How Media Matters has evolved in the age of Trump

Media Matters President Angelo Carusone

When I met with Media Matters president Angelo Carusone in the organization’s DC headquarters, it was only a week after Fox News host Sean Hannity had directly attacked the media watchdog on Twitter. “Liberal Fascism,” he wrote. “[Media Matters for America] is targeting my advertisers to silence my voice. They hope to get me fired. Rush, O’Reilly, Beck, Imus, & now me.” He was referencing a social media campaign in which Twitter and Facebook users were enlisted to tweet at Hannity’s advertisers and highlight his most extreme statements in an effort to pressure those advertisers into dropping their support. In this particular case, those extreme statements were Hannity’s promotion of the thoroughly-discredited Seth Rich conspiracy, which had been floating around right-wing swamps for months before being elevated to Fox News. Citing a since-retracted local news report that claimed Rich, a DNC staffer who was shot in the back last year in what police say was a botched robbery, had leaked thousands of DNC emails to Wikileaks, Hannity used the conspiracy to both push back against the claim that Russia had perpetrated the hack and suggest Hillary Clinton had ordered Rich’s killing to cover this fact up.

Hannity’s tweet came a day after he announced he was backing away from the Seth Rich story. His stated reason was that he did so “out of respect for the [Rich] family’s wishes,” but many media observers pointed out that both Hannity and his employers were likely nervous about the growing activist campaign targeting his advertisers. In just the few short days after Media Matters and other organizations launched the campaign, a few major brands had announced they were pulling their commercials.

Hannity had a right to be nervous. Both Media Matters and Carusone have claimed a fair number of right-wing scalps over the last few years. In 2007, the media watchdog was among the first to call attention to Don Imus’s infamous “nappy-headed hos” comment that eventually led to his firing. In 2010, the organization highlighted Laura Schlessinger’s repeated use of the word “nigger” on her radio program, and the subsequent fallout led to her resignation.

Perhaps the biggest takedown was Glenn Beck’s loss of his Fox News show in 2011. The cancellation came after a months-long campaign from Carusone who, when he started the push, was still pursuing a law degree at the University of Wisconsin. Using the Twitter handle @StopBeck, he slowly and methodically targeted Beck’s advertisers. Each day he would choose a different sponsor, and his growing list of followers would begin tweeting at the brand and commenting on its Facebook page, often highlighting some of Beck’s most outrageous statements. By the time Beck’s firing was announced, over 300 brands had stated they would keep their ads off Beck’s show, and the UK version had no branded commercials at all during its hour-long run. Years later, activist groups like Sleeping Giants would use this exact same playbook to target Bill O’Reilly’s advertisers and force him off the air.

But while Media Matters has seen plenty of success taking away the microphones from the Right’s most odious broadcasters, it, like virtually every other progressive organization in the U.S., was caught off guard by Trump’s win in November, especially because of what Trump’s win meant for its mission to battle misinformation in the media. While much of its focus over the previous 12 years had been on major broadcasters like Fox News and Rush Limbaugh, the 2016 election signaled the rise of outlets that included fringe personalities like Alex Jones and Mike Cernovich, message boards like Reddit and 4chan, and fake news websites that cared little about ideology but instead monetized their manufactured headlines with programmatic advertising.

Carusone and his colleagues immediately grasped that if Media Matters was going to deal with this multi-headed hydra, they would need to upend many of their processes and develop methods for disarming untrue storylines before they bubbled up from the fringes and into the mainstream. As Carusone put it to me when we met earlier this month, “We’re grappling with it it from an angle of how do we combat misinformation in an environment where the gatekeepers are no longer consolidated to a single few.”

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To understand how Media Matters addressed this new paradigm, it’s helpful to know how it handled conservative narratives in the past. Launched in 2004, the organization is the brainchild of David Brock, the conservative-provocateur-turned-apostate who abandoned the Right and embraced the Clintonian Left. Conservatives had spent the previous two decades painting the media as having a liberal bias while also building an institutional infrastructure of think tanks, columnists, and on-air personalities to push their ideology. “We were the first people on the scenes from the Left who were really taking this comprehensive look of what was happening in the media, identifying conservative misinformation, pushing back on it, and really pushing back on the idea that there was this liberal press,” said Julie Millican, a senior advisor at Media Matters who’s worked there on and off since 2005. “The Right had successfully branded it the ‘liberal media,’ and they had been doing it for decades. Progressives were slow to respond to that in a comprehensive way.”

Because the mission was so broad at first, Media Matters was an equal-opportunity attacker. Rather than focusing solely on right-wing talking heads, it would instead comprehensively document conservative narratives that spread across all mainstream outlets; it was just as likely to attack MSNBC as it was to go after Fox News.

In those early days, its approach was almost entirely academic. It would start each post with an summary abstract of a piece of misinformation and then document how the meme spread across columns, articles, and shows. It also performed massive research projects that took hundreds of man hours to complete. Its review of Sunday news shows, for instance, found that conservative guests vastly outnumbered their liberal counterparts. A similar Media Matters survey of over 1,400 American newspapers reported that “in a given week, nationally syndicated conservative columnists are published in newspapers with a total combined circulation of more than 153 million. Progressive columnists, on the other hand, are published in newspapers with a total combined circulation of 125 million.” For years, Americans had just accepted the notion that the media held a liberal bias; these Media Matters reports were some of the earliest attempts to use hard data to push back against this myth.

Because these were still the early days of Web 2.0, and the news cycle, for the most part, was still adhering to the old print newspaper schedules, Media Matters could afford to take its time when responding to misinformation. This was before the age of Twitter — before a newsmaking event or politician’s speech could be dissected in real time. “Twelve years ago we could sit on something and write an academic article and post it two days later and we’d still be the first,” said John Whitehouse, its digital director. “Now we occasionally have to post something within 90 seconds to have the same sort of impact.”

With the rise of social media and high-churn news sites like Politico, this slow approach wouldn’t work forever. It was around the same time Media Matters hired Carusone that it began to adapt to the sped-up news cycle. Part of Carusone’s appeal, after all, was that he was able to leverage a then-nascent tool, Twitter, and mobilize its users against one of the organization’s chief targets. His initial title was campaign director, and his job was to escalate his Glenn Beck model to go after all of Fox News. “One thing that was really clear… was that the landscape was shifting and I was there doing the campaigning on Beck and Fox,” he said. “So when that stuff was over, one thing that I pointed out is maybe we should have a pilot program for a digital department. That was my sort of initiative, and it was to try that experiment to start building some of the ingredients for the organization.”

By a “digital department,” Carusone meant a group of staffers solely dedicated to leveraging social media and other marketing tools to directly insert Media Matters content into the conversation. It started out as a tiny department of two or three people, but has since grown out to a staff of nine (I’ll get more into digital department’s current efforts in a moment).

Carusone’s hiring also came around the time Media Matters announced a pivot from focusing on a broad media spectrum to what it labeled as its “war on Fox.” He argued to me that this pivot was necessary for two reasons: The first is that Fox News had become the central launching pad for right-wing talking points and the resistance against Obama. The second is that the media at large was still refusing to acknowledge that Fox had become a defacto media arm of the Republican party. “In 2009 when the Administration just softly criticized Fox News for being biased, there was just a full scale revolt at the White House Correspondents Association,” he said. “They thought that was the biggest affront on the press ever that they basically called Fox News biased, and privately, it was not accepted that Fox News was biased. People would say they were conservative but there was not consensus that they functioned like a political operation.”

Fox News, with its hiring of Glenn Beck, was also signaling a sharp turn toward extremism. “The Glenn Beck thing was less about Glenn Beck and more about what he represented,” said Carusone. “His ratings were off the charts. And not only were his ratings off the charts, but Fox’s potential to commercialize that was extremely high. There is no doubt that if there was no campaign against Glenn Beck that was effective, there would have been more Glenn Becks on Fox News.” The ratings he brought in would be too tempting to turn down.

What did this mean from an organizational perspective? “We reorganized the staff so there would be teams of five that would work in self-contained units and each team would act as a fully functioning research department,” said Carusone. “All of the editing, all of the monitoring, all of the content and research was done in these small circles.” This allowed Media Matters to assign these teams to specific Fox News shows and respond in almost real time. This is when we began to see the organization frequently uploading video clips of the most extreme comments that made their way onto Fox shows; often, Media Matters would offer little additional commentary because the clip’s offensiveness spoke for itself.

In 2013, Media Matters announced it was ending its war on Fox. Carusone argued this was because it had been largely successful in its mission. “Megyn Kelly would not have gotten a Fox News show if it weren’t for us,” he said. “She became the ‘future of Fox News’ because of the war on Fox.” As early as 2011, Roger Ailes had admitted to Newsweek that his network was in need of a “course correction.” “Part of that was to reassure business interests that Fox was going to settle down,” said Carusone. “They moved Sean Hannity to 10 o’clock to put him at the back end of the programming and get him out of the middle of the day. They elevated Shep Smith and said he was going to be doing all their breaking news. They were really working during that time period to try and reestablish themselves and give advertisers some comfort that they weren’t going down that path that they had been going down.” Without the war on Fox, claimed Carusone, fringe personalities like Mike Cernovich and Alex Jones would today have their own shows.

When Media Matters wound down the advertiser pressure work for which it’d hired Carusone, he pitched management on launching a digital department, one that would lay the foundations for what Media Matters would become. Slowly, he added more and more people to this team, and, after being promoted to vice president in 2013, he not only expanded his role to building out the technology and infrastructure at the organization, he also got a seat at the table in terms of research and communication strategy.

This came as Media Matters as an organization was beginning to recognize it was entering an increasingly diversified media environment. “We were sandwiched between two realities — one of consolidation and media fragmentation,” Carusone said. “In order to be effective, Media Matters needed to start planning for this hyper fragmented environment, because it would require a massive reorientation.” Media Matters began investing in additional technology tools that would streamline its research capabilities, like one tool that could scan audio and quickly convert it to text.

It also built out and reorganized its research teams. “We started adding more dedicated capacity for our climate team, for our econ team,” Carusone said. Julie Millican, who returned to the research team in 2014 after taking a hiatus to go to grad school, explained what this expansion meant in real terms: “We needed to shift and adjust to working in real time in a way we didn’t do initially. So we started to change to do more live monitoring of shows. We would expand out our hours so we had teams of research staff who were in 20 hours a day live monitoring news as it was happening in real time and really pushing to respond in real time as much as possible as well.”

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Media Matters began intensifying its monitoring of the dark corners of the internet, following online personalities who would soon, in the ramp up of the 2016 election, become household names. “Alex Jones has been on our radar since at least 2010,” said Millican. “Some of the people on our editorial staff, they are the experts on Alex Jones. They’ve been watching that show for years and year and years. They can provide a level of analysis to that coverage that’s more sophisticated than just simple a simple factcheck.”

But though the Media Matters staff knew who Pepe the Frog was before everyone else and recognized Mike Cernovich back when he was a relatively obscure men’s rights blogger, it didn’t mean they could anticipate Donald Trump’s win in November. With Trump’s ongoing war with the press and his penchant for elevating fringe media personalities into the mainstream, the staff recognized almost immediately that their jobs were about to get much harder — and more important — than ever before.

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Trump’s win in November didn’t result in an immediate battle cry from Media Matters. Instead, the entire staff took the day off after the election. The following week, it held an all-staff meeting, and “as much as people were sad and depressed, I think the advantage we had was we weren’t disoriented,” said Carusone. “Other people were disoriented, they’re like, ‘What do we do now?’ But there was never a moment where we were like, ‘I don’t know what to do.’”

What they’d do, as Carusone told the staff, was “not fuck around.” “I laid out what our plan was very broadly, which was that we were going to take a step back from our monitoring day-to-day and focus on fake news for a while.” Carusone, who was then transitioning to take over the president role from Bradley Beychok, rolled in several white boards and began to map out the fake news ecosystem, the existence of which had only recently been discovered by the world at large.

Fighting this fake news apparatus would involve three core strategies. The first was to develop technology that would create heat maps and identify nodes of online influence so that a conspiracy theory could be caught before it bubbled up into the mainstream. For instance, an internet user who Carusone ascribed the moniker Butterflygirl44 — that’s the pseudonym Media Matters gave her to protect her identity — hangs out on 4chan and is unknown to the public, but her videos and posts have proven hugely influential in moving right-wing conspiracies. Media Matters has then aggressively documented how these nodes of influence push these narratives. Recently, the organization tracked an aggressive anti-CNN meme war across Reddit, 4chan, and the right-wing Twittersphere. These communities yield tremendous influence but are mostly opaque to the reading public. Few organizations outside of Media Matters are equipped to track them effectively.

The Media Matters office, located north of DC’s Chinatown

 The second strategy was to go after these outlets’ commercial and profit models. Sure, some of this involves the grassroots activism aimed against individual bad actors like Sean Hannity, but increasingly Media Matters is targeting the advertising platforms that have immense sway over where ad dollars are allocated. Two of the largest advertising platforms, at least in the online sphere, are Facebook and Google, both of which, according to Carusone, were caught flat footed by the fake news phenomenon after the election. “Just because they’re running a successful company doesn’t mean they knew what was going on. They had no damn clue.”

Carusone argued that purveyors of fake news had found ways of manipulating and leveraging Facebook’s algorithm so that it became nearly impossible for the average Facebook user to ignore their fraudulent stories. At first, Mark Zuckerberg downplayed the role Facebook played in spreading fake news, but after receiving pressure from Media Matters and other outlets, his company announced several partnerships with reputable fact-checkers who would help it flag and mark news as potentially fake.

Media Matters also began communicating with these networks behind the scenes, flagging sites that are violating the platforms’ terms of service and presenting this research to Google. In January, the search behemoth announced it was removing 200 of these sites from its advertising network, and it’s since gone on to ban even more. “Really what I want is for Google to start being more aggressive,” said Carusone. “It’s worth their while to be proactive when giving people access to their ad network rather than dealing with it on the backend.” Along with groups like Sleeping Giants, which has pressured over 1,000 brands into blocking the white nationalist site Breitbart from their ad buys, Media Matters has been educating ad agencies about being more aware of where their programmatic ad buys are being targeted.   

The third strategy involves continuing to build out the organization’s messaging infrastructure. John Whitehouse leads Media Matters’s digital team, which used to consist of just Carusone when it first started but now comprises at least nine staffers. At first, most of this team’s efforts involved leveraging social media to drive traffic back to the Media Matters website, but as platforms like Facebook and Twitter have aggressively grown out native video tools, Whitehouse’s team has shifted much of its focus toward native content meant to spread on these networks.

In many cases, this means simply uploading the short clips that have long been a staple of the Media Matters website, but his team also edits together comprehensive compilations that remind me of the clips pioneered by Jon Stewart at the Daily Show, who turned such compilations of absurd cable news chatter into an art form. For example, Alex Jones has emerged as a powerful figure in the Trump administration who has a direct line to Trump himself. Media Matters has been adept at showcasing the utter lunacy of Jones by piecing together his most absurd claims, like it did recently with his repeated exclamations that there are man-animal hybrids walking among us. “You see humanoids,” the deranged lunatic says in one segment. “They’re like 80 percent gorilla, 80 percent pig, and they’re talking.”

Whitehouse described his team as a “real time communications shop.” “Donald Trump reacts in real time. We need to react in real time as well.” This means much more than uploading the same clip natively to each platform; the digital team caters content to the network’s audience. Facebook’s userbase, he explained, is much more general and not as media savvy as the users you’ll find on Twitter. “On Facebook, you can post clips of people saying terrible things all day but it’s not necessarily things people want to share to their own timeline. It doesn’t necessarily go anywhere and it’s not as easy to convey the magnitude of the problem.” For Twitter, on the other hand, “the audience tends to know more about a situation because they tend to be more plugged in. You can make more sophisticated arguments.” On Tumblr, which caters to a younger audience, Media Matters has seen much more success with its trans and economic justice content.

While Whitehouse is focused on the one-to-many broadcasts, Cynthia Padera pursues the one-to-one relationships. Leveraging customer relationship management software and the site’s CMS, Padera is trying to create unique, customized experiences for those who subscribe to Media Matters emails or land on its website. “Rather than necessarily thinking of different channels as separate swim lanes with audiences that will never meet or cross over, we’re starting to pivot our thinking toward centering the individual in our outreach,” she told me. “Someone who follows us on Facebook might be on our email list and might also come to our website independently. We want to be able to collect all that data and make it actionable so when we reach out to that individual we reach out in a way that they’re interested in and ready to interact on.”

One way Media Matters can leverage this data, she said, is by offering a website that’s optimized based on your previous actions or browsing habits. If a reader has previously read a bunch of climate change content, then they might be more likely to see that kind of content when they’re visiting the homepage or in the “related articles” section on the sidebar. “We straddle that state where we are both a publisher and a nonprofit organization,” said Padera. “So we need to be competitive on that front.”

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It struck me, while touring the Media Matters offices and interviewings it staff, how much it operates like a traditional newsroom. Like a traditional newsroom, the staff holds an editorial meeting each morning to set the day’s agenda. Like a traditional newsroom, there’s an editing process in place to ensure a piece of content meets certain editorial standards (in fact, Carusone argued, Media Matters, because it’s a media watchdog, has even higher standards than your average news org, given what’s at stake). And like a traditional newsroom, the organization strives to be first when publishing a piece of content or an explosive scoop.

After Trump’s election, media organizations and activist groups received an outpouring of financial support. Newspapers like the New York Times and Washington Post grew their digital subscriptions significantly and nonprofits like the ACLU and Planned Parenthood saw record donations. I asked Carusone whether Media Matters has experienced a similar windfall. “We did not get a massive groundswell of support,” he said. “It’s been stable and static. That said, I think it’s OK, actually. I would be scared if we suddenly doubled in revenue overnight, because that’s not sustainable or stable and leads to startup culture, which can obviously result in crash and burn.” What’s important, he said, was that Media Matters has the funds for continued institution building.

It’s going to need it. While advertising giants have made some headway in removing the revenue streams for some of the worst fake news actors, the alt-right media is continuing to generate new conspiracies, and thanks, in part, to a president who’s willing to retweet those memes and misinformation out to his millions of Twitter followers, they’ll continue to have a voice. Perhaps the best metric to show Media Matters is making a dent in the Right’s armor is anecdotal, but its staff is noticing a higher level of skepticism from the media at large.

“This is totally unscientific,” said Media Matters communications director Laura Keiter, “but the number of people who have come to us looking for background information on these [alt right] folks and their connections to Trump has skyrocketed. Reporters are going back to seeing us really as a resource for research and information behind the scenes.”

For an organization that was founded with the mission of pressuring the media into no longer allowing unfettered right-wing information into the mainstream, that uptick in skepticism has to be considered a win. And speaking just for myself — as someone who, along with millions of other Americans, has experienced fear and anxiety in these dark times — I’ll take any win we can get.

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Simon Owens is a tech and media journalist living in Washington, DC. Follow him on TwitterFacebook, or LinkedIn. Email him at simonowens@gmail.com