Matthew Sheffield helped build the right-wing media apparatus. Now he's fighting it. [podcast + transcript]

Part one of two with the co-founder of Newsbusters and first online managing editor of the Washington Examiner.

  
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This week’s podcast guest is Matthew Sheffield, the founder and editor of Flux, a new online community for progressive writers and podcasters. I was interested in talking to Matthew about his earlier life experience as someone who was present when right-wing media really started building the echo chamber. The interview went pretty long, so this is part one of two. The second portion will be posted next week.

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Parker Molloy: Joining me today is Matthew Sheffield. One of the first things I wanted to ask you is can you tell me a little bit about your connection to right-wing media? How it started, what you did, how your views changed over time, how your involvement changed over time. You offered to share the tale of your exit from the world of right-wing media and I would absolutely love to hear it.

Matthew Sheffield: Okay, all right. Well, my background is I was raised as a Fundamentalist Mormon, and Mormons basically, a lot of people don't know, but Mormons actually are the original Christian Nationalists. Mormonism was founded on the idea that America was the choice land above all other lands. That's literally in the Book of Mormon. And that Christopher Columbus was moved upon by the holy spirit to discover America even though he never came here, but... And so Mormons, to some degree, kind of created the environment then rubbed off on a lot of people.

I was brought up in that environment very much to a large degree. I have seven siblings, and my family and I, we traveled all over America doing an informal ministry because Mormons don't actually have ministries; they're not allowed to have them by their church. It's a very centralized bureaucratic church, and so I was in that. Part of it was that we were so disenchanted with the regular Mormon church. It wasn't fundamentalist enough for us. But luckily, we were not into polygamy, so that was at least good for us in that regard.

But I didn't want to go on a regular Mormon mission because when you turn 19, that's what young men are expected to do. But I was so disenchanted, I was like, "No, I want to do something else." And it was, unfortunately, a really bad idea in retrospect, but in any case, we started traveling around America playing classical music on the street, literally. That was my misspent youth.

We did that, and in the course of doing that, for whatever reason... This was the pre-internet days. We actually watched the evening news on TV, and our family watched the CBS Evening News. During the imbroglio over Bill Clinton's impeachment, we decided that we thought Dan Rather... One of my brothers and I decided we thought Dan Rather was unfair. In retrospect, he's obviously shown he's a fairly progressive guy.

But anyway, we decided we were going to start a website called ratherbiased.com, and it basically was blogging before there was even a word for it. We got picked up all over the place. I guess people liked it, or some people liked it. We did that for a few years until we got thoroughly and utterly sick of talking about Dan Rather, and so we quit the site in 2002 and we got so many requests to bring it back for 2004 from our... Because we left the site up but we didn't want to do it. But so many people were like, "Please, please bring this site back." And so we said, "Fine, we will." But we had decided at that point we're definitely going to stop no matter what after the election's over.

Well, after the election was over, we actually kept going because Dan Rather had gotten involved with that document scandal where he used fake documents to say that George W. Bush had avoided the draft in the Vietnam War. I think that's probably true that Bush did that, but when you're using documents that were typed up in Microsoft Word and you're presenting them as if they were made on a typewriter, that's pretty embarrassing.

Anyway, that just exploded in popularity. We thought, my brother and I, we were tired of our family ministry by that point but we had no way out to go and do something on our own. None of us had ever had an internship, none of us had any friends because we lived basically a nomadic lifestyle. We grew up in trailer parks and tents, so yeah, we had no network. I went to I think eight different colleges, and I have two other ones from my high school years, so I've got 10 universities on my transcript.

Originally, we thought, well what if we had a website that brought together left and right-wing media criticism? We actually started recruiting a bunch of people for it, and there was a ton of interest for it and people liked this idea. We actually found... before they had signed on with anyone, we found Matt Yglesias. We also found Ezra Klein while they were in college and a bunch of other right-of-center people, and so a lot of people wanted to do this but then we got to the point where we realized, oh, we don't have any money. We can't pay anybody to do this stuff and we have no way of raising money. We're like, fuck, I guess we'll have to just go into right-wing media because we have no other options.

It was a weird moment because I remember I applied... I had never even applied for a job before, and so I went up and applied for, I think it was Nordstrom Rack or something like that and they never got back to me, and I was like, man, I don't know. I have no idea what to do. My university people had no interest in helping me, and so we're like, all right, well I guess we'll team up with a media research center and start News Busters. News Busters was basically like a large format version of what we had been doing at ratherbiased.com, and they had apparently seen what we were doing. Actually, we ended up getting more publicity for our stuff than they did, and so we started News Busters. After that, it was basically the first-ever think tank blog publication out there as far as I know. And then a bunch of people started trying to get into that business as well and Heritage Foundations did it, and actually, Media Matters, as I understand, was inspired by what we were doing to some degree. And then I started a business basically sort of duplicating that idea.

Had only Nordstrom Rack gotten back to you, this could've all been avoided.

Apparently yeah, yep. We did that for a while and then I actually tried to do that... After we started working with them, the first day after we moved out... My brother and I actually had money, we could move out so we did as soon as possible. And I was 27 at the time, and we both... The first Sunday after we left, moved out, my mom had put up a paper on our kitchen because we were living together, actually. She put a paper on it for the address of the local Mormon church, and my brother and I, we got up on Sunday morning with enough time to go to it, but then I looked over and him and I said, "I don't want to go. Do you want to go?" "No," so we didn't and we never did. We never went again after that.

Anyway, long story short, our faith in Mormonism and religion generally collapsed after that, but not our interest in right-wing activism. I, for a number of years, tried to make space for non-Christians in the Republican party. And, well, ultimately that was a fool's errand as I soon discovered. Well, not soon, I eventually discovered. I guess the big catalyst for that discovery... Well, there was a couple of things. One was that I kept noticing how people were stealing my ideas on the right. I would go to an organization and say, "Hey, I've built these things here that have millions of readers that are nationally known. I could do that for you." And then they would say, "Well, I don't know, I don't know," and then a few months later big fundraising campaign: We're doing this large website and we need your money.

Of course.

Yeah, and so that kept happening to me. At first, I thought, well maybe it's just because I'm not... I don't know. Because I grew up in a trailer park and I don't know anybody. I'm not an elite Republican consultant or whatever. And that's what I thought for a while. But then eventually I decided to start writing a book to try to improve conservative politics. And by improve, I also meant to help them become more responsive to public sentiment, so public opinion. And in the course of doing that I began researching why do they pursue these ideas that people don't want? Where does that come from? I had always stayed away from the religious right just by being not religious, but I actually started reading their stuff and I was horrified at what I was seeing.

I remember reading a story of this man who was, he's a Hindu priest and he was invited to give the... The US Capitol has a daily prayer session at the beginning of all their... when they're in session, and they invite different people do to it. And this guy, who was a Hindu priest, was invited to do it. And so he got up to do it and people started... They invaded the Capitol, actually. This was a predecessor of January 6th, and no one has ever heard of it. But this happened, and they invited the rotunda and started screaming about Satan and, "We have to stop this." They were demanding that he be arrested. It was awful.

I was like, is this what I am helping here? And so I started trying to rewrite to, I don't know, oppose that Christian nationalist extremism, but eventually, I got to the point where I realized, you know what? The reason that they do these things is because they think they're God's servants. I could write all the best words, to use Trump's phrase. I could have all the best words, the best-written book in human history and it wouldn't matter because they're doing these things because they think God wants them to do it. And their ability to distinguish between their own ideas and the will of God is none; it's nonexistent. And it was a profoundly depressing realization because I had thought that there were sincere motives about policy and America and the public service and things like that, but I realized, no, it isn't that. And so I had written 80,000 words at that point, and... And I actually had a publisher as well, but I couldn't do it, I couldn't do it so I pulled it off the... I withdrew it. I went into depression, actually, I did.

Yeah, it makes sense.

Yeah. Yeah, and it was like, I didn't want to do that, though, because this was the second existential crisis in my life. Most people, they may have one, but here I was having a second one.

How old were you at the time?

I think I was 39, 38, something like that.

Yeah. Two big, existential crises by that point-

Before you're 40.

That's rough. See, my trick is that I start with one and I just keep that crisis going my entire life. Which, actually, just really quick, one thing I was thinking about because I actually had not heard the story of the Hindu priest. I just googled it and I'm honestly amazed that I had not ever heard of this, and I'm going to read up on it later, but one thing you said that caught my attention was that... And this is something that I have always been trying to figure out is that people do these things because they honestly believe this is the will of God and all of that stuff. And I've always wondered, these people actually believe? Because the way that a lot of people involved in the religious right seem to act, it's kind of like if there's a hell, dude, you're going to it. I've read the Bible cover to cover and I know that a lot of the attitudes just aren't consistent with any actual teaching. There's no way that people can actually believe all this pretty hateful stuff when it comes to treating other people as equals and whatnot. But you said that you think that, generally speaking, the people involved in the religious right actually do believe in what they're saying. They're not just saying it for the sake of advancing their political worldview, but rather that they actually believe these sorts of things.

Oh yeah. No, they-

It's their responsibility to-

No, they believe everything that they say.

Well, that's kind of terrifying.

It is. After I had discovered that, I started publishing about it to some degree, or trying to. And a lot of people didn't even want to publish what I was writing.

I'll give you an example. I had written a 5,000 word piece for the Atlantic. Somebody there had asked me to write it. And I showed how Ben Shapiro's right-wing views were not really different from this white nationalist guy named Nick Fuentes. And I literally had audio of him bashing Jewish people; Ben Shapiro bashing Jewish people on a white nationalist podcast.

Oh yeah, was it Red Ice Radio?

It was.

Yeah, I've listened to that one too. I probably saw it because you posted it somewhere.

I'm guessing, yeah. But yeah, nobody had seen that before. But most people who follow politics I would say haven't seen it, and so I was able to... Anyway, I finished the story. It was impeccably documented. There was no possible way that anyone could sue you based on this story because it was 100% true. I based it on the... Fuentes, he and his fans had started trying to... Basically, they were trying to take over the Turning Point USA audience because they both are effectively going for the same group; right-wing, young Christians. And so they were showing up at Charlie Kirk events, and they showed up for one out here in Los Angeles with Donald Trump Jr., and they humiliated him. I told the entire backstory of how this happened, why it's so hard for Charlie Kirk's... Why his audience keeps becoming white nationalists. And anyway, so I sent it to him and the guy who was my editor, he said, "Oh, this is fantastic but, I'm sorry, I can't print it." And then I said, "Well, why? Why can't you print it?" And he never responded.

Oh, that's awful.

It is. That attitude, though, I kept encountering it over and over and over. There is this sentiment among a lot of elite journalists that they don't take these people seriously. They think that they're just a bunch of redneck losers who are masturbating into a teddy bear, or whatever; to Jesus and Donald Trump pictures. That's how they see them. And they have no idea that these people have gigantic, massive audiences. I've heard people say, "Oh, well I don't want to give so-and-so a platform." And it's like, they have a bigger audience than you, okay?

Yeah, that was always funny when I was at Media Matters and I'd post an article that I wrote about Tucker Carlson, and I'd have someone who's like, "Why are you giving him a platform?" And it's like, I hate to break this to you, but he has far more viewers than I have for years, exponentially so, you know?

Yeah. There is this naïve attitude that a lot of people in the establishment left have. They don't understand how small of a space they occupy in the American mind. For instance, I remember having an argument; I was on a debate show one time with somebody who was at the Free Beacon, and they were trying to say, "Oh, Alex Jones, he's just this fringe figure." And I said, "Alex Jones has about 10 times the audience, web audience alone, of your publication. Does that mean you're a fringe figure?" And of course, they didn't respond to that.

Yeah. That's a great point because... And it kind of shows... What am I trying to say? That's a great point and it gets at something else that I've been thinking a lot about which is this idea that, oh, don't pay attention to Alex Jones, don't pay attention to Marjorie Taylor Greene, ignore them, ignore them. These people are fringe, as their audiences keep growing and as their influence keeps growing. That's something that just happens in politics, and I see people brush off fringe elements of something. And I'll just kind of think to myself five years from myself, that's not going to be fringe whatever gets said there. Alex Jones, that's been one hell of a trip following his career for as long as I have.

Yeah. Well, and now Tucker Carlson, the number one host in Fox News and the highest-rated television personality in America is basically Alex Jones light. And Alex Jones himself actually said this the other day. He said, "I've been so pleased to see what a great patriot Tucker Carlson has become." And then meanwhile the rest of the liberal Hollywood elite continue to do business with his paymaster, Rupert Murdoch. Ultimately, people need to understand that this is not Tucker Carlson doing this, this is Rupert Murdoch doing this. And if you, as a Hollywood studio or movie star or whatever, you work with him in any capacity, you are supporting Tucker Carlson.

Yeah. I worked at Media Matters, which is kind of the... I don't want to say the flip side because I feel like it equates the two, but it's the left-leaning counterweight to News Busters, basically, for about two-and-a-half years. And while Media Matters I think does some great work, in my view it's an organization that the right dismisses out of hand and mainstream outlets often seem reluctant to rely on for fear for being slammed by the right for relying on some study that we did over there or some data that we pulled or even some quote that we found because that's 90% of what Media Matters does is just taking clips in context and posting them to the site that's just like, hey, on Alex Jones' show today he went on a five-minute rant about whatever. Those things are good to know because most people aren't just going to sit there and listen to three hours of Alex Jones every day, and that's probably for the best. But one thing that was frustrating about that is that working at Media Matters kind of made it really difficult to get a lot of my arguments through the noise.

And so one thing I really want to ask you is just what don't people get about right-wing media that perhaps coming from you and not me, from your point of view, from your involvement in all of this as you were realizing this and making your decisions to distance yourself from that movement, what don't they understand that you might help them get it? That you saying it might help them get it. Sorry if that was confusing.

There is a few things. One is that the generic Republican Capitol hill professional class establishment is much closer to the white nationalist or Christian supremacists fringe than you have any idea. And just as an example, the... You've got a number of Republican members of Congress who have said that biological evolution is a lie from Satan. That is a ridiculous extremist position, and a lot of Republican officials believe it. Mike Pence believes it. And there were real implications, real-world implications of these beliefs because it means that you don't accept science. And in the case of the COVID-19 pandemic, that's is a reason that they were so prone to these stupid conspiracy theories or dumb medical things. Yeah, people always say, "Well, I don't understand, why do Republicans like hydroxychloroquine and ivermectin so much? Why do they like it? It must be Trump." And it's like, no, it isn't because there are 70 years of religious nut jobs selling people herbs and spices and telling them that these are God's cures for cancer or pneumonia or whatever. They've had a business of this and nobody paid attention to it on the left or in the establishment press.

This is a cancer that has been growing in America, and you have to pay attention to it, not just when they invade the Capitol and try to kill the vice president. It's something that has to be... The average person has to know how radical these people are. And the connections are just so clear.

You mentioned Marjorie Taylor Greene, the Georgia congresswoman that I remember people, after she was first elected, were like, "Oh, this is just a fringe person. Republicans are not going to respond to her. She's just a freak Qanon person." But low and behold, she is now one of the most prolific Republican members of the house at fundraising. She's rolling in money and is routinely defended and promoted by Fox News.

It's almost like there is this old internet meme, the rules of the internet, right? You remember those? I think it was 50 or whatever it was, but rule number 34 was if it exists, there is porn of it. And there was basically a rule 34 of conservative politics. If it's insane enough, eventually they will believe it. And that's what people need to understand. There is nothing too crazy or too dumb that they won't believe.

But here's the other thing, in terms of right-wing media: It is their ace in the hole for politics. The Virginia gubernatorial race, it's such a great example of that.

Oh, absolutely.

Here you had Glenn Youngkin, who is basically a Mitt Romney clone, boring, rich, out-of-touch plutocrat; destroyed people's lives in private equity.

The ideas and experience of Mitt Romney but with the sweater vest of Rick Santorum.

Yeah, basically. And so this is not someone that a normal person would want to vote for. It just isn't. But what was key for him was this lie campaign that was ginned up in right-wing media. And they had two primary lies. One was that they had fabricated several incidents about supposed transgender bathroom violence.

Well, yeah, no, but it's important, though, to... Since I mentioned it, though, I have to... There was this incident that... alleged incident that happened in a school in X-urban Virginia around DC. Loudoun County is the county. There was a male student who apparently occasionally cross-dressed or something like that, but did not identify as transgender, had apparently had sexual encounters with a female student in a bathroom multiple times. One time I guess she said no and then he proceeded to rape her. And then the school was... The district allowed him to transfer over to another high school after the incident. And by the way-

That's an issue, but-

Yeah, but here's the other thing, though, is this was the policy of the former Trump administration. Betsy DeVos had said that... The secretary of education at that time had said that students who are accused of sexual crimes, they needed to be continued... to have continued access to their learning environment; that that was very... Instead of being concerned about students who had... That these students might again commit the crimes, or whatever, that they were accused of. They wanted to let them keep going to school. This was the Republican policy, and so the district allowed the male student to go to another high school, and apparently went into... He was accused of doing another assault, a sexual assault of a female student in the classroom this time at the second school. But at no time was there a transgender bathroom policy involved with either of these incidents or even a transgender person.

Yeah, which seems important to note when people are trying to stoke those sorts of things. But even if it was a trans person, there's no school in the country that's saying, "Hey, let's make it legal for trans people to assault people in restrooms or assault people in classrooms," or anything like that. No matter what, what the person was doing was wrong in any case, and that's what's so frustrating.

But it was also... And I might just be getting ahead here. When all of this happened, it was before that school district had taken up a policy.

Had that policy. Yeah.

Yeah, so-

The first incident, yeah. And then the second incident wasn't in a bathroom.

Right. Well, exactly. And with that first incident, one of the things that personally frustrates me about it is that the argument seems to be this happened because of this policy, this trans-inclusive policy. And it's just not true. It can't be true. And the tricky thing about it is arguing this point on Twitter or whatever else immediately gets you going, wow, you're defending this person? And it's like, no, I'm defending the people who had nothing to do with this but are getting blamed for it. It's frustrating.

Yeah, it is, it is. I'll tell you one of the last straws for me from trying to stop reforming the right to start opposing it was if you remember when Mike Pence was the governor of Indiana. They had passed this law that allowed... They called it a religious freedom law. This is, I think, their most successful evil scheme ever is trying to rebrand these Christian supremacism as religious freedom. But the way that law worked was basically anyone could claim a religious objection to any law and say, "That goes against my religion so I don't have to follow it." And that actually was what the law said. I was still loosely conservative when that came out... or when that was signed, but I kept hearing in right-wing media, "Oh no, that's not what it does, that's not what it does. It just protects people to have their... from having their rights violated." And then I would ask people, "Well, have you actually read the law? How do you know that?" And they'd say, "No, I haven't read it."

And then finally I was like, all right, I don't want to have to read this but I'm going to read it. And luckily for me, it was only two or three pages, the law, thankfully. And I read through it and I was like, wow, these people have totally lied about what this law says. And I was like, I'm done, I'm done with this. I can't do this anymore because they have no regard for truth. Either they have no regard for truth or they don't care about what truth is. Once I had that realization... One thing that's important, I think, for people to realize is that right-wingers do not believe in facts. When people are like, "Oh yeah, I'm going to fact check them," and whatnot, they don't care about facts. What-

No. It eats up time on the end of the people who are trying to correct misinformation or correct facts or fact check.

Yeah. No, it's fine. Look, I'm not saying you shouldn't do it-

No, of course.

... but what I'm saying is that you can't persuade them of facts because facts don't matter. All right-wing reasoning, it's not empirical-based. And I hate to get too philosophical here, but in logic-

You are on a podcast named The Present Age, so feel free.

All right, well in formal logic there's essentially two types of... There's more than two, but two basic types of reasoning. There's empirical reasoning, which is where you look at... You use observation then your senses to deduce what reality is, as you can perceive it. And then there is another kind which is a priori, from Latin, from before. And because right-wing Americans are overwhelmingly either Christian or Jewish fundamentalists, they don't believe in empirical reason or deductive reasoning. They believe in a priori reason, and so for them their opinions about the Bible or the Book of Mormon in the cases of Mormons... Their opinions about religion are facts. Not only are they facts, they are timeless, eternal truths. This is an aspect of right-wing epistemology that almost nobody who has had... That if you haven't come out of that environment you really don't understand it because they don't really talk about it, of how they reason because they just all agree that the Bible is literally true in every aspect. And so that is the truth, and so everything must comport with that, with our understanding of religion. Otherwise, it's a lie.

But the problem is, of course, the Bible is not literally true, and so effectively, they... Because they believe in moral absolutes but their morals are based on lies, basically they have moral absolutism and factual relativism while accusing everyone else of moral relativism and factual absolutism. And they're right, of course, to say that because everybody else, we want to have our opinions based on facts and based on what's real.

Which is why it's kind of funny that so many on the right seem to try to brand themselves as I am all facts, all logic, all... There is that strain of Ben Shapiro type right-wing pundits who go, "Oh, I'm sorry, I'm just telling harsh truths. Facts don't care about your feelings." It's always so mind-boggling that something like that would take off as a... something like that would take off as a slogan for a movement that is honestly pretty detached from facts, but yeah.

Yeah. But it makes sense when you understand that for them a fact is that homosexuality is evil, a fact is that marriage should only be between man and a woman, one man and one woman. These are facts from their standpoint. It is a fact that Jesus was crucified for the sins of the world and was resurrected on the third day. That's a fact.

Basically, though, they have an inverted epistemology, and that's why it's so hard for a lot of people who are educated, especially liberals, educated liberals to understand them, that they really... they cannot believe that they actually are so dumb, basically. It's hard for people who have had, let's say 20 or more years of schooling to understand that there are people out there who think that education is a lie.

Sure. And to be clear, I think it's one thing to blame the intellectual leaders of right-wing movements for this, but on an individual level it's so much harder to understand where people are getting their news, which is why media matters. How the press covers anything, it's important. Yeah.

Yeah. Yeah, right-wing media is how their entire political structure is based on now. The average Republican activists or voter, they can just be submerged continuously in this information and lies. They can wake up to their Christian morning podcast - The Daily Wire has one now - and/or any number of these Christian radio stations that have millions and millions of listeners but nobody outside of their audience has ever heard of them. And then they drive to work and can listen to local talk radio on their way to work, and then they get to work, they can turn on their talk radio while they're doing their tasks and read their thousands and thousands of websites, and then they go home and they can watch their propaganda videos on TV and YouTube, or wherever. They have no awareness of anything that is not in that ecosystem.

I always hear democratic consultants and politicians saying, "Oh, our people just don't vote in the midterms. I wish they would, I wish they..." Well, you know why Republicans vote in the midterms? It's because of right wing media and that are telling them every election, "This is the most important election ever. If you don't vote now, Jesus will be crucified again," basically. That's the type of hype. And they're subjected to it every day. I would like to do something to try to educate and keep left-of-center voters motivated, but it seems like the Democratic establishment is like, "No, we'll just run some TV ads."

It's definitely frustrating to watch as... It's just honestly sometimes seems like Democratic politicians in the Democratic establishment generally doesn't-

They don't care.

Again, I want to believe that they see this very obvious thing that's happening, but they just don't respond to it as though there is a genuine issue at hand.