilting too strongly toward Clinton, Beychok responds, “We’ve defended progressives across the spectrum for 11 years. That won’t change.” To stay in compliance with the regulations, Beychok’s organization must avoid acting in the “private interest” of Clinton or the Democratic Party, a dynamic recently addressed by the Washington Examiner.
In a 1989 case, the U.S. Tax Court upheld the denial of tax-exempt status from the Arlington, Va.-based American Campaign Academy because the school effectively operated as an arm of the Republican Party: Its graduates moved on to assist predominantly Republican candidates; funding came from the National Republican Congressional Trust; and its curriculum was an “outgrowth” of a program of the National Republican Congressional Committee (NRCC). For Media Matters to similarly run afoul of tax law, the IRS would have to find that it “was intending to support the Clintons, rather than reacting to biased media reports about them,” says Marc Owens, a former IRS official and tax lawyer. “The IRS would likely view the existence and extent of Media Matters’s interactions with the Clintons as important indicators of whether Media Matters is acting as a media bias watchdog or lapdog for the Clintons.”
Covering issues aside from the Clintons advances Media Matters’ defense. Here’s a screenshot of the site late on Monday afternoon, which shows coverage of, yes, Hillary Clinton, but also a weighty focus on a controversial Indiana law.
In 2011, C. Boyden Gray, a White House counsel in the first Bush administration, sent a fierce petition for revocation of Media Matters’ 501(c)(3) tax-exempt status on the rationale that the organization had declared a “war” on Fox News, Rupert Murdoch and the Republican Party. “In sum,” wrote Gray in the petition, “Media Matters’s activities are by no means merely ‘educational.’ Media Matters has ‘declared war’ on a television news channel [Fox News], its parent company, and its parent company’s founder and primary shareholder, going so far as to interfere in its corporate dealings and to call on Congress to investigate it and him — all with the subsidy of tax-exempt status. This makes a mockery of Section 501(c)(3)’s restrictions on tax-exempt activity.” (One of the petition’s addressees, by the way, was Lois Lerner, then the IRS director of exempt organizations.)
Gray is unsure what came of his letter. “Brock has made some new moves and so it looks like this activity might be picking up a little bit,” said Gray in a brief chat with the Erik Wemple Blog.
Media Matters’ Beychok didn’t answer directly when asked whether his group has dealt with an IRS audit. “We applied for a tax status when we were formed, we were approved by the IRS, and since then have been operating in good standing,” he responded.
IRS archives are a hospitable place for Media Matters, not to mention the Media Research Center (MRC), its 501(c)(3) conservative counterpart in press watchdogging. At least three revenue rulings — in 1964, 1974 and 1979 — smile on the nonprofit pursuit of media criticism. The 1974 iteration, for example, specifies 501(c)(3) eligibility for a nonprofit dedicated to educating “the public concerning the accuracy and fairness of news coverage by local newspapers and, by educational methods, encourage the newspapers to meet high standards of journalism.”
Provided that Media Matters continues filtering its worldview through the sieve of media criticism, it’ll hold onto its nonprofit status, says Owens. Even if Carville were to write an endless series of columns on the media’s grudge against the Clinton family, Owens notes, his work might well be protected under IRS precedents. “What does he have to back up that conclusion?” asks Owens. “If he has good evidence of bias or inaccuracies in media coverage of the Clintons, it would tend to bring his work in line with revenue rulings.” That is, showing that one candidate is more likely than all the other candidates to be mistreated by the media is just the sort of work that the IRS protects. “He has an argument there. I’m not saying it’s necessarily a 100 percent winner, but he has an argument,” says Owens, who works in private practice with the firm Loeb & Loeb.
Alan P. Dye, a tax lawyer at the firm Webster, Chamberlain & Bean, is troubled by Carville’s declaration that he’ll attack the unfair treatment of the Clintons from his Media Matters perch. “I think that if I were advising a client, that ought to be taken out of that article and he should call it as the chips fall, not pre-announce that I’m going to defend the Clintons no matter what,” says Dye, who did a small amount of work for MRC in 2008. Carville’s piece, notes Dye, may conflict with a 1986 IRS “revenue procedure” essentially disqualifying work by tax-exempt organizations that “express[es] conclusions more on the basis of strong emotional feelings than of objective evaluations.” Carville’s piece “flunks” that test, argues Dye.
Asked about his topical intentions, Carville told the Erik Wemple Blog, “I can’t tell you I won’t take off in another direction,” he said, echoing Beychok’s pledge that he’d write about non-Clinton stuff. That said, “I’m obviously pro-Hillary. There’s not much of a secret there,” said Carville.
Less problematic is Media Matters’ longtime obsession with Fox News. To argue that Media Matters is a political entity because of its attacks on the leading cable network entails a strange twist of logic. Owens: “In order for [that] complaint to hold together, you have to presuppose that Fox News is a partisan organization, so that criticism of their partisanship becomes itself partisanship.”
In December 2013, Media Matters signaled that its institutional focus on Fox News was dimming. “Media Matters Declares Victory: ‘The War On Fox Is Over,‘” reads a Huffington Post headline on the organization’s pivot. Or interruptible pivot. More than a year after that declaration, Media Matters deployed each of its 45 researchers to fact-check the statements of Fox News host Bill O’Reilly after his credibility came under scrutiny in February. The deployment made the organization a key part of a reportorial surge busting O’Reilly for falsehoods or at least gross exaggerations about his reporting exploits in places like Argentina, Northern Ireland, El Salvador and Florida. (Disclosure: That surge started with a story by Mother Jones, where the Erik Wemple Blog’s wife works as a staff writer). “Without a doubt we’ve done permanent brand damage,” says Beychok of reporting on O’Reilly. “Quote after quote, night after night — that brand that he has as a truth teller, in the ‘No Spin Zone, all Mr. Fact — is damaged.”
Last summer, the Erik Wemple Blog noted that for an organization that had abandoned the war against Fox News, Media Matters was still generating quite a few blog posts about the place. Over a couple of days last July, for instance, Media Matters published two posts ripping the network’s admittedly idiotic morning show, “Fox & Friends,” over coverage of gender-neutral restrooms. It also put a similar posting on its Tumblr platform.
Angelo Carusone, executive vice president of Media Matters, told the Erik Wemple Blog at the time that such posts accomplish an important objective. “We have strategically developed a plan communicating with an audience that is younger, that Fox News will eventually need to acquire. To the extent that we can inoculate them, organize them and inoculate them against Fox News misinformation, that’s mission-effective,” said Carusone. Nor is Carusone concerned that Fox News rules the ratings on cable news. “Their credibility has been so deeply undermined that by [their] touching a story, it limits the ability of other media to pick it up,” says Carusone, who says that Media Matters has helped to “quarantine” Fox News reporting within Fox News.
It’s this dagger-in-hand ruthlessness that has won Media Matters so many mentions on Fox News over the years, skewing highly unfavorable. A search of Fox News transcripts on Nexis (which doesn’t fetch most daytime fare) turns up 287 results for “Media Matters” over the past five years. Here are a few recent ones:
- “[George] Soros has now taken his ill-gotten gains and is financing the most radical left wing organizations in America. He is a shadow puppet master behind corrupt far-left groups like Media Matters.” — Fox News host Bill O’Reilly, March 18.
- “Media Matters [is] run by a man named David Brock and heavily funded by George Soros. Brock used to smear folks on the left but then he converted to viciously attack folks on the right — quite a guy — who has admitted lying about people in the past.” — Fox News host Bill O’Reilly, March 9
- “And Media Matters is imploding. They are imploding. They are just — they are doing their best to defend Hillary. And it makes me think that the Democrats are starting to think about — who’s their backup?” — Fox News co-host Greg Gutfeld on “The Five,” March 5
Media Matters — which pulled in $12.5 million in contributions and grants, according to its 2013 IRS 990 form — never said that it’d stop covering Fox News — merely that it would shift resources elsewhere over a four-year reorientation. During that period, the group promised more coverage of Hispanic media, monitoring of social media as well as an “action” site where people can join in the fight against misinformation. Among the causes is a push to “Hold Bill O’Reilly Accountable,” to “Fight Misinformation On Local News” and to enhance diversity in news media.
That last crusade could be a bit tricky for Media Matters. Here’s a screenshot for the organization’s 2013 IRS 990 form, showing compensation for its top executives:
For a group that’ll be spending some resources defending Hillary Clinton — a symbol and advocate for gender equality — that’s quite a screenshot. When we asked about the lineup, we were told that three female executives had left the organization just before the reporting threshold for that report had kicked in (Indeed, the 2012 form showed more gender balance.) “Our internal structure is different than in the past,” notes Beychok. “Currently we are led by myself as President, an Executive Vice President Angelo Carusone, and Pilar Martinez our Chief Financial Officer.”
That’s enough bandwidth, apparently, to “damage” the brand of Bill O’Reilly, defend a certain progressive presidential hopeful against the media and campaign against certain narratives about religious freedom in Indiana. “It’s possible for us to do two or three things well at one time,” says Beychok.