One Man’s Lonely, Fruitless Search for a Media Matters Patsy

If you’ve missed the Daily Caller’s investigative reports on Media Matters, you’ve missed a bunch of dirt about David Brock and a hilariously over-the-top 2009 e-mail from a former staffer recommending total war on Fox. You’ve also missed one of the more disastrous attempts at feud-starting that I’ve seen in one of these recent online media fooferahs. The target: Ben Smith, BuzzFeed’s editor. The evidence: Anonymous sources calling him an easy mark.

“Ben Smith [formerly of Politico, now at BuzzFeed.com] will take stories and write what you want him to write,” explained the former employee, whose account was confirmed by other sources. Staffers at Media Matters “knew they could dump stuff to Ben Smith, they knew they could dump it at Plum Line [Greg Sargent’s Washington Post blog], so that’s where they sent it.”

The oddity: Nineteen grafs later, in the same story, Smith appears again as a trouble-starter.

Last spring, some at Media Matters headquarters and in other parts of the progressive world were caught off guard by an interview Brock gave to Ben Smith at Politico, in which he promised to wage “guerrilla warfare and sabotage” against Fox News. “It was insane,” says a coworker. “David was totally manic at the time. We were all shocked.”

If Smith was such a patsy, how did he end up damaging Media Matters? And he really did damage them – the Brock interview became the basis for an attack by conservatives on Media Matters’s tax-exempt status. Smith got Brock to brag about a “war on Fox.” Dylan Byers, who was hired to help Smith in 2011, then took over his blog, responded to the new DC story by pointing out that it hyped a dynamite Media Matters planning that Smith had snagged for his Brock interview. The DC, wrote Byers, was “sourcing the same material as though it were exclusive a year after the fact.”

The response from the DC: A piece by Will Rahn and Alex Pappas accusing Smith of a cover-up.

Smith curiously withheld key parts of the 89-page document when he published his story, “Media Matters’ war against Fox,” in March 2011.

The Daily Caller became aware of this after obtaining the same document while reporting the series “Inside Media Matters,” which debuted here late Sunday night.

Smith made no mention of Media Matters targeting organizations other than Fox News, such as the libertarian Cato Institute and the conservative Heritage Foundation. Nor does he reveal that, according to the memo, Media Matters was intent on researching Republican political figures like Republican former U.S. Senate candidate Carly Fiorina and Republican Virginia Rep. Eric Cantor, and the prominent libertarian political donor Peter Thiel.

Should Smith have posted the entire memo in 2011? I think so, but he doesn’t regret it. “The reason that story doesn’t stress the memo,” Smith tells me, “is that Brock said things that were so much more compelling than anything in the memo. He called it ‘sabotage and guerilla war.’ Which was just … stronger than anything in the memo. So I led with that.”

Plus: The memo, all available at the DC, is largely about Fox News. Smith’s story was about Fox News. The references to Thiel et al cast them as figures in the Fox News network. An “opposition research team” would go after Thiel because he “directly funded, through a small government group, prior racist attack videos by James O’Keefe,” who in the liberal imagination attained power because his videos blew up on Fox.

Does the Caller’s story work without the media figures being presented as finks? I think it does: This is a highly interesting look into how an aggressive think tank works, and how it gets people to pay attention to its stuff. Let a thousand leakers bloom! But the attacks on Smith and others, which include no actual examples of them falling for Media Matters traps, paint a fictional picture of the media in which only DC reporters attack the liberal establishment. In his second piece of the series, about that 2009 e-mail, Carlson offers another funny scoop about the Brock-o-verse.

Finally, the memo suggests that drones in the Media Matters research department ought to ghost-write an extended hit on the network: “[W]e should write a book under David’s name that savages Fox News and Fox News employees. The market for this is likely huge.”

An exclusive? Almost. In his 2011 story, Smith scooped the details of that book deal. Media Matters, he reported, “hired two experienced reporters, Joe Strupp and Alexander Zaitchik, to dig into Fox’s operation to help assemble a book on the network, due out in 2012 from Vintage/Anchor.” And I’ve written this far without mentioning the neutron bomb Smith dropped on Media Matters in December, about liberal anger at the group for employing Israel critics. The DC has a good story about how Media Matters’s ambition and strategy; it doesn’t have the goods about the media itself.