The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Opinion In bashing the New York Times, David Brock embraces anonymous sources

David Brock, founder of the liberal media watchdog group Media Matters for America, in 2010. (Katherine Frey/The Washington Post)
Placeholder while article actions load

David Brock’s new book — “Killing the Messenger: The Right-Wing Plot to Derail Hillary and Hijack Your Government” — advances a master defense of Democratic presidential candidate Hillary Clinton through the use of the fossil record. Over 280 pages, the book plows through Clinton’s biography and achievements, all the while making note of the sometimes vitriolic, often sexist media coverage and political attacks that she has sustained along the way.

Brock is many things — a former conservative activist turned liberal activist, plus founder of Media Matters for America and the pro-Hillary Clinton super PAC American Bridge and Correct the Record, a group dedicated to defending Clinton from “baseless attacks.” The reportorial philosophy of these organizations fetches a description in his book: “As it happens, Media Matters and Correct the Record source all of their research to publicly available information and verified reporting, and the groups make their work product public on their websites.”

So why did Brock violate this very principle in his own book?

Though Brock has spent much of the past decade fighting Fox News, “Killing the Messenger” prioritizes the alleged anti-Hillary Clinton prejudices of the New York Times. His argument on this front reaches deep into the 1990s, when then-New York Times investigative reporter Jeff Gerth was writing about the Clintons’ Whitewater dealings; it cites a Media Matters study into the Hillary Clinton-related columns of Maureen Dowd, with a finding that 72 percent of the lot were negative toward her; and it mentions the anti-Bill Clintonism of former New York Times editorial page editor (and former executive editor) Howell Raines.

Follow Erik Wemple's opinionsFollow

Vitriol sinks into the Times critique as Brock addresses more contemporary gripes. In recent months, the New York Times has published news-cycle-rattling stories about Hillary Clinton’s e-mail habits, starting with the March article by Michael Schmidt revealing that during her tenure as secretary of state, she exclusively used a personal e-mail setup. And in late July, the paper reported that Clinton herself was the subject of criminal probe referrals from a pair of federal government inspectors general — only to backtrack with a correction that it wasn’t a criminal thing, after all.

Those two articles help to explain why Brock argues that the Times “will have a special place in journalism hell” (at least with respect to Clinton coverage). Driving the paper’s shuttle into the fiery depths, argues Brock, is Carolyn Ryan, the paper’s senior editor for politics and former Washington bureau chief. According to Brock, she played a corrupting role in Schmidt’s March e-mail article. That article alleged that Clinton “possibly” broke rules with the private e-mail use, though Clinton spokesman Nick Merrill supplied a statement saying otherwise — that the use of personal e-mail was permitted as long as the professionally relevant documents were retained. Brock:

As Schmidt’s story was being put to bed, with its false hint of criminality trumpeted in an accusatory headline, Times editor Ryan held forth to colleagues that the response from the Clinton spokesman had been edited down to just a few stray phrases because she — Carolyn Ryan — believed it was a lie — and that the Clintons just lie.

Who can spot the sourcing in that claim?

There’s more: Brock reports, “Experienced journalists in the Times Washington bureau, I’ve been told, are appalled at Ryan’s unprofessionalism on the Clinton beat. ‘She has a hard-on for Hillary,’ said one source in the Times. ‘She wants that coonskin nailed to the wall.'”

Those two sentences almost suggest that Brock interviewed journalists in the Times Washington bureau. But not quite. “One source in the Times” could be a lot of people — a lot of people who pass along gossip from folks who have some stake in the proceedings. Not to mention that, hey, who at the Times mixes “hard-on” and “coonskin” in the same breath?

Everyone relies on anonymous sources at one point or another, so why obsess over this instance? Because Brock’s Media Matters regularly punishes others for doing so. Some illustrative Media Matters examples:

*Aug. 14: “State Dept. Shuts Down Fox’s Anonymous Speculation Of Clinton Aides Stripping Email Classification Markings

*July 24: “The New York Times dramatically changed a report that initially stated — based on anonymous sources — that federal investigators were seeking a criminal probe into former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton’s use of personal email while at the State Department.”

*July 30: “Clinton Story Debacle Just The Latest In NY Times’ History Of Anonymous Sourcing Problems

*July 6: “Benghazi Dems: Politico Got Spun By Anonymous Source Who Distorted Clinton Email

And on and on.

Asked about the commonality between stuff that Media Matters pans and some of the stuff in his own book, Brock replied, “I wrote this book leaning on 25 years of evidence about The New York Times’ institutional bias against Hillary Clinton. In order to protect numerous sources who are currently employed there, I allowed them to participate anonymously. This isn’t a book written by Media Matters. It is my personal story and much of the book centers on evidence backing up my claims.”

That last part is true. Brock indeed nails the New York Times using public reference points, especially on the errors and omissions of the recent e-mail stories — to the point that the anonymously supported knife-twisting comes off as agenda-driven pique.