Media watchdogs a tipping point for Imus' downfall

April 15, 2007|By Abigail Tucker | Abigail Tucker,Sun Reporter

The morning Don Imus uttered the phrase that appears to have ended his career, Ryan Chiachiere was watching. The veteran shock jock's comment was so incendiary that the 26-year-old researcher for Media Matters in America, a liberal media watchdog group, took the rare step of removing his headphones and repeating the slur to his co-workers in the room, who were also glued to various forms of programming.

But the rest of what happened April 4 at the group's Washington office was fairly routine. Media Matters workers packaged a video clip of Imus' statement along with a written transcript and several paragraphs of contextual information. Then they e-mailed the material to hundreds of journalists and interest groups.

It is a process that, in some form or another, happens more than a dozen times daily at the Web-based nonprofit, often without any clear progress toward Media Matters' stated goal of "correcting conservative misinformation."

This time, though, the release snowballed into a national scandal that ended last week in the removal of Imus' show from radio and television.

It also thrust the watchdog group into the spotlight, showcasing the lightning-strike power of online critique in a saturated news environment.

"We are very diligent in our mission," says Karl Frisch, a spokesman for the group. "We monitor and analyze the media for these things" on a daily basis.

There have long been journalism watchdog groups, but "what Media Matters clearly has learned is that the Web is the way to get it done quick," says Charlotte Grimes, the Knight Chair in political reporting at Syracuse University's communications school.

"There is this great confluence of the Web, the 24-hour news cycle and video," she says. "And then you take Don Imus and pour gasoline on the fire."

Founded in 2004 by David Brock, a conservative-turned-liberal author who often writes about the press, Media Matters' purpose is to correct falsehoods and omissions, especially those that seem to have a conservative spin, according to its Web site. It analyzes conventional news output and controversial media personalities, such as Imus, Rush Limbaugh, Bill O'Reilly, Michael Savage and others.

"We do everything from Imus to The New York Times," Frisch says. "Our role is saying that this is happening, saying who is saying it and then correcting it" -- and then spreading the word online.

And with a staff of about 50, the group consumes a lot of news. Before helping to unseat Imus, it had been credited with several other victories, such as multiple corrections in major newspapers, including the Times. Topics of dispute have included rumors about Illinois Sen. Barack Obama's Muslim education and criticism of global warming reports.

The Imus case was, however, particularly concussive. The initial Media Matters release reportedly reached the eyes of people ranging from small-time bloggers to the president of the National Association of Black Journalists, and, in part through the vast e-mail forwarding network, hit mainstream publications and ballooned into a nationwide scandal.

Media Matters has been around for just a few years, but other journalism monitoring groups, many with political agendas, have been around for decades. They began as simple print publications, but lately have been adapting to the Internet era even as the traditional media they cover struggles to adjust to the demands of the instantaneous dissemination of news.

"We started as a monthly newsletter, with two weeks to decide what to write about," says Tim Graham, director of media analysis for the conservative Media Research Center, which celebrates its 20th anniversary this year. "Now everything has to be up [on a Web site] by 11."

Their counterparts on the other side of the political divide have adopted a similar strategy.

"We started out as a magazine," says Peter Hart, activism director for Fairness and Accuracy in Reporting (FAIR). "Now we're a magazine, a Web site and a radio show. What has changed in the last few years is that word gets out so much faster."

And it's only going to speed up more, Grimes says, which is why fully Web-based groups such as Media Matters might have an edge. "If FAIR and the Media Research Center want to stay in the game," she says, "they are going to have to keep moving in this direction."

Media Matters will also keep experimenting, Frisch says. The group has opened an office in Colorado, home of several conservative news outlets, to see how Web monitoring works on a statewide level -- quite well, according to Frisch.

But even with the Imus publicity storm, business continues as usual in the Washington offices. Frisch says the group is keeping a particularly close eye on global warming skeptics, as well as on the rest of the world's sharp-tongued morning show hosts. It hopes to use its current moment in the limelight.

"It's not just Imus," a subsequent e-mail release from the group said this week, above a list of offensive comments from other, mostly right-wing, hosts.

And as for Chiachiere, the intrepid researcher who aimed his slingshot at one of America's towering media personalities?

He's not doing any interviews.

abigail.tucker@baltsun.com

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