David Brock’s Journey From ‘Right-wing Hit Man’ to Media Matters Propagandist
Last Sunday, NewsBusters introduced readers to Media Matters for America, the left-wing organization behind the recent smear campaigns against conservative personalities Rush Limbaugh and Bill O'Reilly.
In the days that followed, although news outlets and leading Democrats continued to reference articles written by this shadowy group, few details were offered about the organization behind them, and virtually nothing was shared concerning its founder, David Brock, who in a short period of time a decade ago remarkably went from a staunch enemy of the Clintons to one of their strongest supporters.
As National Review's Jonah Goldberg wrote in Sunday's New York Post, "Brock was once a right-wing hatchet man, penning a book, ‘The Real Anita Hill,' and some articles in the American Spectator on the Clintons that for a time earned him considerable notoriety on the right and hatred on the left."
Despite the influence Media Matters currently has with the mainstream media, Brock's extraordinary political metamorphosis ten years ago, though obviously a journalist's dream, has received little recent attention from press representatives typically clamoring for such juicy dish (emphasis added throughout):
After the success of the Anita Hill book, Brock was given a contract to write a similar exposé on Hillary Clinton, "The Seduction of Hillary Rodham."
The book was a dud. But it had explosive effects on Brock. In the course of working on it, he came out of the closet and gained a crush on Mrs. Clinton at the same time. Some claimed that he became "pro-Hillary" as an excuse to hide his failure at cracking the cone of silence around Clinton. Others believe that his transformation was less mercenary and more principled. Whatever; wading deep into Brock's psyche requires taller hip boots than are currently available on the market.
Fortunately, I was able to find waders up to Goldberg's challenge, and identified some news reports that occurred during Brock's transformation period which offered some insight as to how a successful conservative writer became a shill for the Clintons virtually overnight.
In particular was Brock's pivotal July 1997 Esquire piece "Confessions of a Right-wing Hit Man," which though often referenced, the lack of a URL has limited the exposure of many of the 5,132-word article's specifics:
Back in 1983, at the University of California at Berkeley, where I was then a junior, I had been elected university editor of The Daily Californian, the main campus paper. My first signed op-ed column was an endorsement of the U.S. invasion of Grenada--not a terribly controversial position in the nation as a whole, but at Berkeley, where protesters were burning the flag, this was an act of heresy. Though I had gone to Berkeley because of its reputation for liberal activism rooted in the campus free-speech movement, the liberals turned out to be not so liberal after all. There was a campaign to recall me from the editorship, and I was shunned for the balance of my time on campus. This experience of having to fight to express my opinions--at Berkeley, of all places--marked my break with liberalism. I began to see an incipient conservatism as challenging a tired, lockstep liberal orthodoxy, and, like many of my generation, I moved further to the right in the 1980s.
Interesting. So, 24 years ago, Brock wrote a piece that his peers didn't like, and he switched political leaning. Flash forward to 1997, and the same exact thing happened:
On the day last fall that my book on Hillary Rodham Clinton came out, I retrieved a voice-mail message from a friend, Barbara Olson, a Republican lawyer who was working on Capitol Hill, investigating the firing of the White House Travel Office workers...That Friday night, I was planning to go to another party at the Olsons' to celebrate the end of the first session of Congress under Republican control in more than four decades...But in Barbara's message, I discovered that as word filtered out that The Seduction of Hillary Rodham not only failed to deliver the deathblow to the Clintons that everyone had expected but was in some respects sympathetic to its subject, I was suddenly no longer welcome in my old circle. "Given what's happened, I don't think you'd be comfortable at the party," she said. As only someone who has fallen from grace in Washington can know, it was a classic moment.
A classic moment indeed, as for the second time in Brock's life, criticism about his writing caused him to totally reevaluate his political ideology. Goldberg elaborated:
For the rest of the 1990s, Brock launched something of a fire sale on his own credibility. In articles and interviews, Brock outed himself as a liar. He confessed to lying in the Anita Hill book, even though the lies he admitted to were peripheral to his exoneration of Justice Clarence Thomas but devastating in what they said about Brock himself; he admitted he'd been a hatchet man and borderline extortionist. In a piece for Esquire - in which he was depicted bound to a tree, nipple exposed - Brock apologized to Bill Clinton and expressed regret over his "Troopergate" stories for the American Spectator. He said they were all true, mind you, but that he shouldn't have written them.
But the problem was already obvious. As Jill Abramson told the Washington Post's Howard Kurtz, "the problem with Brock's credibility" is that "once you admit you've knowingly written false things, how do you know when to believe what he writes?" Yet by the end of the Clinton years and the beginning of the Bush administration, Brock had become a darling of the pro-Clinton media establishment as a supposed truth-teller.
Is it becoming clearer why the media haven't done any exposés on this man recently? After all, given how easily he flip-flops political positions, as well as goes back on his own previously published assertions, Brock is hardly someone whose veracity should be so universally unquestioned. As such, press outlets relying on statements from his organization certainly don't want to do anything that might cast a shadow upon him or it.
Nor would they like to draw attention to Brock's peculiar view of journalism expressed during the June 22, 1997, installment of CNN's "Reliable Sources":
MARTIN SCHRAM, SCRIPPS HOWARD NEWS SERVICE: David, you've been quoted, at least as we saw in our research, as saying that if the Arkansas troopers came to you now with the same story that they came to you with before and it's the Paula [Jones] story and so on, that you may not go with it, that you've had second thoughts.
SCHRAM: Explain, because a story is a story or it's not a story, if you're a real investigative reporter. So talk about that.
BROCK: Well, I think that a story is a story, but you have a choice. You don't have to pursue every story that's a story. And I spent four months working on that Troopergate story. I was thorough. I think I was accurate. The "L.A. Times" published a similar story. So it's a credible story. I think that early on it did show us some interesting things about the Clintons and the culture around them so -- and I think that's held up. However, I am ambivalent now. I'm on the fence. If the troopers came to me today, I'm not blind. It had some ill effects. It had some ill effects on the presidency. It had some ill effects for my own conservative friends and allies, who I think got too scandal obsessed.
BERNARD KALB, RELIABLE SOURCES: Do you mean -- let me interrupt.
KALB: Do you mean you would stamp out a story that you knew to be accurate because it could have ill effects on you, the White House and so forth? You would be in...
BROCK: I'm on the fence about it, yes.
KALB: You'd engage in personal censorship?
BROCK: I'm on the fence about it.
Imagine that: the man who founded Media Matters, and is regularly feeding flagrantly errant and propagandist stories to the press as well as leading Democrats, is on the fence about censoring articles that could have ill effects on him or politicians he supports. Yet, this is the very hypocrisy Brock claimed in Esquire led him away from the right:
A deeper problem is the conservative movement's obsession with the supposed hidden agendas and dark motives of anyone who dissents. It employs an entire lexicon to describe any move from the party line as pandering to the liberal press.
Interesting contradiction, wouldn't you agree? Yet, there was more in this Esquire article that gave further insight into the motives behind his second startling political rebirth:
Conservative frustration is understandable to anyone familiar with the dynamics of the American media. While liberals have no obvious career incentives for criticizing Democrats or moving to the right, the same can't be said for conservatives who criticize their own side or move left. All conservatives know that the surest way to be published on the op-ed page of The New York Times is to attack other conservatives.
This was a rather prescient statement by Brock, for in the weeks following the release of this Esquire piece, not only was he on CNN's "Reliable Sources," but he was also invited on NBC's "Today" show, "Meet the Press," CNBC's "Equal Time," as well as being the subject of upwards of 25 articles in leading publications such as the New York Times, the Washington Post, the Los Angeles Times, and U.S. News & World Report.
As a result, it appears he was quite right about "the surest way to be published on the op-ed page of The New York Times is to attack other conservatives."
Offering further insight into his transformation was the interview he did with NBC's Matt Lauer on the June 18, 1997, "Today" show:
LAUER: But, basically, the problem is, you're saying they looked at you not as a journalist...
Mr. BROCK: Right.
LAUER: ...who would tell a fair story.
Mr. BROCK: Right.
LAUER: They looked at you as someone who would be a hit man for their cause?
Mr. BROCK: Right. I think, basically, they thought they owned me. And they found out in the Hillary case, much to their dismay, that they don't own me, that I had to write it as I found it. And maybe they didn't understand the function of journalism, which is to try to create an accurate picture. It's not to--to, you know, serve a political agenda.
Interesting, as four days later, on CNN's "Reliable Sources," he told Bernie Kalb that he was on the fence concerning personal censorship to assist politicians he supported. Honestly, this man changes his positions more frequently than some people change their socks. But there was more of note in that Lauer interview:
LAUER: But some of them claim that when you wrote the Hillary book...
Mr. BROCK: Yeah.
LAUER: ...you were looking for publicity. And now...
Mr. BROCK: Right.
LAUER: ...the hurt puppy routine that you're going through right now is--is more of a quest for publicity.
Lauer was likely on to something, for this wasn't only a quest for publicity on Brock's part, but also for acceptance from his peers.
Maybe more importantly, as he saw himself as a hit man, is it conceivable that folks within the Clinton administration recognized Brock's insecurities, as well as his propensity to change political affiliations at the drop of a hat, and, as a result, saw him as someone who could easily be turned into their hit man?
Hints of Senator Palpatine and Anakin Skywalker, wouldn't you agree? Fortunately, our answer may lie in statements made just four days later when Brock appeared on the June 22, 1997, installment of "Meet the Press":
And what that told me about my own side was that there was a certain intellectual hypocrisy there, that to score the point against Clinton, to get Clinton out of the White House, they're willing to stick with a charge that was really garbage. And that really--part of what I'm writing about in this article is how my view of my own allies and the world that I was in has changed, and how I've rethought my function as a journalist. And so I've said, "Whereas I used to wake up in the morning and figure out, you know, What liberal targets can I go attack,' I'm going to have a much broader scope now."
Now Brock wakes up in the morning to figure out what conservative targets he can attack. Maybe more importantly, given his letter of apology to then President Bill Clinton published in the April 1998 Esquire, it appears Brock's quest for a "much broader scope" lasted no more than nine months (emphasis added throughout, reader is cautioned to have a garbage pail nearby, for some of this is sick-making):
Dear Mr. President,
My mind keeps drifting back to that paragraph about "Paula" and to the memory that her name wasn't even supposed to show up in print. Back in December 1993, when I broke the Troopergate story in The American Spectator, neither of us could have predicted its consequences--for you, for me, and for the country. In the piece, Arkansas state troopers alleged that they procured women for you when you were governor. One of the women was remembered only as Paula. Soon after the piece was published, Paula Jones shocked the world by identifying herself as the woman in question and by suing you for sexual harassment. And, of course, Paula Jones begat Monica Lewinsky. Surveying the wreckage my report has wrought four years later, I've asked myself over and over: What the hell was I doing investigating your private life in the first place?
What a shock: David was having another moral dilemma concerning what it means to be a journalist.
After exhaustively detailing how he ended up in Little Rock metaphorically peeking through hotel windows, Brock offered another in a series of apologies:
The story was now in my sights. The question I then grappled with--the same question that would vex the press in the Monica Lewinsky case and that has haunted me ever since--was, When, if ever, are allegations about a politician's personal life newsworthy?
I discussed my dilemma with two Washington wise men who had been mentors of mine, and the verdict was split. Significantly, perhaps, they were both conservative Republicans with no training in journalism. Significantly, too, in the way of Washington careerists, they focused only on how the piece might affect me personally. No thought was given, by any of us, to how baring the most intimate details of your sexual conduct by a politically hostile writer might dramatically alter the way political battles are fought in Washington.
Sounds a lot like what he told CNN's Bernie Kalb, doesn't it? But there's more:
One adviser told me flatly that I was sitting on perhaps the most devastating portrait of a president ever to be published--the biggest story of my career. The other warned that the allegations, even if proved, would be dismissed as tabloid trash and could therefore hurt my reputation as much as yours. They both turned out to be right.
In the end, I decided that the allegations met several tests that made them relevant to public character.
But to be honest with you, these "tests" were something of a charade, more an attempt to fashion defenses for myself against charges that I was a "tabloid" journalist than they were a neutral set of journalistic principles. I wasn't hot for this story in the interest of good government or serious journalism. I wanted to pop you right between the eyes. Test or no test, the story was going, and I would have found some way to dress it up ex post factor.
Give into your hate, Anakin. But there's more:
In my case, there was an open political agenda at work as well, which must have colored my judgment at least at the margins. I never felt the visceral hatred toward you that many of your detractors harbor, but I did regard you, the first Democratic president in my adult life, as an ideological threat. Ironically, I had just finished a book in which I argued strenuously against the use of personal scandal for partisan advantage in the Thomas-Hill case. In contemporary Washington, I lamented, it was no longer enough to defeat your opponent fair and square on the issues; you had to destroy him as a human being. The hypocrisy involved in what I was about to do to you didn't strike me until after the deed was done.
After Brock detailed Paula Jones's involvement in Troopergate, he seemed to be begging Clinton for forgiveness and/or absolution:
No matter how I felt about the case personally, as a journalist, I would never have compromised that important principle. And with the passage of time, whatever sympathy I may have had with the Jones "cause" is gone. And whatever place in history I may have, I'm not proud of it.
When I watched the media hoopla as you got hauled into a deposition by Jones's lawyers, I had a sinking feeling. My ransacking of your personal life had given your political adversaries--who were now funding and fighting the Jones case--an opportunity to use the legal process to finish the job that I started. Worse still their effort to dig up sexual dirt on you was sanctioned by the Supreme Court, which in a landmark ruling has imperiled future presidents by making them vulnerable to character assassination in all manner of civil suits while in office.
None of this was supposed to happen. Now that I'm living through it, I'm sure it should not have happened.
All that's missing in this gratuitous mea culpa was Brock bowing at the feet of his new master asking, "What is thy bidding?"
Possibly even more intriguing, the answer was ominously foreshadowed months prior when Brock wrote in his first Esquire piece of a media void somehow needing to be filled:
Still, there is no "liberal movement" to which these journalists are attached and by which they can be blackballed in the sense that there is a self-identified, hardwired "conservative movement" that can function as a kind of neo-Stalinist thought police that rivals anything I knew at Berkeley.
There is now, David. It's called Media Matters, and you defined its modus operandi far better ten years ago than anyone including yourself has since.