On a wall in the Washington D.C. headquarters of Media Matters for America, a quote by former Fox News host Bill O’Reilly looms prominently over the office: “Media Matters, they are the most dangerous organization in America.”
Under President Donald Trump, Media Matters’ thorn has felt more like a bullet. That’s because as of late, some of Fox News’ primetime programming has struggled to find advertisers. It may be due to Media Matters putting pressure on advertisers by launching boycott campaigns on social media—a tactic that has proven effective. According to a blog post maintained and updated by Media Matters called “These are Tucker Carlson’s Leading Advertisers,” one of Fox News’s late-night stars, Tucker Carlson, has lost 35 advertisers. The organization maintained a similar log for Sean Hannity, who lost advertisers in late 2017 after taking the following stance on the Roy Moore scandal: “the only people that would know are the people involved in this incident." Earlier this year, via Twitter, a Facebook group and over email, Media Matters organized a protest outside Fox News’ New York City headquarters while company leaders met with advertisers.
Tonight, I’m meeting with nine Media Matters employees—most of them have the title of researcher, but president Angelo Carusone is also present—to talk about Fox News. The table is crowded with plastic bowls from a nearby restaurant, water bottles and Diet Coke cans. The office is open and industrial. Exposed silver piping against a plywood ceiling.
The agenda of tonight’s meeting is to strategize how to stay ahead of Fox News. Media Matters’ researchers operate on the belief that, unlike most cable news networks, Fox doesn’t strictly cover “the news.” Instead, they believe the network focuses on covering the news through the lens of certain themes that are core to the political beliefs of their viewers.
At Fox, we know this means conservative themes targeted to conservative viewers who vote Republican roughly all the time. At Fox, this means heralding MAGA and supporting the White House. As the researchers tell it, this comprises everything from amplifying white grievance to proselytizing the dangers of immigration. At dinner, Media Matters’ staff talks about how Fox programming rallies around these themes and how Fox’s primetime personalities will continue to use them moving forward.
Tucker Carlson has a primetime slot on the most-watched news channel in the country, but on the first break, there’s a choppy ad for a personal injury law firm. These should be some of the most expensive advertising slots on television.
Another researcher, in jeans and a hoodie, naturally, adds, “You can tell that Trump wasn’t watching Tucker in 2017.”
When I ask if they can tell by the president’s language what nights the president watches Carlson, most nod yes.
An hour later, 24-year-old researcher Madeline Peltz has the dull, patriotic colors of Tucker Carlson Tonight glistening across her screen. Her desk, like the majority of desks here, features two desktop monitors and a small television. Peltz recently unearthed old tapes of Carlson making lewd remarks about underage girls. In one of the tapes, recorded in October 2009, Tucker is asked about sexual experimentation among girls at his daughter’s boarding school. He answers, “if it weren't my daughter I would love that scenario.”
Peltz’s reporting went viral. Carusone, Media Matters’ president, talked about it on Chris Hayes’ primetime MSNBC show. The Washington Post profiled Peltz. In response to the resurfaced audio, Carlson said, “Media Matters caught me saying something naughty on a radio show more than a decade ago. Rather than express the usual ritual contrition, how about this: I’m on television every weeknight live for an hour. If you want to know what I think, you can watch.”
On this evening, Carlson is airing a segment about Jussie Smollett and railing against George Soros, the liberal billionaire who funds a number of left-leaning organization through his Open Society Foundations, which pumps money into groups including New America, the American Civil Liberties Union, Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington, and Refugees International. Attacks on Soros are a common Fox News narrative; on the desk behind Peltz, a researcher named Brendan is watching Fox Business host Lou Dobbs, who is also spouting talking Soros talking points.
Soros is a Media Matters donor, but the true story behind his $1 million donation is nebulous. Carusone alleges that in 2010, Abe Foxman, then National Director at the Anti-Defamation League, met with Fox News leadership and asked the network to ease up on its coverage of Soros. At the time Fox News host Glenn Beck was accusing Soros of being a Nazi collaborator, once saying “here's a Jewish boy helping send the Jews to the death camps.”
According to Causone, Fox refused, so Soros pumped a million dollars into Media Matters. In a statement at the time, Soros said the donation was intended to “more widely publicize the challenge Fox News poses to civil and informed discourse in our democracy.” Aside from Causone, however, no one else I spoke to for this story, including a Fox representative, can confirm this meeting ever took place.
The team of researchers operate on the idea that unlike most other media organizations, Fox doesn’t strictly follow the news. Instead they follow the news as it relates to the themes they promote.
Peltz is Media Matters’ leading Carlson expert—she discovered those videos of him “saying something naughty” on YouTube—but Media Matters also controls a video archive going back to 2007 that swallows petabytes. With some videos dating back to 2005, anything said on a nationally televised news program in the past decade is probably stored on the Media Matters servers. Since the servers are housed internally, the organization has another layer of defense against the ceaseless lawsuits they’re fighting. If they were housed by a third party, that company could shut down the servers following a court order. That’s not an issue with the servers in-house.
If Madeline or Brendan or another researcher sees something they deem inflammatory on a Fox show, they grab a copy of the show’s transcript, which is pulled live by a computer program, and send the quote to an email list. Then one of the directors—on the night shift, this is Andrew Lawrence—decides what they’ll do. That could mean they simply publish the transcript, write the quote up as a more in-depth blog post or upload the video to Media Matters’ Twitter account or to their personal Twitter accounts.
The team watches Fox News through a satellite feed that ensures they’re seeing the national advertisers, this way they don’t accidentally encourage boycotts on local car dealerships. Tonight, Tucker Carlson’s program includes just a handful of blue chip advertisers. There are two ads for My Pillow, a company with an outspoken pro-Trump founder and six ads for Fox programs.
Media Matters says that the strength of their boycotts is that they only push for these movements after a truly ugly quote, like the time that Tucker Carlson said on-air that immigration “makes our own country poorer and dirtier and more divided.” After that, he lost around 25 top advertisers that included Pacific Life, Land Rover, Bowflex, IHOP and Red Lobster. The result is almost comical: Tucker Carlson has a primetime slot on the most-watched news channel in the country, but on the first break, there’s a choppy ad for a personal injury law firm. These should be some of the most expensive advertising slots on television. But it seems that nobody wants to pay for them. There’s an ongoing joke in this office that My Pillow is subsidizing Tucker Carlson’s program.
When asked about the apparent ad shortage, Fox News pointed Playboy to a statement by the company’s president of ad sales, Marianne Gambelli, saying "we support all of our sponsors and they know the value of the audience."
The next morning, there is a different roster of Media Matters researchers in the office. Among other things, the morning team monitors Fox & Friends. For years, this was a show full of gimmicks and without the strong personalities that power morning shows, but now the president of the United States watches it. Media Matters’ experts on this program are Bobby Lewis and Matt Gertz. Bobby has an afro and wears a faded t-shirt and jeans. He watches the show every morning and explains that “most narratives that pass through conservative media appear on Fox & Friends at some point.” On the left monitor, Fox & Friends runs on a delay, and Bobby chuckles as the hosts begin talking over each other, their voices slowly rising. On the right side of his desk is the small television screen where the hosts are live in New York City with a musician who grips a guitar and grins into the camera. Then-NRA spokeswoman Dana Loesch appears on the monitor and Bobby nods, “she comes on about once a week usually around this time, watch,” he says, “they won’t credit her as an NRA spokesperson, they’ll say she’s something else.” The Fox ticker flashes Loesch’s title—nationally syndicated radio host.
Gertz realized the link on October 10, 2017 after Trump praised a book by Christopher Bedford titled The Art of the Donald: Lessons from America's Philosopher-in-Chief. The president’s tweet from that morning reads “highly respected author, Christopher Bedford, just came out with a book, ‘The Art of the Donald, Lessons from America's....’ Really good book!” Gertz says “there was no reason to think that he had actually read the book, as people know, the president doesn’t read … we were trying to figure out what was going on when one of my colleagues pointed out that that morning Bedford had been on Fox & Friends like an hour before the president tweeted and he’d been pitching the book.” Trump doesn’t watch Fox & Friends live, instead he records it and watches it on a delay and, on most days, Gertz can tell you how long the president’s delay is.
In the morning editorial meeting the team talks about Trump’s interview on Sean Hannity’s show, which aired the night before. There are also discussions about their other initiatives that are separate from their Fox work, like monitoring extremism activity. There are floor-to-ceiling windows overlooking the city. On the cement floor around the table, framed prints of media coverage of the organization lean against the walls. Every major outlet has written about them over the years. The faded headlines beside the covers reading The Hollywood Reporter, TIME, and The New York Times.
Thirty-six-year-old Carusone sits at the center of the table in a brown sweater. He has high cheekbones and seems to never be able to rid himself of a 5 o’clock shadow. As Media Matters has come under fire, so has Carusone. A series of transphobic blog posts that he wrote in college are periodically revived, most recently by The Daily Caller; they were first unearthed by Rush Limbaugh in 2012. In 2010, while a law student, he missed the opportunity to renew his ownership of AngeloCarusone.com, and originally, it redirected to Glenn Beck’s website, but it’s now gone through several reiterations. Today it features a photo of Carusone with the caption PRESIDENT OF THE LEFT WING HATE GROUP MMFA.
In 2017, Carusone flew to the U.K. to testify before regulators as Fox was trying to buy Sky News. Previous to that, Media Matters filed a number of formal submissions to the Culture Secretary. But Fox won that battle, and the U.K. government eventually cleared them to buy out Sky. However, they were ultimately outbid by Comcast.
The organization, like all organizations, is not without criticisms. They frequently have their tax-exempt status challenged. As an educational nonprofit, Media Matters is designated as a 501(c)(3), but critics accuse the group of functioning simply as an attack dog sicced on Fox News. In a statement to Playboy for this piece, Fox said “Media Matters is a 501(c)(3) organization that egregiously abuses taxpayer funds solely to attack Fox News simply because it provides an alternative viewpoint during its opinion programming which they don’t tolerate or agree with.”
During the 2016 election, Media Matters was accused of playing defense for Hillary Clinton. To that criticism, Carusone says “largely what we do, is react … at the time, most of what Media Matters was doing was rapid-response, fighting misinformation. From a share of voice perspective, the majority of attacks, especially from the conservative media, were focused on Hillary.” He adds, “the idea that all we were doing was pro-Hillary content—not true.”
Like most nonprofits, the organization is hedgy about their plans for the future. They hope to spend more time examining fringe corners of the right-wing media apparatus, and there is talk of hiring overseas. One thing is certain: As 2020 looms nearer, everyone, including the current occupant of 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue, will be paying closer attention to what comes out of their offices.