By Jonathan Rose
Sharyl Attkisson, The Smear: How Shady Political Operatives and Fake News Control What You See, What You Think, and How You Vote (New York: HarperCollins, 2017), $27.99.
Sharyl Attkisson is just about the only real journalist we have left. As an investigative reporter for CBS, she won five Emmys and an Edward R. Murrow Award. Her bosses rewarded her by cutting down her air time and spiking her stories. (In a 2013 survey, only 33.6 percent of American journalists said they felt free to pursue any stories they wished, down from 60 percent in 1982.) Out of frustration, Attkisson quit CBS and moved to Sinclair Broadcasting, where she anchors Full Measure, perhaps the only television newscast that actually leaves its viewers better informed.
Drawing on years of hard legwork, she has come to the conclusion that journalism has virtually come to an end – if we define journalism as the craft of ferreting out the truth and communicating it objectively in your own words. What we call “journalists” have in fact been reduced to spin doctors, PR functionaries, and (worst of all) smear artists. And Attkisson explains, in shocking detail, how the whole dirty system works.
The Smear nowhere mentions autism or vaccines, but anyone concerned with these issues must read this book. The poisoning of our children continues unabated and unreported, but only because the media systematically poisons our public discourse. What was done to Dr. Andrew Wakefield was despicable – and yet, not at all unusual. That kind of vilification has now become standard operating procedure for disposing of whistleblowers and troublemakers. Wakefield himself never appears in The Smear, but Attkisson describes many other victims of the same kind of tactics. If we rented a very large convention hall, they could meet and swap horror stories.
In March 1992 newsman Jeff Gerth exposed the Whitewater scandal in the New York Times. “The Clinton campaign went after me the day the story was published,” Gerth remembered. “There was a whole department aimed at me and other reporters who were looking at the Clintons, the women, the Rose Law Firm.” His editors backed off: “We don’t want any Whitewater stories,” they told Gerth, and they would not allow him to defend himself in print against Clinton attacks. In 1996 pro-Clinton journalist Gene Lyons published The Great Whitewater Hoax, labeling Gerth’s revelations “debunked” and “discredited”. If these words sound familiar, they are in fact the usual buzzwords parroted endlessly by smear artists, who rarely resort to a thesaurus. The type of book Lyons produced is basically a PR weapon: hardly anyone buys or reads it, but it can be widely excerpted in the media, in this case by Harper’s and PBS. All that was more than enough to neutralize Gerth as an investigative reporter and to discourage other journalists who might want to look into Clinton sleaze.
Or take James Tomsheck, who proved too diligent in doing his job: policing corruption at the US Customs and Border Protection agency. When the deputy commissioner of the agency strongly hinted that corruption arrests should be drastically reduced, Tomsheck refused. Not only was he soon reassigned: false reports disparaging his job performance were planted in the media. And John Dodson, the government agent who blew the whistle on the Justice Department’s “Fast and Furious” scandal, found himself grossly libeled in Fortune magazine.
In 2014 University of Colorado professor Roger Pielke Jr. published an article on Nate Silver’s FiveThirtyEight website arguing that climate change was not causing more severe natural disasters. He was promptly attacked by the Center for American Progress, a pressure group launched by John Podesta, formerly Bill Clinton’s chief of staff. Soon a host of media outlets (Slate, Salon, Huffington Post) picked up the cry and demanded that Silver get rid of Pielke, which he eventually did. Pielke counted the articles that the Center for American Progress generated against him, more than 160 in all, and even charted them on a graph. Though he agreed that climate change was a serious problem and favored a carbon tax to deal with it, he was nevertheless branded a “climate denier”. Does this also sound familiar?
Even Dilbert is a prime target. When Scott Adams asked his fans to tweet him examples of campaign violence against Trump supporters, he received quite a few. He was also flooded with hate tweets (and for a while was blocked from replying). He was disinvited from a speaking engagement, his books were suddenly slammed in Amazon reviews, and Slate did a hatchet job on him so amusing that he retweeted it to his followers.
Adams could afford to laugh at all this: he knew that any newspaper that dropped Dilbert would lose its few remaining readers. However, for UK journalist Neil Clark, the price of dissent was far greater. In December 2005 he published a negative review of a book supporting the Iraq War in the Daily Telegraph. The very next day he faced a blizzard of anonymous personal attacks that continued for years. He was labeled a “plagiarist” and a “fraud” on social media and in letters to editors he worked for. On Twitter lefties were told that he was anti-immigrant and an “obscure right-wing blogger”, while conservatives were warned that he was a communist. (He is in fact a man of the moderate left.) More than a hundred defamatory comments were inserted into his Wikipedia entry, including the allegation that he was a “Srebrenica denier/genocide denier”. Trolls materialized everywhere, attacking him and his books. They even went after his wife, also an author. The personal and professional toll was enormous. Their objective was to destroy his career and drive him out of mainstream journalism, and in that they largely succeeded.
Clark calls it “the New McCarthyism”, and it certainly resembles the old Hollywood blacklist, but with some crucial differences. Where the old McCarthyism was focused on Communists (real or imagined), these postmodern witchhunts can gun down dissenters of all types, pretty much anyone who challenges powerful vested interests. And compared with 1950s McCarthyism, twenty-first century McCarthyism enjoys more solid support in the media and the political establishment, is far better funded, and employs vastly more sophisticated techniques of mass manipulation.
Indeed, we now face a new regime of censorship unlike anything historians have seen before. It relies not on grand inquisitors or secret policemen, but on twenty-first century digital technologies. It serves powerful politicians but is enforced by nongovernmental front organizations, which are not subject to the Freedom of Information Act and not restrained by the First Amendment (which only prohibits government censorship). Under this system of thought control, transgressors are not usually arrested or put on any kind of formal trial. Instead, they are tried and personally destroyed by media and political operatives. Unless the victims are strongly backed by a countervailing interest group (such as a major political party) they have little or no opportunity to defend themselves. The result is not a free marketplace of ideas, but quite the opposite, where the very wealthy, corporations, and bureaucracies can shut down debate, speaking power to truth.
Attkisson shows that “The Smear” as a technique has been employed by big business, government departments, and the establishment wings of both political parties, but it was pioneered and perfected by David Brock. He at first served the right by publishing salacious allegations against Anita Hill and Bill Clinton (in response to Anita Hill’s salacious allegations against Clarence Thomas). After falling out with conservatives, he offered his services to the Clintons, who accepted with alacrity. In their minds, all the nasty things he had written about them may have counted as a Machiavellian plus: after all, his talent for defamation might be very useful to them. In 2004 he launched Media Matters for America, which was a kind of journalistic bodyguard for Hillary Clinton, funded lavishly ($94 million as of 2014) by wealthy Democratic donors (e.g., George Soros). When investigative reporters exposed the scandal-ridden Clintons, Media Matters did not merely try to rebut the charges: they focused on attacking the journalists. It was character assassination, but it successfully diverted attention from Clinton corruption and effectively neutralized the press as a watchdog. And Media Matters was only the flagship of fleet of PACs and pressure groups that Brock created, from which he collected millions in commissions: together they could direct fearsome coordinated attacks against anyone they (or their donors) wanted to dispose of. In 2007 Jeff Gerth and Don Van Natta Jr. published a highly critical book, Her Way: The Hopes and Ambitions of Hillary Rodham Clinton, but one month before the pubdate Media Matters “senior fellow” Eric Boehlert launched a preemptive strike in his blog, essentially a long litany of name-calling: “shoddy”, “corner-cutting”, “discredited”, “delusional”, “bad writer”. (Gerth and Van Natta are both Pulitzer Prize winners, and no one has ever demanded any corrections in their book.)
A Media Matters staffer once bragged that a thousand emails from nowhere (which can easily be generated by a couple of digital drones using hundreds of aliases) may be enough to unnerve a reporter who isn’t used to that treatment. If sterner measures are necessary, smear artists undermine journalists by going over their heads and contacting anchors, editors, executives at the head office, and of course the advertising department: usually, someone in the chain of command cracks.
At the same time, Media Matters and its allies manufactured PR, distributing stories that spun the Clintons favorably. Reporters quickly learned that if they published this puffery, they could forgo tiresome legwork and earn the gratitude of the Clinton machine, which would feed them still more stories. You could call it antiinvestigative journalism. In one notorious example from 2009, an aide to Secretary of State Clinton gave an Atlantic journalist a prior copy of one of her speeches on three conditions: (1) he call the speech “muscular”, (2) he note all the impressive diplomatic figures sitting in the audience, and (3) “don’t say you were blackmailed!” Articles following those exact specifications are soon published not only in the Atlantic, but also Politico. As Attkisson concludes:
Brock’s groups pay to have one-sided “reporting” conducted and published in the popular press….They give speeches, hold press conferences, issue position papers, write blogs, pen letters to the editor, exploit social media, and serve as experts at think tanks. Their disciples are booked on the evening news and cable channels, and quoted in national publications. The idea for each new campaign is hatched by paid operatives, disseminated at meetings, spread among the groups, taught to the messengers, distributed as talking points, and ratified by politicians.
Soon journalists (if they can still be called that) learned that their jobs would be so much easier if they serviced not just the Clintons, but any of the agencies, politicians, and corporations they were supposed to be covering. In 2012 AP reporter Ken Delanian ran several drafts of an article on drone strikes past the CIA, promising to make it “reassuring to the public” and striving “to make sure you wouldn’t push back against any of it.” Attkisson is incredulous: “Can you imagine Bob Woodward or Carl Bernstein running their unpublished Watergate stories past the Nixon White House?” (her emphasis). No, but one can easily imagine today’s press corps running their stories past the CDC.
For the 2012 election campaign David Brock distributed “one-pagers” to reliable television commentators apparently suffering from Attention Deficit Disorder. These very, very short lists of talking points offered pundits robotic responses to likely questions, which they could reel off without thinking. The system worked flawlessly until May 2013, when it was revealed that the Obama Justice Department was monitoring the phone records of Associated Press reporters. To 3000 “progressive talkers and influentials”, Brock sent crib sheets justifying the surveillance, and was surprised and hurt when journalists of all political stripes lashed back at him. Given that pundits had so cravenly followed his party line in the past, Brock had understandably assumed that, if instructed to do so, they would applaud government spying on themselves.
If you ask whether smear artists believe what they write, the answer is that most of them (like David Brock) will work for any partisan or corporate outfit that pays them (and they usually pay very well). “I’m a contractor for hire,” one of them cheerfully admits. To call them prostitutes would be unfair: after all, prostitutes harm no one and fake nothing (other than the occasional orgasm). In dark contrast, “The best smear artists are sociopaths without conscience, without regret,” warns one operative. “They’re able to suspend all pretense of fairness and logic.” Even Mothers Against Drunk Driving has been targeted by smear artists – hired (as you should have guessed) by a restaurant trade group that fights restrictions on liquor licenses.
In October 2016 pervasive collusion between journalists and the Clinton machine was revealed by WikiLeaks. In memos Correct the Record (another of David Brock’s media-manipulating operations) bragged that it had generated more than 900 interviews; dispatched “80 sets of talking points, background materials and briefings on topical issues” to “372 surrogates including influential and frequent pundits on broadcast and cable news”; provided “media advisories” to “960 members of the national media and 10,756 regional reporters in 28 states” as well as “369 television producers and bookers”; and sent out 21 “strategic memos” to the media, which “led to stories in a number of news outlets including National Journal, Politico, USA Today, MSNBC and The Hill.” This expose was every bit as important as the Pentagon Papers. It confirmed what the large majority of Americans already suspected: that the news media was a racket. And it may well have given Donald Trump his narrow margin of victory. It might have convinced just enough voters that, under a Clinton administration, the profession of journalism would abandon its watchdog role and become a vast sycophantic propaganda operation for the White House. That, at any rate, hasn’t happened under the Trump administration.
On one level, The Smear is profoundly depressing, because it shows how far journalism has fallen from Woodward and Bernstein. As Attkisson concludes with unsparing honesty:
We in the news media have allowed ourselves to become co-opted by political, corporate, and other special interests. We permit them to dictate the story du jour. We let them dominate the opinions we consult and quote. We plaster our news reports with political pundits not offering independent opinions but serving their masters. We’ve invited political operatives into our fold as consultants, pundits; and even made them reporters, anchors, and managers in our newsrooms. We’ve become a willing receptacle for, and distributor of, daily political propaganda.
This level of corruption is unprecedented. Of course, throughout the history of American journalism, there was plenty of personal vilification, partisanship, distortion, and sensationalism. But there was also a cacophony of voices representing a range of views, and everyone could get a hearing. What is new is the level of enforced conformity, in a nation founded on the idea of free expression. Most journalists today are willing to echo the same talking points, while those who try to preserve their independence are squelched.
But at least now nearly everyone realizes that journalism, like everything else in contemporary America, is up for sale. Probably each of your friends knows and feels strongly about some individual, institution, or cause that was destroyed by the media. So if they find it hard to believe that that same media is lying about vaccines and autism, just ask, “They smeared your people, didn’t they?” And recommend this book to anyone who can handle the truth.
Jonathan Rose is a professor at Drew University, where he teaches (among other things) the history of American journalism.