The Bush Administration Research Center
As its promotion of a dubious WMDs-in-Iraq claim and its attacks on the New York Times demonstrate, the Media Research Center is much more interested in advancing White House talking points than engaging in media research.
By Terry Krepel
The Media Research Center, historically, has been less about media research and more about advancing Republican talking points. Events of the past couple weeks make that clearer than ever.
When Republican Sen. Rick Santorum proclaimed that decayed, degraded chemical munitions found in Iraq -- as much as 20 years old, dating back to the Iran-Iraq war -- were "weapons of mass destruction," the MRC quickly echoed his claim, burying or ignoring completely the inconvenient fact that the munitions were old, degraded, not a current WMD threat, and were never aimed at the United States -- not to mention that the existence of these munitions was already noted in a 2004 report by the Iraq Survey Group, which was tasked with finding WMDs in Iraq (aka the Duelfer report), a fact confirmed by a Defense Department official -- and attacked anyone who did point that out.
A June 22 NewsBusters post by Brent Baker (repeated in a June 23 CyberAlert) claimed when Keith Olbermann pointed out that particular fact, he did so "condescendingly." Baker took the technicality approach that the find proves liberals wrong, however useless those weapons are: "Though these are not the weapons the Bush administration used to justify going to war, since they date from before the 1991 Gulf War, they do undermine the claims of those on the left -- too often repeated by members of the media -- that 'no' WMD existed in Iraq." That justification was repeated in Tim Graham in his own NewsBusters post. In yet another NewsBusters post complaining about news outlets who didn't report "coalition troops finding lost WMD in Iraq," NewsBusters' Dave Pierre didn't mention the degraded state of the munitions at all.
A June 23 MRC press release bashed "top media that have downplayed or dismissed the findings," insisting that while they are "older weapons ... they do nonetheless constitute WMD." Again, the MRC failed to acknowledge the simple fact of the degraded state of the munitions beyond noting that some "top media" did so. In his June 27 column, MRC president Brent Bozell claimed that the alleged "weapons of mass destruction" "should be a crucial, corrective turning point to the stuck-in-2003, pre-war obsessives." But he, like the rest of his MRC brethren, failed to acknowledge the degraded state of the munitions.
MRC's "news" division, CNSNews.com, also joined in the fun (and denial) with an June 21 article by Melanie Hunter that unquestioningly parroted Santorum's claims.
When The New York Times reported on a Bush administration program to tap into a vast database of international financial transactions maintained by a banking consortium in order to trace transactions of people suspected of having ties to Al Qaeda, the MRC hewed even closer to White House talking points. After all, this was a perfect convergence of its dual missions -- defending the Bush administration and attacking the Times as liberal.
As the Bush administration ratcheted up its rhetoric against the Times, so did the MRC, issuing a press release featuring Bozell declaring that the Times "will stop at nothing to propel its liberal agenda, not even jeopardizing our national security" and "deliberately pushing a left-wing agenda" and heartily endorsing the idea of charging the New York Times with treason. Bozell followed up by hammering home the point in an appearance on Fox News, claiming that Times showed not a "left-wing agenda" but "a far-left-wing agenda."
The MRC responded in its usual fashion -- ignoring inconvenient facts. What you won't find at the MRC is the fact that the vast majority of what the Times reported was already on the public record. (Actually, Clay Waters did briefly note it, then immediately dismissed as a "lame defense.") Nor will you find much criticism of the Los Angeles Times and the Wall Street Journal, which ran similar stories the same day as the Times. The MRC's reason for such selective outrage, according to Graham in a June 29 NewsBusters post, is that "they only ran the story after the Times let the cat out of the bag." But the Journal thinks otherwise; Washington bureau chief Gerald Seib told Editor & Publisher that the Journal and the Times posted their article online at about the same time: "In sum, we and the Times were both chasing the story, and crossed the finish line at the same time -- and well ahead of the Los Angeles Times, which posted its story well after ours went up."
The MRC also dismissed out of hand the Times' defense for running the story in order to brand the paper as a den of traitors. In a May 26 Times Watch post, Clay Waters claimed that Times executive editor "pompously" defended the article in a letter to readers. In a June 28 NewsBusters post, Waters called Keller's letter "arrogant." (Waters had already signaled his bias on this issue by, in a June 23 Times Watch post, using the phrase "terrorist surveillance program" -- the Bush administration's preferred term -- to describe the program the Times reported on, despite the fact that the financial records of thousands of non-terrorists are also examined.) Graham joined in the fun, focusing in a June 29 post on what he called "breathtaking arrogance of the New York Times, the self-appointed spoilers of secrecy."
Anyone else who dared to defend the Times was also fair game. A June 27 NewsBusters post by Mark Finkelstein attacked New Yorker media columnist Ken Auletta's defense of the Times, claiming he was "dissembling," then smeared him as a supposed elitist: "Even so, he seems so urbane, so calm, even reasonable. You could almost imagine having a drink and a conversation at sunset on the deck of one of those fancy Hampton houses you picture him visiting on weekends." A June 27 NewsBusters post by Greg Sheffield bashed the Washington Post's Howard Kurtz as holding "the classic MSM belief that First Amendment = New York Times, that you can't have one without the other."
The MRC even threw a bit of misinformation into the mix. A June 27 NewsBusters post by Noel Sheppard claimed: "There have been no allegations, even by The Times, that any laws either domestic or international were violated by this program. Moreover, subpoenas were issued for all of the banking examinations performed during this operation." In fact, the subpoenas used to gain access to the financial records were not issued by any court but administrative subpoenas issued by the Treasury Department that, according to the Los Angeles Times, "are secret and not reviewed by judges or grand juries, as are most criminal subpoenas." Also, according to Media Matters, the New York Times article in question did in fact note that some have questioned the legality of the program.
The MRC even went so far as to deny that critics of the Times aren't motivated by politics. In a June 28 NewsBusters post, Finkelstein cited NBC's Tim Russert calling the attacks "an orchestrated campaign to try to frame this issue of national security versus the media," then added: "Alright, fair enough if Russert wants to suggest that politics might have played some part in the White House reaction." Finkelstein then took offense at Russert's suggestion that the administration was "going after the messenger," claiming, "This is an example of the MSM being unable or unwilling to recognize that Republicans can act other than out of nefarious motives." Similarly, in a June 28 CyberAlert, Brent Baker singled out news coverage that "has questioned the administration's motives."
Graham added: "It's appalling that reporters are so cynical that they can't understand the genuine anger and passion of Republicans on this story, and seek to command the audience to doubt the sincerity of the Republicans when it challenges liberal media hubris." He then absolved the White House of any political motive: "If Bush and Cheney wanted to pander to conservatives by attacking the press, they certainly could have been bolder and harsher than they were."
But while portraying conservatives as acting only on the purest, heartfelt motives, the MRC often questions the motives of outspoken liberals. As ConWebWatch has detailed, its CNSNews.com regularly portrays Democrats as acting only out of political or personal motives.
Such criticism of anyone who failed to heap contempt upon the Times to the MRC's satisfaction went to the extreme of falsely accusing one critic, MSNBC's Chris Matthews, of playing the anti-Semitism card. The headline on a June 29 NewsBusters post by Finkelstein read: "Chris Accusing WH of Anti-Semitism in Criticism of NY Times?" The flimsy evidence: Because Matthews mentioned "big ethnic New York way up there in the Northeast that never votes Republican" and did an impression of a Noo Yawk accent on the same day that San Francisco Chronicle columnist Jon Carroll did suggest an anti-Semetic motive in criticism of the Times, Matthews was obviously accusing the White House of anti-Semitism in its criticism of the Times. Finkelstein ominously stated: "Bear in mind that Matthews just happens to be a former San Francisco Chronicle columnist himself. Was it just pure coincidence that on the day the Carroll column appeared, Matthews seemed to be suggesting a similar theory?"
Only if you ignore the facts that Matthews never said the word "Jew," there are many ethnicities in New York other than Jewish, and the Noo Yawk accent isn't a Jewish accent. In the comments, Finkelstein claimed that the Times "historically identified as a 'Jewish' paper"; he has apparently never heard of the Forward.
Likewise, by falling back on its old liberal-media-bias template, the MRC refuses to acknowledge the idea that the Times was motivated by anything other than animus toward the Bush administration by running the story. A June 27 NewsBusters post by Finkelstein called the Times "hostile to all things Bush and Republican in a thousand ways the Media Research Center could document from here to Sunday." Waters insisted that "the Times has higher priorities, like selling papers to a core audience ready to be outraged by anything the Bush administration does." Another Waters post happily cited a National Review attack claiming that the Times was interested only in, as Waters wrote, "irresponsible Pulitzer-sniffing."
The MRC also shows a double standard on the touchy issue of alleged death threats. While both Baker and Graham voiced objections when, last fall, liberal radio host Al Franken said that Karl Rove and Lewis "Scooter" Libby "are going to be executed" for committing treason by outing covert CIA operative Valerie Plame -- or, as Graham put it, "Al Franken went around the 'mainstream media' circuit making jokes about Bush officials being executed for treason in the Plame case" -- the MRC has been silent when that same level of rhetoric has been directed at the Times, such as when radio host Melanie Morgan declared that she would have "no problem with" the Times' Keller "being sent to the gas chamber." In fact, NewsBuster Mithridate Ombud did exactly what Franken did, unilaterally declaring the Times guilty of treason and stating that "The legal remedy for what the New York Times has done is the death penalty."
And a June 27 post by Noel Sheppard found it "toooooo funny" that the left-leaning website Raw Story reported that posters at the right-leaning Free Republic were threatening to kill Times editors, reporters. Apparently he, like his NewsBusters, colleagues, see nothing wrong with such violence.
As ConWebWatch has previously noted, the MRC has a bad habit of condoning threats of violence against journalists.
The general definition of "research" is to search for and present all relevant information. Then, one can make an informed decision. But the MRC has demonstrated that it cares only about certain facts, and then only if they make conservatives look good or liberals look bad.
That's not research; that's politics. Perhaps a name change is in order for the Media Research Center. The Republican Research Center would be much closer to reality.