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David Brock: Media Liar
By: Jacob Laksin
Wednesday, September 21, 2005


How a failed conservative author reinvented himself as a leftist.

Throughout the 1990s, David Brock was a muck-raking and highly-paid investigative reporter for the conservative magazine The American Spectator. On a contract which paid him $350,000 he produced just six articles. But these focused on President Clinton’s sexual farragoes and brought Brock much notoriety and fame. Brock had achieved public prominence with a book called The Real Anita Hill, a follow-up to his eponymous 1992 article in the Spectator in which he described the accuser of Clarence Thomas as “a little bit nutty and a little bit slutty,” discredited claims and exposed the leftwing smear campaign against the future Supreme Court Justice. 

Soon thereafter, Brock accepted a million-dollar advance from conservative publisher, Adam Bellow and the Free Press, to write an investigative biography of Hillary Clinton that would expose her in the sensational and salacious way he had discredited Anita Hill. An initial press run of 200,000 copies was announced and plans for a major book tour. Newsweek magazine offered to run an excerpt. But Brock failed to produce the book he had promised. His stories of Clinton philandering rang alarm bells in the Hillary camp and shut down potential sources. This would not have proven an insurmountable obstacle to a determined reporter, but Brock failed to do the legwork necessary to deliver the book he had contracted.

When The Seduction of Hillary Rodham was released in October 1996, there was nothing new to be found in it, let alone the salacious material Brock had promised. Brock sought to rescue his project by making Bill Clinton the fall guy of the story. The book that resulted was a pedestrian account of a well-intentioned liberal, misunderstood by the “mainstream media,” and “seduced by the talented boy from the Arkansas backwoods,” suffering Bill’s manifold vices out of fealty to their “erotic/intellectual bond.” Brock, who never as a conservative laid claims to serious political views, portrayed Hillary in surprisingly sympathetic light: “Hillary had the ill-fortune to take power at a moment in history when much of the public had turned against the panacea of big government,” Brock explained. He also took extraordinary pains to defend her against a host of charges. Of Mrs. Clinton’s suspicious success in commodities trading and her subsequent evasiveness on that subject, Brock contended that the criticisms were merely “lawyerly nit-picking.” Besides, Brock reasoned, “it might simply be said that politicians shade the truth all the time.” Brock’s effusive apologetics convinced no one. Even the New York Times, hardly a citadel of anti-Clinton sentiment, scolded Brock for indefensibly straining to absolve Clinton from her involvement in the Whitewater scandal.

 

From the beginning the book was a bomb. When Newsweek saw the galleys, it withdrew its offer to excerpt the book. The book tour canceled. Within two weeks, huge stacks of the promised best-seller were tagged with remainder prices. The losses to the Free Press ran in the millions and Adam Bellow was fired.

 

While the house was falling around him, and people who had stood by him like Adam Bellow were walking the plank Brock began plotting his self-rescue – even more urgent since he had invested the million-dollar advance in expensive properties that as a failed author he could no longer afford. The plan was simple if ethically challenging: blame others for the failure and reinvent oneself as a leftist. By doing so, Brock would have a new sensational story to tell: “I Was A Conservative Conspirator.”

 

The June 1997 issue of Esquire magazine featured Brock’s mea ex-culpa: “Confessions of a Right-Wing Hit Man,” in which Brock accounted for his “fall from grace” by claiming that conservatives were punishing him for his independence of thought in refusing to vilify Hillary Clinton. A color photo of a half-naked Brock tied to a tree in martyr position accompanied the story. In framing his alibi, Brock counted on his readers’ to forget that pro-Hillary Newsweek had panned his story and withdrawn the most important publicity venue the book had obtained. Sighed the self-pitying Brock: “there is no place for someone who steps out of bounds.” Brock echoed the same martyrdom theme in interviews about the book, insisting that a commitment to truth, was responsible for the disaster rather than his failures as a journalist – in particular to produce the book he had promised (and obviously lied about) to his publishers. “I knew it wouldn't please a lot of people who have this image of Hillary as a demon,” Brock told Salon magazine, in one of his many exercises in self-exculpation.

 

Now Brock jumped into his new role – victim of the right-wing conspiracy. Warming to his faux-confessional theme, Brock followed up his Esquire article with a public letter of apology to Bill Clinton, which appeared in March of 1998 and in which he repudiated his reporting on Clinton’s private life. (Clinton accepted the apology.) Brock also denounced the Arkansas state troopers who had befriended him, by providing the sources for his 1994 “Troopergate” story on Clinton. Unrestrained by any sense of decency, Brock defamed them along the way claiming that they had “greedy and had slimy motives.”

 

In his new life, Brock retained all the habits of his journalistic path and in particular the determination that political opponents should not only be disputed but utterly discredited. On another occasion, Brock denounced Clinton’s Arkansas critics as “segregationists” who “hated Clinton for his progressive record on race.”

 

Notwithstanding Brock’s pretentious apology to the former President, the relevant facts of his reporting on Clinton’s extra-marital affairs (the so-called “Troopergate” scandal) were corroborated by subsequent reports in the Los Angeles Times. But this didn’t phase Brock who simply accused the Los Angeles Times of being …. David Brock. “Most journalists never admit they were wrong. The Los Angeles Times made many of the mistakes that I did.” Without realizing Brock it, in this statement Brock made a mockery of his own preferred narrative about a singularly malicious conservative movement bent on bringing down the Clinton presidency by lying about his affairs.

 

In 2002, he published the book Blinded by the Right: The Conscience of an Ex-Conservative. Billed as a confessional account of Brock’s disaffection with conservative politics, the book was in reality a series of malicious attacks on his former colleagues. Even as he cast himself as the reformed pawn of an all-powerful conservative movement (“a witting cog in the Republican sleaze machine” as he put it), Brock brazenly interrogated the ethics of his onetime friends and coworkers, heaping contempt on everything from their views to their wardrobe. For instance, Brock was not above mocking Wlady Pleszczynski, the longtime editorial director of The American Spectator who, at considerable peril to his own reputation, had been one of Brock’s staunchest defenders in the late nineties, for his “heavy brown corduroy jackets and clodhoppers.” Conservative author David Horowitz, meanwhile, stood accused by the openly gay Brock of uttering a “hateful anti-gay slur to an editor friend of mine whom Horowitz didn’t know was gay.” According to Brock, such statements were characteristic of the “real attitude of the conservative movement towards homosexuality” were the cause of his defection to the left.

 

But neither claim had any basis in truth. In fact, Brock was “outed” not by conservatives but by leftwing journalist and New York Times columnist Frank Rich. When Rich’s malicious column appeared, Brock was defended by conservatives who rallied to his side. Even as an outed gay conservative, Brock was one of the highest paid journalists in the country – and by conservative sources. Far from being “anti-gay” as Brock claimed, Horowitz is the most outspoken conservative defender of gays. Moreover, the source for Brock’s “gotcha” remark categorically rejected the claim that Horowitz was anti-gay. Nonetheless, in Brock’s book the alleged anti-gay attitudes of conservative intellectuals, along with the sleazy ad hominem attacks on liberals, of which Brock was the master, were responsible for his political turnabout.

 

That he was now vilifying his erstwhile political allies with recourse to the same sleazy, ad hominem attacks he claimed to deplore was an irony lost on the ethically-challeged Brock. Just prior to the publication of Blinded by the Right, Brock even embraced Hillary Clinton’s paranoid insight that her husband had been the target of a “vast right-wing conspiracy.” Asked by television host Matt Lauer whether he was part of the conspiracy alleged by Clinton, Brock replied, “I was, and I was stunned when she said it because I said finally somebody gets it...”  Of course Mrs. Clinton made the claim in the context of denying that her husband was having the affair with Monica Lewinsky. But it was the affair and the many presidential lies that followed it that actually caused the scandal that she was alleging was purely a concoction of this conspiracy. It was a moment of pure Brockism: commit an outrage and blame the other guy.

 

To mark the release of Brock’s book in paperback, former Democratic Senator Tom Daschle and then-Senate Minority Whip Harry Reid hosted a party during which they announced their admiration for the author and lavished praise on his defamatory work. Daschle was particularly impressed with the book’s underlying theme of betraying Republicans and conservatives, declaring on the occasion, “To any Republicans out there: If you are willing to disavow your past and change your ways, we'll throw a party for you as well.” Through his betrayal of former friends Brock had gained a prominence among Democrats he had never enjoyed among Republicans. His political reversal was now complete.

 

Having flamboyantly severed ranks with the conservative movement, Brock set about shamelessly concocting a fictional persona as an objective journalist, no longer driven by myopic political interests. “It’s only since coming out of the right wing that I’ve been able to see beyond partisan politics and careerism to what’s really important in life,” Brock said in a 2002 interview with the Washington Post. “[T]he blinders off and the anger gone” was how Brock described his newfound sensibility. The lies had become larger than life.

 

Brock was now working as a research assistant for Sidney Blumenthal, the political operative who, as a former top advisor and confidante to President Clinton, had set about defaming the women whom Clinton had wronged. In his sympathetic book about the scandals that had embroiled the Clinton administration, The Clinton Wars, Blumenthal revealed that Brock had helped him construct a partisan narrative that painted Clinton’s critics as agents of a well-organized ideological onslaught laying siege to the office of the presidency.

 

Brock’s aggressively personal attacks on his former allies on the right were rewarded in May of 2004, when he announced the creation of Media Matters, a political rapid-response site for the Democrats’ Shadow Party operation posing as a critical journal to keep conservative media honest. George Soros and former Clinton chief-of-staff John Podesta helped Brock raise $2 million (about ten years of the comparable investment in a conservative website like Frontpagemag.com. Again the air was thick with irony. In a March 2002 appearance on NBC’s Today Show, Brock had claimed that conservative financier Richard Mellon Scaife (and his contributions of “more than $2 million”) was the engine behind the supposed vast right-wing “conspiracy” that Brock had so sonorously renounced. The fact that Brock was now the beneficiary of far more money than had ever been put at his disposal as a conservative contradicted the organizing theme of Media Matters, namely that the conservative movement was so well-financed that it exercised an “undue influence” on what is popularly believed to be the province of the political left: the mainstream media.

 

According to Brock, the very fact that the mainstream media outlets are associated in the popular consciousness with leftwing politics evidences the right’s domineering influence and proves that the political center of gravity has shifted rightward. “The right wing in this country has dominated the debate over liberal bias, he has said. “By dominating that debate, my belief is they’ve moved the media itself to the right and therefore they’ve moved American politics to the right.”

Brock made the point more simply in his 2004 book, The Republican Noise Machine: Right-Wing Media and How it Corrupts Democracy, an invective-fueled broadside against “biased right-wing media,” “biased right-wing commentators,” and a “mainstream media susceptible to right-wing scripting.” The argument in this book is pure fantasy. Once upon a time there was a fair, balanced and objective media; now, thanks to the influence of well-funded institutions of the right, the media has become unfair, unbalanced and biased. The mendacity that pervades every page of this book is exposed here.

 

Accounting for the “downward spiral” of the Democratic Party in recent history, Brock writes, “It’s the media, stupid.” So powerful is the influence of the “right-wing media,” Brock contends, that it poses a threat to America’s democratic process: “My view,” he writes, “is that unchecked right-wing media power means that in the United States today, no issue can be honestly debated and no election can be fairly decided.” Brock is one of the leading exponents of the conspiracy theory ascribing Al Gore’s defeat in the 2000 presidential election to the corrupting influence of the conservative media. As he told Mother Jones magazine in 2004, “The Republicans knew they couldn’t win on the issues in 2000, so they developed an explicit strategy to attack Gore’s character—and that ultimately seemed to have worked.” As though candidates in American elections have never attacked their opponents’ character, or as though the Democrats didn’t suggest that Gore’s opponent lacked the mental ability to be president in the first place.

 

Brock’s hypocritical claims apart, the assertion that the mainstream media displays a right-wing bias strains credulity. Polls consistently show that the staffers of America’s leading newsrooms overwhelmingly lean to left in their political disposition. Brock himself confirmed suspicions about the dubious objectivity of network news hosts when he revealed, at a June 2004 conference of leftwing activists, that television personalities had praised him off the air for Media Mattersincessant attacks on conservatives, telling him, “Thank God you are doing this…”

 

But lack of evidence has not prevented Brock from maintaining that media outlets are too accommodating to conservative politics. In February 2005, in the course of giving a talk to interns at the leftwing Center for American Progress run by Brock-sponsor John Podesta, Brock stated: “We have seen the mainstream media increasingly accommodating conservatism and this is not an accident. This is the result of coordinated and financed effort by the right wing to pressure, push and bully the media to do that.” Trading on his role as a political turncoat, Brock explains that it makes him ideally qualified to lead a leftwing watchdog group like Media Matters because “nobody knows better than I how conservative misinformation spreads through the media.” In other words, it takes a liar to know one. The problem is a modern version of Zeno’s paradox: which liar to believe?

 

Spreading misinformation is precisely what Media Matters does. To hear Brock tell it, Media Matters is a dispassionate tribune of media inaccuracies. “We’re focused on the media and pundit class, Brock told an interviewer in May of 2004. “And our work is rooted in fact, not bias and commentary.”

 

But the reality is altogether different. Fiercely partisan, Media Matters routinely smears conservatives as “liars” or worse for presenting views at odds with Media Matters’ “progressive” political orientation. In this, it merely echoes the refrain of Brock, its President and CEO. Conservatives, according to Brock, “are simply willing to lie.” By impugning the motives of conservatives, Brock and Media Matters endeavor to discredit conservative views generally. More grandly, Brock sees his organization as an essential component in a vast “communications infrastructure” whose creation is vital to disseminating a leftwing political agenda – more left evidently than the New York Times, the Boston Globe, the Los Angeles Times and other mainstream media run by Brock’s sympathizers and friends. Not that Brock is honest about his partisan agenda. “Reporters, commentators, pundits and columnists know that we aren’t here to impugn their motives, but to correct misinformation in the media,” Brock incomprehensibly insisted in a May 2004 interview—a claim that does not survive a cursory review of Media Matterscontent or its creator’s view of his organization’s role. Or of the organization’s own boilerplate which describes it as “a not-for-profit progressive … center dedicated to comprehensively monitoring, analyzing and correcting conservative misinformation in the U.S. media.” It would be hard to formulate a more partisan media mission.

 

Nor is Media Matters the only weapon in Brock’s ongoing campaign to demonize and censor the political right. Brock has become one of the leadings proponents of the jettisoned Fairness Doctrine. Enacted in 1949 by the Federal Communications Commission, the unconstitutional legislation required radio and television programs to obtain licenses before broadcasting controversial views and mandated that they be presented in a fair and balanced manner—thereby setting bounds on free speech and limiting the diversity of viewpoints that could be freely aired. The repeal of the major provisions of the Fairness Doctrine in 1987 ushered in a boom of new media formats, including political talk radio. But while the end of the Fairness Doctrine opened the doors to a marketplace of ideas, it has also engendered resentment among the political left, which chafes at the undeniable popularity of conservative-leaning perspectives. Finding themselves unable to compete on an even footing—by, for instance, attracting an audience with programming and carving out market share—Brock and his allies on the left have clamored for legislation to bring back the Fairness Doctrine and right what they hold to be an “imbalance” in the public airwaves. The same people, on the other hand, decry any and all attempts to hold public radio and television to the terms of the 1967 Public Broadcasting Act as “censorship. The 1967 Act requires PBS and NPR programs to be “strictly fair, balanced and objective.”

 

In 2005, Brock joined forces with Thomas Athans, executive director of the extreme leftwing talk radio program Democracy Now, and Andrew Schwartzman of the leftwing advocacy group Media Access Project, to author a petition calling for the reinstatement of the Fairness Doctrine. The petition claimed that “news consumers…are overwhelmingly exposed to a single point of view.” In defense of this dubious claim, the petition cited a study by Democracy Radio finding that “90% of all broadcast hours on talk radio are fairly characterized as conservative.” The authors took no account of the fact that “news consumers” had no shortage of options besides talk radio to supplement their news intake, nor did they acknowledge that the audience freely chose to listen to talk radio; nor did they take into account the12 million listeners to leftwing programming on National Public Radio, including the far left Pacific Radio Network which created “Democracy Now.”

 

Instead, they claimed that the Fairness Doctrine was necessary to regulate the content of conservative programming, which, in their view, “was presented in a manner not conducive to the listeners’ receiving the facts and range of opinions necessary to make informed decisions.” In other words, the mere fact that some programming departed from leftwing orthodoxy justified intrusive government censorship—a flagrant violation of the First Amendment. Brock’s support for the Fairness Doctrine has its origins in his documented aversion for free-speech rights—at least for conservatives. In the 2004 interview with Mother Jones magazine, Brock sneeringly derided “this phony notion of balance—that we need to hear all sides of a story, and that everyone’s entitled to express their opinion.”

 

In the few years since turned on his former friends, Brock has succeeded in ingratiating himself with the foremost leaders of the political left, from top Democrats like Senator Hillary Clinton, to connected activists like John Podesta, to prominent moneymen like George Soros, whose affiliate groups have bankrolled Brock’s Media Matters (something Brock, uneager to be seen as the tool of powerful left-wing interests, has lied about). Even so, he recognizes that some, familiar with his record of mendacity, continue to doubt the sincerity of his political conversion. “I think all ideological converts face a reality on that question,” Brock told the New York Times. Still, he claims, “I’ve found people very open to the idea that people can change.” A review of Brock’s record provides little basis for such confidence in his case.

 

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Jacob Laksin is managing editor of Front Page Magazine. His email is jlaksin -at- gmail.com