Former CBS News investigative correspondent Sharyl Attkisson burped up quite an allegation in an interview that aired yesterday on CNN’s media show “Reliable Sources.” Host Brian Stelter was quizzing Attkisson on her detractors, particularly watchdog of conservative newsdom Media Matters for America.
Attkisson responded that for a while, she maintained a cooperative relationship with Media Matters. At some point, however, relations cratered: “But when I persisted with Fast and Furious and some of the green energy stories I was doing, I clearly at some point became a target, that they — you know, I don’t know if someone paid them to do it or if they took it on their own.”
Stelter jumped all over the part about money: “Do you think that’s possible that someone paid them?”
Then this exchange happened:
ATTKISSON: Well, they get contributions from — yes, they get contributions from –
STELTER: But specifically to target you?
ATTKISSON: Perhaps, sure. I think that’s what some of these groups do, absolutely.
This glorious moment demands analysis from two angles, the first being journalistic. Here is Attkisson — on the record, in a formal interview with a top news outlet, a veteran of two decades at CBS News before her recent and well-publicized departure — speculating on the possibility that a media watchdog group received donations earmarked for attacks on her.
In an interview today with the Erik Wemple Blog, Media Matters President Bradley Beychok scoffed at the notion. “She seems a little bitter, a little upset that accountability for her reporting exists,” Beychok said.
As to the specific allegation that Media Matters had endowed a secret anti-Attkisson chair, Beychok replied, “We’ve never taken contributions to target her or any other reporter.” When asked whether donors had ever requested that Media Matters focus on a larger entity such as Fox News, Beychok replied, “I don’t want to get into it” but noted that the site is driven by the news cycle and the claims that conservative media organizations churn out.
The way Beychok sees it, Attkisson appears to be “auditioning for these right-wing smear sites” and argues that her claim about Media Matters, a 501(c)(3), is based on “zero amount of evidence.”
Zero amount of evidence, however, can help to key a blitz of self-promotion, the other dimension of Attkisson’s latest stroke of brilliance. In laying down the suggestion that Media Matters had been “paid” to hound her, Attkisson pumps up her own profile in ways that her declining profile on the “CBS Evening News” didn’t allow. If you can plant the notion on CNN that your work has been specifically targeted by a liberal group, after all, your fame expands. Proof: Fox News’s morning program “Fox & Friends” picked right up on it today.
In recent weeks, Attkisson has piled up several media appearances to reminisce about her days at CBS News. She told radio host Chris Stigall that her bosses at CBS News were essentially a bunch of cowards: “With various stories, you do get the idea at some point that they want you to stop, especially if you start to dig down right into something very, very important, and it’s not just with political stories — it’s with stories that go after other interests, corporations, different things.” She shared similar sentiments with Fox News’s Bill O’Reilly on April 10. And she shared more similar sentiments with Fox News’s Howard Kurtz. For example, this exchange:
KURTZ: Why did CBS lose interest in your reporting on Benghazi, in your reporting on Obamacare and other subjects, to the point where you were just having difficulty getting on the air?
ATTKISSON: I think that’s part of a broader trend that’s happening, not just at CBS, but there seems to be the last couple of years much less interest in what I call original, investigative, in-depth reporting that hasn’t been seen elsewhere. There seems to be a visceral reaction to doing stories that could ruffle feathers, whether it is certain people in the political spectrum or even corporate interests. I think there has come to be a narrowing universe of stories that are desired by the broadcasts, and it leaves us sometimes I think with newscasts that don’t dig very deep.
Let the Erik Wemple Blog step in here and say that this is the whine of every disaffected journalist: Oh, my editors are so stupid and timid . . .
In his get-together with Attkisson, Stelter attempted to add some meat to the bony workplace complaints of Attkisson, challenging the reporter for some details. The exchange is worth highlighting:
STELTER: Can you tell me a concrete example of a story that seemed to get quashed along the way or shut down along the way?
ATTKISSON: There was a story that looked at a corporate interest, a very powerful corporate interest that I know had been calling around on Capitol Hill and to analysts to try to squelch reporting on the topic. And I assume they also were speaking with CBS because that’s the normal process. And I thought it was a terrific story. My two producers thought so as well, as did some of the managers who looked at it. And in the end, that story was never to air. It was not said to me that it wasn’t airing because there was a corporate interest at stake. We were told instead that at the last minute, after it had been approved and done and people liked it, that it wasn’t perhaps very interesting or that perhaps we should wait until the government came down and made up its mind on the controversy at hand, and then perhaps we could do the story.
Here’s the thing about that story and others that Attkisson couldn’t get CBS News to air: Now free of her weak-kneed bosses, Attkisson can pump them out on SharylAttkisson.com alongside the promos for her upcoming book, “Stonewalled: My Fight for Truth Against the Forces of Obstruction, Intimidation, and Harassment in Obama’s Washington.” (Tip for Attkisson: Shrink the title!). Granted, Sharyl Attkisson qua Sharyl Attkisson has fewer resources than CBS News to fend off lawsuits and the like, but if her nearly aired stories are as bulletproof as she suggests, where’s the risk?
In any case, Attkisson’s claims against CBS News rest on uncorroborated stuff, as do her claims against Media Matters, as do certain of her suggestions about intrusions into her computers (though she promises news on that front). The more media interviews she does, the more she thrusts this un-journalistic tendency into the public sphere for the inspection of prospective employers. And the more she all but compels CBS News to strike back at her ramblings.
Invited to do just that today, CBS News spokeswoman Sonya McNair told the Erik Wemple Blog: “CBS News maintains the highest journalistic standards in what it chooses to put on the air. Those standards are applied without fear or favor.”