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Working the Refs, MRC Style

The Media Research Center is lobbying debate and forum moderators to get them to take it easy on Donald Trump -- and it complains that others are doing the same thing (with seemingly more success).

By Terry Krepel
Posted 10/6/2016


Liberal media critic Eric Alterman identified the mission of the Media Research Center and other right-wing media critics as "working the refs" -- repeatedly complaining about the monolithic "liberal media" and attacking reporters as engaging in "liberal bias" with the goal of making "the media" more conservative, much like a coach will complain about a referee's calls against his team with the goal of the ref taking it easier on his team the next time.

Not that the MRC will ever admit it's doing this, even though it's a core mission of the organization. For example, in a 2006 NewsBusters post, MRC director of media analysis insisted that "utterly reject the idea that the national media can be trusted to act as a referee, when they clearly see themselves as players, not ref," and that only "liberals who enjoy a stacked media deck" will "see conservative media criticism as a political ploy." Of course, the MRC's flip-flop on criticism of Trump in the media -- going from complaining there wasn't enough of it during the primary to complaining it exists at all now -- is all the evidence one really needs to prove that the MRC's media criticism is entirely politically motivated.

Ref-working is the chief mode in which the MRC operates, and unsurprisingly, it has been working the refs regarding the moderators for the 2016 presidential debates since before they were even named.

In August, a month before the debate moderators were even announced, MRC chief Brent Bozell warned of biased moderators and declaring that "I'm watching to see to what degree are you going to have more impartial moderators this time."

Working Lauer -- then defending him

Prior to the Sept. 7 "Commander in Chief Summit," the MRC mocked moderator and NBC "Today" host Matt Lauer, with Kyle Drennen musing that "one wonders if NBC couldn’t find someone with a little more gravitas to host the presidential campaign event." Drennen went on to cite evidence of Lauer's purported lack of gravitas, such as how "on three separate occasions Lauer has dressed as a woman for the Today show’s annual Halloween episode." Complete with pictures.

After the forum, however, the MRC decided that Lauer is full of gravitas after all. Why? He devoted a full one-third of his interview with Hillary Clinton to questions about her email server and gave Donald Trump a pass on his falsehoods like claiming to have always been against the Iraq war.

It seems the MRC's ref-working (well, ref-mocking) worked. Thus, Lauer having done the MRC's bidding, it repeatedly ran to Lauer's defense over widespread criticism of his handling of the forum.

Curtis Houck touted how Lauer "hammer[ed] home concerns that the American people have about her with the private e-mail servers." He later complained about " near-universal excoriations ... of moderator and Today co-host Matt Lauer by the so-called objective media critics with reviews that the Clinton campaign probably couldn’t have written any better." Nicholas Fondacaro similarly cheered how Lauer "hammered Hillary Clinton repeatedly about her e-mail scandal."

Tim Graham whined that those reporting on critics of Lauer only cited "leftists" and tried to spin Lauer's softballing with Trump: "Let’s assume that’s about Trump claiming he opposed the Iraq war. CNN’s media team didn’t protest that Lauer also let Hillary say she has great respect for classified information and we didn’t lose an American in Libya." Clay Waters also whined that "Those oh-so-objective journalists at the New York Times went after a fellow journalist, NBC’s Today show host Matt Lauer, for the crime of being unfair to Hillary Clinton and not sufficiently attacking Donald Trump."

Houck returned to claim: "With so-called neutral media critics throwing temper tantrums late Wednesday and early Thursday about NBC’s Today co-host Matt Lauer harshly questioning both presidential candidates (including Hillary Clinton) at the Commander in Chief Forum, Fox News Channel’s Bill Hemmer and Howard Kurtz appeared to have had enough as they fired back at the desperate criticism on America’s Newsroom." Houck insisted that "there were many Trump supporters not happy with Lauer either so both Hemmer and Kurtz properly noted this fact and that it should instead lead to a conclusion that Lauer did a good job."

Houck didn't mention, however, that neither Hemmer nor Kurtz are "neutral media critics," what with being employed by Fox News, but are simply parroting conservative talking points -- and Hemmer is actually a "news" anchor so he shouldn't be displaying any sort of bias at all (if the MRC ever bothered to apply its standards to any Fox News anchor besides Shepard Smith).

Houck's post, however, is the only post-forum MRC item to mention that the MRC mocked Lauer before the forum.

Meanwhile, MRC research director Rich Noyes defended Lauer in an appearance on Fox News: "Well, I think Matt Lauer is getting bashed today not because Matt Lauer did a bad job. He actually has tough questions of Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton. He interrupted Donald Trump, but Trump stopped and didn't try to plow through him. He’s under fire from the left today because Hillary Clinton didn't do a good job answering those questions."

Noyes then set up the MRC's ref-working frame for the first full presidential debate: asserting that because of the criticism of Lauer, his NBC co-worker Lester Holt, who will be moderating that debate, is "going to try to be very careful with the questions he's asking Hillary Clinton because of the way he's seeing his colleague being treated," hypocritically adding, "It’s called playing the refs and I think, you know, it's something that Democrats are doing right now because they have a press corps that is sympathetic to the idea of stopping Trump."

Houck complained once more about criticism of Lauer, harrumphing that "the onslaught against Lauer has served as a reminder to readers and viewers where exactly the media’s priorities lie, no matter who they end up going after (e.g. one of their own)." What Houck doesn't say: The fact that the MRC is defending Lauer shows where its priorities lie, even if it means contradicting the stance it held on Lauer before the forum.

Graham followed that up by dismissing any criticism of Lauer as "Clinton-toady spin," then hilariously whining that Clinton is fundraising off Lauer's performance the same way Republicans like to fundraise off any perceived media slight of them.

Graham wrote in yet another post: "It’s quite clear that if Hillary Clinton had actually won this side-by-side interview, the media elites would not be brutalizing Lauer. " It's even clearer that if Lauer hadn't attacked Clinton more than Trump, the MRC would still be passing around that montage of a cross-dressing Lauer -- which is what the MRC really thinks Lauer is about. Funny how quickly that went down the rabbit hole once Lauer served the MRC's agenda.

Target: Lester Holt

When Lester Holt was named the moderator of the first debate, the MRC was quick to downplay the fact that he was reportedly chosen to appease Trump. Graham huffed in a Sept. 2 post that "Trump likes Holt, but it's not out because he's been tough on Hillary" and was mad that Holt once committed journalism by asking Trump "about his 'staggering negatives' and outrageous statements." Geoffrey Dickens followed up by omitting all mention of the Trump-appeasing choice of Holt to rummage through the MRC archives to dig up "a few examples of Holt’s most liberal moments in his time at NBC."

The MRC -- taking Noyes' cue from his earlier Fox appearance about others ref-working Holt -- then hilariously went into projection mode, whining about others doing the exact thing it's doing by trying to influence Holt before the debate:

  • Under the headline "Working the Refs: Journalists Push Debate Moderators to Be Tougher on Trump," Dickens grumbled that "the liberal media have set the stage for NBC Nightly News anchor Lester Holt and his fellow presidential debate moderators to be rougher with the GOP nominee," emphasizing that Holt is "liberal-leaning."
  • Bozell projected in a Fox TV appearance that "Hillary Clinton is already just sort of pre-playing this a little — that the media will be responsible if it shows media bias and doesn't go tough on Donald Trump, that it’s intimidated by Trump, that maybe Lester Holt will be intimidated by Donald Trump just as they argue Matt Lauer was at an NBC town hall event," adding, "They’re working the refs and this comes out of the Clinton playbook." It also comes out of the MRC playbook as well, but Bozell won't tell you that.

But when it was revealed that Holt is a registered Republican, the MRC -- which for years has complained about reporters who are registered Democrats -- suddenly decided that party registration was irrelevant.

The MRC's NewsBusters Twitter account sent a comment from Bozell on Holt being a Republican: "So is Colin Powell. So what?" And Graham when into full sulk mode:

The Washington Post and Time magazine are trying to play up the fact that debate moderator Lester Holt is a registered Republican – as if this means anything about his performance. Registering only gives you the right to vote as a Republican. It doesn’t mean that you actually do. It could just be a public-relations ploy.

To prove this, Graham has to go back a whopping 26 years, citing a 1990 MRC item about one journalist who said he was a registered Republican to balance out his Democratic wife and get campaign literature from both sides. But that journalist, Tony Kornheiser, was a sports reporter at the time and, thus, irrelevant to the current discussion.

Graham went on to complain that "If Holt had acted like a "registered Republican" on the air, he'd have never made it to the anchor desk," adding, "Liberals would not suggest that 'a case for partisan bias against Chris Wallace will be tough to make' based on his voter registration." Yet the MRC has not been forthcoming with a greatest-hits item of Wallace "liberal bias." Why is that? Because Wallace, who is the moderator for the Oct. 19 presidential debate, is the MRC's guy -- in 2007, Bozell said that the GOP "ought not to suggest, but demand, a Brit Hume or a Chris Wallace as moderators" for a Republican debate.

Graham added, apparently without irony, "The amount of 'gaming' by the Democrats has been intense, even on the morning of the debate." As it has been by the MRC.

Trump lost that debate, as many conservatives conceded. So, according to MRC logic, that means Trump lost because Holt used his liberal-bias mojo on Trump -- and, more to the point, that its ref-working failed. Thus, the MRC declared war on him.

Brad Wilmouth was mad that Holt "repeatedly challenged Donald Trump ... but refrained from going after Hillary Clinton in the same aggressive manner. He also complained that others engaged in the same ref-working behavior the MRC did, though with supposedly better results: "Prior to the debate, the Clinton campaign repeatedly worked the refs to get tougher questions for Trump. In the case of Lester Holt, the strategy worked." Geoffrey Dickens served up "questions [Holt] could have asked Clinton, if he had any interest in being fair and balanced" and complained that Holt "repeatedly cross-examined and fact-checked GOP nominee Donald Trump" (no mention of how Trump made so many more false claims during the debate than Clinton did). Curtis Houck complained that during the debate Clinton "implored her friends in the liberal media and especially 'the fact-checkers' to 'get to work' on Trump (again, no mention of how badly Trump needs to be fact-checked, but then, the MRC has also declared a war on facts to protect Trump).

MRC VP Dan Gainor published a piece at Fox News' website complaining that "Holt reminded viewers he’s liberal" -- apparently forgetting Holt is a registered Republican -- and claiming that Holt's questions to Trump about being a birther and asking about his taxes was proof of that (and not, it would seem, proof of a journalist asking questions on issues Trump has refused to resolve), as well as repeating the MRC line that fact-checking Trump is something only a "liberal" would do.

But it was MRC chief Brent Bozell who was Trump's chief surrogate on the Holt-bashing front. Immediately after the debate, Bozell issued a statement whining that "Holt continually challenged, fact-checked, and interrupted Trump and not once challenged Hillary," therefore "Lester Holt failed in his role as a moderator. Period."

Bozell then trotted over to friendly Fox Business to rehash his whining, adding that he doesn't understand why Republicans are "choosing these people, it happens almost every day debate. They behave like Lester Holt behaved tonight and then they’re shocked. They’re absolutely shocked that a left-wing journalist behaved like a left-wing journalist." Again, no mention of the fact that Holt is a registered Republican or was reportedly chosen as a sop to Trump. Bozell then played Trump campaign adviser: "I think that, if I were Donald Trump — if I were advising Donald Trump, don’t come out — don’t come out as a spoiled sport, but do make hay over this one. Do raise hell about this. If they can work the refs, so should he and I think he should start working the refs and he should start making an issue about this, how one-sided these debates are and it will work in his favor. At least, it might make them do a good job."

Bozell then issued another statement lamenting that Trump was challenged on his lies by Holt and declaring that "Holt did the bidding of his colleagues in the media, revealing himself to be nothing more than a pawn of Hillary’s campaign." No mention that Bozell is acting as a pawn of the Trump campaign by so aggressively bashing Holt.

Bozell later ran over to Fox News to do another friendly, this time with Megyn Kelly. Unusual for him, it wasn't a solo appearance; Bozell appeared with "liberal former congressional candidate and ex-MSNBC host Krystal Ball," whom he basically ignored. Bozell was in full froth: "[W]here’s the fact-checking? Where's the follow-up? There was a follow-up to everything Donald Trump said. Where was the follow-up on this? She didn’t — what was more important, Megyn, birther issues or Benghazi medical records of the Clinton Foundation. There's so many — the e-mails. What's so important? How could he not have asked these questions?"

The anonymous author of the NewsBusters piece accompanying this clip huffed that Ball was "pathetically arguing that 'one candidate lies disproportionately more than the other candidate [so] of course you're going to have more pushback'" -- not conceding that Trump telling more falsehoods during the debate is as "irrefutable" as Bozell asserts Holt's lack of pushback on Clinton was.

Then, In his column with Tim Graham, he ranted that "Holt's performance was a partisan disgrace" and touted a poll saying that "46 percent of Americans believe most moderators will tilt the debates in favor of Clinton," adding, "Holt confirmed the wisdom of the American people."

Bozell and Graham added that "It became obvious that Holt internalized all the howls of outrage from the liberal media against Matt Lauer for being even-handed with the candidates at the commander-in-chief forum earlier in the month." That would be the same Matt Lauer the MRC was mocking as a lightweight before that forum by posting photos of him in women's clothing (known to the rest of us as Halloween cosplay). But because Lauer did the MRC's duty by being harder on Trump than Clinton, Bozell should be crowing about how well his working-the-refs campaign worked on Lauer. But he won't admit he was trying to work Holt the same way he claims others were.

Needless to say, there was no mention in all this vitriol that Holt was Trump's guy. And Chris Wallace, who will moderate the Oct. 19 debate, is Bozell's guy, which means he's Trump's guy as well.

There will be no MRC post on Wallace's "most liberal moments." But Bozell and the MRC will still go ref-working to make sure he stays on the conservative side of the ledger. And neither Bozell nor the MRC will admit they're doing it, even as they inevitably complain that others are.

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