Sharyl Attkisson: Don’t give up
Sharyl Attkisson, a veteran investigative journalist, discussed what she faced as a truth-telling member of the media, and provides a glimpse into her new tell-all, Stonewalled: My Fight for Truth Against the Forces of Obstruction, Intimidation, and Harassment in Obama’s Washington.
You must have known the details of your story would be challenged, especially by those who are strongly inclined to doubt such allegations against the Obama Administration. How will you respond to critics who demand proof? What about those who doubt the veracity of the security analysts you quoted by name, and who demand to know the identity of the one who remained anonymous?
All in due time.
The panicked attempt at damage control by vested special interests is predictable and, in fact, foretold in Stonewalled in some detail. The more potentially harmful the facts are to their interests, and the more credible the reporting, the more frenzied their efforts to discredit them. These interests could watch a robber rob a bank and sign a confession and they would still insist it never happened—if necessary to defend their interests. Their job is to employ bloggers, social media and the news media to try to controversialize damaging facts as well as the journalists who raise damaging facts.
That’s to be expected.
The troubling part is that some in the news media routinely allow themselves to be used as a tool in this propaganda effort. Instead of questioning authority, they question those who question authority. By way of example, my news reporting has an impeccable record for accuracy while the Obama administration’s record for providing accurate facts is decidedly mixed. Yet some in the media question me with a skepticism and zeal that they would never think of applying to the wildly false and unfounded claims raised by “the other side.”
This is the same crowd that unquestionably accepts spoon-fed press releases from the government, such as supposed HealthCare.gov statistics, even as the government’s past information on that very topic has proven to be false, and despite the fact that the government is withholding the supporting documents—public information—from Congress, reporters and Freedom of Information requests.
In short, this is all exemplary of one of the main themes in Stonewalled: the usual suspects are using the very propaganda tactics discussed in the book.
The media does occasionally complain to each other about being treated badly by this White House, as when Susan Page of USA Today told a correspondents’ seminar that the Obama Administration was dangerous to press freedom. Do you think they’ll ever start sharing those complaints with their audiences, or will it always be ‘locker room’ grumbling?
Hard to say. There is now an expressed consensus among the news media—liberal, conservative and otherwise—that this is the worst administration for transparency and other press freedom issues that any of us have dealt with. But despite all the proclamations and letters signed by the likes of the New York Times, the Washington Post, USA Today, ABC, NBC, CBS, FOX, Washington correspondents, Washington photographers and others, the news media largely seems to treat it as a family squabble rather than the front burner news story that I think it is.
What can you do about your case? Can you pursue something legally? Do you have any hope in the legal system, since it is largely a governmental institution, and you’d be bringing charges against the government itself?
I’m looking at all of my legal options.
How much of a difference did you notice in CBS’ liberal bias when Obama entered the White House? Had you encountered liberal bias throughout your career, and finally get fed up when you resigned from CBS, or had the blatant partiality reached an unprecedented degree by that time?
Many have incorrectly quoted and summarized me, and attempted to put words in my mouth as they interview me. I did not cite liberal bias in resigning from CBS News. There is a complex set of factors that seemed to create a perfect storm of circumstances that left me with virtually nothing meaningful to do at my job after more than 20 years, which is why I left. The trends responsible are not, in my opinion, isolated to me or to CBS News.
Did you ever, or do you now, feel hopeless in fighting for the truth and freedom of the press, since the government has so much power (hacking your computer and manipulating your work)? How can you, as a private citizen, possibly defend yourself?
I focus most of my efforts on presenting facts or reporting on “orphan stories” that special interests are trying to suppress, or stories that simply aren’t getting the sort of attention they might deserve for a variety of reasons. I feel satisfied with what I’ve been able to do along those lines in the past six months or so.
What feedback in regard to your revelations have you encountered from fellow journalists? Have others, inspired by your fearlessness in speaking out, come forward and shared similar experiences?
I’ve had a warm and supportive response from many colleagues in print and broadcast news, both at the national and local level. Yes, many have shared their own stories. Some are related in Stonewalled. I am far from alone in many of my observations and experiences. I’m just a symptom.
What advice do you give to journalists who feel similarly “stonewalled” by the government? What can be done?
Keep in mind that, often, the vigor with which they try to obstruct or controversialize you is in direct proportion to your effectiveness in pursuing important facts that they view as damaging. Keep your nose down and barrel ahead. Don’t give up.
How has your experience opened your eyes about the government and governmental control that you want American citizens to know?
Slowly over the past decade or more, and without much objection, we have relinquished many of our rights to basic public information that we own. We have created and accepted a federal bureaucracy that sees itself as an entity that lords over us and serves its own interests—or corporate interests—rather than taking our direction and serving the general public’s interests. We have ourselves to blame: it was only made possible with assistance from a complacent news media that hasn’t properly watchdogged the government. Rights that we have given up will be very difficult to recapture.
What should Americans who watch and listen to the mainstream media keep in mind as they do so?
Digest the images and information you see presented on the news, in social media, in blogs, in letters to the editor, from charity organizations, on billboards, everywhere, as if you’re watching a TV commercial. Keep in mind that, often, unseen and undisclosed paid interests are behind the images. For example, PR officials and propagandists may organize and fan out, often using pseudonyms, on Twitter, Facebook and Wikipedia to manipulate information and give the impression that there is great support for or opposition to an issue or person—when in fact, it’s a relatively small “astroturf” group behind the effort.
Do you believe there is such a thing as unbiased media, and if so, how can we tell the difference?
There are many terrific national and local journalists who produce unbiased journalism but are having a tougher time publishing original and investigative reporting for reasons discussed in Stonewalled. Consumers are learning to find individual journalists or outlets that they trust on certain issues. I would also look to journalism produced by alternative sources such as Project Censored, ProPublica, the Center for Public Integrity and the investigative reporting program at UC Berkeley.
There are reports that CBS will attempt to cast doubt on your story of being stonewalled. How do you suspect they will do this, and what can you do to defend yourself?
That’s to be expected. People should just listen to both sides and make up their own minds.