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.