WASHINGTON — They are some of the more memorable slip-ups or slights within the news media’s coverage of the 2008 presidential campaign.
A Fox News anchor asks whether Senator Barack Obama and his wife had greeted each other with a “terrorist fist jab.” Rush Limbaugh calls military personnel critical of the war in Iraq “phony soldiers.” Mr. Limbaugh and another Fox host repeat an accusation that Mr. Obama attended a madrassa, or Islamic school, in Indonesia.
Each of these moments might have slipped into the broadcast ether but for the efforts of Media Matters for America, the nonprofit, highly partisan research organization that was founded four years ago by David Brock, a formerly conservative author who has since gone liberal.
Ripping a page from an old Republican Party playbook, Media Matters has given the Democrats a weapon they have not had in previous campaigns: a rapid-fire, technologically sophisticated means to call out what it considers “conservative misinformation” on air or in print, then feed it to a Rolodex of reporters, cable channels and bloggers hungry for grist.
Producers for both “The Daily Show with Jon Stewart” and “The Colbert Report” on Comedy Central take calls from the organization. James Carville, the Democratic strategist and CNN commentator, has read from its items on the air, not least, he says, because they “just irritate the right to no end.”
“It was always kind of a dream, that we needed something like that,” Mr. Carville said. “I wouldn’t say they’ve become as effective as the entire conservative media backlash thing, but they’re probably more effective than any single entity.”
At the core of the Media Matters operation is its ability to hear and see so much of the news and commentary that streams across the nation’s airwaves, and to scan so many major newspapers and blogs. The group has an annual operating budget of more than $10 million — up from $3 million in 2004 — much of it donated by wealthy individuals with ties to the Democratic Party, including Peter B. Lewis, chairman of Progressive Insurance; Steve Bing, a movie producer; and Marcy Carsey, a television producer.
That money allows the group to monitor and transcribe nearly every word not only on network and cable news but also on nationally syndicated talk radio and, lately, local radio. It was Media Matters that widely disseminated a transcript of Don Imus making racially and sexually offensive comments about the Rutgers women’s basketball team. (On its own this summer, the group also circulated a photo of this reporter that had been digitally altered by Fox News.)
Media Matters says it does not coordinate its efforts with the Obama campaign — the campaign has its own media-criticism Web site, FightTheSmears.com — though some Democratic operatives have, at the least, suggested potential items to Media Matters over the years.
But Mr. Brock, the founder and chairman of Media Matters, makes no secret of the candidate he favors in the election: he hosted two fund-raisers recently that, he said, raised $50,000 for Mr. Obama. And John D. Podesta, a former chief of staff to President Bill Clinton who helped create Media Matters, is a chairman of the team that would facilitate Mr. Obama’s transition to the White House, should he win.
“I’m a good progressive,” said Mr. Brock, who also gave money to the primary campaign of Senator Hillary Rodham Clinton.
Though its sleek, glassed-in offices here on Massachusetts Avenue resemble the former law firm that once occupied them, the team of researchers search for the kind of “gotcha” moment that the organization might publicize.
“The local guys are harder to listen to,” said Julie Millican, 26, who oversees the transcription and analysis of more than a dozen radio programs, from Michael Savage and Mr. Limbaugh to Chris Baker of KTLK-FM in Minneapolis and Dan Caplis of KHOW-AM in Denver. “They’ll go off and spend 20 minutes talking about a pothole in the neighborhood. The next thing you know, they’re calling Hillary Clinton a” — and here Ms. Millican used a vulgarity.
Each morning at 9:30, several dozen researchers and editors gather in a low-ceilinged conference room for their “edit call,” in which they essentially pick their shots. On a recent morning, they decided to take aim at Mr. Savage, the radio host who reaches an estimated eight million listeners a week, for saying that “the only people who don’t seem to vote based on race are white people of European origin.” He made his comment after suggesting that “B.O.,” as he calls Mr. Obama, was endorsed by former Secretary of State Colin L. Powell “because of his race.”
Whether Media Matters has affected the course of the 2008 election — by intimidating some reporters or commentators, or forcing a change in the tone of others — is difficult to judge, with no shortage of blogs now trying to do some version of what it does.
One of its most concerted campaigns was to cast doubt this summer on the veracity of “The Obama Nation,” a book by Jerome Corsi. In a live interview on MSNBC with the author, Contessa Brewer cited “some 8, 9, 10 pages of factual errors” unearthed by Media Matters, and then asked Mr. Corsi, “Why should we give you the credibility?”
While the book’s claims wound up getting little traction in the mainstream press, Media Matters was hardly alone in sounding the alarm.
“I don’t pay any attention to them,” said Stuart Rothenberg, editor of The Rothenberg Political Report, a Washington newsletter. “Whether it’s conservatives evaluating the media, or liberals evaluating the media, I just have no confidence in any of the ideological stuff.”
Moreover, for all the organization’s culling, the sheer number of items it pumps out can be overwhelming to those reporters who cover the news media, or the campaign.
“At the risk of incurring their wrath,” said Mark Z. Barabak, a political reporter for The Los Angeles Times who has covered the Obama and McCain campaigns, “I think it does become, at a certain point, white noise.”
Similarly, David Folkenflik, the media correspondent for National Public Radio, said: “They’re looking at every dangling participle, every dependent clause, every semicolon, every quotation — to see if it there’s some way it unfairly frames a cause, a party, a candidate, that they may have some feelings for.”
That said, Mr. Folkenflik said the organization was a source of useful leads, in part because of the “breadth of their research.”
At the least, the organization has succeeded in proving nettlesome to Republicans, as well as the mainstream press at times. “I think they are one of the most destructive organizations associated with American politics today,” said Frank Luntz, a pollster for Rudolph W. Giuliani and Newt Gingrich who this year has led on-camera voter focus groups on Fox News, a frequent Media Matters target. “They are vicious. They only understand one thing: attack, attack, attack.”
“If I were a Democrat, I would tell them to shut up,” Mr. Luntz said. “If I were a Republican, I would tell my candidates to ignore them.” And yet, the right should expect no let-up from Media Matters in the coming months, whoever is elected president, Mr. Brock said.“The news obviously doesn’t stop when the election is over,” he said. “This was never created to be anything other than a permanent campaign for media accountability. It was not designed to rise and fall with election cycles.”