When investigative reporter Sharyl Attkisson resigned from CBS News in March after months of tense negotiations and a year—and maybe a million dollars—remaining on her contract, she told her husband to consider the possibility that she would never find another job.
“I said to Jim I may never work again and he had to be okay with that,” she tells The Daily Beast, referring to her spouse of 30 years, retired attorney and law enforcement officer James Attkisson. “It took him some time before he said ‘okay.’ I knew I had to work somewhere else, where I could report on some of the stuff I was reporting on. Clearly, it would be a different ballgame.”
Attkisson, 53, the mother of a 19-year-old daughter (“College is paid-for,” she says with relief), had toiled for two decades in the network news division’s Washington bureau, exposing government and corporate malfeasance, scorching Republicans and Democrats alike, and racking up Emmys and other prestigious journalism awards.
Indeed, she says her career at CBS was going pretty well until Barack Obama and his team of belligerent spinmeisters arrived in the White House—and then things went gradually, inexorably, south, as her superiors folded under pressure and it became increasingly difficult to get her stories on the air.
“When the White House calls them to complain, instead of saying, ‘The story is accurate, so don’t call and scream at me,’ they get distraught,” Attkisson claims. “They don’t want the White House to be upset with them. They would much rather have the White House call and say, ‘I like the story you did.’ I don’t know why they care, but they do.”
At the same time, Attkisson became a lightning rod for liberal bloggers and Obama staffers who suspected her of pushing a pro-Republican agenda—a worry that came to be shared by some of her CBS News colleagues.
Attkisson chronicles her downward slide, along with the sinister hacking of her personal and workplace computers that she believes was accomplished by politically motivated government operatives, in Stonewalled: My Fight for Truth Against the Forces of Obstruction, Intimidation and Harassment in Obama’s Washington.
Much like Attkisson’s aggressive reporting on such Obama administration missteps as Fast and Furious, Benghazi, Solyndra, and the ill-fated launch of Healthcare.gov, her book is bound to raise hackles and slap a target on her back.
Even before Tuesday’s official publication date, the left-leaning advocacy group Media Matters trashed Attkisson and Stonewalled, claiming “the book’s sloppy inaccuracies and absent context reinforce her image as a journalist more interested in a biased narrative than uncovering the facts.”
Attkisson, naturally, begs to differ. “I’m not a conservative. I’m not a liberal,” she says. “I really am one of those people who are mixed on many issues and can see many legitimate sides. If that makes them feel better to call me a conservative, if that explains in their minds why I’m covering a particular story, that’s okay. It really is.”
But Attkisson did nothing to disabuse her critics of the belief that she’s little more than a right-wing shill when she signed on recently as a “senior independent contributor” to The Daily Signal, a news site launched in June by the conservative Republican think tank, the Heritage Foundation.
Didn’t Attkisson consider how such an association might confirm the worst suspicions of her detractors?
“Maybe briefly,” she says. “But I don’t really care. I really don’t. Obviously. What I cared about was that I’d have an outlet for my reporting. Would they allow my reporting to be editorially sound—meaning truthful, factual and going where the story leads, versus leading it somewhere where it wasn’t supposed to go?”
It’s a recurring theme in Attkisson’s professional narrative: Not giving a damn about her doubters and their presumably misguided opinions of her.
“I just don’t care what people think. I’m just trying to do what I think is right,” she says. “I gave up a long time ago thinking that people had to like or agree with what I was doing. Sometimes I rub people the wrong way, although I’m very polite.”
And yet, Attkisson is no different from any other human being in valuing personal praise, especially from coworkers—and on the condition that they not be quoted, she shared a sampling of a dozen emails from CBS News colleagues who expressed sorrow at her departure and admiration for her journalism. “Just to show you that there are people at CBS News who don’t consider me a crazy liar,” she says with laugh.
“Obviously, if I cared about what people said about my reporting, I wouldn’t be a good journalist,” she says. “Because I wouldn’t be covering all those stories they don’t want me to cover—because I’d be concerned that I’d be criticized.”
For instance, Attkisson is unapologetic about reporting stories that have advanced the political agenda of Republican Rep. Darrell Issa, the often-grandstanding chairman of the House Government Oversight Committee who has launched multiple investigations into alleged White house perfidy.
She rejects the notion, encouraged by certain CBS News competitors, that she has uncritically broadcast Issa’s allegations without appropriate vetting and scrutiny.
“Nobody knows the process I go through except my producer…and that’s absolutely not the case,” Attkisson says. “I can see why people would think that, because a lot of times my reporting was in line with the same things Issa was investigating.”
She points out, with some justice, that she demonstrated a similar track record of aggressive reporting on the Bush White House and Halliburton when Democrat Rep. Henry Waxman chaired the same committee before the 2010 Republican sweep.
“I don’t really care what people think,” Attkisson repeats. “Just because I’m reporting on the same subject that he [Issa] is pursuing doesn’t mean we like each other. I certainly don’t pretend to be BFFs with him.”
Braving brickbats from members of the establishment—be they political, scientific or medical—Attkisson has ventured into unorthodox areas of journalism, such as her series of reports on CBS on possible links between autism and childhood vaccines.
Attkisson says she is very much in favor of vaccinating kids, but that peer-reviewed studies have suggested the possibility of a “small subset of children” who suffer from difficult-to-detect immune dificiencies that might make their brains vulnerable to certain vaccines, much like some children are allergic to polio vaccines.
But she says Big Pharma has actively discouraged scientific research into possible linkages, and that pharmaceutical advertisers similarly persuaded CBS and other broadcasters not to run stories questioning the risk of vaccines for certain children. Never mind that a CBS News veteran, who asked not to be named, says Attkisson’s vaccine-autism reports were eventually killed not because of advertiser pressure, but because they weren’t adequately supported by scientific evidence.
“The fact is, the government has acknowledged there’s a link,” Attkisson says, citing the recent admission by a senior Central for Disease Control epidemiologist that he and his colleagues improperly omitted from a 2004 study the data that tended to support such a link. “They simply say it’s not a causal link.”
Meanwhile, Attkisson says she hasn’t been invited to a White House Christmas party since early in the first term of George W. Bush’s presidency, and while she certainly has friendly relationships with politicians and their staffers, they are business, not personal.
With a touch of pride, Attkisson declares: “I’m probably one of the least socially connected journalists in Washington, D.C. In fact, I’m sure of it. I don’t go to parties. Come to think of it, I don’t get invited to parties. I live far away [at the top of a long driveway, in rural Leesburg, Va., 40 miles outside of Washington]. I don’t run into the same people I work with at the grocery store. Where I live, most people don’t even know what I do.”
Given Attkisson’s self-identity as an outsider, it’s perhaps not surprising that she has admiring words for National Security Agency whistleblower Edward Snowden, whom the Obama Justice Department has indicted on felony charges under the Espionage Act.
“Not knowing him, I don’t know what his motivations are,” she says, “but judging by his actions, he could have sold the information, he could have done a lot of things for personal gain…From where I sit, it looks like he gave up a great deal for something he strongly believed and hoped to have some positive change from it. It sounded like he was outraged by it [the government’s widespread surveillance of innocent Americans]. He felt the public should know. And I agree with him that the public should know a lot of what he has revealed.”
As for the alleged government surveillance of her computers, Attkisson has retained a lawyer and is collecting testimony for a possible lawsuit against the feds. Over the weekend, her publisher, Harper—a division of Rupert Murdoch’s News Corp.—released Attkisson’s cell phone video purporting to show research material being deleted from her personal computer last year by an unknown intruder (though several outlets, notably Media Matters and Vox, have dismissed the video as simply evidence of “a stuck delete key”).
For the moment, Attkisson says she’s keeping her legal options open. “I’m sure I’m racking up a lot of bills, but everybody so far is primarily motivated by their outrage at what they believe happened to me. Nobody has asked me to pay them upfront. I do intend to settle up in the not-too-distant future.”