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The MRC's Smear Factory

The Media Research Center defended Bill O'Reilly and Rush Limbaugh by attacking its liberal counterpart, Media Matters, as a "left-wing smear machine." But the MRC has its own long history of smears.

By Terry Krepel
Posted 10/3/2007

In order to defend Bill O'Reilly and Rush Limbaugh, the Media Research Center is attacking its liberal counterpart, Media Matters.

At the center of the controversy are two Media Matters items depicting controversial remarks: O'Reilly saying of his visit to Harlem restaurant Sylvia's, "I couldn't get over the fact that there was no difference between Sylvia's restaurant and any other restaurant in New York City. I mean, it was exactly the same, even though it's run by blacks, primarily black patronship"; and Limbaugh apparently calling members of the military who advocate withdrawal from Iraq "phony soldiers."

Following in the footsteps of its unquestioning support for Ann Coulter no matter how many outrageous things she says, the MRC showed little hesitation in running to the defense of more fellow conservatives.

In a Sept. 27 press release, the MRC demanded that CNN and CBS apologize to O'Reilly for reporting on the controversy and thus "for their participation in the smear campaign against" O'Reilly. It quoted MRC president Brent Bozell calling Media Matters "dishonest leftists," a "dishonest, far-left, hatemongering organization," a "left-wing hate group," and a "disreputable organization" that is "funded by ultra-leftist billionaire George Soros." (In fact, Soros has never given money to Media Matters, either directly or through another organization.)

Similarly, an Oct. 1 MRC press release attacked MSNBC for "deliberately misrepresenting statements radio host Rush Limbaugh made," calling Media Matters a "left-wing smear machine."

Given Media Matters' and MRC's similar missions and opposite places on the ideological spectrum, this must mean that the MRC is a "right-wing hate group" and part of the "right-wing smear machine."

Indeed, the MRC has a long history of smearing and misrepresenting statements by liberals and others with whom it disagrees, as ConWebWatch has documented.

One of its more notorious misrepresentations -- one that it peddled for nearly a decade -- was an excerpt from a book by former New York Times managing editor Howell Raines. First cited in 1994, the MRC version read this way:

Then one day in the summer of 1981 I found myself at the L.L. Bean store in Freeport, Maine. I was a correspondent in the White House in those days, and my work -- which consisted of reporting on President Reagan's success in making life harder for citizens who were not born rich, white, and healthy -- saddened me....My parents raised me to admire generosity and to feel pity. I had arrived in our nation's capital [in 1981] during a historic ascendancy of greed and hard-heartedness....Reagan couldn't tie his shoelaces if his life depended on it.

As writer Bob Somerby detailed, the "greed and hard-heartedness" quote appeared on page 56 of Raines' book, and the "shoelaces" quote appeared on page 84 -- that final ellipsis spanned 28 pages. Further, in context, Raines' quip that "Reagan couldn't tie his shoelaces if his life depended on it" was not an attack on Reagan's intelligence -- as the MRC portrayed it -- but, rather, his skills at tying a fly for fly-fishing.

The MRC corrected and semi-apologized ("We regret the confusion") only after Somerby exposed the misrepresentation in 2003 -- and after it had been repeated in media-bashing books by conservatives Bernard Goldberg and Bob Kohn and, as Somerby also noted, on TV by Bozell himself.

Another victim of an MRC smear was Democratic strategist Paul Begala. In 2005, the MRC's "news" division,, falsely claimed that when Begala said at a Democratic gathering that "They want to kill us, particularly in this city, and New York, and some other places," he was referring to Republicans, not -- as is clear from the context of Begala's remark -- Islamic terrorists.

When Begala tried to set the record straight, then-CNS editor-in-chief David Thibault essentially called Begala a liar: "There was nothing unclear about what Begala said, and he, as a pundit, should know that words matter. We quoted him accurately." Finally, it became logically untenable for even Thibault to keep up the lie, and he resorted to attacking Begala's alleged "unmistakable and outrageous coupling of terrorists and Republicans" and demanded that "go back to school and learn about political civility and personal responsibility." No one at CNS or the MRC apologized -- or otherwise expressed any "political civility and personal responsibility" -- for their false distortion of Begala's remarks.

Another victim of an MRC smear campaign was S.R. Sidarth, who went down in political history as the opposition political videotaper whom Republican Virginia Sen. George Allen called "macaca," thus prompting the unraveling his of campaign and his ultimate loss to Jim Webb.

On the MRC's NewsBusters blog, Dan Riehl asserted that Sidarth was "making fun of an Hispanic William & Mary student's death" on a University of Virginia discussion board; in fact, the person posting under Sidarth's name did not "make fun" of the students, merely linking to an article about it and offering no other comment. Riehl offered no apology for his false claim; meanwhile, on his own blog, Riehl accused Sidarth of posting "vile and offensive content" without confirming that Sidarth did, in fact, write the posts in question (he didn't). Riehl did sort of back away from his claim.

Obscure political operatives have not been the only targets of MRC smears; TV personalities have been as well, such as MSNBC's Chris Matthews. NewsBusters blogger Mark Finkelstein repeatedly took Matthews out of context and misrepresented his on-air comments to portray him as an unreasonable or ignorant liberal.

For instance, Finkelstein wrote that in response to Wall Street Journal writer John Fund's claim that the Bush administration "didn’t claim Iraq had a nuclear weapon," "[t]he most [Matthews] could muster was an Iraqi claim of a delivery system -- not of a weapon itself." In fact, Matthews said, "They said don’t wait for the smoking gun because there’ll be a mushroom cloud. They used all the language of fear and imminent danger" -- a reference to then-national security adviser Condoleezza Rice's statement in late 2002 that "We don't want the smoking gun to be a mushroom cloud" -- something Finkelstein didn't include in his version of events.

Katie Couric also saw her words misrepresented. An August 2006 "special report" by Rich Noyes upon Couric's debut as "CBS Evening News" anchor asserted that Couric "pushed a liberal political agenda during her 15 years as co-host of NBC’s Today." One of its signature claims, as promoted in a press release announcing the report was: "Deploring Ronald Reagan with insults such as 'The Gipper was an airhead!' " In the introduction to the report, Noyes expanded on this somewhat:

In 1999, Couric decided to begin the Today show by insulting Ronald Reagan: "Good morning. The Gipper was an airhead!" Two days later, the author of the Reagan biography she was supposedly summarizing told Couric she’d gotten it exactly backwards: "Oh, good God, no!" author Edmund Morris upbraided Couric. "He was a very bright man."

In the section of the report substantiating the claim, Noyes included the original "airhead" quote, a snippet of an interview Couric did with Morris two days later in which Morris denied saying that, and a transcript from a 2002 Couric interview with Ann Coulter, headlined "Couric Re-Writes History," in which Couric takes offense to Coulter's description of the incident in her book "Slander." But Noyes failed to note the context in which Couric made the comment. As Somerby reported:

Why did Couric say what she did? Because everyone thought it was true. Indeed, despite the picture painted in Slander, many conservatives were slamming Morris for what he had said about Ron.

Indeed, in an October 1999 Heritage Foundation online chat (a couple weeks after Couric's statement) with Dinesh D'Souza, author of the hagiography "Ronald Reagan: How an Ordinary Man Became an Extraordinary Leader," D'Souza said: "Morris' book has been subject to an incredible public whipping. He has virtually no defenders. Even Morris's own reasons for using multiple fictitious characters and for calling Reagan an ignoramus and an apparent airhead sound hollow and ill-considered. When the dust has settled, Reagan will be seen as a great president."

In addition to this history of smears of distortions, the MRC has also ignored, misrepresented or obscured key parts of the O'Reilly and Limbaugh controversies that conflict with the conservative narrative that portrays them as innocent victims of a "left-wing hate group."

An Oct. 2 CNS article by Nathan Burchfiel and Fred Lucas unequivocally declared that "Limbaugh is under fire from liberal media critics and some Democrats in Congress for using the term 'phony soldiers' to describe Jesse Macbeth, who was sentenced to five months in prison for falsifying his military records." While Burchfiel and Lucas note that "Media Matters claims that Limbaugh used the 'phony soldiers' term to describe all soldiers who have spoken out against the war," they never explain the nature of the controversy. Rather, they go on to note: "Limbaugh has explained on his talk-radio show that the 'phony soldiers' comment was taken out of context and that he was referring specifically to Macbeth and others like him." Similarly, an Oct. 2 post by Finkelstein stated the idea that Limbaugh "had accused all anti-war military members of being 'phony soldiers' " was a "falsehood."

In fact, the record is far from clear. In fact, nearly two minutes elapsed between Limbaugh's "phony soldiers" comment -- made in response to a caller talking not about MacBeth but, rather, about those opposing the Iraq war who "like to pull these soldiers that come up out of the blue and talk to the media" -- and his first mention of MacBeth. In fact, Limbaugh never explicitly linked his "phony soldiers" comment to MacBeth at the time he said it, doing so only after the fact, while defending himself against the outcry caused by his statement. Further, the clip Limbaugh played on his Sept. 28 show purporting to prove that he was referring to MacBeth and not anti-war soldiers edited out most of that nearly two minutes of conversation between his "phony soldiers" reference and his first mention of MacBeth.

In a Sept. 27 NewsBusters post, Noel Sheppard endorsed Tammy Bruce's defense of O'Reilly, while overlooking the sad irony of Bruce deploring "the left's" purported campaign to "demonize" those they disagree with while she called those with whom she disagrees "the Gestapo." Another Sept. 27 post by Ken Shepherd tried to distract people by claiming that, by saying, "Roscoe's Chicken and Waffles at its finest" while describing a play by Buffalo Bills receiver Roscoe Parrish, Keith Olbermann "made a cryptic crack that could be taken to be racially insensitive, if not racist." Missing is how exactly name-checking "Roscoe's Chicken and Waffles" is racist. And Shepherd didn't provide the entire transcript -- as his fellow MRC employees have insisted is the only way that O'Reilly's and Limbaugh's comments be fairly judged -- so that Olbermann's statement can be placed in its full context.

Further, a Sept. 30 NewsBusters post by John Stephenson promoted a rant by right-wing radio host Mark Levin bashing Media Matters. Levin "tears in and questions their status as a non-partisan group," Stephenson wrote. "It sounds alot [sic] like the same arguement [sic] on the ACLU being non-partisan and getting tax payer [sic] dollars. Completely biased." In his rant, Levin asserted that Media matters was " in clear violation of the Internal Revenue Code, the 501(c)(3) status" because "they have never criticized a leftist talk show host on Air America" and "have never criticized Keith Olbermann" and, thus, a "criminal enterprise" for not acting within the non-political boundaries of its tax status.

But the MRC is also a 501(c)(3) group. It has never criticized a conservative radio host. It has never criticized Fox News for any reason other than being not conservative enough.

Swap the ideological labels in Levin's rant, and he's talking about the MRC. If Media Matters is a "criminal enterprise" for "smearing" Limbaugh and O'Reilly, so is the MRC for its smears of Begala, Raines, Sidarth, et al.

Is the MRC is willing to hold itself to the same standards it holds Media Matters? History suggests not.

(Disclosure: The author is an employee of Media Matters.)

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