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The Name-Callers Haven't Left the Building

Does the MRC's right hand know what its CNS right hand is doing when it comes to how it refers to Judicial Watch?

By Terry Krepel
Posted 7/15/2002
Updated 7/16/2002

It sure sounds like a slam-dunk case of liberal media bias, to hear the Media Research Center tell it.

Apparently stunned by the media coverage given to Judicial Watch's filing of a lawsuit against Vice President Dick Cheney over accounting practices at the oil-services company Halliburton while Cheney ran it, the folks at MRC strapped on its conspiracy-sniffing device and claimed it found one.

"When Judicial Watch was suing Clinton administration officials the networks, on the rare occasions when they deigned to even mention the group, made sure viewers realized it was 'conservative.' But when the organization run by Larry Klayman filed a lawsuit on Wednesday against Vice President Dick Cheney, it suddenly became a non-ideological 'watchdog group,' 'Washington watchdog group,' 'legal group,' 'legal activist group' or 'legal advocacy group,'" wrote MRC's Brent Baker in a July 11 CyberAlert. Baker added that "it marked the first time, at least since January 1996, that all three broadcast networks aired a story on the same night about a Judicial Watch lawsuit." Baker then provides examples of network coverage referring to Judicial Watch as "conservative" when suing Clinton officials and not using the tag when referring to JW's suits against Republicans.

Sounds irrefutable, right? Well, Baker refuses to supply a little relevant background that would contradict him. Namely: At least until 2001, Judical Watch was a conservative group.

The evidence:

  • Until 2001, Judicial Watch targeted the Clinton administration almost exclusively with its lawsuits. It was until mid-2001 that the group devoted more than token attention to suing non-Democrats, starting with a lawsuit over the secrecy surrounding Cheney's energy policy task force.
  • Judicial Watch has received a significant portion of its funding in the past from conservative organizations. From 1997 to 2000, Judicial Watch received nearly $3.7 million in funding from the Olin Foundation and two foundations controlled by Richard Mellon Scaife (which have also been kind enough to send a chunk of change MRC's way).
  • Judicial Watch has also engaged in arguably partisan conservative activities. Among them: a press release that can only be interptreted as rooting for George W. Bush's victory in the 2000 presidental election despite a disclaimer at the end that "Judicial Watch is non-partisan and does not endorse or oppose any political candidate"; another one headlined, "Judicial Watch Congratulates George W. Bush On Presidential Election Victory"; and an ham-handed attempt at intimidation by declaring that it would "closely monitor the alleged 'shady' connections of Joe Conason and Gene Lyons," authors of the book "The Hunting of the President," for allegedly "planning a campaign to destroy conservatives on behalf of operatives of the Clinton-Gore White House." Judicial Watch has in the past provided a link on its web site to the conservative web site Free Republic. And Judicial Watch has also in the past exchanged mailing lists with the decidedly partisan National Republican Congressional Committee.
  • At least until early 2001, Judicial Watch's own press releases and leader Larry Klayman himself regularly referred to Judicial Watch as conservative. A Jan. 4, 2001, press release, for instance, refers to itself as a "nonpartisan conservative public interest law firm." On Jan. 25, 2001, it asked supporters for "immediate emergency support ... to help prevent conservatives ... from being destroyed by the smear campaign of ultra-leftist revolutionaries" during the confirmation process of President George W. Bush's Cabinet nominees. Klayman declared "we are conservative" in a Dec. 11, 2000, news release criticizing certain Bush administraiton Cabinet appointments as being too liberal. And in a Nov. 11, 2000, press release announcing its intent to involve itself in Florida election lawsuits, Judicial Watch proudly declares itself "a conservative organization" and further quotes Klayman describing Judicial Watch as "the leading [conservative] public interest group in the area of government corruption" (the bracketed "conservative" is in the original release).

Somehow, despite that pile of evidence, the MRC apparently believes we're not supposed to conclude that the media was justified in calling Judicial Watch a "conservative" organization during its Clinton sue-happy phase -- which hasn't exactly ended despite its current focus on suing Republicans. But the fact that it is treating the Republicans the same way it has treated the Clintons and other Democrats appears to be at least surface evidence that Judicial Watch has moved beyond being a blatantly partisan "conservative" organization. Therefore, not only was the media absolutely correct in calling Judicial Watch "conservative" during the Clinton years, it is at least technically correct in dropping the "conservative" label in describing it regarding the Halliburton suit.

And before Baker gets too wild with charging liberal bias based on such an incomplete analysis, he might want to go down the hall and check in with his co-workers at MRC's news-service subsidiary, A July 18, 2001, CNS article on the energy task force lawsuit calls Judicial Watch -- you guessed it -- "a conservative public interest legal group." And in an April 10, 2001, article on a lawsuit against Republican officials for allegedly selling access to administraiton officials in exchange for campaign donations, Klayman is quoted as saying, "Judicial Watch is a conservative group, and we're proud of it."

Those stories, by the way, are two of only three references on CNS to Judicial Watch actions against Republicans out of 95 CNS articles that make reference to the group, according to a CNS site search. (The third one, by the way, is not about the Halliburton suit, which CNS has so far ignored.) That puts it right up there with the rest of the ConWeb in giving short shrift to Judicial Watch actions against Republicans. NewsMax, which used to run Judicial Watch press releases nearly verbatim, ignored or buried most Judicial Watch GOP actions until last week, when it decided it was proud of Klayman after all and touted a victory over Cheney in the energy task force lawsuit. (Then again, it may just be a case of NewsMax trying to piggyback on Klayman's mainstream media exposure over the Halliburton suit.) WorldNetDaily is the ConWeb component that has come the closest to treating Klayman and Judicial Watch the same no matter which party is on the receiving end of its lawsuits.

Update: Additionally, a mid-July search through the CNS database at stories published before the 2000 presidential election -- the period that MRC's Baker says the TV networks "made sure viewers realized it was 'conservative'" -- show that CNS was twice as likely not to use the word "conservative" in describing Judicial Watch. Of a total of 41 separate CNS articles mentioning Judicial Watch between 1998 and October 2000 examined by ConWebWatch, only 13 used the word "conservative" in describing the group; the other 28 used terms like "legal watchdog group" or no description at all -- the same "non-ideological" terms Baker complains the networks are using now. (A couple other CNS stories appear to be versions of Judicial Watch press releases.)

Instead of complaining about how the networks have suddenly discovered Judicial Watch, Baker might want to find out why his co-workers glossed over the group's conservative origins during the Clinton years and would rather pretend it doesn't exist at all, at least when it sues Republicans. He seems oblivious to the fact that it works both ways.

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