by Robert Gelfand
American Reporter Correspondent
San Pedro, Calif
June 21, 2004
A SITE THAT DOES SOME HEAVY LIFTING
LOS ANGELES -- If you still think that Rush Limbaugh, Sean Hannity, Bill O'Reilly and their imitators are credible sources of information, I invite you to look at Media Matters for America. This new Website (http://mediamatters.org) will prove to be a treasure trove for journalists and liberal partisans even if it fails to make anybody's top-ten list for readability.
Media Matters is another project created (at least partly) by David Brock, the repentant formerly right-wing political hit man who now seeks to expose the lies and manipulations of his former colleagues. Let us consider this new site in terms of whether it is doing the job right, as well as in terms of whether it is doing the right job.
A quick perusal of Media Matters shows a Website which is trying to do a near-real-time exposure of the factual errors, stretches, and hateful rhetoric spoken by these right wing superstars. Here's how Media Matters described a recent Rush Limbaugh attack on John Kerry's wife. The piece is titled "Limbaugh claimed Republicans didn't challenge Cleland's patriotism in 2002."
Radio host Rush Limbaugh attempted to undermine Teresa Heinz Kerry's explanation that she left the Republican Party in 2002 out of anger over attacks by the Senate campaign of Republican Saxby Chambliss (R-GA) on the patriotism of the then-incumbent senator, Max Cleland (D-GA), a Vietnam veteran who lost three limbs during that war. On the June 15 Rush Limbaugh Show , Limbaugh asserted, "[T]hat's not what the Republicans did, but the Democrats portrayed it that way."
Those of us who remember that sordid story will be outraged, but for the rest of the populace, it is necessary to review the facts. This is accomplished nicely, as the story continues:
Heinz Kerry's comments were reported by the Associated Press on June 14. As the article indicated, "The GOP had raised questions about Cleland's patriotism because of his position on legislation to create the Department of Homeland Security." Chambliss aired advertisements against Cleland that featured footage of Saddam Hussein and Osama bin Laden. As the Orlando Sentinel reported on June 13 and as Media Matters for America noted, "Republican Sens. Chuck Hagel of Nebraska and John McCain of Arizona -- both Vietnam veterans -- were so irate that they complained to their party about the ads until the Saddam and bin Laden photos were removed."
It's not enough to pull out a few angrily worded remarks and flog them ad nauseum -- this is, after all, how Limbaugh and Hannity et al make a living -- it's important to catalogue the entirety of the offenses thoroughly and carefully, so there can be no doubt about the case that is being made.
Here is one example of the Media Matters approach, comprehensively done as a response to suggestions in major newspapers that Limbaugh has now somehow become mainstream: "Media Matters for America monitored The Rush Limbaugh Show from March 15 to April 29. During that time, Limbaugh used the term "femi-Nazis" eight times; he suggested that women want to be sexually harassed; he repeatedly equated Democrats with terrorists; he twice resurrected long-discredited right-wing claims that Clinton deputy White House counsel Vince Foster was murdered; he repeatedly called Senator John Kerry a "gigolo"; he called environmentalists "total wackos"; he called Howard Dean "a very sick man"; he said Democrats "hate this country"; he referred several times to Democratic National Committee Chair Terry McAuliffe as a "punk" ... and so on."
The article continues with 77 excerpts taken from Limbaugh's radio shows which can be characterized as sexist, racist or xenophobic, or characterizing Democrats, Sen. John Kerry, Kerry's wife and others in abusive terms.
Limbaugh is not the only radio host who has been getting away with rhetorical murder. Here is one paragraph from a piece about Bill O'Reilly: "FOX News Channel host Bill O'Reilly spoke publicly about the recent threat of a defamation lawsuit from Eric Alterman, whom O'Reilly had called "another Fidel Castro confidant," calling Alterman a "left-wing loon" and a "pinhead" during the June 15 broadcast of The Radio Factor with Bill O'Reilly . On the previous day's show, O'Reilly compared Bill Moyers to Mao Zedong; on April 20, O'Reilly compared Moyers to Castro and to convicted serial killer Ted Bundy (but claimed he was joking about the Bundy comparison)."
The piece goes into more detail including a partial transcript from O'Reilly's June 15, 2004 show, but you get the idea.
In debunking radio host Sean Hannity, Media Matters simply links to another liberal Website, the Center for American Progress (americanprogress.org). There, a page titled "The Document Sean Hannity Doesn't Want You to Read" lists 15 issues on which Sean Hannity has demonstrably misstated or erred, ranging from the Weapons of Mass Destruction to Sen. John Kerry's support for CIA funding, and passing through the alleged vandalism of the White House by outgoing Clinton staffers. (Remember that old slander, later disproved completely?)
Media Matters for America is going to be a significant resource for journalists and liberal activists because it is the first serious effort to catalogue the right wing "noise machine" (to use Brock's term here) in such a thorough way. For example, one section provides downloadable transcripts of each Rush Limbaugh radio broadcast for the period from May 3 to May 14, 2004. This was obviously a lot of work to do and the project should be continued.
Similarly, the outrages committed by Limbaugh's imitators are presented in all their stark ugliness. The fact that somebody is listening carefully to the major talk shows and putting it in writing for literate people to read is a major accomplishment.
At the same time, Media Matters is badly in need of a makeover. Its presentation is a jumbled mess of stories which are presented, apparently, in chronological order rather than in some more comprehensible fashion. The lead article as of this writing is a barely readable complaint about Michiko Kakutani's review of Bill Clinton's new book. The piece is of minor interest in the grand scheme of things and does not belong as the lead. The home page is a disparate collection of opening paragraphs attacking television shows, newspapers and radio, without discernible order or logic.
In order for any Website to communicate information, it must present it in a way that allows the reader first to know what the subject is, then to find the article dealing with that subject and finally to present that article in a readable way. Media Matters fails in the first two levels, an unfortunate result considering the well-researched articles within.
As any person moderately conversant with Website design will know, different computers and browsers have their little quirks when it comes to displaying any Web page. I looked at the mediamatters.org pages using two different computers and three different browsers, and it is hard to follow on any of them.
Here is what I would like to see: A section introducing Sean Hannity, for example, with perhaps a few choice quotes and links to specific articles. The same approach for Limbaugh, O'Reilly and all the other subjects. A decent table of contents or index to help the reader. Headlines of the day. It would make a world of difference.
If Media Matters would do this, it would become the prime research tool for hundreds of critics and thousands of interested readers.
In answer to the question, "Are they doing the job right?", the answer is a qualified yes. Yes because there is solid content there. Qualified because it is so hard to tease it out of the site. For example, trying to locate the page with the Limbaugh transcript downloads was a matter of trial and error which resulted in success only after several trials and errors.
The other question is whether Media Matters is doing the right job. To some extent it is, in the sense that you have to start somewhere. At another level, it is not, because the people who are listening to the radio shock jocks are often enough doing so while sitting in their cars in traffic. They are not surfing the internet, they are passing the time while driving.
In this sense, the only way to turn the tide is to affect the content of what goes out over the air. It is a much more difficult problem to solve. The right wing solved it to their own satisfaction some years ago. Liberals have a long way to go.