Was Reporter Sharyl Attkisson Too Right-Wing for CBS?
A much-praised and award-winning journalist resigns amid rumors her allegedly right-wing politics were getting in the way of her reporting. Now Sharyl Attkisson prepares to have her say.
Officially, CBS News has zero to say about veteran CBS investigative correspondent Sharyl Attkisson and her soon-to-be-released memoir, Stonewalled: My Fight for Truth Against the Forces of Obstruction, Intimidation, and Harassment in Obama’s Washington.
“No comment!” declares Sonya McNair, senior vice president of communications for the network’s news division, not even bothering with a standard “hello” on the phone lest I somehow manage to sneak in a question.
Unofficially and under the radar, CBS News executives are said to be working quietly to cast doubt on Attkisson’s detailed account of how a storied journalistic institution—the House of Murrow, Cronkite, Sevareid and other legends—has allegedly gone toothless, swooning over the arrogant obfuscations of President Obama and his minions while thwarting the worthy efforts of public-spirited reporters.
A senior manager in the CBS Washington Bureau, where the 53-year-old Attkisson toiled for two decades, winning a number of prestigious journalism awards, until her abrupt resignation in March out of frustration with her bosses, has supposedly “been going around doing a whisper campaign against her,” says an Attkisson loyalist who claims to have heard about it from various “prominent D.C. journalists” who are considering interviewing her as part of her book tour. “The word is she’s crazy, she’s a kook, you can’t trust her, she lies, she makes up stories.”
If that’s actually happening—and my call to the alleged perpetrator was not returned—then the CBS Newser would have been taking a page out of the corporate and government PR playbook outlined in Attkisson’s memoir: When a pesky reporter refuses to cooperate and accept the prevailing spin of the day, “launch a campaign to controversialize and discredit them,” Attkisson writes. “The PR officials delay providing the true facts and information for as long as possible. Then, when the facts are finally revealed, they claim it’s all ‘old news’ and not worthy of a story.”
Clearly, Attkisson is no Miss Manners—by her own admission. Like a lot of investigative reporters, she can be monomaniacal in the pursuit of a scoop, blunt and impolitic with colleagues and adversaries, a bit paranoid and prone to conspiracy theories, and deeply cynical about the motives of people in authority, whether they’re her supervisors or government officials. The strong impression that emerges from Attkisson’s book is that she seems to revel in the role of turd in the punch bowl.
“There are effective ways of getting your message across within the company. There’s a way to do it and there’s a way to get under everybody’s skin,” says a former colleague of Attkisson’s who, like the other CBSers I spoke to, declined to speak on the record and thus defy the corporate policy of pretending to ignore her memoir. “Sharyl loved getting under people’s skin. She liked the role. In truth, she liked being the bad girl.”
Another former CBS News colleague—echoing a suspicion that Attkisson addresses and vigorously rejects in her book—says she’s ideologically motivated, more sympathetic to the Republicans in Congress than to the Democrat occupying the White House.
“She is definitely not being truthful about being non-partisan. She has an agenda and a political bent,” says this ex-coworker, who nevertheless acknowledges that Attkisson has produced some excellent journalism (a judgment validated by her five Emmy Awards as well as the 2012 Edward R. Murrow Award for her groundbreaking coverage of the Obama administration’s “Fast and Furious” gunwalking scandal in which U.S. law enforcement authorities allowed weapons to be purchased by Mexican drug gangs at American gun dealerships and ultimately used in violent crimes, including the December 2010 murder of a Border Patrol agent in Arizona).
“She was perceived as having an agenda by the White House, but inside CBS, she was perceived as a very good reporter who worked very hard to get incremental additions in her stories,” says a Washington bureau colleague. “They didn’t always get on the air—which upset her. I don’t blame her.”
National Public Radio’s media critic, David Folkenflik (who takes fire in Stonewalled for a profile piece that Attkisson considered unfair but Folkenflik stoutly defends), says that, stylistically at least, she’s in the rough-hewn tradition of journalistic sleuthing.
“Investigative reporters are rarely a perfectly smooth, perfectly polished, perfectly scrubbed bunch in terms of how they look at stories and how they handle obstacles,” he says. “They are an intense bunch. When they sniff out a story, they tussle with it like a dog with a bone and try to wrestle it to the ground.”
Attkisson’s reputation among colleagues and competitors in Washington is decidedly mixed. Former Washington Post investigative reporter Susan Schmidt, who shared the 2006 Pulitzer Prize for the stories that brought down super-lobbyist Jack Abramoff, counts herself a fan.
“I admire her guts,” Schmidt says. “She’s basically an aggressive reporter, and if she’s covered stuff that other people--except for right-wingers--weren’t covering, they were real stories…I think she’s got good instincts, and she’s willing to take on some sacred cows.”
Schmidt adds that she agrees with Attkisson’s assertion that much of the mainstream media, until recently, has given Obama a pass on such issues as federal government largesse awarded to green energy companies run by Obama campaign fundraisers, the mishandling of the attack the American diplomatic post in Benghazi, Libya, and the troubled launch of the Obamacare web site—stories on which Attkisson led the pack.
“With some exceptions, people don’t seem to be digging as hard as they have in other administrations,” says Schmidt, now a corporate consultant. “Obama came into office saying he was going to make his administration the most accessible and transparent in history; in fact, the opposite has happened.”
“This is the worst White House I’ve ever dealt with,” says a longtime Washington correspondent for another network. “Nothing compares to the lack of transparency, and the aggressiveness of this administration.”
At the same time, this television veteran says, Attkisson might have been too eager to go with partial and partisan information about alleged Obama administration perfidy from Republican House Oversight Committee Chairman Darrell Issa’s staffers—a criticism Attkisson rejects in her book. (Her claim to being ideologically agnostic is somewhat undermined by her post-CBS News association with the Heritage Foundation, as a "senior independent contributor" to the conservative think tank's Daily Signal web site.)
Attkisson, meanwhile, has been fighting the same uphill battle that other investigative reporters are waging. “At all the networks there’s a decided lack of interest in investigative pieces anymore,” this television veteran says. “Part of it is the news hole is so small. And after Dan Rather”—the notorious 60 Minutes II report before the 2004 election on George W. Bush’s checkered Texas Air National Guard career, based on forged documents—“all of a sudden network executives and producers came to view investigative pieces as a way to blow up your career.”
Although Stonewalled has received a fair amount of advance publicity, notably on the conservative-leaning Drudge Report, Attkisson herself couldn’t be reached for an interview. Her publisher, Harper, a subsidiary of Rupert Murdoch’s News Corp., isn’t making her available until the Nov. 4 on-sale date.
The book covers Attkisson’s television career from her beginnings as a local reporter in Tampa, Fla.—where she first learned, up close and personal, that government officials can blatantly lie—to her hard-charging Washington heyday as the scourge of corrupt Republicans and Democrats alike.
In multiple passages that are impossible to dismiss, she also documents the dumbing-down of the television newsbiz, in one case recounting a disturbing March 2012 incident in which the CBS This Morning program crowded out serious, substantive stories in order to devote four and a half minutes to an interview with Taco Bell chief executive Greg Creed about the fast-food chain’s spectacular introduction of its nacho cheese Dorito taco shell.
“These two great products coming together [are] an amazing combination,” Creed gushes, having been given free reign to shill to CBS News viewers. “We have great quality, we have great taste, we have great value.”
In other chapters, Attkisson takes shots at CBS Evening News anchor Scott Pelley for allegedly watering down her scripts to soften the negative impact on the Obama White House, and at Pelley’s former executive producer, Pat Shevlin (who also didn’t return my phone call), for her alleged liberal-Democrat bias that protected Obama and his policies from tough scrutiny.
And she accuses CBS higher-ups of ethical lapses, notably the withholding of a Steve Kroft video snippet—from an interview conducted Sept. 12, 2012, the day after the lethal attack on the U.S. diplomatic facility in Benghazi—in which the president freely acknowledged that he avoided using the word “terrorism” in his Rose Garden statement.
“Do you believe that this was a terrorist attack?” Kroft asked Obama.
“Well, it’s too early to know exactly how this came about, what group was involved, but obviously it was an attack on Americans,” the president replied.
The video—which seemed to contradict Obama’s assertion, in the pivotal moment of his second presidential debate with Mitt Romney, that he labeled the attack terrorism from the get-go—didn’t air until the weekend before the 2012 election, and then only after intense lobbying by Attkisson and a few colleagues, she writes. Noting that Shevlin and Pelley received the transcript of Kroft’s interview on the day it was conducted in September, but instead opted to use a sound bite more helpful to the White House on the nightly news, Attkisson writes: “To put it mildly: It was misleading. This was a really bad thing.”
She quotes CBS News President David Rhodes (brother of Obama national security staffer Ben Rhodes, a fact which went undisclosed in CBS’s initial report on Ben’s role in tweaking the infamous Benghazi talking points) as admitting to her later: “Look, we fucked up…But what matters is that as soon as it was brought to my attention I took steps to correct it.”
Attkisson also recounts the chilling saga of her personal and work computers being illegally hacked by a party or parties unknown during her aggressive reporting on the Benghazi episode—though she suspects it was someone from a U.S. government agency, possibly the FBI, and even suggests she has the name of a specific person that she claims she can’t reveal.
Far from a rant, her tone throughout is cool and methodical, and her critiques are couched more in sorrow than in anger. Her accounts of epic battles with Obama White House flacks—which occasionally devolve into screaming, at least on the part of the Obamans—will be unnervingly familiar to many Washington reporters.
A close encounter over Benghazi with National Security spokesman Tommy Vietor and top adviser Denis McDonough quickly turns testy, with Vietor demanding “What moron is pushing this? They don’t know what they’re talking about” when Attkisson asked why something called the Counterrorism Security Group wasn’t immediately convened when the attacks in Libya began.
Former White House aide Vietor, now a media strategy consultant, still contends “that much of [Attkisson’s] reporting was wrong,” and adds in an email to The Daily Beast: "The fact that we worked to connect Sharyl with Denis McDonough—then the Deputy National Security Advisor, now the White House Chief of Staff—undercuts the claim that she was stonewalled.”
Susan Schmidt, meanwhile, says Attkisson’s detractors, inside and outside the newsbiz, are often ideologically motivated themselves. “Glenn Greenwald is celebrated as a hero for doing what he’s doing [exposing NSA whistleblower Edward Snowden’s revelations about government surveillance of American citizens], and yet when she’s digging into other scandals, she’s basically shut down? …I don’t mean to sound like a right-winger, but you go have to go where the story leads you.”