Every morning at seven, Kyle Drennen, thirty-four, settles into his living room in suburban Fairfax, Virginia, with a bowl of cereal and turns on NBC. He spends thirty minutes or so watching the hard-news segments at the top of the Today show before heading to work at NewsBusters, a nonprofit that monitors the media, eleven miles down the road in Reston. He arrives most days at about eight thirty.
There, he scans the rest of the program on a sophisticated DVR system, looking for segments that he thinks demonstrate unfairness toward conservatives or have a liberal slant. By noon most days he’s written another story criticizing NBC News or some other outlet, to appear on the NewsBusters site alongside fifteen other new pieces produced around the country by the organization’s editorial team.
If the media is now “the enemy of the people,” as President Trump famously proclaimed in 2017, NewsBusters sees itself as a never-more-vital sentinel, tirelessly observing its movements. Its twenty digital recorders capture eighty hours of television programming every day of the year. And its archive, which includes thirty-four thousand videocassettes, features nearly every news broadcast since 1988.
The world of mainstream media, as seen through the NewsBusters lens, is a dark place inhospitable to objectivity and fairness. From this vantage, MSNBC’s Morning Joe is a nest of biased vipers. CNN’s Brian Stelter, the host of the media-focused Sunday show Reliable Sources, is a figure of virulent hatred. The news divisions of the three broadcast networks—ABC, CBS, and NBC—are seen as historically partisan and sinking deeper into the welcoming arms of liberals every day. Stephen Colbert and Samantha Bee are outspoken and angry anti-Trumpers bellowing their lefty beliefs deep into the night.
NewsBusters’ editorial operation rivals the output of a small city’s daily newspaper. It publishes seven days a week. Analysts are assigned beats corresponding to about twenty regular sources. These include the three network morning news programs and evening news broadcasts, CNN, MSNBC, the New York Times, the Washington Post, Time magazine, the late-night talk shows (with the exception of The Tonight Show Starring Jimmy Fallon), Saturday Night Live, and some original programming on HBO and FX.
NewsBusters employs ten staffers, but stories are also generated by part-timers; employees from other divisions of the Media Research Center (MRC), the organization that oversees NewsBusters; interns; and a network of twenty-five stringers across the country, who get paid $50 to $100 an article. The freelancers range in age from young millennials to aging boomers including former Reagan strategist Jeff Lord, who was fired as a commentator from CNN in 2017 after tweeting a Nazi salute to a prominent liberal activist in apparent jest.
Recent stories published by NewsBusters include a January 3 post pointing out that Time once compared Iranian general Qassem Suleimani to James Bond, Lady Gaga, and Erwin Rommel. Another story posted that morning reported that CNN anchor John Berman called the killing of Suleimani “murder” and added that Berman’s choice of words “would seem tantamount to accusing President Trump of a capital crime.”
Most prospective NewsBusters analysts are picked from a pool of conservative applicants. They first take a thirty-question current-events quiz that tests their knowledge of politics and the media (Who is the Senate majority leader? What network carries New Day?). Once they have passed the test, they enter a period of two or three months in which they are steeped in the tenets of anti-conservative bias. Their work is initially supervised. Eventually, they’ll be expected to produce one to two five-hundred-word pieces a day. NewsBusters analysts are often later headhunted to work at other right-wing media outlets: Townhall (Matt Vespa), the Washington Free Beacon (Stephen Gutowski), the Daily Caller (Greg Price).
Brent Baker, fifty-six, oversees the NewsBusters operation, which he helped launch in 2005. It occupies the sixth floor of a modern building in a suburban-Washington office park. He’s a bearish man with a high-pitched voice and the gentle demeanor of a rural veterinarian. He currently holds the title of editor at large as well as the corporate title of Vice President for Research and Publications at the MRC. (Stated mission: “to expose and neutralize the propaganda arm of the Left: the national news media.”) .
Baker sits in a large corner office that gives off a serious man-cave vibe. A souvenir blanket of his beloved Washington Capitals hockey team festoons his couch. Team tchotchkes are scattered throughout the room. With his rumpled everyman look of baggy pleated chinos, plaid shirt, and scraggly beard, it would be easy to dismiss Baker as a square interloper passing harsh judgments on the glamorous worlds of media and entertainment. But with more than three decades of watching and analyzing television, his knowledge of the medium and its influence rivals that of any top editor at a Hollywood trade.
“We see the broadcast networks as very important,” Baker says. “Even if people think they’re old, they still have big audiences. And the people who are the least informed are watching these shows. The person whose news diet is watching eighteen minutes of the Today show every day, that’s the person the bias of the program will impact.”
Baker graduated in 1985 with a degree in political science from George Washington University, where he edited conservative student newspaper The Sequent. By early 1986 he was working for the National Conservative Foundation and had launched the organization’s eight-page monthly newsletter, Newswatch, dedicated to proving liberal bias in the media.
Eventually the foundation’s chairman L. Brent Bozell III resigned and took most of his staff, including Baker, with him to form the MRC. Though Bozell initially disparaged Donald Trump, he has since become a fierce protector of the president, and especially of his allegations of media bias.
During this pivotal election year, NewsBusters will be focused on coverage of the president, Baker says. He predicts a continuation of what he sees as the mainstream media’s unrelenting attacks on Trump. Gaffes or incendiary statements made by Democratic contenders will, he anticipates, garner much less coverage. It will be Baker’s job to point out these inconsistencies, as left-wing organizations like Media Matters seek out their opposites.
His aim will be to provide ammunition for right-wing influencers, who cite NewsBusters stories frequently. Newt Gingrich, Mike Huckabee, Sean Hannity, and Donald Trump Jr. regularly quote or retweet its research, according to Baker. And the White House, he says, is aware of NewsBusters’ work.
Not surprisingly, Baker reiterates some of President Trump’s sentiments about the media. “News media, the entertainment world, and academia are the enemies of conservative policies,” Baker says. The stories NewsBusters publishes, he maintains, prove to a wide variety of opinion leaders “that the media are biased today. We’re just giving them the ammo to make the case.”
And in the critical election year of 2020, that ammunition may cause undecided voters to question the veracity or bias of information they receive from mainstream sources just as they enter the ballot box to choose our political leaders.