Sharyl Attkisson: How Propagandists Co-Opted ‘Fact-Checkers’ and the Press to Control the Information Landscape
“Virtually every piece of information that can be co-opted has been, whether it’s Wikipedia online, fact-checkers, the news,” says five-time Emmy Award-winning investigative journalist Sharyl Attkisson. “This is all part of a very well-funded, well-organized landscape that dictates and slants the information they want us to have.”
Attkisson is the host of Full Measure and author of “Slanted: How the News Media Taught Us to Love Censorship and Hate Journalism.”
Mr. Jekielek: Sharyl Attkisson, such a pleasure to have you back on American Thought Leaders.
Ms. Attkisson: Thanks for having me.
Mr. Jekielek: Sharyl, I’ve been thinking about your book Slanted. You wrote this pre-COVID. The subtitle, this is close—How the Media Taught Us to Love Censorship and Hate Journalism. I think you were seeing something very profound, earlier than many were.
Ms. Attkisson: Part of the reason, it’s not that I’m so prescient, is that the kind of reporting I do lends itself to me seeing or being subjected to trends in media and propaganda that later become more widespread. I’m kind of on the leading edge of seeing it sometimes. And I can look at it, and see what’s happening in the landscape.
When I say how the media taught us to love censorship and hate journalism, it’s referring to the phenomenon that prior to 2015, 2016, and I looked at this to make sure I was on target with my memory, there was no big movement begging Big Tech or third parties or fact-checkers to get between us and our open information online or on the news. Nobody would’ve thought of it, at least on any broad scale.
And yet, now here we are just a couple of years later, after a major campaign to control the information on the news and online, where many people embrace the notion that some know-nothing third party whose strings are being pulled by some corporate or political interest are inserting themselves and telling us what we can and can’t see and read, and what we should believe. Yet, people are embracing that, even in the media, and begging for more of it. I never would have thought that, just a couple of years ago, this would be the case.
Mr. Jekielek: Some of the things that are fact-checked are bizarre. I screenshot these things periodically. They “fact-check” you, and then it sits on your feed.” It sits onTwitter for two days.
Ms. Attkisson: Right.
Mr. Jekielek: What are you trying to do to me here? The whole phenomenon is strange. You’ll have these people who really aren’t qualified fact-checking people like Dr. Robert Malone, an expert in vaccine technology. It’s just kind of bizarre.
Ms. Attkisson: One has to understand, as I’ve tried to describe, that nearly every mode of information has been co-opted, if it can be co-opted, by some group. Fact-checks are no different either. They’ve been co-opted in many instances, or created for the purpose of distributing narratives and propaganda. Your common sense is accurate when it tells you that the way they chose this fact-check and how they decided to word it so they could say this thing is not true. At its heart the fact is really true, but the message they’re trying to send is that you shouldn’t believe it.
Your common sense is right. That has been created as part of a propaganda effort by somebody, somewhere, as part of a narrative to distribute to the public. So virtually every piece of information that can be co-opted has been, whether it’s Wikipedia online, fact-checkers, the news, or Snopes. A lot of people used to go to Snopes and say, “This is a place I can find the truth.”
They may not understand that even Snopes in many instances has been co-opted. I look at healthfeedback.org, which is a fake science group that’s used by Facebook and other Big Tech companies to debunk scientific things that are often actually true, and keep them where they’ll get pulled off your feed. Someone may be pulled off of social media on the basis of these fake fact-checkers, these people who call themselves scientists saying something is or isn’t correct. This is all part of a very well-funded, well-organized landscape that dictates and slants the information they want us to have.
Mr. Jekielek: You mentioned that in 2015, 2016 there was a stranged turning point. That’s what I remember as well. I was watching these very common narratives emerge among many corporate media, where everyone was speaking in unison. It reminded me of the kind of media activity in Communist China, where Xinhua news agency tells everyone the correct talking points. Some people told me, “Oh, this has existed before. “ But something changed then. What was it that changed?
Ms. Attkisson: There has long been an effort, of course, to shape information. And the push-me, pull-you in the media today hopefully has been news reporters trying to push back against organized efforts to make sure some information doesn’t get out. I did notice. I would say in the early 2000’s that instead of just trying to shape the information—it was a surprise to me as I covered pharmaceutical industry stories, which I was assigned to do at CBS news, along with many people in the media—the pushback came to be more about keeping a story from airing or keeping a study from being reported on the news, not just giving the other side, not just making sure it was accurately reported. These efforts by these large global PR firms that have been hired by the pharmaceutical industry, and by government partners that work with the pharmaceutical industry kept the story from being reported at all. Now, that’s pretty common.
But at the time I remember thinking, “Who doesn’t want the information out there at all?” It really took off in a big way, instead of in a more subtle way, in the 2015, 2016 time period with Donald Trump perceived as a unique danger by both Democrats and Republicans. By that, I really mean by the interests that support and pay for them to be in office and make certain decisions.
Because Donald Trump was outside both the Democrat and Republican establishment. I’m not saying he doesn’t have his own interests and his own strings he would try to pull. But he did not exist as a phenomenon, as a political figure, as a result of decades of hand-washing and money being paid through these organized pipelines in the political parties. So there were really strong vested interests that did not want to see a Donald Trump in office—a wild card as I called him— who would do things outside the money interests, be it Democrat or Republican.
They organized a media campaign and exploited the changes that were happening over the prior decade or two, where the media was becoming more conflicted and less apt to independently report what was going on. This all dovetailed together to create this crazy information landscape we have today where journalists don’t even really think they’re journalists. They are writers that are seeking to amplify whatever establishment scientists or establishment politicians want them to say, uncritically, and oftentimes at the expense of accuracy.
They are just blurting out what they’re told to distribute to the public. They’re acting more as propagandists than journalists and reporters. Yes, I do think it started in that time period. There was a well-funded effort that I’ve tracked in my books that shows how Big Tech was brought into it with a lobby campaign by some important propagandists that work behind the scenes. They met with Facebook and said, “You have to start censoring and fact-checking information.” At the time, that meant a certain kind of political information. That’s how it all got started.
If I may amplify on that just a bit. I say when people watch from the outside and something doesn’t make sense to them, you should listen to your cognitive dissonance. In the 2015 time period, and in 2016 when all of this was changing, I remember hearing a speech given by President Obama at Carnegie Mellon in September of 2016. He said something like somebody needs to step in and curate information in this wild, wild West media landscape. And I remember thinking that was such a strange thing to say, because there was no big movement among the public where people needed to have their information curated, where someone needed to step in and tell them what to think and curate what was online.
After that, to a man, if you looked at the media day after day, there were headlines about fake news and curation and what should and shouldn’t be reported. I worked backward and found that just a couple of weeks before President Obama’s speech, there was a nonprofit called First Draft that introduced—it was the first time I could document it—the notion of fake news in its modern context and how it had to be controlled. And I’m thinking, “That’s kind of interesting, who is First Draft?”
So I look up their tax records, which had not all been filed yet, and it’s a fairly new nonprofit. And I called them. Because when you follow the money, you find a lot of answers. I said, “Who funds you?” First Draft said that they started near the beginning of the election cycle in 2015, and that they were funded by Google. Google’s parent company, Alphabet, at the time was led by Eric Schmidt, who was a top Hillary Clinton donor and who was an activist working on her presidential campaign.
Is it a coincidence that a political activist, right ahead of the presidential campaign, starts a nonprofit that picks up the notion of fake news? If you looked at the nonprofit’s website, when they said fake news, they entirely meant conservative-based fake news. In their viewpoint, there was no liberal version of fake news.
Then within a matter of weeks, President Obama gives this speech, and the media takes off and runs with it. Interestingly, what happened with Donald Trump being the wild card that he is, every time they accused him or his side of fake news, he grabbed the ball and threw it back at them and said, “You’re fake news.” So their idea of fake news was made-up stories on conservative sites that they said that were harmful and not true.
Trump’s idea of fake news was, “You guys are making mistakes or errors that aren’t true, and that are biased. That’s what I call fake news.” And being the master marketer that he is, within a pretty short period of time, he had co-opted the phrase so successfully that by January of 2017 after he was elected, The Washington Post, who had been on the bandwagon about cracking down on fake news, suddenly published an editorial that said, “We have to get rid of this term fake news.” Because now it had become something that President Trump had used successfully. Today if you ask most people, they think Trump came up with that phrase. It’s actually well-documented to be an invention of political activists on the Left during the time period that I described.
Mr. Jekielek: That is absolutely fascinating. I try to never use the term—talk about words being weaponized.
Ms. Attkisson: Yes.
Mr. Jekielek: But we are in this information war where it’s very hard to tell what’s true. Today’s conspiracy theory, as we’ve seen multiple times over the last few years, becomes a reasonable thing, like with virus origins for example. This is something that you’ve been following. It’s hard to function in an environment like this. There is an onslaught of information every day about what you’re supposed to think.
Ms. Attkisson: I document this in The Smear, my second book. I interviewed people who operate in this universe. They make their living distributing propaganda and narratives, and they’re pretty proud of it. Some of them let me name them in the book, and some of them didn’t want me to. But they’re pretty proud of their handywork and what they do. They explained to me that if they do nothing more than confuse the information landscape—maybe you don’t totally buy what they say, but they’ve done enough to make you not sure of anything—that still serves the purpose in many cases.
Because if they don’t want you to believe something and they can cast doubt by making you doubt everything, they’ve accomplished their goal in a way, because you still don’t believe the thing that they were trying to distract you from. And I thought that was really interesting, that sometimes confusion can actually be the goal.
Mr. Jekielek: The other thing that I’ve been thinking about a lot lately is there’s this weird feedback loop among unnamed agencies and the corporate media to the point where it’s like believing your own propaganda or your own talking points, whether or not they are true. Maybe in some cases they’re even true. But it’s fed back and it’s reinforced to the point where it becomes difficult for the people involved to figure out what the reality is. They start believing their own stories.
Ms. Attkisson: That’s a good point. One of my biggest criticisms of what we in the news have become, compared to really not too long ago, is that we would never have in the mainstream media simply repeated what government/industry said uncritically, and then tried to convince people that was the truth, and not to believe certain other things. We would be playing more of an opposite role.
A reasonable but skeptical audience would ask for justification and the presentation of other viewpoints, rather than us just serving as a mouthpiece for government and industry. The biggest turnaround for me to see is the media willingly take an official position from people who have all kinds of conflicts of interest. That doesn’t mean what they’re saying isn’t true, but there are certainly a lot of things to consider. But then they uncritically try to convince the public to believe that viewpoint and not listen to anything else, and they also censor other information.
It’s very hard in a confused, chaotic environment like this to get at the truth about coronavirus. Maybe we’ve made mistakes because we didn’t know better, because this thing is happening and developing and emerging. But then to try to get at the truth when information is closed off and we’re only hearing one side and we’re told that we can’t listen to other things or other studies or other scientists, it has been a very harmful thing.
It is hard to know in every case if the reporters are complicit simply because they believe this is the right thing and they haven’t been taught any other way of thinking critically about information and reporting—or if they’re purposely placed there. Then they’re not reporters anymore. In one of my books I argue that a lot of propagandists have become part of the media. We have invited them into our newsrooms.
There was a point when we used to have a bit of a firewall between the people we reported on and we the reporters, but that’s long gone. We have not just invited them to influence what we report, but we’ve hired them. Again, not just as pundits and analysts, but as reporters. They are an editorial presence within our newsrooms. Now we are one and the same. It’s hard to say that there’s a distinctive difference in many instances between the people trying to push out a message, and the messengers in the media who should be doing a more independent job of reporting accurately.
Mr. Jekielek: Let’s think about coronavirus here. Let’s use it as a case study. Let’s look at early 2020. There’s a lot of different information flying around. We know that the Chinese regime is basically doing mass censorship and preventing these whistleblowers from speaking. They are running a big information operation. There is this fear that this coronavirus is very serious. Models are being done that say there are going to be mass casualties.
Lockdown policies get instituted very quickly. But then, also very quickly, there is data being gathered that shows that it’s not nearly that bad. You were in the midst of all of this. I know you were looking at this carefully. When did you realize there was something amiss in how we were thinking about this?
Ms. Attkisson: Like most people, I didn’t know what to believe in the beginning. I try to be fairly careful as a reporter about forming conclusions and speaking about things. People were asking me early on what I thought about coronavirus and how bad was it and what was going to work? I said that I didn’t know.
But the way I work is that I talk to tons of people, all kinds of scientists inside and outside government, whoever I can. Over fairly short period of time you start seeing who’s right and who’s wrong, and who has a better track record. Pretty quickly I could see that certain things that were being said publicly were bearing out as not true. And certain things that other scientists were telling me privately rang true and in hindsight have actually been proven to be true. You can start to ask, “Okay, who seems to have their finger more on the pulse of what’s going on?”
Pretty early on, I had quite a few scientists question, including government scientists, question the advice being given by Dr. Fauci and the lead scientists that were taking charge. They had important differences with policy and what we were doing. I said, “Shouldn’t you say something? Shouldn’t you speak out and at least be a voice and an opinion?”
A couple of different ones—that to my knowledge did not even know each other—said something similar. They said that they dare not speak out for fear of being controversial and for fear of being called coronavirus-deniers, because that phrase was starting to be used in the media. Secondly, they feared contradicting Dr. Fauci, who they said had been lionized or canonized in the press for reasons that they couldn’t understand, because they really didn’t think that his guidance that he was giving publicly was the right guidance. Now, at that time who’s to say whether he was right or they were right?
But I was simply saying these esteemed scientists who had differing opinions that made sense to me, certainly those opinions should be heard as well. Yet they weren’t allowed and in many cases they were afraid to speak out for fear of losing grants. People don’t understand how the scientific world is so driven by the money they can get for research, and virtually all of that comes from the government or through the government.
If the government doesn’t like what you say and do, that can get you fired from your institution or make it so you will never get a grant again. A lot of people are afraid to talk about these things. So, that started to strike me as being a really dangerous environment when esteemed scientists who have valuable information and opinions are afraid to give them. And instead we’re hearing a party line that many of them disagree with but won’t say so.
Mr. Jekielek: One of these scientists mentioned that it’s a huge problem when the people that are giving the grants are the same people that are setting the policy. Really, could that even be possible? And sure enough, that is the case or has been the case. That’s incredible.
Ms. Attkisson: I don’t know if this is what you meant, but for the people that gave grants—and this isn’t even a matter of debate despite what you may have heard in the news—public tax money was used to fund gain-of-function research. Maybe there are some details that are sort of in dispute or a little bit murky, but it’s well documented that our taxpayer payer money was used over a period of years to fund controversial research involving the Communist Chinese, for some reason. Every scientist I spoke to behind the scenes thought that this partnership with the Communist Chinese was one of the most ridiculous and ill-advised things they could ever think of.
Yet they didn’t want to say that publicly. But this is something that Dr. Fauci’s institute, the National Institutes of Health had approved and funded along with the USAID (U. S. Agency for International Development.) Our Defense Department is part of all of this too. This stuff seemed so ill-advised and is so well documented, and yet people are unwilling to talk about it. Then the narrative is being managed another way.
I remember after reviewing the grants to my satisfaction, because I didn’t know it was true till I found the documentation, and then still hearing, not just public health figures, but reporters claim that none of this had happened. I can hardly blame the politicians and public health figures, because they have their own idea of what their job is. But we in the media are supposed to at least do an independent job and do our own research and not just take at face value everything one side says. Yet I’m seeing all of this information reported that I know is false.
Early on when reporters were saying that the idea that the virus could have come from a lab in China, it was widely being said that it had been debunked, when as little as I knew, I knew it hadn’t even been investigated yet. I knew the Chinese hadn’t let us in the lab, and I knew that we had very little information. How could reporters be saying, unattributed, that this whole thing has been debunked? So these are the kinds of things that, early on, are a red flag to me saying somebody is trying to shape the information, and they’re using reporters to do it. Public health figures are involved in some instances. And that makes me want to know what’s really behind it.
Mr. Jekielek: It took the better part of a year to kind of get to the place where you could talk about the virus origins as being something that could have come from a lab, and not as something that was a conspiracy theory. I hate that term actually. The more I think about it, it seems like this pejorative term is designed to be dismissive.
Ms. Attkisson: Very smart, because I discussed that in my second book. That was a phrase and the use that you’re discussing was devised by the CIA as a response to the theories about JFK, conspiracy theories about his assassination. It was shown in documents that there was a suggestion that agents go out and speak to reporters and talk about these things as conspiracy theories.
Again, common sense should tell you, as it does me—I’m married to a former law enforcement official who has said to me many times,”The conspiracy theory phrase and its use doesn’t make sense.” Nearly everything is a conspiracy. As it is used in law enforcement, it simply means two or more people getting together with an idea, usually for something nefarious. So virtually any robbery that involves more than one person is a conspiracy, Bonnie and Clyde is a conspiracy, The Mob is a conspiracy. The official charges are “conspiracy to commit X.”
And yet, when you hear people say conspiracy theory, that’s designed to affect this little part of your brain that says, “Well, that thing’s not true.” It’s a very well studied phrase that works well on people who don’t think it out. To me, it’s often a cue that tells me that the thing may well be true. I’m not saying it is because it’s called a conspiracy theory, but because someone’s trying to debunk it, and that usually means a powerful interest is behind it. And it makes me want to go search for more information on that thing. I always keep an open mind and say that crazy thing that they say is a conspiracy theory may well have some truth in it.
Mr. Jekielek: That’s the thing. There’re so many that have turned out to be true in the last few years. It has almost lost meaning, actually. Hasn’t it?
Ms. Attkisson: Yes. That’s probably the good side of it. They’ve almost overplayed their hand, those trying to shape the information by being so transparent with certain key phrases, which I’ve used in my book and outlined. When you hear debunked, it was never something people used to go around saying, “Hello, I debunked something today.” This is a phrase that was invented and used specifically for this purpose like conspiracy theory, quackery, and anti-vaccine.
Anti-vaccine was a phrase that was unheard of when I started covering vaccine safety issues for CBS many years ago. Then it suddenly emerged on the landscape. Anybody who asked a logical, rational question about the safety of a medicine for an individual was suddenly portrayed as anti-vaccine.That’s been a very effective propaganda tool that has marginalized people who certainly aren’t anti-vaccine, and kept them from wanting to even ask or dig into questions that people were starting to ask in the early 2000’s.
So there’s a whole list of propaganda phrases that I’ve outlined that I think are cues. When you hear them, they should make you think, “I need to find out more about it.”
Mr. Jekielek: I have to mention this because I was stunned to discover that the term anti-vaxxer in the Webster dictionary was modified at some point. This was before vaccine mandates were being imposed by federal government. It was changed from someone who is against vaccines to someone who is against vaccines or vaccine mandates.
Ms. Attkisson: Yes.
Mr. Jekielek: Right?
Ms. Attkisson: And who decided that’s what it means?
Mr. Jekielek: This is a fascinating little research project for someone to do, because apparently this was before the big push. The conspiracy theory would be that it was changed to facilitate the vaccine mandate uptake.
Ms. Attkisson: That’s true, because remember I said that virtually every form of information and sourcing that can be co-opted has been. That includes the dictionary definitions. That includes everything, because these are important ways to influence thought. Language is very powerful. People don’t want to be affiliated with certain names and labels.
It reminds me of 1984, the George Orwell story about the futuristic society where history was being rewritten in real time to jive with the version that the government wanted. Definitions now are being rewritten and changed in real time to fit with the vision of whatever the establishment wants people to think. We’ve seen examples outside of coronavirus, but also related to coronavirus where websites are changed and definitions are altered a little bit to fit the facts.
I remember hearing media say—when it turned out the vaccines didn’t prevent spread, and they didn’t prevent an infection, they weren’t 100 per cent effective, they didn’t prevent hospitalization, necessarily, and they didn’t prevent death—the media were trying to say, “Well, they never said that.” And I had to go back and research, because it’s hard to cull through on the internet and do a search that finds all of this.
But with a date search I was able to go back and find that, yes, it was said in the beginning. It was claimed that the vaccines were nearly 100 per cent effective at preventing infection. Today I’m hearing people say, “No, no one ever said the vaccines would prevent infection.” So this definition of what made these vaccines effective was modified over time, because actually they turned to be wholly ineffective in a traditional sense at preventing infections.
So they redefined it to say, “Well, they prevent the spread.” And then, when they didn’t prevent spread, they redefined it. Again, it makes me think about definitions being rewritten in real time to fit with what they want you to think. A thing that I love that people at home maybe have never heard of is the Wayback Machine. Do you know about the Wayback Machine?
Mr. Jekielek: Of course. Of course.
Ms. Attkisson: This has been a really invaluable tool for reporting. If you want to see how a website has changed and prove to yourself that, “Gosh, that didn’t say that yesterday, this public health website or this definition.” You can go to archive.org, and you can paste in that website. Many times, I would say three out of five times, an old version has been captured. You can prove to yourself that you are right, that this website used to say something different or a definition has been slightly changed, because the old site is captured.
It has been a fascinating way to prove this attempt to change our perception of how things are, our reality, and what we thought we remembered from the other day, because all we really have now is the electronic record by and large. And if that can be manipulated, there could be a time when, if they get rid of the Wayback Machine, for example, we can’t ever prove that anything was any different.
Mr. Jekielek: There is another site, archive.is. I use both, because sometimes this one is archived and Wayback Machine is not. The other one is archive.is. I use these all the time.
Ms. Attkisson: Good to know. I didn’t know there was an alternative.
Mr. Jekielek: Especially when I see something that I think is going to get changed. I immediately go and archive it. Now the thing is, when will these systems be co-opted, or will they be co-opted?
Ms. Attkisson: Me too. I’m surprised they’re still here, because it’s been a very valuable tool to fight propaganda and narratives. I did a story on the Wayback Machine people, but one has to suspect there are a lot of people that don’t like them.
Mr. Jekielek: There’s a couple of things I want to talk about. One is to look at some of these things that the mainstream corporate media, and the narrative got wrong, unrepentantly. I don’t think it’s a problem to be wrong as long as you say, “Oh my goodness, I was wrong. Here’s the truth.” So, that’s one thing.
The other thing that strikes me, I keep thinking about everything I’ve learned about woke ideology. There’s multiple names for it, and how it works and how it’s socially constructed. It believes that basically the narrative is the truth. But first, let’s talk about these incredible lists that you created during the Trump presidency. I remember following that list quite a bit, things that were just grossly wrong and that never got corrected.
Ms. Attkisson: I’m compiling a list now, of course, being a list maker. I can just start with the thing we got wrong. So early, many people claimed the lab theory about the release of coronavirus had been debunked, when it absolutely had not been debunked. We can go to public health officials at first saying masks don’t work. Then they said masks do work, but we didn’t want to tell you because we didn’t want you all making a run on masks. They did not understand that undermines the confidence in everything said from that point on, and admits they have misled the public.
Dr. Fauci, very early on, testified to Congress. Again, this is before I really knew a lot about what was going on, but I was trying to get educated. He claimed in his congressional testimony that the death rate for coronavirus was 10 times worse than the flu, which sounded pretty serious.
Yet I came across an article that was published in a scientific magazine about the same time, authored by Dr. Fauci that said the opposite. It said it was about like a bad flu season. I’m comparing, “Why would he be testifying publicly to Congress that it was 10 times worse, but writing in a scientific journal that it was about the same?” It didn’t make any sense to me.
One or the other was wrong, and it turns out that 10 times worse than flu was wrong, in terms of the death rate. We were wrong to send infected people from hospitals to nursing homes, of course. It’s becoming widely accepted that we were wrong. I was told on the front end by many scientists that it was wrong to isolate at home. We had early data from New York City that showed the vast majority of the people hospitalized with coronavirus had been isolating at home, and that people outside were not getting sick.
Yet here we were telling people to go at home and isolate. We were wrong to close down the parks and beaches, when we should have been telling people to go to the parks and beaches. That’s so clear now. We were wrong to tell people to wash their groceries off. We were wrong to tell people that there was a certain period of time if they breathed on somebody, they would or wouldn’t get coronavirus.
At some point, they were saying you had to stand and talk to somebody for 15 minutes. There were a lot of comments made about that. We were wrong to say the vaccines prevented infection. Then we were wrong to say it prevented spread. Then we were wrong to say that it prevented hospitalization and death. It may in some cases, but it certainly didn’t do what it was designed and advertised to do.
Mr. Jekielek: To be fair, the data that I’ve seen is most robust in showing that it does prevent hospitalization and death to some degree.
Ms. Attkisson: So, let me make a caveat.
Mr. Jekielek: Yes.
Ms. Attkisson: Public health officials at one time said it was 100 per cent effective at preventing hospitalization. There is record of people saying nobody in the hospital has been vaccinated. That’s false. I don’t have issue with somebody saying there may be an improvement, statistically, we see that this happens. But that’s not what we are being told. And again, that undermines confidence, because people see real life examples of something that contradicts what someone has stated as a fact.
Even today, I don’t doubt that the vaccines may have an impact and may help people’s health outcome. I don’t have any information to say one way or the other. I don’t doubt that that’s true, but it’s false to say you know it’s true in an individual instance. If somebody doesn’t get very sick who’s vaccinated, they say that’s because of the vaccine, ignoring the notion that the CDC says that most people won’t get very sick, whether vaccinated or not.
So how can you attribute that mild illness in a very specific case, although statistically, you may know or believe it helps. You can’t say in that case that is what happened. And many times they say that. And then many times they also say opposite, if someone who’s unvaccinated gets very sick, it’s because they’re unvaccinated. But if someone vaccinated gets sick, it’s because they would’ve been even worse if they hadn’t been vaccinated. So there’s just all these contradictions. That’s a mistake to not give the nuance and say what we really know and what we think verses proclaiming things are true.
It’s accepted by many, although it’s not necessarily a consensus yet, that it was wrong to keep kids home in terms of health outcomes overall, mental health outcomes overall, and even just in terms of safety when it comes to coronavirus. That was a very controversial decision. So there are a lot of things that we could say that might have been corrected sooner. We were wrong to not focus more on therapeutics prior to vaccines and even post-vaccine. Many scientists will tell you that.
Mr. Jekielek: And just not report on it.
Ms. Attkisson: Right. And to make sure that if some reporting occurred, it was made controversial. I will tell you that I talked to many scientists. I will tell you about one who was investigating some therapeutics that were made controversial. He had no vested interest in it, he works at an independent institution. He was investigating several competing therapies and didn’t care which one was right or wrong. But his institution was part of these studies and he was never able to complete them because they were made so controversial that he was told by the head of institution that their study had to stop. Which was fine, he said, because they couldn’t get any more recruits for the study because the therapy had been so misrepresented in the press, nobody wanted to be in the study.
He said, “The sad thing is now we’ll never have the answer to whether this therapy works, because we couldn’t even complete the study that would’ve answered the question, because the narrative was so powerful.” These are scientists that really have no interest one way or the other. They certainly have no financial interest. They didn’t care how it came out one way or the other, but they couldn’t even complete their study. That’s an environment that when you can’t get basic scientific information, however it comes out. That’s pretty upsetting.
Pretty early on in January 2021, Congressman Thomas Massie recorded the CDC saying, and top officials and scientists saying something that was patently false that they admitted was wrong, and then nonetheless caught them a couple of days later distributing the false information about coronavirus on a webinar with medical professionals. That should scare everybody to death. To this day nobody been held publicly accountable.
The misinformation was about CDC claiming the original Pfizer and Moderna studies showed that even if you’ve had coronavirus, you get a benefit from getting vaccinated. The studies showed the opposite—that there was no benefit. In fact, the studies weren’t designed to answer this question, but as a secondary question, and it looked even worse in some instances for people who’ve been vaccinated after having coronavirus.
The point being the studies did not show that. For CDC scientists, their top advisory committee all signed off on this false information. Who knows who fabricated it in the first place. When Congressman Massie drew that to their attention, he’s an MIT guy who knows a lot about what he is talking about when it comes to science, they patronized him and said, “Look at you, you found this when all of our scientists missed this information, we’re so proud of you.”
And then they didn’t change it, the same scientists he had recorded on audio—I did a story on this admitting that the information was wrong—went ahead and presented the misinformation again a couple of days later to medical professionals. Why? Why not hold them accountable and why let them get away with that? That’s pretty frightening.
Mr. Jekielek: Absolutely. The narrative that I’ve found most problematic of all of these is this idea that—and there’s no data to support this that I’m aware of, and I’ve looked, because I found this so disturbing—somehow unvaccinated people are responsible for perpetuating the pandemic. We’ve heard rhetoric like this before, and it’s never ended well. That was my thinking.
Ms. Attkisson: Just the whole idea this was perpetrated at a very specific point in time, again, reeks to me of a propaganda campaign or an operation that somebody decided to launch. All of a sudden you heard these political figures all using the phrase, and public health officials. I agree. I can’t say I’ve done a comprehensive search of every piece of data, but I certainly haven’t seen or talked to independent scientists who think this is the case.
In fact, as we know, Omicron, the variant of Omicron spreads very well among the fully vaccinated. Maybe it doesn’t make them sicker, but it seems to be a very efficient spreader among the vaccinated. There’s a lot of questions still to be answered. But certainly the notion that this was a pandemic of the unvaccinated is not supported by the scientists I talked to who’ve had a very good track record when you look back now over a year and a half of their projections and predictions versus some of the others.
Mr. Jekielek: Absolutely. Let’s talk about how this social constructivist mentality is almost like we’ve given up on reality, and given up on common sense. You keep mentioning common sense. And common sense is actually really important right now to be able to function in this environment.
Ms. Attkisson: There’s a whole generation of people who have lived “in the box,” as I call it. By the box I mean the Internet. They didn’t know a time when information was to be gathered elsewhere by looking around and seeing what you heard and seeing what you saw and talking to people around you and looking at books and research.
The people that want to control the information understand that if they can control only a few basic sources like Google and Twitter and Facebook and Wikipedia, they’ve got a lock on information, because we’ve all been funneled to those few sources and that’s been the goal. So if you think of it that way, there’s a whole lot of people that get pretty much everything they know through the Internet. And the goal of the people trying to make a narrative is to make people live online and to think that’s reality.
I tell people a lot of times when you go online and you’re looking at social media and everybody’s saying something that you either don’t agree with, but they’re saying everybody agrees or they mean to shame how you feel or think, don’t buy into it. Understand that you may actually be in the majority.
As I wrote in The Smear, these people who operate in the industry, the goal of what they do online is to make you think you’re an outlier when you’re not, and to make you afraid to talk about your viewpoint on what you think, because you may actually be the majority opinion. They want to control that and make you feel like you’re the one that’s crazy, you’re the one that can be the only one that thinks that way and you shouldn’t voice that opinion. You can be made to believe that if you live in the box. So I’m constantly telling people live outside the box.
Yes, you can get information there and do what you do online, but certainly trust your cognitive dissonance, and talk to the people around you. If you travel, talk to the people in the places you go, and you’ll get a whole different picture as I do of what’s really happening out there than if you’re looking online. That’s the only way that I predicted that Donald Trump was going to win the first election.
Now, in retrospect, maybe a lot of people are saying they could only find record of one national journalist, me, saying repeatedly on TV early and often that I thought he was going to win. And that was not based on anything I was reading online, or seeing on the news. That was totally from listening to people as I traveled from all walks of life that I concluded that. So, that comes with living outside the box and making sure you’re not just subjecting yourself, and making it easy for the people that want to control the narrative to use you as part of that.
Mr. Jekielek: There was Salena Zito was working out in the heartland and documenting. I don’t know if she predicted that, but I remember reading some of her pieces saying, “There seems to be a lot of support for Donald Trump out here.”
Ms. Attkisson: I remember I went on Fox News. On Fridays they did casino gambling, put your money on a candidate. I was sitting next to Charles Krauthammer and I put all my money on Trump. It’s not who you want to win, it’s who you think is going to win. This was my second time. And I said, “All of it on Trump,” and no one else had said anything like that. He kind of looked at me and scoffed at me like that was a stupid thing to do. And he said, “Not who you want, but what you think?” I said, “Yes, I’m not giving my opinion of who I want, I’m just saying this is who I think will win.”
Mr. Jekielek: That’s interesting. You have had a good track record for noticing things.
Ms. Attkisson: Yes. And again, that’s simply from putting yourself on the outside of the circle and looking in, and just using common sense and not buying into everything they’re telling you.
Mr. Jekielek: As I was reading some of your most recent writing, it reminded me of a column that I had read by Tom Harrington, who writes for the Brownstone Institute these days. He said there’s been a concerted psychological campaign to effectively insert abstract and often empirically questionable paradigms of sickness among individual citizens about their understanding of their own bodies.
Ms. Attkisson: What’s happened with coronavirus and the public narratives, they have made people act in a way they never would have acted normally. Again, if they’ve used their instincts and common sense, some of it may be good, some of it may be necessary, and some of it may not be. For example, I look at the notion of testing. Now, it’s one thing if you have to produce a test to be able to travel or to be admitted somewhere.
But what is the idea of testing all the time? Theoretically, testing tells where you are at a given point in time, but not where you’re going to be in 15 minutes. The only way to tell if you’re safe tomorrow is not to test today, because you may not be safe tomorrow. So that has not made a lot of sense to me. Lately I’ve been hearing from people with Omicron, and it does not necessarily give you a positive result as early as we would like.
People are testing negative when they know they’re sick. I’ve talked to people who I know have gotten coronavirus and they’ll say, “I tested negative, but I know I have it.” Next day, “Tested negative, but I know I have it.” And then maybe on the fourth day they’ll say, “I tested positive. I knew I had it.” The purpose of the test isn’t to keep testing until the test catches up with what you know, the purpose of the test was supposedly to tell you if you were infectious or you had this coronavirus.
So it’s sort of a silly thing people are doing, just testing and testing until the test comes up with the result that they agree with. Then they believe the test on that day. That’s one example of us doing something that’s a weird behavior that we would not have done two years ago.
Mr. Jekielek: On this point, this idea of mass asymptomatic testing is something we’ve been doing for a long time. Basically there’s a lot of studies that would show that the prevalence of the virus is much greater than the awareness in the populations. The case counts were mostly driven by tests. If there were more tests, there were more case counts. There’s a confounding of data here. Just because you test positive, it doesn’t correlate super tightly with whether or not you’re getting significant symptoms or whether you’re infectious or anything like that.
Ms. Attkisson: The push for a lot of testing certainly created a sense of alarm when people were counting how many cases there were. But again, common sense-wise, fairly early on, I thought, “Where’s part two?” Certainly nobody wants to get sick. Certainly every death that happens is terrible and that we even have to say that is kind of silly, because everybody knows that.
But the flip side of that is every asymptomatic case can be seen as a potentially good development in terms of those people. Weren’t they good to go back to work a long time ago, at least for some period of time because science accepts almost universally that they have better immunity than the vaccines are providing so far? Instead of using that as the only cause for alarm, why were public health officials and the media not saying there is a flip side to the high case count?
And that is these areas should be much safer than areas that haven’t had a lot of coronavirus running through, because theoretically they’ve got more of what they call herd immunity or people who aren’t going to get coronavirus again in the very near future. That was always left out. It was only part A, the alarm and the number of cases, without the part B, a flip side that could be considered positive.
Mr. Jekielek: You mentioned what I thought was an outrageous kind of error in messaging, the complete ignoring of natural immunity or immunity gotten through COVID infection, which has been shown. If there’s anything that’s been shown to be scientific fact, it’s been that natural immunity is robust, is durable, and is effective. There have been some questions about Omicron but it’s still coming out on that side in the body of the evidence that I’ve seen so far. And I keep looking. It’s astounding in Europe that you have to be vaccinated to do many things. If you are naturally immune, and if you’ve had COVID that counts, but not here.
Ms. Attkisson: Again, common sense should tell you something is at play because I don’t think any public health official in his right mind doesn’t understand that. It’s very basic. The evidence on natural immunity was always ahead of the evidence on vaccines, because the virus was out well before the vaccine. So we knew how long natural immunity was lasting far ahead of how long we knew the vaccine was going to last.
So the notion this wasn’t taken into account and discussed by public health officials has to be a conscious decision that was made on somebody’s part, because you can’t avoid that discussion. That’s got to be part of the discussion, unless somebody has said, “We’re not going to.” And again, that should make you wonder.
Mr. Jekielek: It sounds like there are some FOIA’s (Freedom of Information Act requests) we have to do here.
Ms. Attkisson: Yes. That’s a whole other story. When I find my FOIAs now and they respond with something like, “There are 3000 requests ahead of you. We can’t meet the 20-day deadline and we can’t give you the expedited processing that you’ve applied for as a member of the media, because you haven’t demonstrated a need.”
With my last CDC FOIA, I went to court over it, because that’s how you have to get them to answer. Now they won’t just give you documents. The new tactic is, and you’ve probably heard about this. “We’ll produce the documents that we said we didn’t have, but now we have so many that you’ve taken us to court.” They will produce them on a rolling basis of 500 a month for the rest of your life.
I pointed out to one judge, they didn’t say it in those words, but that the production schedule that they had proposed would make it something like 25 years for documents for a news story I was doing within a day or two. So in 25 years, it’s not going to be very helpful. This is the new tactic. Freedom of information requests are very hard to get answered. Even with going to court they’re pretty difficult.
Mr. Jekielek: There’s something like this with the Pfizer safety data if I recall correctly. But I believe a judge is fast tracking that to what? Eight months or something?
Ms. Attkisson: Again, that’s considered a fast track. Think about this. This is data gathered by the government on our behalf that we own, gathered by people we pay. There’s no question that we own it. And they drag their feet and they fight it and they use our money to fight in court, having to produce it.
When the outcome is okay, maybe instead of 50 years or 80 years, we’ll produce it within eight months, often highly redacted, so it requires more court action to go and to try to find out what’s behind the improper redactions. It’s still bought them time. It’s still allowed them to delay to get out whatever a message they want, while you don’t know what’s really in the documents. It still serves their purpose.
The interesting thing with FOIA, even when the courts come in and say, “Yes, government, you have to give the public the documents they own,” no one is punished for that. Nobody ever says to them, “You just made them go to court,” meaning the people or the press. “You made them spend money when you should have given them the documents in the first place. You’re going to be punished for that.” That doesn’t happen. So there’s no downside to the bureaucrats and their bosses dragging their feet or even giving dishonest information saying they don’t have documents, because nothing ever happens to them even if they go to court and ultimately are ordered to turn them over someday.
Mr. Jekielek: We’re painting a pretty dire picture here. I also know you’re a pretty optimistic person from having talked to you enough. What do you see as the path through this at this point?
Ms. Attkisson: Truth finds a way to be told. That’s a phrase that came to me when I was writing one of my books. The truth finds a way to be told and it may take some time and there may be a lot of people that don’t want a truth out, but inherently, we as humans seek it. There may be a certain percentage of the population—someone told me this has even been studied—that is happy to go along with whatever they’re told.
But there is also a pretty large chunk of the population that ultimately wants the truth and even if it’s not what they want to hear. Our search for the truth is part of us and will ultimately win out. I also know there are three parts that are working on a solution.
There are investors who want to invest in independent news organizations more like we used to have. There are technical people trying to invent platforms that can’t be controlled and deplatformed by Big Tech. They are trying to figure out a way to make that happen. And there are journalists who want to work or contribute to a place like that.
In the next couple of years, there will be more ways to do that, more ways to find that, and people will seek that out. We’re doing it in a small way now. There are people having Substack newsletters that are getting around the censorship of Big Tech. These are ways maybe not everybody knows about and that not everybody is using, but some people are gravitating to. There’s the video platform Rumble that is not taking down videos for ideological reasons.
These things are popping up and some of them will take hold. Because the truth finds a way to be told and because we inherently seek the truth, then something will come of this. Again, the propagandists may have overplayed their hand by being so heavy-handed and obvious about the control of information and the censorship. It’s no longer deniable. Even people who want their information curated, they can’t always be happy with the notion that they’re not going to be able to get the full story or that they’re only getting one side of something. That comes into play too.
Mr. Jekielek: The journalists you’re talking about, we’re looking for those journalists. For those that are watching as we speak, we are in the process of hiring journalists. This is actually a question too, because the journalistic profession as a whole has really been degraded. It’s not easy to find these people that are thinking about journalism the way that you and I think about it today.
Ms. Attkisson: They’re being forced to make a choice. Let’s say you’re a journalist like I was at CBS News that was not a political reporter trying to follow the facts. Today you’ve got to make a choice. You’re going to stay at a place that’s not going to put those stories on anymore, and you’re going to do the kind of reporting they want you to do, because either they tell you to, or you just understand that you have to self-censor, because you know what gets rewarded and what gets on the air. Or you’re going to make a decision to go to a place that does freer reporting, but because of that has been controversialized or portrayed as ideological in a certain way.
In our industry, it’s generally okay to go work for a Left-leaning organization, because that’s considered the default and you’re part of the team and no one even ever says it’s Left-leaning. But God forbid you go to a place that’s in the middle or conservative-leaning, but that lets you do honest reporting, because then you’re just off the rails.
A lot of journalists don’t want to go there. They don’t want to be portrayed by their peers as conservative-leaning or someone who isn’t on board. Because it’s okay if you’re calling me Left, but I’m going to be really on the outside of my profession if you call me Right of center. It’s a decision people are having to make that’s very uncomfortable for them and it’s not a great time. People often ask me, “What do you tell young journalists today that want to go into the profession?” And I’m talking about not just doing general reporting, but really digging and doing good fact-based reporting.
It’s a tough question, because as a young reporter, if you go to an outlet and they want a certain kind of reporting and you don’t have the standing yet to say, “I’m not going to do that.” You’re not going to get your next job. You’re not even going to stay there if you don’t do an element of what they want. You’re going to really have to navigate some minefields to do good, accurate reporting that doesn’t betray journalistic ideals and yet satisfy the people that are controlling a lot of these news organizations and give them what they want at the same time.
Mr. Jekielek: In marketing 101, you learn about blue ocean strategy. Blue ocean means there aren’t a lot of competitors. There’s a huge interest in truth, right? You’d imagine there would be all these incredibly up and coming news organizations. There are a few, there definitely are a few that are coming up. There are some very interesting Substack channels that have done very independent individual journalism. But I still don’t see people rushing into this space. I’m thinking, “Hey, we want competitors. It’ll help us up our game.” But there aren’t that many.
Ms. Attkisson: Not a few months go by that I’m not contacted by somebody who wants to do something like that. An organization or a news group and they’re just not sure how to do it on a big scale, technologically, with investors and with the talent. All those things have to come together. You can’t just start a website, because that’s not going to get supported in today’s environment financially. With the people that don’t want that stuff to be reported, they’re going to deplatform you or controversiallize you.
Someone will figure it out, but you’re right, there’s a dearth of that sort of thing today. It’s the best you can do now. So people have asked me at the end of my book, “What are recommendations?” This is a bit of a cop out because people don’t have time to do all their own research, that’s why they count on us.
Today I really encourage people, if it’s a topic you care about, to try to find some original sourcing. Epoch Times is a great place where I get all kinds of good information that I can’t get elsewhere, including great investigations with graphics that explain things in depth— good old fashioned journalism. I listed your group in my groups of places to look for as places to watch.
One thing I also suggest is to go to C-SPAN. When you see everybody’s saying somebody said something at a hearing or a news event and it doesn’t ring true, it’s just so ridiculous, but everybody’s on the same page and everybody’s talking about it, go find the original event. C-SPAN has a lot of them, not just congressional stuff. Almost every time I’ve looked up a hearing or an event in its total context and watched it, my takeaway has been different, completely different than what was portrayed on the news.
That’s a frightening thing to think about. A lot of people are taking something and putting it on the news and giving it a context that doesn’t seem to me like it’s right, it just means there’s more than one way to interpret it anyway. But I encourage people to do that. Then you can start saying to yourself, “Who are the reporters on the issues I care about, who seem to be on target with what I know to be the truth? Then I don’t have to always do the original research because I can go to Glen Greenwald when it comes to media issues, because I think he’s spot on on that.
And some of these journalists may be Left-leaning or Right-leaning or not have a political leaning, but it’s not going to be the same person or the same news outlet that you go to for every topic. Probably you’re going to have to kind of hunt and track and find the ones that you trust on the topics you care about based on the track record. It’s getting a little complicated.
Mr. Jekielek: I think we have the same philosophy here. That’s pretty much how I consume my information. I think a hint also is if people ever admit they were wrong, that that’s a good sign. Right?
Ms. Attkisson: Yes.
Mr. Jekielek: Sharyl, any final thoughts before we finish?
Ms. Attkisson: I always say, do your own research, make up your own mind, think for yourself, trust your cognitive dissonance, and use your common sense. You’re going to be right more often than you think. Open up your mind and just read a lot, think a lot and don’t buy into the prevailing narrative at face value.
Mr. Jekielek: Sharyl Attkisson, it’s such a pleasure to have you on.
Ms. Attkisson: Thank you.
[Narration]: The CDC, NIH and the NIAID did not immediately respond to requests for comment. While it is documented that the U.S. Agency for International Development funded bat coronavirus research at the Wuhan Institute of Virology, USAID told us that they never authorized or funded gain of function studies at the institute. We also reached out to Snopes, Wikipedia, Facebook and healthfeedback.org, but we have not heard back at this time.
Mr. Jekielek: So we live in a time of weaponized information and censorship. As you know, I try to cut through that with American Thought Leaders. You can be notified each time a new American Thought Leaders episode comes out if you sign up for our newsletter at theepochtimes.com/newsletter.
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