Equality ‘War Room’ at Media Matters

BY PAUL SCHINDLER | Media Matters, the web-based non-profit progressive research and advocacy group that in its six years of existence has become an influential watchdog on right-wing media outlets, politicians, and activists, has launched an affiliate, Equality Matters (equalitymatters.org), which will focus on LGBT policy, legal, and legislative goals.

According to Richard Socarides, a New York-based attorney who will spearhead the operation with an initial full-time staff of six, the goal is to create a “communications war room” to counter the negative messages spawned by anti-gay forces in politics and the media. Emphasizing the congruence between his group’s work and that produced by its Media Matters parent, Socarides stated that another key mission “is to enhance and enable progressive voices on LGBT issues.”

Ex-Clinton aide Socarides joined by Advocate’s Eleveld in new strategic communications drive

Socarides served in the Clinton White House as the president’s liaison to the LGBT community and has also worked in the media, for companies including Time Warner. In the years since he returned to New York from Washington, he has remained active in Democratic politics but was also a leading gay supporter of Mayor Michael Bloomberg’s reelection last year.

The website launched by the group on December 20 will look familiar to followers of Media Matters, with a wide array of article and blog postings, video clips, and a section devoted to policy research the group will carry out.

The editor of the website and the organization will be Kerry Eleveld, recruited from her perch as the Advocate’s Washington correspondent for the past two years. In that post, Eleveld frequently raised questions about Obama administration actions regarding the LGBT community — particularly on the issue of Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell — during press secretary Robert Gibbs’ regular briefings.

The editorial content developed by Equality Matters will largely consist of research and opposition research, Socarides said, and will be supplemented by progressive advocacy and policy pieces written by contributors outside the group’s full-time staff.

Another focus of the groups will be providing training in what Socarides described as “strategic communications” to other LGBT organizations “to help them fulfill their missions.” He said he expected Equality Matters to work with national groups such as the Human Rights Campaign and the Gay and Lesbian Alliance Against Defamation (GLAAD) and state-level lobbying groups, but also with small grassroots and ad hoc efforts.

“We could provide video communications assistance to a group of LGBT college students,” Socarides explained.

Asked to distinguish his group’s goals from GLAAD’s traditional turf, he responded, “I think that our efforts will be complementary and not overlapping. Our efforts will be around news, around policy, and more Washington-focused.”

He also said, “Our resources will not be unlimited, but we will have substantial resources and new resources.”

Media Matters’ expansion into LBGT-specific policy work, he said, would draw additional funding into the organization, both from gay philanthropists and other donors interested in advancing full equality for the gay community. Socarides noted that Media Matters already enjoys substantial support from gay money, but he also said that across the board the group’s funders voiced enthusiasm for the new effort.

David Brock, a journalist who traveled a curious ideological path from his days as a conservative writer who authored hit pieces on Anita Hill and Bill Clinton during 1990s to his founding of Media Matters in 2004, is himself gay.

No independent fundraising has yet been undertaken for Equality Matters, whose operations for the present time will be covered out of the Media Matters budget. Last year, that group raised $23 million and had an operating budget of $13 million. Socarides said the portion of the parent organization’s budget that will be invested in his group has not yet been determined. He noted, however, that Media Matters has a full-time staff of 95, and that their efforts across a broad range of functions will help the much smaller affiliate quickly grow its reach.

As with most other journalism and web voices on the left, Media Matters has not simply waged battle with the right, but has also kept pressure on moderates, liberals, and progressives, in both the media and politics, to expand the possibilities created when the Democrats captured control of Congress in 2006 and the White House in 2008. For many progressives, the Obama administration has fallen well short of expectations, and Socarides voiced determination to give a platform for those in the community insisting that the president not rest on his laurels from the successful fight against the Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell policy.

“People who know me know that I have definitely been someone who has aggressively tried to hold people’s feet to the fire,” he said. “I don’t plan on changing that in any way.”

In fact, during the past two years, Socarides might well have been the most prominently mentioned critic of the administration’s slow pace on keeping its 2008 promises to the LGBT community. That posture has not been without risks for him, with some activists loudly pointing out that he is a veteran of the administration during which both Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell and the Defense of Marriage Act were enacted.

Two days after the DADT victory in the Senate, speaking to Gay City News, Socarides struck a more positive tone about the president.

“The dynamics have shifted somewhat in the wake of this historic Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell victory, for which I think President Obama deserves a lot of credit,” he said. “The people involved in crafting that legislation deserve a lot of credit. I am the first one to give credit where credit is due. This is not the end, to be sure. But it is the end of the beginning.”

With the Republicans due to take charge in the House in January, of course, it is doubtful that the next LGBT rights victory on Capitol Hill will come any time soon. Despite the support of 15 GOP House members and eight senators for repeal, Socarides was unwilling to make any predictions about whether the political dynamics on gay issues have turned a corner that would make more wins possible in 2011 and 2012.

“We still want to bring folks from both parties into the equality movement,” he said. “A lot in the next two years will be played out in meetings with policy makers. And creating and shaping a narrative that will advance the acceptance of equality.”

Socarides noted that the key battleground in LGBT rights is likely to shift squarely toward the issue of marriage equality at the federal level — an issue currently being waged most aggressively and successfully in the courts. The Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals has heard oral argument in the lawsuit challenging California’s Proposition 8, which was successful at the district level earlier this year. The state of Massachusetts and same-sex plaintiff couples who married there also scored a first-round victory in their challenge to the federal government’s refusal, under DOMA, to recognize legal marriages there.

“There is lots of communications work to do around these court cases,” Socarides said. “I hope to bring a passion to that effort. And I hope to create some change.”