The Liberal Watchdog Taking on Fake News - OZY | A Modern Media Company

The Liberal Watchdog Taking on Fake News

The Liberal Watchdog Taking on Fake News

By Daniel Malloy


Because the nature of truth has become a crucial battleground.

By Daniel Malloy

Usually, Angelo Carusone lives in a torrent of tweets, phone calls and opinions. But in one notable moment, the Long Islander almost lost his bluster. It was 2013, and Carusone sat in the front row at an awards ceremony for conservative pundit Glenn Beck, who had just displayed a napkin possibly soaked with Adolf Hitler’s blood amid a half-apology for his habit of sowing divisiveness in the media. Um. “Thank you,” Carusone said. “I’m Stop Beck,” he added, referring to his campaign to get advertisers to ditch Beck’s show. The object of his criticism, Carusone recalls, left in a huff.

For the 34-year-old new president of the liberal watchdog group Media Matters for America, crusades against Beck and Fox News seem almost quaint now, even in the wake of his role in helping hasten Bill O’Reilly’s April departure from the air. Because in addition to firing arrows at giants, Carusone is playing whack-a-mole against conservative online misinformation, as it bubbles up from message board threads to the Twitter account of the president of the United States. He’s also reasserting a brand that has taken a few arrows of its own — from the left and the right. The “baggage,” as Carusone calls it, is as much of an obstacle as the “fake news.” And he’s up for the scrap.

Carusone hates bullies. As the fat gay kid at an all-boys Catholic high school who ran long-distance winter track because it was the only non-cut sport, he encountered his share of them. The son of a sewer and drain cleaner and a part-time lunch lady, neither of whom attended college, Carusone developed an interest in academics via the debate team. He was headed for life as an attorney — until Beck showed up. Midway through law school at the University of Wisconsin, Carusone witnessed the rise of the conservative media titan, who was then making claims like President Barack Obama “has a deep-seated hatred for white people or the white culture” and that a White House aide advocated sterilizing populations via drinking water. (Beck did not respond to a request for comment — but was, by the way, “Never Trump” throughout the campaign.)

Republican consultant Frank Luntz told the Washington Post that Media Matters is “a professional bitch organization of the left.”

Using then-nascent Twitter, Carusone went after Beck, pushing for advertisers to bail on his show. “My life has just completely gone down this Glenn Beck toilet, where it looks like I’m about to fail out of law school,” Carusone recalls. Carusone’s boyfriend, now husband, gave him a deadline: Drop the Beck madness, get a job in New York and start paying back six-figure law-school debt. Instead, Carusone convinced Media Matters to hire him, sinking deeper into the Beck-Fox whirlpool.

Launched in 2004 by conservative journalist turned liberal David Brock, Media Matters was built to battle what it views as right-wing misinformation. While a big component of its work is down-the-middle research and compiling transcripts of right-wing talkers, the pugnacious organization has made plenty of enemies. Republican consultant Frank Luntz told the Washington Post that Media Matters is “a professional bitch organization of the left.” Media Matters was known for aggressively going after reporters for even light criticism of Hillary Clinton, including attacking NPR’s Terry Gross for questioning Clinton’s evolution on gay marriage. Today, it’s trying to balance frequent complaints about the mainstream press with its stated goal to stand up for the institution. Through a spokeswoman, Brock writes OZY, pithily: “Democracy needs journalism, and journalism needs Media Matters right now.”

And Media Matters seems to need Carusone, who got his start working under Ilyse Hogue, now the president of NARAL Pro-Choice America, to stop Fox from “feeding red meat to their most extreme base,” as Hogue puts it. That meant, for instance, bombarding Fox advertisers like Orbitz with the network’s inflammatory statements. The organization takes some credit for Fox’s post-Beck “course correction,” as Roger Ailes called it in 2011, during which the network de-emphasized its tea party boosterism. Fox News did not respond to a request for comment. In a revival of an old playbook, Carusone this year pushed advertisers to drop legendary Fox host O’Reilly in the wake of new sexual harassment allegations.

Fox is a juicy target, but far from the only one. Carusone’s digital strategy to deal with media “fragmentation” includes heat maps to identify which topics are taking off on social media and sound search technology for audio files. Still in development are tools to compile message board posts before they self-delete, and to use sentiment analysis to dissect how people are being persuaded. The staff of about 70 uses the tools to decide where and how the organization should weigh in. Though Carusone took a professional detour to help manage the Democratic National Convention last summer, he’s not registered with either party, and isn’t big on elections.

Of course, everyone’s a critic — especially today, and especially on all things media. Other progressive organizations with less baggage, like the Center for American Progress, are acting as press watchdogs, too. But Carusone sees more opportunity for the fight as media has become more diffuse.

Today, that means bombarding reporters (its traditional audience) with context (and, inevitably, spin) on claims that pop up on the right, as the organization also lobbies Facebook and Google to retaliate against “fake news” purveyors. It’s taken on a free speech tinge, too, encouraging collective action when the White House targets select media outlets. Privately, it warns journalists when online trolls are preparing a harassment campaign.

Dressed casually in a long-sleeved T-shirt and a plain gray baseball cap, Carusone leads OZY through an open-plan office in Washington packed with screens showing CNN and Fox News, as well as Alex Jones’ conspiracy theory-driven Infowars. Sometimes, the voices from the right get a little too loud. Then, they retreat to the Ping-Pong table. 

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