Until his conscience overcame him, David Brock was conservatives’ go-to hitman. The inside story of the media watchdog who has Bill O’Reilly, Michael Savage–even Stephen Colbert–fuming mad.
Back in the early ’90s, the boom time for Clinton-hating, few hated with the sheer skill and perverse anti-poetry of David Brock. Working as a reporter at the right-wing magazine The American Spectator, Brock’s investigatory hit jobs were all of a similar nature: flimsily sourced, innuendo-laden, and often creepily prurient and misogynistic. Before his thirtieth birthday, Brock had published an epic, afactual takedown of Anita Hill—infamously describing her as “a little bit nutty and a little bit slutty”—that made him a superstar on the right. In a 1994 article titled “His Cheatin’ Heart,” Brock also broke the so-called Troopergate scandal, in which disgruntled Arkansas state troopers, later revealed as paid sources, told tales of Bill Clinton’s alleged womanizing as governor—and which prompted Paula Jones, mentioned for the first time in Brock’s piece, to bring the sexual harassment lawsuit against Clinton that would eventually result in his impeachment.
Brock’s obsession with the sex lives of his political enemies came in spite—some might posit because—of the fact that he was a gay man working for an avowedly homophobic conservative movement. Right-wingers were willing to overlook Brock’s homosexuality as long as he remained useful. Slowly, though, Brock became disenchanted with his own sleazy tactics, and by the late ’90s, he had abandoned the right with as much panache as he’d brought to Clinton scandal-mongering, confessing his journalistic sins in the pages of Esquire (posing with his shirt torn open, tied to a stake) and, in 2002, publishing a nasty yet entertaining memoir, Blinded by the Right: The Conscience of an Ex-Conservative. “By the end,” Brock says today, “I had learned that there was no respect on the right for an honest effort to do journalism—that really, all that was wanted was a party line. And that they didn’t respect me. I was just a means to an end.”
By the 2004 presidential campaign, Brock had begun actively working for the other team. After years of fumbling, progressives were finally beginning to find their voice online, through liberal blogs like Daily Kos and advocacy groups like MoveOn.org. In this atmosphere, Brock launched his own website, Media Matters for America, devoted to monitoring conservative misinformation in the U.S. media. From the start, the daily posts on Media Matters could not have been more unlike the furious, often deliberately provocative style of the new breed of bloggers—or, for that matter, from Brock’s own muckraking former self. He made sure the posts were excessively sourced and his researchers, in documenting instances of factual error, sloppy reporting, bias, or blatant offensiveness, were encouraged to write in an even, almost clinical tone—“something,” Brock says, “closer to objectivity.”
“I can tell you, the people in charge at networks are paying attention to this site,” says one media insider, speaking anonymously. “It scares them.”
“I could have set up a left-wing Drudge Report if that’s what I’d wanted,” Brock says. “But Media Matters is like an antidote to what I’d been doing.”
Brock, who is forty-five, tends to speak with a cautious hesitation; his voice, a low purr, sounds out of practice, and there’s something brittle—frail, spidery—about the way he carries himself. His handshake is so inert it feels, in its own way, as aggressive as a knuckle-popping squeeze, as if he’s draining your energy for some future use.
And yet few websites, and website publishers, enrage right-wing talking heads like Media Matters and David Brock. Like a reformed card shark hired to run security at a casino, Brock is good at his job because he knows, with intimate insider’s knowledge, the tactics of the bad guys, and he also understands exactly how to push their buttons. In less than four years, Brock’s staff has grown from eight to nearly 100, and the website’s items are picked up daily by blogs and mainstream media outlets alike and subsequently brought to the attention of advertisers and interest groups. During the current presidential campaign, Media Matters was cited in a front page New York Times story as one of the prime debunkers of Jerome Corsi’s scurrilous Obama biography. The site has also been out front in highlighting the historically cozy relationship between the press and John McCain, and Brock has co-written (with Paul Waldman) a book on the topic, Free Ride: John McCain and the Media. Earlier, it was Media Matters that first reported on Don Imus’s “nappy-headed hos” remark, which resulted in his firing, and the site’s persistent hammering of MSNBC host Chris Matthews for what it considered sexist and dismissive coverage of Hillary Clinton led to a public apology by Matthews. “I can tell you, the people in charge at networks are paying attention to this site,” says one media insider, speaking anonymously. “It scares them.”
Rush Limbaugh has posted on his website an image of Josef Stalin with a Media Matters logo pinned to his chest. The radio host was humiliated last fall when Media Matters posted an audio clip in which he described military personnel agitating for withdrawal from Iraq as “phony soldiers.” Michael Savage, one of the most extreme right-wing talkers, has called Media Matters “a gay website that attacks me every day,” “the brownshirts of our time,” and “rat snitches,” and described Brock specifically as “a psychopath.” (Earlier this year, a Media Matters post about Savage, who has ten million listeners daily, quoted him saying on-air, “There’s immigration for you… Bring in ten million more from Africa. Bring them in with AIDS. Show them how multicultural you are. They can’t reason, but bring them in with a machete in their head.”)
Bill O’Reilly, meanwhile, has been one of the website’s most consistently fruitful sources of material. Last September, Media Matters posted O’Reilly’s on-air comments following a visit to Sylvia’s, a soul food restaurant in Harlem. O’Reilly said he “couldn’t get over the fact that there was no difference between Sylvia’s restaurant and any other restaurant in New York City. I mean, it was exactly the same, even though it’s run by blacks, primarily black patronship,” later adding, “There wasn’t one person in Sylvia’s who was screaming, ‘M-Fer, I want more iced tea.’” The post resulted in a slew of embarrassing press for O’Reilly, typified by the headline on ABC News’s website: “O’Reilly: Blacks Surprisingly Civilized.” Then, in February, O’Reilly apologized on the air after Media Matters publicized his unfortunate choice of words when commenting on the alleged lack of patriotism of a presidential candidate’s spouse. (“I don’t want to go on a lynching party against Michelle Obama unless there’s evidence, hard facts, that say this is how the woman really feels.”) O’Reilly has described Media Matters as an “assassination website,” “a vile propaganda outfit,” “perhaps the most dishonest enterprise in the country,” and, in a regular segment on his show called “Patriots & Pinheads,” “far worse than pinheads.”
“For all the bluster of O’Reilly and Limbaugh about us, all we’re doing is putting their own words up on the website,” counters the president of Media Matters, Eric Burns, a former investment banker who, like Brock, is also a former Republican. (Burns worked for Texas secretary of state Tony Garza under then-Governor Bush.) “I would say that’s quizzical,” Burns continues, “but it’s more telling. They don’t want to be held accountable.”
Stephen Colbert agrees. At the height of Limbaugh’s “phony soldiers” flap, Colbert rushed to his defense on The Colbert Report, insisting, “Hatemongers like Media Matters take innocent statements like mine, Rush Limbaugh’s, John Gibson’s, and Bill O’Reilly’s and make them offensive by posting them on the Internet, allowing the general public to hear words that were meant for people who already agree with us. Hey, Media Matters, you want to end offensive speech? Then stop recording it for people who would be offended.”
The Making of a Liberal
Brock lives in a three-story townhouse in Kalorama, an affluent neighborhood in Washington D.C. (Nearby property owners include Ted Kennedy and the Burmese Embassy.) He bought the place a year ago with his partner, James Alefantis, a gregarious D.C. restaurateur. Sitting on a couch in his well-appointed front room, Brock holds a glass of Vouvray in one hand and an American Spirit in the other. He’s wearing jeans and a ribbed black sweater, and his dark hair is slicked back into a wet-looking helmet with patches of silver at the brim. A cell phone, two BlackBerry-type devices, and two more sheaths for such devices are arrayed beside him on the couch. Feist plays from a sound system upstairs and four floor-to-ceiling bookshelves are packed with volumes political (My Life, Bill Clinton; The Strange Death of Vincent Foster, Christopher Ruddy) and otherwise (Tolkein; Eugene O’Neill; a biography of Elton John). An enormous Holmesian magnifying glass sits on the coffee table like an unsubtle prop in a play meant to remind viewers of the main character’s days spent sleuthing through others’ dirty laundry. The art throughout the townhouse is sharply divided between the modern (abstract paintings, edgy photography—Alefantis’s), and the more traditional (realist landscapes, angels—Brock’s). Nodding wryly at a tiny painting of a ship, Brock smiles and says, “That’s one of the last survivors from my old place.”
Brock grew up in the suburbs of New Jersey and later in Dallas. His adopted father, a marketing executive, was so right-wing that he left the Catholic Church in the ’60s because he felt it had become too liberal. Once Brock began attending Berkeley, in the early ’80s, he came out of the closet. Ideologically, though, he was turned off by the politically-correct orthodoxy of the campus and the times, and found he got a thrill out of pushing people’s buttons by taking contrarian views. He soon fell in with the embattled minority of Berkeley Young Republicans, embracing with particular zeal the Reagan administration’s fervent anti-Communism.
As a journalist, Brock had long admired Upton Sinclair, and now Brock hoped to employ similar muckraking techniques to further conservative causes. He moved to Washington after college and began writing for The Washington Times, the far-right newspaper founded by the Reverend Sun Myung Moon; later, Brock graduated to The American Spectator, a monthly magazine funded in the ’90s by right-wing billionaire Richard Mellon Scaife largely to dig up dirt on the Clintons.
Because Brock had no compunction against running with the most salacious and embarrassing details, however incredible, he quickly made a name for himself at The American Spectator. His Troopergate story depicted Bill Clinton devouring entire apples, core and all, and Hillary Clinton screaming at her husband, “I need to be fucked more than twice a year!” “With my gonzo spirit on overdrive, I tossed it all into the piece,” Brock later wrote in Blinded by the Right, “everything but the story of Clinton once farting in an elevator and blaming it on [trooper] Roger Perry. I had my standards, after all.”
Brock eventually turned his Anita Hill article into a best-selling book, The Real Anita Hill. He received a million-dollar advance for the follow-up, a Hillary Clinton biography meant to be another hatchet job—during contract negotiations, the president of Simon & Schuster only asked Brock a single question: Was it true that Hillary was a lesbian?—but this time, Brock made a dogged attempt at actual, unbiased research. In the end, he developed a fondness for Clinton. The book was critical of certain policy decisions, like her health-care proposal, but ended up debunking a number of the Clinton “scandals.”
Brock’s partisan colleagues trashed the new book, in print and on the air, and Brock, now considered a turncoat, stopped receiving invites from talk shows and parties. Soon, he says, “excommunication became a two-way street.” He moved to Greenwich Village in New York and began going out every night, throwing himself into a completely unabashed gay scene for the first time in his adult life. Today, he still has long-standing friends who happen to be conservative, but the professional Republicans he used to make the scene with have all been cut out of his life.
“When David wrote for us, he was a lucid and elegant writer, and that’s forever to his credit,” says R. Emmett Tyrell Jr., the founder and editor of The American Spectator. “But he’s had a problem over the years with loyalty. E.M. Forster came up with a formulation regarding what he might do if given the chance to betray a friend or his country. Forster said he hoped he would have the courage to betray his country. David would say, ‘Why not betray both?’”
“What I realized first was the dishonesty, my own dishonesty. It was only later that I understood that lying was actually connected to the [Republican] ideology,” says Brock.
“Serious historians have no doubt as to the veracity of Troopergate,” Tyrell continues. “When Monica Lewinsky was asked to perform the same sex acts with the same Biblical exegesis—oral sex isn’t sex—people said to me, ‘You’re vindicated.’ Brock hasn’t been able to disavow his work other than to say it was in bad taste. And if that’s the case, he’s the first person I know whose taste has been elevated by the Clintons.”
“There were always the true believers,” Brock says today, speaking of his former allies. “And then there were the people who just wanted to be on TV and didn’t give a damn about what they were saying.” He declines to specify which conservatives fall into which category, but continues, “With the gay issue, there were people on the right who were legitimately anti-gay and bigoted, and then there were people who were totally cool and accepting privately, but would say anti-gay things publicly because that’s what they have to say. And what’s worse there? You tell me.”
Brock lights another cigarette and goes on, “What I realized first was the dishonesty, my own dishonesty. It was only later that I understood that lying was actually connected to the ideology. I still get people who say, now that I’ve been working in progressive politics for a few years, ‘Well, yeah, but isn’t it all just the same on both sides?’ But my experience is it’s not the same. Everybody plays hardball. The best people do, no question. But I remember when we first started doing a Media Matters segment on Al Franken’s radio show, they would fact-check our research. I was like, ‘Are you kidding me?’ I must have been on thousands of right-wing radio shows in my life and never once was there any regard for that. That’s a huge difference, ethically and morally. The approach of progressives is different in a fundamental way. We believe that when all of the facts are on the table, we win.”
Media Matters is headquartered in a downtown D.C. office building, just down the street from an imposing statue of Daniel Webster (the nineteenth century lawyer is now best known as the hero of a short story in which he out-argues the devil.) Inside, a large bulletin board doubles as a trophy rack: it’s covered with news clippings about various media figures—Imus, O’Reilly, Matthews, Glen Beck—who have been shamed in some way by Media Matters. Most offices are decorated with at least one item of right-wing kitsch: a Limbaugh coffee mug, a poster of Ann Coulter showing some leg, the face from an Ann Coulter poster cut out into a terrifying homemade Halloween mask. For research purposes, Media Matters subscribes to every conservative publication imaginable, so they receive a number of such freebies in the mail.
Karl Frisch, the media relations director, takes me on a tour of the office. A slightly stocky thirty-year-old with sideburns and a knack for spot-on impressions of slightly stockier media stalwarts—his Limbaugh and Matthews both kill—Frisch, too, has past roots in the GOP. (Though it should be noted that being a former Republican is not a prerequisite for working at Media Matters; other staffers have worked for everyone from Barney Frank to the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee.) Growing up in Los Angeles, Frisch would actually sneak a radio into class, with the headphones snaking up a shirtsleeve, so he could secretly listen to Limbaugh. Later, he worked for John McCain’s 2000 presidential campaign. Though he was gay, he stayed in the closet. “I don’t think they would have fired me, but I would have been marginalized,” he says. “I used to tell people my sister was a lesbian, to preempt homophobic comments. I remember when McCain told reporters on the bus that he could tell if someone was gay by looking at them. I just sat there thinking, ‘Oh, really?’”
The website is the opposite of flashy, and despite all of its successes, it can, on occasion, be infuriatingly nitpicky and/or politically correct to the point of obtuseness. Headlines tend to be bone-dry (“Even after McCain retracts Iraq war statement, Blitzer calls it ‘straight talk’”), though close readers are rewarded with the occasional comic deadpan (“MSNBC’s Buchanan compounded sexist comments, misquoted Samuel Johnson”). There are currently eighteen researchers on staff. Each is assigned a specific beat. One researcher listens to O’Reilly’s radio show in the afternoon and watches his evening broadcast, another monitors every television appearance of Chris Matthews; Ryan Chiachiere, a mop-haired twenty-seven year old who used to play guitar in a jam band, was on the Imus beat last year, and first posted the Rutgers basketball remark that felled the craggy host. All posts are heavily vetted by editors. Around the office, an especially solid item is casually referred to as a “clean hit.”
The researcher currently assigned to Limbaugh is a soft-spoken, bookish-looking twenty-two-year-old named Ann Smith, a recent Willams College graduate with a visual arts degree. Smith has been working at Media Matters since September and on the Limbaugh beat since January. Her posts include items about Limbaugh defending the use of Barack Obama’s middle name (Hussein), falsely insisting Al Qaeda had a presence in Iraq before the U.S. invasion, comparing Bill Clinton to notorious Alabama segregationist Bull Connor, and making repeated reference to Hillary Clinton’s “testicle lockbox.”
This afternoon, Smith sits in front of a computer monitor watching Limbaugh’s broadcast on a six-inch window in the corner of the screen. Despite being the epitome of the old “face for radio” joke, Limbaugh offers an option on his website called the “Ditto Cam,” wherein subscribers can watch him performing his radio show live from his Palm Beach studio. (Limbaugh’s fans are known as “Ditto Heads.”) On the little screen, Limbaugh is wearing a blue golf shirt and gesturing wildly. “Democrats are the party of Al Qaeda,” he says. “Democrats are the party of Mahmoud Ahmadinejad,” deliberately overpronouncing the name.
“A lot of times you can tell he’s going to say something we might be able to use by the way the tone of his voice changes,” Smith says. “He’s also been playing this rousing version of ‘When Johnny Comes Marching Home’ right before a rant. I kind of enjoy listening to him, actually. It was harder when I first started here. I’d hear their voices in my head. I’d try to go to sleep and I’d hear John Gibson.”
Whether it’s the glare of the monitor or the lighting in the studio or naturally produced oils, Limbaugh’s face has a bright pink sheen today, making it look especially piglike. He leans into the microphone and says, “Don’t doubt me.”
“That’s another common phrase,” Smith says, with the unflappable air of an anthropologist observing an animal in its natural environment. As Limbaugh speaks, Smith occasionally clicks over to a web browser and looks up an article or column he references. She also has a Word document open, where she makes notes on the show, always noting the time.
28 – McCain not the candidate of Republicans
34 – Broder embodiment of squishy liberal
1:07 Limbaugh [referring to a goal to reduce the amount of CO2 produced to 1990 levels]: We can’t. We exhale.
15 – Clintons don’t care about money like vacuum cleaners don’t care about dust.
There’s a commercial break. On the webcast, Limbaugh plays “humorous” fake commercials. At the moment, it’s an ad for Lucky Butt Tobacco Suppositories. The screen, meanwhile, has shifted to color bars. Smith explains that Limbaugh occasionally turns off the Ditto Cam during commercial breaks. It’s impossible not to imagine Limbaugh masturbating furtively to fake online nudes of Hillary Clinton.
“Aren’t we journalists? Aren’t we supposed to care about ideas? When did we get so fucking uptight that we don’t give someone the benefit of the doubt when they clearly say something accidentally?” says Tucker Carlson.
“I do like to think I’m his most loyal listener,” Smith says. “I take notes. I’m here every day.”
A Matter of Trust
Upon the release of Blinded by the Right, conservatives were quick to point out—fairly, it must be noted—that a memoir by an admitted liar is inherently suspect. “I live in D.C., so I’m quite familiar with how people shade interpretations of things and conveniently forget other things, but I was shocked at how dishonest his book was,” says Tucker Carlson, the conservative MSNBC commentator who says he knew Brock “fairly well” back in the ’90s. “He was hanging around the craziest wing of the movement, and a lot of the Clinton haters back then were unbalanced and dishonest. But to say that everybody on the right was like that, that’s just not true. I remember going out drinking with him a couple of times back in those days and he was very upfront with me that he was just in it for the dough. I may have thought it was charmingly cynical at the time. I don’t remember. I was young. But there’s always been a mercenary streak with David.”
Carlson has also been busted by Media Matters, and though he says certain posts “drove me crazy,” for the most part, he insists, “Like I give a shit if they’re mean to me. It’s completely fair to hit people on inaccuracy. But they so often hit people for subjective statements, or if they obviously didn’t mean something. Like with O’Reilly’s lynching comment—he was defending Mrs. Obama. Aren’t we journalists? Aren’t we supposed to care about ideas? When did we get so fucking uptight that we don’t give someone the benefit of the doubt when they clearly say something accidentally? It’s bad faith. It’s what politicians do.
“I think there’s a cautionary tale here,” he continues. “Look what happened to the whole edifice on the other side. It’s crumbled. You can’t find a copy of his old magazine now if you’re willing to pay in Krugerrands. David Brock may do for the left what he did for The American Spectator: discredit and destroy it.”
Brock’s conversion has been largely accepted by progressives, at least publicly. He’s become a popular speaker at events like last year’s YearlyKos, and one of the earliest supporters of Media Matters was former Clinton chief of staff John Podesta. Brock has also met the Clintons themselves, and he says they have been “more gracious than one could ever hope for, under the circumstances.”
Still, Brock also has his detractors on the left. One prominent liberal journalist, speaking anonymously, says, “What makes me suspicious of Brock is, like many people who switch from one extreme position to another, he strikes me as a little crazy. I rarely look at Media Matters because it feels so heavily weighted. That I can’t stand—this idea of, ‘Let’s drive these people into the river!’ Like the whole Imus thing. I don’t defend what Imus did, I’m not his friend, but the way they pushed it, and things like that, it starts to feel McCarthyite. I just know the extent that they’re cherry-picking what they quote.”
“My view was that trust would have to be earned every day,” Brock says. “I understood there would be reservations and questions. But in most cases, I have not found it to be a stumbling block.” Brock won’t discuss specifics of his politics today. Media Matters, though openly progressive, is technically non-partisan, and Brock says, “I feel like it’s inappropriate to get too much into my views. They are progressive. If you’re asking me, within the construct of progressivism, where I want the tax rate to end, or whose health-care plan is better, I’d rather not discuss it. Except to say that there’s enough of a big tent within progressivism where I feel comfortable.”
At Comet Ping Pong, his partner’s cavernous, upscale pizza restaurant (with a ping-pong parlor out back), Brock is the most relaxed he’s been all night. He slips his arm affectionately around Alefantis and chats with the chef and other regulars. “Every individual item we post on Media Matters may not seem significant every day,” Brock says, digging into a clam pie. “But it’s establishing a record. People can’t write something off as a slip-up when we have an entire archive.”
Brock firmly believes that the right’s superior skill at gaming the media (combined, of course, with incompetence on the media’s part) resulted in the caricatured versions of Al Gore and John Kerry—the fabulist, the flip-flopper—that went down in defeat in the last two presidential races. But with the ascendancy of a progressive movement on the Internet, he sees the tide turning. “The whole liberal bias thing has been a brilliant weapon for the right, one of the best things they’ve come up with. And I knew all of the players—they’re not rocket scientists. So when we started Media Matters, we thought we could learn from what they’d done and then leapfrog ahead in terms of being more in line with the twenty-first century. And we have! You’ve got Tom Delay, now, writing memos about how the Republican Party needs its own Media Matters. You’ve got FreedomWorks, Dick Armey’s conservative advocacy group, trying to mimic MoveOn. Four years ago, in progressive circles, it was like, ‘Oh, why don’t we have our own Fox?!’ Now it’s the reverse. They’re talking about copying us.”
Mark Binelli, the author of Sacco And Vanzetti Must Die!, is a contributing editor at Rolling Stone.