Politico reporter withheld information about liberal Media Matters For America

Will Rahn Senior Editor
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About a year ago, the organization Media Matters For America gave Politico reporter Ben Smith a 2010 planning memo for a profile he was writing on the liberal advocacy group.

But Smith curiously withheld key parts of the 89-page document when he published his story, “Media Matters’ war against Fox,” in March 2011.

The Daily Caller became aware of this after obtaining the same document while reporting the series “Inside Media Matters,” which debuted here late Sunday night.

Smith made no mention of Media Matters targeting organizations other than Fox News, such as the libertarian Cato Institute and the conservative Heritage Foundation. Nor does he reveal that, according to the memo, Media Matters was intent on researching Republican political figures like Republican former U.S. Senate candidate Carly Fiorina and Republican Virginia Rep. Eric Cantor, and the prominent libertarian political donor Peter Thiel.

“An opposition research team will serve to hold Thiel and others like him accountable,” the memo states. Smith made no mention of such efforts in his story.

He also failed to disclose Media Matters’ interest in marginalizing political news websites including Newsmax and Andrew Breitbart’s Big Government, saying only that the organization had narrowed its focus to “Fox and a handful of conservative websites.”

It’s not clear why Smith, who recently left Politico for the website BuzzFeed, didn’t include more specifics from the lengthy document in his March 2011 story if he had the full copy.

Approached by The Daily Caller about this on Monday, Smith reacted by subsequently posting most of the memo online at BuzzFeed. His version did not include the final five pages, which contained a Media Matters For America three-year budget outline.

(RELATED: See the full Media Matters strategy memo, with its budget projections)

“Here’s the document Politico reported on in 2011, and The Daily Caller wrote about today, online for the first time,” Smith wrote on the site. “In it, the liberal group lays plans for an all-out assault on the conservative cable network.”

In an email, Smith explained that he wouldn’t address questions about why he chose to publish his copy of the document now instead of in 2011, because he’s not “comfortable” talking with reporters from TheDC. He also said he never had the budget pages from the document.

It’s not surprising that Smith had the memo: Sources with inside knowledge of Media Matters told TheDC that the organization has had great success at getting Smith — and certain other reporters — to write stories pitched to them.

Smith’s story last year included interviews with top officials at the liberal organization, including its founder David Brock.

Politico media reporter Dylan Byers went to bat Monday for Smith — his former boss — in two blog posts, including one item about how Smith reported on the memo first.

“The timing of this publication is a bit unfortunate for the Daily Caller, which just yesterday suggested that Smith was a dumping ground for Media Matters’ research and now finds itself sourcing the same material as though it were exclusive a year after the fact,” Byers wrote.

But while Byers’ story on Monday was titled “Daily Caller publishes old MMFA memo,” there was much in the memo Smith didn’t touch in his story.

Smith, however, did note that Media Matters defended him from Fox News co-anchor Steve Doocy’s criticisms roughly a month prior to his article’s publication.

Near the end of his piece, Smith quoted Media Matters vice president Ari Rabin-Havt as saying Media Matters would target a dozen or so “mid and senior level execs and producers” at Fox News. He did not name them, despite the fact that Media Matters named them all in the memo.

The memo also outlined a strategy of “elite persuasion” involving the targeting of “political and media elites in key markets with aggressive advertising and individual outreach designed to sour conventional wisdom and the media elite’s positive opinions of, misplaced solidarity with, and its tendency to follow or defend Fox News.”

“We will also consider other television radio and print advertising,” the memo continues, “targeting programs and publications that these elites regularly watch, listen to and read like Comedy Central’s The Daily Show, WTOP news radio and Politico.”

Smith was a senior political reporter at Politico when he obtained the memo. In his reporting, he made no mention of Media Matters’ plan to “target” his employer with anti-Fox advertisements.

The complete copy of the Media Matters memo obtained by TheDC did include the five-page budget section omitted in Smith’s online version. Asked why he did not publish those pages, Smith replied, “I posted what I’ve got.”

Responding to a request for comment, Byers said “only Ben can comment on his decision to treat the memo in the way that he did.”

“I chose to note the item because the Daily Caller was writing about a memo it had obtained,” Byers explained in an email, “which had also been obtained and written about last year by one of the very reporters mentioned in DC’s earlier piece.”

Politico editor-in-chief John Harris, did not immediately return a request for comment about why only certain parts of the memo were published in Smith’s March 2011 Politico story.

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Read the full Media Matters memo: