The traditional media has sacrificed fact-based reporting in favor of promoting its own social and political agenda, says Sharyl Attkisson, author of the new book “Slanted: How the News Media Taught Us to Love Censorship and Hate Journalism.”
Attkisson, host of the TV show “Full Measure” and a five-time Emmy Award-winning investigative journalist, joins the podcast to explain how the deterioration of fact-based journalism began. From reporting on Black Lives Matter to the 2020 election, media outlets have become consumed with promoting a specific narrative, even if it means censoring the truth.
We also cover these stories:
- Former Vice President Joe Biden names former Secretary of State John Kerry as his special presidential envoy for climate.
- Nevada Gov. Steve Sisolak, a Democrat, mandates a three-week “statewide pause” due to an uptick in coronavirus cases.
- AstraZeneca announces encouraging results in its COVID-19 vaccine trials.
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Virginia Allen: I am joined by five-time Emmy Award-winning investigative journalist Sharyl Attkisson and the author of the brand new book “Slanted: How the News Media Taught Us to Love Censorship and Hate Journalism.” Sharyl, thank you so much for being here.
Sharyl Attkisson: Thank you for having me.
Allen: Well, a huge congratulations to you on the book. It just released today. I cannot wait to get my copy, read it cover to cover. I want to begin by talking a little bit about your personal story. Why did you decide to become a journalist in the first place?
Attkisson: I think it suited me as somebody who was never terribly interested in news as a young person but was interested in investigating things in a sense of fairness and equal treatment for all kinds of people and situations.
I’m a logistician, I like logical thinking. And when I heard in college that it was a career option, as I was trying to declare a second major, it seemed to suit me. And I loved to write. I’m a writer at heart. So it took me down that path at the University of Florida, where they happen to have a wonderful top national journalism college.
Allen: And you’ve worked for a number of different major networks, different media platforms—CBS, PBS, CNN. And you left CBS News because you say that you felt like your work was being suppressed. What exactly did you experience there?
Attkisson: It was sort of a slow burn. Most of my time at CBS, the decades there, were wonderful. My reporting was well received and recognized with multiple national Emmy Awards and the Edward R. Murrow Award for Investigative Reporting. It was a great time. I think I and my producers were able to do some really terrific work.
But over time, I saw what I call the smear industry and the narrative industry. And I’m talking about corporations, and PR firms, and crisis management firms, and nonprofits, and political people figure out how to influence the news.
And not just get us to make sure we’re on their talking points and sort of uncritically report what they want us to report, the way they want us to report it, but I saw them become part of the newsrooms.
… It became nearly impossible at CBS, and quite frankly at other national news organizations, to do certain independent reporting on topics that just follow the facts wherever they go.
Instead, there’s a trend now that I saw as I left CBS ahead of my contract to try to make stories come out a certain way regardless of the facts.
And I came to feel that the people who are encouraging that or mandating that at the networks and other places were making it where it was impossible to do accurate, fair, honest journalism of the sort that I felt like I built my career doing.
So I left and I now have an independent TV show where they let me do just good old-fashioned reporting like we all used to know it. The show is called “Full Measure,” if people would like to look for it.
Allen: Absolutely. And you’re not alone in this sentiment among journalists.
When you sat down to write this book and wrote it over the course of several years, you spoke with a lot of different journalists, a lot of different reporters from across the aisle, both liberals and conservatives, and they agree with you, that there’s a real problem that we’re seeing in the media and in the way that news is being reported.
Can you tell me about some of those conversations that you had with journalists?
Attkisson: Well, I think one of the unique things about “Slanted” is that so many executives and journalists from top news organizations spoke candidly about what I call the death of the news as we once knew it and were equally as critical as I think some of the people listening today are about the turn that the news has taken.
And these are executives and reporters and producers from ABC, NBC, CNN, MSNBC, The New York Times, all kinds of places.
So, you may wonder, if they see some of the same issues we do, which in many instances I think are quite obvious, the devolution of the news, why is it happening?
And I talk about that in the book, the fact that there is this sort of momentum that’s been building for years, whereby the independent good journalism, there’s still journalists trying to do it, and in some cases doing it successfully, just not as frequently as before.
This is drowned out by these special interests, corporate interests, political interests that have dominated and figured out how to dominate our information landscape in seen and unseen ways, quite frankly, by influencing what we report and don’t report.
Allen: We’re talking with five-time Emmy Award-winning investigative journalist Sharyl Attkisson about her new book “Slanted: How the News Media Taught Us to Love Censorship and Hate Journalism.”
Sharyl, essentially what I know you [wrote] in the book and what you’re saying here today is that there’s been this shift in the news, and it has gone from a focus on reporting the facts to more so trying to push a narrative on the American people.
But I want to know where do you think and where have you found that this narrative is coming from? Because I have to believe that no one enters the field of journalism thinking, “I’m going to pedal a half-truth or even lies to the American people.”
So how or what do you think is responsible for actually changing the media’s focus from fact reporting to agenda-based reporting?
Attkisson: Well, there are some, and in fact an increasing number of people at news organizations who may not say to themselves, “I want to pedal a lie,” but they are not journalists in the sense that we have had come to recognize journalists.
They are simply propagandists who want to put forth a certain view. And if that requires a half-truth or a lie, they’re perfectly happy to do that if it accomplishes mission.
So I think people need to understand that a lot of people they see in a lot of outlets and quasi news outlets doing what they call reporting are really no more than political operatives or corporate interests disguised as reporters who have no intention of providing accurate information.
Quite the contrary, they want to keep you from getting certain accurate information, view points, scientific studies that could lead you to draw what they see as a harmful conclusion to their interest.
You may be right that people go into journalism, hopefully, thinking that they can report facts and truth, but that’s not how everybody gets into the business. And increasingly, people working at news organizations are not those kinds of people.
But secondly, and I write about this in “Slanted,” even journalism groups, news organizations, and journalism professors, one whom I quoted in the book, have changed, again, what we thought of as the news. They are proud to say that they have disregarded objectivity and neutrality, which they say was overrated. I liken that to a doctor telling you that good diet and exercise are overrated.
These neutrality and objectivity used to be considered important tenants of straight news reporting, and now journalism professors are teaching some of their kids, and The New York Times is going along with it, that objectivity, neutrality, and lack of bias are actually antiquated, old-fashioned notions that have no place in journalism today.
So even those getting into journalism for, I guess, what you would have thought were the right reasons are being taught to push narratives and try to convince people to think a certain way and put their opinions in their reporting rather than just reflect the truth of what’s happening.
Allen: Do you think that social media has played a role in this downfall of fact-based journalism?
You’ve written for The Daily Signal about social media fact-checkers, quote-unquote “fact-checkers.” We’ve seen just over the past month CEOs Mark Zuckerberg and Jack Dorsey of Facebook and Twitter testify before the Senate on this issue of censorship and social media.
Were we seeing this fall of journalism before the rise of social media, or did social media cause it or just perpetuated it further?
Attkisson: Well, social media just became another tool used by the same players in what I call the smear industry to manipulate and influence public opinion.
I think there was a time when the internet first started, in … the first decade or so, when information was fairly free, you could get almost anything you wanted to without an interruption or an algorithm preventing you or steering you.
And then those who worked so hard to control the narrative, and successfully, pretty much did so on the news, saw that, “Wow, people have a new place they can go and they’re not going to get the narrative. … We haven’t been able to control the internet.”
So this effort was launched by the same figures who want to control information to try to control what we see on social media, our Google searches, and the internet.
So it was just an outgrowth of them seeing, “Well, there’s another bastion we haven’t successfully controlled. Now that we have the news market cornered, we’ve got to get busy on the internet.”
And I think this started with President [Barack] Obama announcing in 2016, and there had never been a push for this or the public demanding this, but he announced in 2016 before the election, at Carnegie Mellon, that somebody needed to step in and start curating information in this wild, Wild West media environment on the internet.
At the time, that was unheard of. We weren’t doing these what I call fake fact-checks in the media, curating and all of that.
But they created a market where the public now accepts, if not welcomes, the notion that these third parties who know nothing oftentimes about what they’re fact-checking that they somehow should come in and keep you from seeing certain things or make sure you don’t think certain things.
And so I think social media is just provided to be another tool or avenue to control thoughts and opinion and information.
Allen: We’re talking with Sharyl Attkisson, author of the book “Slanted: How the News Media Taught Us to Love Censorship and Hate Journalism.”
Sharyl, I think we all know that there’s something disturbing going on in the news media, that there is an agenda that they’re pushing, but I think it’s especially scary talking with someone like yourself, who this is your field.
You’ve been working in journalism for decades. You’re so aware of how the system works. And to hear someone like yourself just speak so plainly and, frankly, almost describing an Orwellian society that is really so focused within journalism, within mainstream media just pushing a specific agenda, it’s really disturbing.
Attkisson: Well, I think maybe in a way I was on the front end of seeing these trends because of the type of reporting that I do. And I started to pay close attention to this and the early 2000s.
The first time I noticed it, it was with pharmaceutical industry weighing in and able to successfully manipulate and shape reporting that we had done and others were doing on pharmaceutical dangers.
Again, medicine has many wonderful things that it’s done for the public, there’s a lot of terrific medicine, [but] there are [also] problems that affect millions of people. And we were all reporting on that in the early 2000s.
And then in came the pharmaceutical industry with its brand new partnership with the media through direct-to-consumer ads.
People may have forgotten that advertising prescription drugs on TV used to be illegal, but once the media partnered with the pharmaceutical industry to lobby to legalize these ads you see on TV and the media all the time, we were beholden to the tune of billions of dollars to this industry.
And they were able to successfully stop reporting and pull strings in a way I had never seen before, and controversially those who were off the narrative or reporting the truth on certain things.
And I kind of saw it go from there, that the same PR firms and global law firms that were intervening to try to stop news stories for them were then taking on other corporate clients and bragging and advertising they could stop or shape new stories by bullying news reporters, controversializing them, and the tactics that we see the smear industry use on a daily basis now.
Allen: In the book, you document what you refer to as the “100-plus media mistakes in the era of Trump.” What, to you, are some of the most egregious of those mistakes?
Attkisson: Gosh, I don’t know. I’d have to think about it to pick a single one. But I think the tone was set pretty successfully by a Time magazine false report on Donald Trump’s Inauguration Day that claimed he had removed the bust statue of Martin Luther King from the Oval Office.
The reporter hadn’t even bothered to check whether that was true. He just looked around and didn’t see it. It was behind the door. Reported it without fact-checking. I mean, this is just basic stuff a journalism student would know not to do.
And that went around the world before he corrected it, and probably a lot of people didn’t see the correction, but that was because it fulfilled this narrative the press was trying to pursue of Donald Trump as a racist. And you take it from there.
And if you just look at this appendix of all the mistakes that I’ve cataloged, you start to understand, as I did once I was into it, maybe six months, that with all of the mistakes going in one direction, there was never a mistake that I found, and I’m still looking for them, that benefited Donald Trump. They were always mistakes and errors made that were false information that hurt Donald Trump.
You start to understand that there’s a pattern, and there’s a willfulness, and there’s an agenda at stake here on the part of we’re talking The New York Times, Washington Post, some of the most formerly well-respected news organizations on the planet making the kind of mistakes that, again, journalism students know not to make, reporting in ways that are so sloppy and irresponsible. So I think that that really says a lot
Allen: And so much of the media throughout the election has, frankly, just been painful to watch because it has been just that, a very specific agenda being pushed.
What have you seen throughout the 2020 election that has troubled you about the media’s coverage of it, even beginning with the primaries?
Attkisson: Well, … I’ve kind of taken this look to myself, how would we have covered the election, political reporters and election reporters, if we were a neutral news media?
And I think we would have gone in, and I think this is pretty hard to deny, with a rational skepticism of a lot of things on the ground with reporters in swing states watching for fraud, whether committed allegedly by foreign interests, the Biden camp, or the Trump camp.
Because we saw in 2016, we were told Russia interfered. We were told China wants to. We were told it would happen again in 2020.
And we know there are domestic actors, including some still working in our government, who were accused of, or allegedly found to have interfered politically with President Trump, to the tune of even an FBI official allegedly doctoring a document and improper wiretap.
So neutral journalists would have been on alert for an election that was going to be conducted like no other before the way votes were being taken and bounced, were being accepted and counted.
Instead, we saw the press, by and large, say when the election happened, and it looked like Joe Biden after Election Day was winning, they were telling the public in this very uncritical, uncurious sense, “Nothing to see. Nothing to look at. Nothing to examine.” Amid a lot of suspicious things doesn’t mean there was, as they say, widespread fraud, but certainly doesn’t mean there wasn’t.
And it seems like journalists, because they aren’t neutral, didn’t want to look. They were saying things like, “There’s no evidence,” as if the evidence walks up to the door and knocks on it and asks to enter. Or whether the guilty parties walk up to the journalists and say, “I did it. I did it.”
There was a time when journalists would have looked for this evidence, and would have been on the ground, and viewed suspiciously attempts to block observation, or viewed suspiciously reports of dead people voting or thousands of votes that were found or were miscounted for the wrong person.
Instead, we saw the media saying, “Well, none of this matters.” First, there was no fraud. And then when fraud was uncovered, “Well, there was no widespread fraud, we were told.” And then when there’s appearance of quite a bit of perhaps fraud and abuse and affidavits and certain evidence we’re told, “Well, it wouldn’t have made any difference. It doesn’t involve enough votes.”
So this is a conflicted news media trying to convince the public to see things a certain way, rather than just look at the facts on the ground and tell us what’s happening.
Allen: Yeah. All right. It is disturbing. It’s almost like they’ve pulled a blindfold over their eyes and they’re fighting to keep it over their eyes. It’s really so bizarre and very disturbing.
I want to chat just for a minute about polls because I know you talk about polls in the book. We have seen throughout the last several elections polls have very inaccurate projections as far as who would win and by what percentages.
Do you believe that polls are actively being used to shape voter opinions instead of to report the actual opinions of voters?
Attkisson: I think there’s no other way to conclude that this is how many polls are used today by news organizations that commission them, that determine whether [they’re] release[d], that determined the questions that are asked, that determined the headlines that come.
You have to say to yourself, our polls, now two elections in a row, [are] so wildly wrong because they’re so bad at the one job they have to do, such as The New York Times poll where it partners with a college that could be 16 points off. I’m not talking one or two points.
Could they be really so bad at the one job they have? Or is this actually mission accomplished when they’re off wildly on so many different projections and predictions?
Maybe they’re not bad at their job if their job is to try to shape public opinion rather than accurately measure it. I think we can draw no other conclusion based on the evidence we saw in 2016, and again in 2020.
Allen: And of course 2020 has just been a wild year with the coronavirus, and racial tensions, and of course the election. It’s been really interesting to watch how the media has covered things like the coronavirus, Black Lives Matter.
I know you dive into that a little bit in the book, could you just give us a quick preview of some of those concerns that you raise in the book about, for example, how the media has chosen to cover a group like Black Lives Matter?
Attkisson: Well, I think that in the big picture what we’ve done as an industry is create a crisis of confidence in our institutions. By refusing to cover things fairly and accurately and making it clear that we’re trying to tell people what to think, they tend to not believe anything.
And they feel that way not only about the media covering Black Lives Matter or the Department of Justice, whether it’s going to prosecute crimes that occurred against certain people but not others, whether it’s the government, whether it’s how we handle our elections, there’s just this crisis in confidence with tens of millions of people thinking things aren’t being handled fairly and accurately.
You look at coronavirus, there’s lack of confidence in our health institution. And they cause it. So it’s funny when some of them, the propagandists, turn around and say, “You’re crazy to suspect X or Y,” without saying that they created the suspicion.
And one quick example of that is the masks. The government told us initially, the top health experts, “Masks don’t work. Don’t wear them. You’re selfish and unpatriotic if you do.” And of course did the 180 to, “Masks do help, they save lives. You’re unpatriotic if you don’t wear them. You must wear them.”
And then they look at the public and say, “What’s wrong with you?” when the public says which one was the lie. And then we’re supposed to determine were they lying then or are they lying now.
I heard someone say to me the other day, “Well, the reason they said that the first time is there weren’t enough masks.” I said, “That’s [regardless]. The reason they lied, if that’s true, that that’s the reason, nonetheless creates the crisis of confidence. The public health officials have no right to give us false information for their own purposes.”
So I think this is all very dangerous. It’s created by the powers that be, who try to dictate the narratives and then look at the public and say, “What’s wrong with you?” for not buying the current narrative. I think we’re in a really troubled information landscape today.
Allen: So, Sharyl, where do you get your news personally? Because it feels like [we] just sort of nixed off all of these major network platforms that used to be very reliable and now just aren’t trustworthy.
Attkisson: Well, … I know a lot of people can’t do this because they have lives and jobs, I [try] to go to the source as much as possible. And that means watching a news conference or hearing myself on C-SPAN, for example.
And I would say, almost a 100% of the time, my takeaway when I actually see something happening without the spin is different than what I read a new story about, which really scares me.
So I try to go to the source as much as I can. And then I try to read alternate views. So if I see a narrative, I see everybody reporting something one way, I immediately become suspicious and skeptical. It doesn’t mean it’s not true, it doesn’t mean I’m not getting the whole story, but oftentimes when I dig, it’s not true or I’m not getting the whole story. So I just try to go to alternate sources. I try to go to the source itself, the actual primary source.
And I have sources I trust that I’ve developed over 20 years in Washington, D.C., people that I can call, who’ve proven to provide accurate information in the past that I can run things by for a reality check to know, am I going in the right or wrong direction, or how should things be steered? I just really do a lot of poking around and a lot of skepticism.
I tell people, whatever you see on the news, particularly if everybody’s reporting it using the same language, similar terms, same take no matter how much proof and sourcing they claim to have, I immediately am skeptical of it. And again, it doesn’t mean it’s not true, but it means someone’s pushing that particular viewpoint.
And I ask myself, instead, “Who wants me to believe that and why?” And that ultimately, when you ask that question, leads to a truer truth or a more complete story than the one they’re trying to tell you.
Allen: The book is “Slanted: How the News Media Taught Us to Love Censorship and Hate Journalism.” Five-time Emmy Award-winning investigative journalist Sharyl Attkisson is the author. And the book has released today. Go to Amazon or your local bookstore. Get your copy. This is a great Christmas gift for any of your loved ones right now.
It’s such a wild time in history. We’re all looking for those good sources to know more information about the news, how they’re reporting it, what we can trust. You should get this book and educate yourself on this topic. So important. Sharyl, thank you so much for your time today.
Attkisson: Well, I thank you for having me. And I want people to understand there is something they can do, and there is some hope in the book and some sources you can turn to that I list, but don’t give up because there are tens of millions of people out there who understand what’s going on and should not be silent. I think we can pull out of this and change.
Allen: Yeah. Thank you. And thank you for not being silent and being bold enough to share your opinions and what you’ve experienced.
Attkisson: Thanks again.