Interview: Sharyl Attkisson and her Book on the Smear Industry

This article originally appeared at American Lens News on 7/31/17.

The Smear - Book CoverSharyl Attkisson has been described as fearless, courageous and in an era where media is increasingly distrusted, she’s been characterized as honest and truthful.

The Emmy award-winning investigative journalist has a new book, The Smear: How Shady Political Operatives and Fake News Control What You See, What You Think, and How You Vote.

The introduction is a barn burner and the opening quote perfectly fits the main theme of the book:

A lie gets halfway around the world before the truth gets it’s pants on.

The title alone was tantalizing to me.  As an investigative writer, I’ve seen how non-profits and political organizations try to hide their tracks to further their narratives. In my battles with Common Core,  I’ve also seen how well-funded smear campaigns work – close-up.  The Smear seemed to really tap into these areas, so I reached out and was granted an interview.

I chatted with Ms. Attkisson about her book and how it exposes the extensive industry of smear operators and their tactics. Other topics such as media bias, David Brock, Benghazi also cropped up during our interview.

The interview had such an enormous amount of great information, that it was too hard to cut it down into a few quotes.  The best way to share Attkisson’s comments and flesh out the themes in The Smear is to allow our readers to read the full conversation in transcript style.

Can’t Take News at Face Value

Dillon:  What ‘one thing’ or ‘take away’ do you want the public to know about the biggest media players such as ABC, NBC, CBS, NY Times and Washington Post?

Attkisson: Well, unfortunately, we can no longer, I think, take at face value a lot of news reported by formerly well-respected national news media, whether it’s NY Times, Washington Post, CNN or pretty much anybody else because so much of their information has proven to be completely wrong.

These top national journalists in some cases are making amateur mistakes that wouldn’t be tolerated in journalism college yet often with impunity, showing that there is a cultural reason why such mistakes are happening and why they are allowed.

So, it’s hard to know where to go. It doesn’t mean that everything you hear is false.

It simply means you may not be getting the whole story and it requires some sort of further verification before you can believe almost anything no matter how valid it may sound.

Lies Fly Faster, Truth – Not So Much

Dillon: It hit me – your introduction was spot on. Just the opening quote “a lie gets around the world before the truth even gets its pants on.”

Tying that quote in with Twitter, now it’s the lie heard around the world in .02 seconds and then days later, the retraction or correction comes out and that never seems to get the same sling-shot effect the original did.

Attkisson: And that’s by design.

Believe me, these smear operators – and I interviewed a lot of them for the book – they know this.

They know that if they can get a narrative out, for example on a campaign a day or two before the vote, no matter how false it may be if they can just get it out there for a day, by the time it’s sorted through and the chips fall where they may and people find out it’s not what it seemed to be – it’s too late.

And that’s OK. with them because the correction doesn’t circulate as widely or the intended target has already had the damage done to them and that’s part of the design.

More News Sources, More Choice? More for Smear Operators too.

Dillon: I think we need to ask, will it will get worse as people disconnect from mainstream, single silo source like they did in the past?  But might it also might actually get better for the same reason?

Choice is good, but the more proliferated we get, the more these operators have unbridled platforms for people to get bad information. True?

Attkisson: I think you’re exactly right.

The smear industry has figured out quickly how to exploit almost every avenue we turn to for information.

They know, statistically, that social media is where most people get their news and information from family and friends and their opinions. So they’ve figure out how to manipulate it. Not just with real accounts, but fake accounts that are maintained through software that allows one person to operate twenty at a time – twenty Twitter accounts, twenty Facebook accounts.

There are multiple people at these firms operating numerous accounts that have individual IP addresses and appear to be real and connect with real friends and family but these are all ways to push narratives.

One smear operator I interviewed for the book said, ‘you can start a whole movement on Twitter in 140 characters with a canceled fake account and it takes hold’. And real people do pick it up and circulate it and they know that.

Wikipedia is edited by agenda editors who are often paid by they just look like the Wikipedia anonymous volunteer editors but they are able to control pages and content on pages so you don’t see certain things but you do see certain things.

The fact checkers like Snopes has been co-opted on many subjects and certain circumstances.

And the news – and the quasi-news outlets have also been co-opted by the narratives and propaganda.

Benghazi & CBS: Was Lara Logan Smeared?

Dillon: It seems like this new book is a nice dove-tail to stonewalled, you were getting shut out and the attacks on your computers.

It got me wondering, a little off the topic of the book, but when the Benghazi investigation was happening and CBS did the big expose but they used Lara Logan for it. My immediate reaction was why weren’t you doing this report?

Then the Dylan Davies narrative emerged and David Brock was attached to it, I wondered if Logan hadn’t perhaps been smeared?

Attkisson: Yes, I think so.

That is a long, complicated story but I will say in brief – CBS assigned me to cover Benghazi three weeks after it happened because they sensed they weren’t getting the whole story on what took place.

I dug up some amazing investigative material, a lot of it from life-long Democrats or people who worked in the government who supported Obama and Hillary but were none the less horrified by what took place that night and the cover-up that happened afterward.

But at some point, CBS – certain people there, not the whole network – began to squelch the stories and not want them, as you know.

Some time went by and 60 Minutes started working on their story with Lara Logan and yes, in some respects I think she was set-up in a way.

If you look at what CBS’s response was, I don’t have intricate knowledge of the story, but they retracted the whole story based on one unconfirmed aspect unrelated to the scandal itself by one of the key players in the story.

If when you look at when the NY Times has found to have one of their stories not corroborated, they retract that part of it, but not the whole story.

Media Matters and its partners were definitely on a tear to discredit anything about Benghazi and the story and they successfully did so in this case.

And if you look at the basis at which CBS retracted the story, it was from…I hate to say you can’t trust everything the government says…but it was the FBI saying, but not providing documents… just saying that aspects of the story were not corroborated. And instead of us viewing the government’s story with skepticism and asking them for proof of their side, they just sort of accepted it and retracted the story. [And] If I were Lara, I’d be very unhappy about that.”

Attkisson on What Sparked The Smear

Dillon: It never sat right with me, that whole [Logan] situation. It just seemed like it was more there than met the eye.

You yourself have been on the receiving end of smears, can you tell me when you first realized you were a ‘moving target’ so to speak?  Did that feed into the impetus to write this book?

Attkisson: Yes, of course!

I first learned of this industry in the early 2000’s when CBS assigned me to cover stories about dangerous pharmaceutical drugs and cover-ups and vaccine side-effects and I found this secretive effort that was very well organized and financed to stop the stories. Not just to shake them with interviews to tell the other side, which is understandable, but to stop them entirely.

There were secret meetings held with network executives. There was advertising pressure put forward on the news division. They wanted to stop the stories and I remember thinking, you know, that it was something kind of new –  not just trying to shake them [the stories], but not wanting the facts heard.

Sharyl Attkisson - The SmearAs time went on I learned these efforts were not just being used by corporations, this was a whole industry.

These strategies were being used by politicians – often against reporters and news organizations that were reporting inconvenient facts against their paid interests.

There are organized campaigns and multi-billion dollar in some cases working against them using the news and the internet and all kinds of means in a cloaked fashion, without fingerprints, to try to discredit and controversialize the people telling the truth.

And as time went on, I talked to so many journalists who have been the target of such efforts. They kind of cowered under them and I remembered thinking, ‘we should expose them, not be so worried and intimidated by them.

The problem is, managers are subject to them.

Managers start crumbling under the pressure when they see what they believe is a groundswell of sentiment against a story or reporter when it’s actually generated propaganda made to look like overwhelming opinion… but it’s ginned up by a handful of groups and interests that are trying to shape narratives.

I’ve been interested in this for years. I’ve talked to many reporters subjected to it and many whistle-blowers. In the book, I interviewed a lot of smear operators who opened up to me about their tactics and motives.

So, I think it makes for a fascinating tale.

Parting Words & David Brock

Dillon: Yes, indeed I think it does too.

Tell me what else you’d like to add about The Smear? Is there anything in particular when you were writing it that really struck you? Did you hit a roadblock or you found something interesting along the way that you hadn’t really considered before?

Attkisson: I don’t know that this is interesting to everybody, but I really dug into not just conservative and liberal smear artists and corporate entities but the one everybody named is the most prolific, Conservative smear artist David Brock, who turned into a liberal smear artist.

That was fascinating. And no one had done a complete dissection of his many organizations that he started, led and had been part of. Dozens of them. That’s where he’s made millions of dollars.

They are innocent sounding non-profits and are supposed to sound neutral in some cases. They train hundreds of pundits and people and operatives and journalists to go out with these narratives that are supposed to look like just ordinary news coverage or independent thought and they are far from it.

He’s been very successful and very ubiquitous. I think tracing the organizations he started and what they’ve done in the way I did has not been done before. To me, that’s very fascinating.  I think he will be surprised at how expansive it is.

Dillon: I think he might be too – I’ve sort of followed his career peripherally and it feels like every time I pull one thread in his sweater, four others pop up. It’s like playing whack-a-mole.

Attkisson: I know.

So – Two more little points for you.

Part of the smear artist’s objective is only to confuse; to throw out so much information out there that you don’t believe anything, including the truth.

When you look at the news like I do now, and say ‘I just don’t really believe any of it until I know more’, that serves them [smear artists].

There are certain things they don’t want you to believe and it may be the truth that they don’t want you to believe and that works in their favor.

One of the most interesting parts of the book is the chapters that talk about the transactional journalism with the actual emails from FOIA requests and WikiLeaks that shows these unethical dealings between top journalists in our nation who are dealing with the people they are reporting on in ways that should not be allowed ethically.

It’s shocking to the sensibilities; promising to report 70% of the story will be about ‘this’ and 30% will be about ‘that’ if you give us the interview.

Clearing stories in advance which should never be done, by the subjects of their reports; asking for their input and how to change the stories and not disclosing that.

I think they are political operatives disguised at journalists but they are working at places like Politico and even when their emails were exposed, they were promoted and are now working for the NY Times covering the Trump administration whom they considered their ‘enemy’.

Dillon: Like Glenn Thrush?

Attkisson: Yes, Glenn Thrush is exposed as a political hack an then goes and works for the NY Times.

When people write about his promotion, including Eric Wemple of the Washington Post. Not in all of Eric’s articles does he disclose that controversy, he just sort of heralds the promotion.

Same with Maggie Haberman, who was called a “friendly” when she was at Politico by the Clinton folks who said they could count on her to further their positive narratives whenever they needed her to.

Now she’s at the NY Times covering the Trump campaign. That’s not disclosed in her stories and a lot of coverage about her getting that promotion that was not disclosed.

It starts to look like a plan and a scheme rather than an accident that so many political operatives are working in journalism.

Dillon: Some of this feels like a continuation of Journolist but without the email list-serve.

Attkisson: Yes, it does.

Dillon: Thank you so much for your time! It was really interesting to talk to you about The Smear and hear your insights. We’ll tweet the story to you when it goes up.

Attkisson: Thank you!

About A.P. Dillon

A.P. Dillon is a reporter currently writing at The North State Journal. She resides in the Triangle area of North Carolina. Find her on Twitter: @APDillon_ Tips:
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