Sharyl Attkisson, as The Washington Post put it, has been a “persistent voice of news-media skepticism about the government’s story,” as well, one might add, skepticism about the practices and principles of major media organs like The Washington Post.
Her exposes of giant corporations, charities and political missteps by both parties have received prestigious journalism awards — among them, five Emmys and an Edward R. Morrow Award, spanning a career that has involved reporting nationally for CBS News, PBS and CNN.
And while continuing to focus on government, she has also turned up the heat under her colleagues in the national media, who increasingly build stories around smears provided by organizations — PACs, think tanks, nonprofits — created for just that purpose. (And in the process, make bundles of money for their creators.)
One of the most prominent of these smear profiteers is David Brock, who began as a conservative journalist, attacking Anita Hill and Hillary Clinton, had an epiphany, and ended up as one of Hillary Clinton’s most devoted defenders.
The sincerity of this conversion can be debated, and has been at length. But it does appear to have had a strong financial component. And at any rate, with his conversion to Clintonism and founding of Media Matters, “the empire Brock built is a smear engine unrivaled in its organization, reach, and influence.”
“Indeed,” writes Ms. Attkisson, “Media Matters and Brock have proven they can shape the news and influence the media landscape. But as the election of Donald Trump proved, their influence isn’t boundless.” In part, she believes, that’s because “the work of the propagandists” isn’t as invisible as it used to be, and because “Brock faces cynicism from his own side.”
That cynicism began to grow during the campaign, when it became apparent to many staffers and officials that there was something very wrong with their campaign strategy, especially as it was being influenced by Mr. Brock and his minions.
Ms. Attkisson quotes from an email sent by the head of the pro-Clinton Center for American Progress to the beleaguered Clinton campaign manager, John Podesta: ” ‘I hope Hillary truly understands how batsh*t crazy David Brock is.’ “
And this from a former Obama administration member: ” ‘I don’t know what the f. [Mr. Brock’s network] did besides raise a ton of money, and I don’t think the after-action report on 2016 says we need more David Brock. Probably the opposite is true.’ “
But signs are that with or without Clinton backing, we’ll be getting more Mr. Brock, like it or not. He and his allies have been successful in picking off Fox News headliners, one by one. And his new organization, Shareblue, is up and running, with the stated objective of delegitimizing Donald Trump’s presidency.
Perhaps envy of the growing reach of such organizations and their increasing popularity among donors, helps explains the loosening of journalistic standards among the major media. As a result, writes Ms. Attkisson, as the Clinton campaign demonstrated, practices such as “transactional relationships with journalists to put out a positive message” have become common.
Ms. Attkisson identifies several such journalists, one of whom, Maggie Haberman, now with The New York Times, is named by Clinton officials in a memo as “a friendly journalist,” willing to generate positive press. “We have had her tee up stories for us before and never been disappointed.”
Those who read The New York Times or The Washington Post today, with major stories in each issue, frequently suspiciously sourced, devoted to discrediting Donald Trump, may well conclude that although the campaign is officially over, it’s still being waged, with “friendly journalists” continuing to tee up stories for the opposition.
“We’ve become a willing receptacle for, and distributor of, daily political propaganda,” writes Ms. Attkisson. “Policies that once firewalled news from opinion, that resisted interference from political and advertising interests” have evaporated.
“Relationships and practices regarded as the most egregious breaches of ethics a few years back are now commonly accepted.” And smears are now accepted journalistic currency.
In her three decades as a national television investigative reporter, Ms. Attkisson tells us, she has been the victim of more than one smear, her experiences of which are vividly described in her earlier book, the best-selling “Stonewalled.”
She is currently the host of Sinclair’s national investigative television program, “Full Measure with Sharyl Attkisson,” a program conducted as this book is written — a strong, incisive and fact-filled work, the sort of effort we’ve always expected from our very best investigative reporters.
• John R. Coyne Jr., a former White House speechwriter, is co-author of “Strictly Right: William F. Buckley Jr. and the American Conservative Movement” (Wiley).
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THE SMEAR: HOW SHADY POLITICAL OPERATIVES AND FAKE NEWS CONTROL WHAT YOU SEE, WHAT YOU THINK, AND HOW YOU VOTE
By Sharyl Attkisson
Harper, $27.99, 294 pages
Copyright © 2017 The Washington Times, LLC.