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Yesterday, Media Matters, the liberal media watchdog group, sent out to a fairly massive email list a talking points memo defending the Obama Justice Department’s obtaining of Associated Press phone logs. The talking points were distributed to 3,000 “progressive talkers and influentials,” according to Media Matters head David Brock. (But not me, for the record. I am not an influential.)
Like all talking points, these talking points were dumb and full of weird weaselly language and made worse by the fact that each claim was designed to be repeated by people on TV who presumably don’t believe what they say or at least don’t really care that much. “For those interested in pushing back against partisan attacks while the rest of us grapple with the larger questions, here is language to guide you,” the memo said. The rest of us will be back here, grappling, while you engage in your semi-scripted verbal combat, with some guy who has different talking points.
So the memo instructs the professional progressive “influential” to raise some “key questions,” like: “Is this story about a government source blowing the whistle on government misbehavior, or about a source gratuitously exposing ongoing counter-terrorism operations?” And: “How should the Justice Department strike the balance between respecting our free press and investigating damaging leaks that jeopardize counter-terrorism operations?” (These seem more like essay prompts than “issues,” actually?) And obviously “raising” these “key issues,” even in this “just asking questions!” manner, basically amounts, as Jason Linkins writes, to mounting a defense of the Justice Department that is neither necessary nor justifiable.
Except! It wasn’t actually “Media Matters” that did this. It was something called “Message Matters,” a separate thing, also run by Brock, out of the same office, that is dedicated to … writing talking points for liberal talking heads, so that they can more effectively win their arguments with conservative talking heads, and thus save America.
I should say that I like Media Matters. I also think they do good and even “important” work. Liberals don’t really listen to talk radio, and they expose themselves to Fox News usually only on special occasions. Forcing (with money) teams of people to monitor conservative media and document the obsessions and tropes is a useful endeavor. The Media Matters archives are a valuable resource and the organization has probably even caused some members of the “objective” press to be more skeptical of right-wing myths and lies that, in the recent past, were frequently repeated with annoying credulity.
But the organization suffers from most of the flaws that afflict every primarily partisan advocacy group that also produces analysis and commentary: There are occasions when the partisanship ruins the commentary and colors the analysis. ThinkProgress, a fine organization staffed with hardworking and talented journalists, occasionally has this same problem, because it’s attached to an advocacy shop with a political goal.
The Message Matters thing sort of makes sense, politically. (Brock says the talking points group will be geographically separated from the media monitoring group soon, to avoid awkward situations like the one that arose yesterday.) It also won’t work. Because liberals are proudly bad at message discipline.
Those AP talking points supposedly went out to 3,000 people yesterday. How many “progressive influentials” actually used them, for their columns or TV or radio appearances? It looks to be around “none.” The first I heard of them was in an internal Salon email that called the memo “amazing” (in a negative sense). Most of the liberal media mocked or expressed outrage about the silly Media Matters memo.
I think Brock thinks this will work because of his years spent on the right. There basically are right-wing talking point pipelines, transmitting carefully crafted messages, buzzwords and narratives from the masterminds to the masses. At Fox, there are memos from Roger Ailes, John Moody and other senior editorial figures, dictating daily story focus and the language used to discuss those stories. There is, obviously, Drudge. There’s Grover’s breakfasts and groups run by pollsters and P.R. firms that craft the messages that the bloggers disseminate.
There isn’t a secret cabal or all-powerful puppet-master, but for the most part, the various institutions of the conservative movement — media, think tank, legislative, whatever — are pretty much in sync (except when the elites want something the rabble doesn’t, like immigration reform) and they share their work. The same arguments, phrased in the same language, travel from blogs and columns to Limbaugh to elected officials to the Facebook pages of normal conservative citizens. Activists and media figures on the right engage in some light coordination regularly. Liberals sort of temperamentally resist being explicitly told what to say or how to say it. Jonathan Haidt would say that conservatives strongly value “ingroup loyalty,” and respect institutions and hierarchical authority. Liberals, not so much. Right-wingers all imaged that JournoList, the semi-secret liberal media listserv (which I was not a part of, nor am I a member of its replacement), was where the liberal media message coordination was happening. They thought that because that’s what the right-wing media would be doing. To my understanding, JournoList was made up more of argument and debate (and seething resentment and barely concealed contempt) than talking points coordination.
That’s why this memo was a failure before it was even drafted: I don’t think most liberals particularly want to defend the Justice Department in this case. The whole thing grosses people out. There is some “it’s not as bad as everyone is making it out to be” talk but not much going-to-the-mat “the administration is totally right and the AP is totally wrong and un-American” going on, from media liberals in the papers, the major blogs and even cable news. The best Message Matters could do is accuse conservatives of hypocrisy on the issue, which is a fair charge but note quite a compelling defense. Liberals will occasionally (or frequently, depending on the liberal) defend things Obama does that they would’ve protested coming from Bush. But they’re much more likely to ignore inconvenient stuff than defend it, as I’ve previously argued. (And make no mistake, vociferous, splenetic defense of literally everything Bush did was very much the operative mode of the conservative movement during those years, even if since he’s left office they now all pretend to have been disgusted by his profligacy.)
This is what will doom the Media Matters talking point distribution experiment: Liberals will be too embarrassed and proud to use them. Again, we’re talking about commentators and so on, here, not professional party hacks. Maybe Stephanie Cutter will say these things on TV when they put her on New Crossfire. But do you think Ezra Klein and Melissa Harris-Perry are going to carefully study their Message Matters briefings before going on MSNBC? Will Jonathan Chait parrot their claims in a column? Will any major liberal newspaper columnist? Will Kos or Atrios or whoever adopt Message Matters language, on the interblogs? I mean even Touré won’t touch this.
So good luck, David Brock, on the new project, but the “inflentials” are probably going to ignore it.
Alex Pareene writes about politics for Salon and is the author of "The Rude Guide to Mitt." Email him at firstname.lastname@example.org and follow him on Twitter @pareeneMore Alex Pareene.
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Alex Pareene surveys the burgeoning and bloated world of political news and opinion and explains the day's most essential story in Opening Shot, posted by 8:30 a.m. each weekday. Bookmark this page; follow @pareene on Twitter.