Hillary Clinton started off this week trying to reset her frequently adversarial relationship with the media. "My relationship with the press has been at times, shall we say, complicated," she told a crowd of political journalists Monday. "I am all about new beginnings: A new grandchild, another new hairstyle, a new email account. The relationship with the press. So here goes: no more secrecy. No more zone of privacy. After all, what good did that do me?"
It's far too early to know if the not-yet official, not-yet real Clinton presidential campaign will really try to bandage over its press relations. But as Clinton gears up to announce her all-but-official presidential candidacy, the researchers at Media Matters for America are more than willing to do the type of message policing and media hounding that Clinton's camp is trying to avoid.
Media Matters, a liberal media watchdog group, is part of Clinton hater-turned-helper David Brock's three-pronged empire. American Bridge is dedicated to tracking conservative candidates and doing opposition research. Correct the Record works to preempt any attacks Clinton may have to weather. And Media Matters is focused on monitoring conservative (and mainstream) media outlets to point out "misinformation" in the press on topics from climate change to gun control to presidential politics.
It's often easy to trace Media Matters' influence on a major news story, and you can see that with the coverage of Clinton's email use at the State Department. Media Matters called the New York Times story, which broke March 2, "deceptive," and Brock wrote a letter to the paper asking for a correction.
The Times eventually did walk back its original Clinton story a bit (although public editor Margaret Sullivan called Brock's complaints "over-the-top"). One recent Media Matters story questioned whether the paper—not exactly a right-wing outlet—is "gearing up for more Clinton warfare".
Clinton has had her fair share of unfair media coverage. In the past, along with Bill O'Reilly, Media Matters' most staunch nemesis may have been MSNBC's Chris Matthews, who the site pointed out made multiple comments surrounding the 2008 campaign that were, at best, borderline sexist. But the ferocity with which Media Matters has defended Clinton can verge on the absurd—like this 2008 story taking down Matthews for alleging that Clinton did not become a New York Yankees fan until she ran for Senate. The group is quick to point out that's not the case today. "He's not being monitored more closely than anybody else," a Media Matters spokesman told National Journal.
The work being done at Media Matters, with hyper-attention to detail, provides a good microcosm of what it's like to be young and working in politics right now. Whether you're a Democratic tracker or a Republican blogger, your boss likely expects you to monitor every tweet, TV hit and fact-checkable sound bite coming out of an opponent's mouth.
While some people can thrive in this environment, feeding off the quirks and blunders of their philosophical adversaries, others only feel a creeping sense of apathy.
"The moment when I realized I had to leave was when I stopped caring about what they were saying on TV," one former Media Matters staffer told National Journal. "It's like, 'Oh, Bill O'Reilly said this.' Who gives a shit? 'Someone called Michelle Obama fat.' Who cares?"
But Media Matters' president, Bradley Beychok, says no misleading factoid is too small for his group to debunk.
"If a critic is going to say, 'Well, some of those are small details,' they're small details but they add up," Beychok, who joined the organization in 2012 after serving as campaign director at American Bridge, told National Journal. "And from our perspective, if we're not dealing in fact or real information, then the aggregate of that is dangerous."
Beychok partially credited the de-escalating careers of people such as Glenn Beck and Lou Dobbs to his group's hawk-like monitoring of the inaccurate and offensive things they've said. That desire to degrade conservative media, picking off one pundit at a time, is evident in its current and former staff.
"It was always pretty easy to draw a line between the work that we were doing and the impact that we were having," Greg Lewis, who worked at Media Matters from 2007 to 2010, told National Journal. "It's widely accepted now that Fox News is overtly conservative in almost all hours of broadcast, but that wasn't always the case, and I know that MMFA is a big reason for changing minds on this."
Another ex-staffer, who asked to speak on background about his former employer, put it more directly.
"Having a job where they pay you to watch the news and then shit all over it is kind of cool," the former staffer said. "You watch Fox News in your house, and you get pissed off, and you can't do anything about it, whereas at Media Matters, you can do something about it."
When it comes to presidential politics, Media Matters' defense network isn't exclusively pro-Clinton—the organization's researchers also defended Barack Obama in 2008, when he was Clinton's primary opponent. This time around though, with no Democratic competition rising to the surface, Media Matters is able to focus its 2016 muscle on Hillary Clinton.
That's already playing out in the organization's staffing. Ten days after the Clinton email story broke, Media Matters hired James Carville—the lead strategist of Bill Clinton's presidential campaign—as a guest contributor. Carville went to work fighting media narratives, arguing that the Clintons are held to a higher level of scrutiny in the press than any other political figures.
While Media Matters features two of Clinton's most vocal defenders—Carville and Brock—a spokesman for the organization said they have no relationship with Clinton's team, and they don't plan on having one once she announces her (presumed) presidential campaign.
The other side of the coin is that while the Democratic Party will have to spread out its resources attacking the hordes of Republican primary candidates, right-leaning research organizations and news outlets can focus all of their attention on Clinton. Regardless of what Clinton herself does to improve her relationship with the press, Brock's groups, along with other progressive organizations, will be the tip of the spear in the battle for the Hillary Clinton Narrative.
This post has been updated to clarify Media Matters' current stance toward Chris Matthews.
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