Much of media today seeks to advance narratives to the exclusion of facts, fairness, and accuracy, says Sharyl Attkisson, a five-time Emmy Award-winning investigative journalist.
In many cases, there are big interests and big money involved.
At the same time, big tech curates what people are allowed to see and applies third-party “fact-checkers” to dictate what is accepted truth.
Attkisson’s forthcoming book, slated to be released on November 24, is titled “Slanted: How the News Media Taught Us to Love Censorship and Hate Journalism.”
This is American Thought Leaders 🇺🇸, and I’m Jan Jekielek.
Jan Jekielek: Sharyl Attkisson, such a pleasure to have you on American Thought Leaders.
Sharyl Attkisson: Thank you for having me.
Mr. Jekielek: Cheryl, you start your book “Slanted” with a quote; “In a time of deceit, telling the truth is a revolutionary act.” This is something that I’ve actually had on my Facebook page for over a decade. I’m very familiar with the quote. I always thought it was from George Orwell, turns out it’s not. Tell me why is it that you started the book off with this particular quote?
Mrs. Attkisson: I think for reporters and people who provide information from any source, actually providing truthful, factual information has become something that is looked at as something to control by other people. It’s looked at as something to controversialize, depending on what it says and what the facts say.
And it’s becoming harder and harder for people interested in accuracy, fairness and facts to simply do the job of telling these stories or these facts without censors and curations and interruptions from propagandists and special interests.
Mr. Jekielek: I told you this earlier that reading your book I felt increasingly, chapter by chapter, “Okay, I’m not crazy. Someone else is seeing these things that I’m seeing as well.” Namely, one of the themes in there, for example, is this idea that, in some cases, if you simply do report the facts straight up, you’re perceived as partisan. This is a bizarre phenomenon to me. Can you speak to that a little bit?
Mrs. Attkisson: Well, as I talk about in “Slanted,” the act of simply being down the middle and fair has become such an anomaly in the managed information landscape. If you do that now you are branded as conservative simply because, for whatever reason, you’re not following the liberal party line, which is now considered the default.
So as you stay in the center, that is a position that is viewed by the propagandists or at least portrayed as farther and farther to the right when it’s not.
But it’s all a part of trying to controversialize facts that are uncomfortable to try to keep stories and information that certain interests don’t want told from getting told, and then by personally attacking and controversializing the outlets, or the reporters who are not following the party line in such a way that there is hope on the part of propagandists that a large section of the public will not believe or will not listen to the accurate facts. Instead, they’ll just chew on the propaganda and the spun facts.
Mr. Jekielek: It’s incredible. You call this “the narrative.” And this is something of course, I’ve heard many people refer to over past years. So tell me what is the narrative? And when did you first become aware of the narrative?
Mrs. Attkisson: It’s a word that when I first heard it used in the news industry, I didn’t really understand what it meant. Now I say it all the time to myself, and I write about it. But I realized that a lot of people when they hear “narrative,” that’s not necessarily the word they may apply to [the news], or the phrase that they may associate with it.
A narrative, I say, is a storyline that certain interests want to be told to accomplish a different goal. So they may make sure that a common thread of a story, a narrative, runs through most any factual context until it even changes the story or plays fast and loose with the facts or even changes the facts to accomplish an overarching storyline that they’re trying to advance to the general public or certain audience. That’s a narrative.
In the book I give examples such as climate change, which may be a perfectly valid discussion to have in certain contexts. But then you see on the news that every event somebody ties to climate change to the exclusion of counterpoints, and other scientific views. Well, that’s furthering a narrative, to the exclusion of the facts and fairness and accuracy. We see that now we’ve seen the narrative largely take over the news as we know it today, compared to what it was, really just about 15 years ago,
Mr. Jekielek: Sharryl, you’re making me think of these giant fires that we’ve had in California that have affected communities, and of course the forest themselves. Many people and prominent politicians are ascribing these to climate change as if it’s the obvious cause. I’m thinking there’s at least one other very significant variable that I’m aware of, namely, the buildup of brush in the forests and improper forest management, which a few people have pointed out. What are your thoughts?
Mrs. Attkisson: The narrative demands in this current environment that you not say those things, that’s the frightening thing. It’s the idea that there are now thoughts and science and views and facts that are deemed to be unacceptable in the information landscape on social media or in the news.
I can think of three other factors. We’ve reported on all of those on my Sunday TV show “Full Measure.” There is the lack of properly clearing the brush, which is a known factor. They haven’t done a good job, and they’ve complained they haven’t had the money to do it. We’ve talked about the financial battles over that.
Secondly, there are arsonists, as you know, that have been caught setting fires. That’s certainly not climate change. And thirdly which we reported on this extensively last season, the power company, PG, has paid billions of dollars to victims of some of the worst wildfires in California, because their power lines started the fire.
A number of fires started because they did not properly maintain the aging power lines and they would spark during certain weather events. And with the brush not properly cut away, this would lead to these catastrophic wildfires that a lot of people are improperly attributing to climate change.
Mr. Jekielek: This is fascinating, because I didn’t even know that last one. I didn’t see the most recent episode of “Full Measure” clearly or I would have known that. By the way, it’s an excellent program that I’ll recommend to everyone watching today.
Mrs. Attkisson: Well, thank you. You can look that up at fullmeasure.news. If you search “PG&E,” you’ll find that segment. I find a lot of people don’t know. When we did this story, we had no agenda. We just set out to go look at the California wildfires, and we’ve done quite a bit of reporting.
Then we learned that there was this huge court case. There’s been a settlement with this giant power company that’s been ordered by the court to pay the victims of some of these horrible fires. And that’s why, by the way, there are the blackouts, and the power goes out in California during certain times when they’re afraid that the power lines may spark more fires.
I don’t know why that isn’t more commonly known and reported, because it’s well established and documented in these court cases. But again, it’s because it has to do with a narrative driving the news in such a way that when you turn on the TV, or read your information, unless a certain special interest has put that information in front of the reporters or on the news, a lot of times, you’re not likely to see it if it’s off-narrative facts and science and information.
Mr. Jekielek: I don’t know if we can put percentages on this here. But how dominant is this narrative- focused or narrative-leaning reporting today across the whole media landscape, in your view?
Mrs. Attkisson: I’d say 90 percent to 95 percent. Reporters used to take great pride, and there’s still some who do and would if they could, take great pride in digging up original stories that the interests do not want us to report. The PR firms and political figures and super PACs and nonprofits that actually work for special interests, they’re always bringing these story ideas to the table, trying to get them to float to the top by sending out talking points, planting them with the analysts that they’ve hired to be on the news.
But our job, I believe, is to find those other stories that they’re trying to push off the air that the special interests and the powerful money interests don’t want told and the angles that they don’t want us to know about. That used to be how we approached our industry, particularly investigative reporting. In general with news reporting, when I was in local news, my goal was to try to bring something new and different to the table other than what was being put out there by the people trying to manage public opinion.
Now, it’s as if we in the media and the news have almost totally acceded ourselves to the special interests. I argue in “Slanted” that we’ve allowed ourselves and the news to be used as a tool of the propagandists, even inviting them to use us to put out their talking points on each side every day, as if we’re learning anything from it.
Then we’re paying these pundits and analysts to use us as a propaganda vehicle to present their information to the public every day. It’s a really topsy-turvy and baffling environment we’ve allowed. If you look up the term propaganda in a dictionary, that’s the pure definition of what much of the news is doing today—inviting a political supporter on each side, even if you do it fairly, to spew forth whatever they want the public to believe about something. That used to not be considered news and not what we devoted much of our news time to. And now it’s wholly dominated the news landscape.
Mr. Jekielek: You use this term, “the propagandists.” I’ll say that in quotes. Obviously we’re talking about pundits and obviously we’re talking about special interests who are looking to forward their own narratives. But it almost sounds like there’s sort of this ominous, unseen group of people. What do you mean exactly when you’re saying, “the propagandists?”
Mrs. Attkisson: Well, I really covered this thoroughly in my last book, “The Smear.” There is a multi- billion dollar industry that has grown largely unseen by much of the American public, but they see the effects of it. The whole point of these propagandists, or I call them smear artists, is to have the result impact the public, but have their fingerprints not be seen on the product. In other words, they’re operating behind the scenes.
I interviewed many smear artists, both Democrats and Republicans for the book. You might be surprised that they’re happy to talk about what they do, and how successful they are at manipulating public opinion. But as one of them told me—and I’ve spoken of this; it gave me chills when he said it—he said virtually every image that crosses your path on a daily basis, not just the news, but in movies and comedy channels, and billboards and things nonprofits put out, was put there for a reason by somebody who paid a lot of money to put that in the public view.
And once you start understanding [this], I call it sort of “The Truman Show,” an old movie, if some people have seen it. But you start understanding we’re sort of in a Truman Show. We’re a product, we the public. And there are all kinds of people paying a lot of money to pull strings behind the scenes to make sure we see certain things on TV and on the news and read things on the news, and that we do not see certain things on the news.
This has expanded particularly since 2016 with President Trump entering office to social media, because those who are largely successful controlling what was on the news saw that on the internet, they lacked that same control. So starting in 2016, they created the perception among us that we needed our information online curated and fact checked and culled through by third parties.
Now we’re seeing the fruits of that, the poisonous fruit whereby we’ve acceded our control to the special interests that control us through the big tech companies. Now they’re telling us we can access certain facts, certain studies, certain information, certain viewpoints in a way that is very Orwellian. And I think it is dangerous.
Mr. Jekielek: I definitely want to get back to this idea that the public has been a willing participant in being censored. That something very interesting that you discuss in the book. Before we do that, as you were describing the situation, it appears to be almost like a kind of extreme product placement. Then you mentioned “The Truman Show,” which is precisely that. He lives in a manufactured world. Another excellent film, by the way, if our viewers want to have a couple of hours of a really remarkable piece of cinema. “The Truman Show” is highly recommended. But it’s almost as if we’ve become this, as you describe it, a product. Now what does that mean exactly?
Mrs. Attkisson: The ability to impact our opinions, our thoughts, what we purchase, how we vote, what we believe, is a very valuable commodity. And this smear industry, which is dark money groups, and nonprofits and super PACs and charities and all kinds of things you don’t even think about on a daily basis, plus government and people who revolving-door their way between corporate and government. This is how they pay and train each other to appear in these forums, where they can slant or change our thoughts to make us think certain things.
The internet and social media has opened up an entirely new opportunity for them. And they’re really good at it, because it’s easier than ever before with the internet, and even fairly inexpensive to control social media accounts and opinion as I talked about in my last book, “The Smear.” Everything from robotics to placing fake tweets that then become a tweet campaign that impacts how the New York Times makes its decisions on news.
Wikipedia is manipulated. Snopes is manipulated. I think a lot of smart people know something’s going on, but they only think one layer deep. They think, “Well, I’ll go to Snopes, and see if it’s true.” But you have to go to three layers past that and understand that Snopes is conflicted as well, because anything that can be bought, purchased or impacted is being bought, purchased, and impacted to influence our opinions.
The Federal Register is an unlikely example that you probably wouldn’t even think of, which I cover in my last book, “The Smear.” One of the smear artists explained that they are paid, these propagandists, by special interest to post comments on the Federal Register before certain federal rules go into effect. And those comments, you’ve probably never posted one, maybe you have. I don’t know anybody who’s ever posted a comment before a policy change online on the Federal Register.
Who’s doing all of that activity? Well, these are corporate and special interests, who hire people to pretend they’re ordinary people, to make comments about things to try to influence whether policies are implemented and how it’s implemented. Anything that you can co-opt they have found a way to do so.
Mr. Jekielek: I have an example here at the Epoch Times, where there’s something that simply has completely no basis in fact. It’s easily disprovable, if someone were to just go look. But it somehow has become, at least in certain circles, an idea that keeps being forwarded. Notably, this was in an NBC piece, maybe a year and a half ago now, that we’re some sort of dark money operation, election-focused, basically.
You can look at the ads, you can see the subscription ads, you can see that the funding is pretty transparent. You can look at our filings and so forth. Yet, somehow, it becomes this kind of thing that simply has no basis in reality. You have a lot of examples of this in “Slanted,” which were extremely fascinating for me to see play out. How is it that something that actually is just an idea that someone cooked up, a convenient narrative, can be promulgated over time and become accepted fact, even though it’s not fact? How does that work?
Mrs. Attkisson: That’s the goal. It’s perfect, isn’t it, from their viewpoint when they finally have gotten this false narrative to be so ubiquitous that people just sort of accept it and respond to it. Sometimes even the people who are being smeared sort of accept that “That’s how people view us,” and they’ve moved into this space where they’ve been totally shaped by the narrative.
Well, I’ll give you one example of how it happens. Let’s say a big money interest doesn’t like Epoch Times reporting because it’s factual a lot. Maybe it’s dual-sided on a climate change issue. There’s a ton of money, as you know, being put out there to control people’s thoughts on climate change, so they need to controversialize you rather than just argue the points in the story.
They need to make it where people won’t read your publication, or they automatically think it’s discredited, right. So that’s the goal off the top. How to accomplish that? They go, big money—this is a hypothetical example—these big donors send their money through a fundraiser, so you can’t trace it, to a group like Media Matters, which is run by the conservative-smear-artist-turned-liberal-smear-artist David Brock, who runs this network of Super PACs and nonprofits, names that you may know and thought were independent groups but they’re all under this umbrella—I diagrammed it in my last book, “The Smear.”
And all he has to do is write a blog about it, and the unquestioning media is either on board with the same thing, because we’ve hired these propagandists in our newsrooms, or they’re unaware, and sometimes reporters are lazy. They take this information sent to them about what a big story this is, look what we found out about Epoch Times, and they don’t do their own checking.
And then they have it put out through their nonprofits and their watchdog groups so it looks like to the media that all these different groups have discovered things about Epoch Times. It’s really just one group and a guy and some funders that started this, but it’s to give the appearance that there’s widespread support for or against somebody or something.
And pretty soon the news is reporting it. Media Matters, word for word, lockstep, you talk about—first sometimes it goes with a quasi-news like Salon and Vox and Huffington Post and all the people that march to the same tune when Media Matters says go. And it’s really hard to stop that momentum of opinion when it’s been put down and become so pervasive like that.
And I think that’s what’s happened to Epoch Times. I think it started, with your publication, when you came to be more and more noticed for doing fair, off-narrative reporting on really important topics that the mainstream media was not itself attacking and investigating. Instead, when you started doing important work, that’s when I saw all of this bubbling to the top, all this controversy trying to be stirred up about the publication.
Mr. Jekielek: Well, it’s fascinating, also, when you’re a media and this happens because people can just go to the website and see what’s there. That’s what’s really interesting to me.
Mrs. Attkisson: They don’t want the facts, and I talk about this in the book as well. When you understand that the narrative is the goal, not honest reporting—you have to get out of the mindset that these places still, by and large, are trying to do honest reporting. They’re working with a different goal in mind: to advance a narrative. So they succeed.
They don’t want the other information that you want to provide them. It doesn’t matter what you show them and tell them. They’re going to stay on that narrative. I have ignored many false things that have been said about me over time because it almost drives that further.
The people who are driving the false narrative take what you say, as you prove that it’s untrue, and they’re able to spin and turn that up into a ball and make it all sound like that’s also part of the narrative. It almost feeds it. That’s the natural thing, what most people do, and the false narrative becomes bigger and bigger and more pervasive, and more people find out about it, and it’s almost counterproductive sometimes.
Mr. Jekielek: I’m just remembering something, I think in sort of early in the book, you were discussing your work at CBS and how some of the stories that you spent quite a bit of time on, very thoughtful pieces, just were killed. But the one example was kind of startling to me, and it was the editor, I believe, who just simply says, “I believe religion is the root of all evil. We’re not running this as is.” I may be embellishing a little bit here. But this is kind of a bizarre concept because if there’s people that are thinking this, prominent in newsrooms, killing stories, I can really imagine how a narrative would be shaped. Just this specific question, how prominent is this kind of thing in newsrooms across America?
Mrs. Attkisson: This was some years ago. I think it’s fairly common. In local news, I will say, I felt there was more freedom for local reporters. It was less political. What we did on a daily basis wasn’t about politics in general. And I didn’t feel like there was that heavy-handed shaping. But then come into national news.
When I was at CNN, back in the day, in 1990, we weren’t shaping, nobody was telling me how to anchor and what to say. It was totally different than today. We didn’t put our opinions in anything. But fast forward to CBS—and I’m not just calling out CBS because I know from my friends and colleagues the same things have happened and are happening in national newsrooms across the country—but even before we saw how pervasive it was, there are all of these little ways that narratives slip into our reporting by what we report and what we don’t report.
And I was trying to, with these anecdotes, talk about how I’ve put a lot of thought into it. I made, I’m sure, many mistakes without thinking about how we’re shaping the news and biasing the news, sometimes unconsciously. But there are these startling examples like that.
Now, I say in the book that I’m not a religious person. But that’s irrelevant to the notion of whether I am going to address religion in a story in a fair way, and let people on both sides of an issue that impacts that speak. And that’s exactly what I was doing in a story. But because it’s so seldom done—at least it was seldom done in this fashion at CBS—one executive, when the story was finished, had the nerve—well, they were all kind of like pooh-poohing the story, and the only reason was because in a dual-sided story with different people in it, there were people on the pro-religious side that didn’t look like nuts and fools.
And quite frankly, there were executives that wanted me to replace these people who are quite typical Christians, basically here in the United States on that side of the first story we were doing, they wanted me to replace those people with people who appeared more extreme and unreasonable to represent the religious view so they wouldn’t look like they’re people that the public can relate to.
And I refused to do it. And I just said, “I’m not going to put other people in the story. These are the people that we spoke to, and they represent that view well.” But that happens, not just with that, religious stories, but that’s just one example.
Mr. Jekielek: You describe and come back to this concept repeatedly in the book, the substitution game. Tell me about the substitution game.
Mrs. Attkisson: Well, I think a lot of people play it today, but it’s just that I gave it a name. I think I started in the last book. If you see a news item treated a certain way—when one person or one side does something—and then it’s treated entirely differently when another side or another person does it, then you can probably think that there’s a narrative involved.
And this happens all the time. I played this on Twitter the other day where I tweeted out and said, “Donald Trump has announced that he’s going to hole up and not take questions from reporters until next Thursday and not make any appearances.” And then I said, “Not really. It was Joe Biden who did that.” But can you imagine the news coverage if Trump were to say, “I’m just not going to take reporters’ questions or appear in public for days, a week and a half or two weeks before the election”?
And I’m not saying which is right or which is wrong. I’m simply saying that whoever does that thing should be treated in the news the same way. It shouldn’t matter who’s the one who did it, but too often, I think, we at home know that incidents are treated differently, depending on who did them and what narrative is being furthered on the news.
Mr. Jekielek: There’s this propensity to infer motive, right. I’m thinking now of The New York Times headline that you describe, where the President, basically, I think he denounced racism, denounced white supremacy. It’s curious because this is something that came up recently, of course, in the debates. He was actually asked, “Are you ready, sir, to denounce white supremacy?” I recall that actually, reading your book, that it was actually on the front page of The New York Times. But that headline was changed, right?
Mrs. Attkisson: Yes. So for once, The New York Times actually put an honest headline about Trump that said he had denounced racism or promoted unity. And The New York Times got so attacked by the leftist mob on Twitter—and again, these concerns are just a few people creating the appearance that there’s a big mob—that The New York Times actually changed its headline.
And we can see in that chapter about The New York Times that there was a later discussion at a staff meeting about—and a lot of headlines have been changed on The Times like this by the mob, sort of like news by popularity contest—and there were people who are arguing, “Well, they’ve been demanding Trump denounce racism.”
By the way, I did a podcast on this the other day. He’s done this since 2000, explicitly, so many times, but the media always pretends he’s never done it, but there’s always demands for him to do it. And then when he explicitly does it, these New York Times staffers were arguing, “Well, we shouldn’t report that he said it because he didn’t mean it because we all know he’s a racist.”
So on the one hand, they’re demanding this disavowal of racism and condemnation—which Trump has done repeatedly—but when he specifically does it, and it makes a headline, they say, “Well, The New York Times, we should not grant him that because we’re just doing his bidding by reporting what he said.” And they changed that headline to say something completely different, then went off on another narrative.
Mr. Jekielek: A lot of, I don’t know if we can call it journalism anymore, is actually not just trying to tell you what happened and dig into that, but to tell you what to think about it, right, and hence, this inferring of motives. You have a number of really fascinating examples of this that you’re describing. How is it that we as an audience—I guess I’m in the media. I play both sides—but how is it that people are complicit in getting this type of whether you want to call it censorship or shaping of narrative in only a particular direction or in only a particular few directions? How are we complicit in that?
Mrs. Attkisson: Well, I’m blaming us because we are in part to blame, but the people who are doing it to us have been quite clever about the way they’ve done it. I spoke a little earlier about how prior to 2016, if you look at the news, people were not asking for their news to be curated. They weren’t asking for these massive fact checks by third parties and conflicted nonprofits and academics.
There was a market for that that was cleverly created in 2016 by those who wanted us to demand it and then be so happy when finally Facebook was fact checking things for us because we don’t know what to think, and we don’t know what to decide.
Think about that. Five years before this happened, that concept, I think, would have just really stunned everybody that we would invite companies—who have no expertise in any of this stuff, by the way, no matter how many experts they hire—to be the ones that step in on a moment’s notice with a news story and tell you what’s true, and give you context and tell you what you can’t share as if they know any of those things in an instant?
But now, we’ve become so numb to the notion, we’re actually inviting it. The subtitle of my book is “How the [News] Media Taught Us to Love Censorship and Hate Journalism.” Many of us are inviting and cheering on these fake fact checks and the curating of our information, our news, not realizing I think, the slippery slope that we’re going down whereby I think in 10 years, if we don’t change things, it’ll be a distant memory that we could find most information we wanted to find on the internet. We won’t be able to access it anymore. Only that which the powerful interests wish for us to see.
Mr. Jekielek: It’s deeply, deeply disturbing, obviously. It’s almost like we want to only be reading the things that we already agree with.
Mrs. Attkisson: One thing, this debate over Section 230, without getting too arcane, but a lot of people are saying, “Well, these big tech companies are censoring Trump and Trump supporters and Republicans, but not liberals.” And I fear that what comes of that is, again, clever people pulling strings behind the scenes to make us go, “You should censor the liberals too.”
What we’re doing if we say that is we’ll just do it both to all of us equally, we’re basically giving more control, and we’re giving up more of our own thoughts, control of our own thoughts and information to the same players who will then go, “Okay, well, we’ll censor left and right. We’ll censor everybody. We’ll really be heavy handed.”
When I think we should be looking from a 30,000 foot high level, stepping way back, and telling them not to touch our information, except that which is illegal, not in a subconscious way demanding that they actually censor more. That’s not going to ultimately help anybody.
Mr. Jekielek: Another thing I just thought of, a few people have asked me about this, actually, and I said, “Well, I don’t know.” How do you see yourself politically? Do you see yourself as conservative? Do you see yourself as liberal? Do you try to stay out of those categories? How do you fall, personally?
Mrs. Attkisson: Well, I have not talked about my politics. I just don’t, so a lot of people mistakenly assume I’m conservative. For years, people mistakenly assumed I was liberal. Just in a general sense, I will tell you that I think I’m like a lot of Americans. Probably, if you pick certain issues and I told you how I felt about them, I would be liberal on some, conservative on others, change my mind depending on the circumstance.
What I think is really important to do—and I’ve worked very hard to do this. Maybe I didn’t think about it in my early years—but assuming I feel a certain way based on who I interviewed, or what I said, is going to be wrong. I mean, it’s pretty hard, I’ve found, for reporters to take away their own personal vested interests.
But if you can, it’s a beautiful thing to open your mind, regardless of how you feel about something and invite in a different viewpoint or opposing viewpoints. And I’ve told myself as a reporter, one way to do that is to start with the premise that most people have a point to make. Like, there are sometimes ridiculous points that don’t make any sense. But in general, people who view things differently often have rational viewpoints on both sides.
And when you start to say as a reporter, “I’d like to represent the most rational viewpoints I can find on both sides,” it just sort of opens up reporting, and I think you get at more of the truth, you become more accurate, and you shouldn’t feel like you have to shove your own opinion down someone’s throat.
If the job of your reporting is—and I think a lot of reporters do this—if you think people need to come away at the end of a story thinking like you do about a topic, then I think you’ve made a big mistake. I think the goal should be to present viewpoints and facts, especially if powerful interests are trying to hide them. And then I say to myself, “At the end, if you’re unconvinced of what someone in the story was saying, or if I think taxpayer money was wasted and this is demonstrated in the evidence, but you don’t mind how the money was spent, I’m good with that. I just wanted to bring the information out there.” And I think that’s sort of how I approach my job, and I do it in a non-political fashion.
Mr. Jekielek: So you mentioned Section 230. This is something that I’ve covered a number of times on the show. Speaking of social media giants becoming publishers—which is what that question really is—it seems like Twitter, frankly, in the past week now has kind of taken things to a different level where they decided to suppress a story that they transparently said hadn’t been fact checked even by one of these, you would argue not necessarily legitimately even fact checked. I was thinking of using this story, using the “Slanted” lens to look at this story and how it’s playing out because I thought it’s almost like a textbook example of all the lessons or ideas that you’re bringing up in “Slanted.” Can we do that?
Mrs. Attkisson: I think absolutely. The notion that Twitter would claim to be an instant expert on a story they have no knowledge about. Their experts can’t possibly—even if they were to try to contradict some of the Hunter Biden story that was in The New York Post, they certainly have no more credibility than The New York Post, who presumably has been working on this story longer, and neither do the one-sided experts they may consult who would tell them that that story is not true. They weren’t in the room, they weren’t in a position to verify or not verify emails.
But you go back to the Russia-Trump collusion story, which turned out to be, as we all know—and even as Trump’s enemies working on the Mueller team acknowledged—there was no evidence of any American working with Russia or colluding with Russia in 2016.
And how many stories do we still have, and did we have at the time, forwarded uncritically by the press, without counterpoints, without evidence—as they like to say, but they didn’t say it was without evidence—as if true? Anonymous sources, presenting false information, presumed to be true, no counterpoints. This was the classic way that you cannot, as a journalist, legitimately cover a news story, and we did it for years.
And then here comes a story that has some documentation and on-the-record documents and sources, and all we hear about is, “unverified, without evidence,” and it’s immediately taken off Twitter. What Twitter is doing in these final days before the election speaks to me of desperation.
The big tech companies—I’ll have a story on this on full measure in a couple of weeks—insiders talk about how important it is to some of these companies and the people leading them and the employees for President Trump not to be president, for certain agendas to be advanced, social agendas, in a one-sided fashion and how they make sure algorithms and the things that they design accomplish these very partisan, political goals in ways that are often unseen to us.
And I can only say that they’ve decided or they’ve been fearful that in these last weeks, that hasn’t been enough. So they’re actually stepping in and putting the thumb on a scale in such a visible way with people, accounts. They don’t even care if Congress calls them in and slaps them in a couple weeks, because the election will be over. They’re trying right now to play the short game out of desperation to try to make sure Trump doesn’t win another term.
Mr. Jekielek: There’s all sorts of people saying these laptops or these drives or this whole thing is Russian disinformation.
Mrs. Attkisson: Well again, let’s look at the real Russian disinformation campaign that we know: Trump-Russia collusion, [which] involved Russians providing false information through an intermediary of Democrats to the FBI. That was never flagged by the same people as Russian disinformation, and yet now something where there was no evidence of Russian disinformation, that’s the default claim that’s thrown out there because it will take hold.
You see it does, because the public’s been primed, a certain segment of the public, by the narrative to believe and to accept that. Glenn Greenwald had an interesting article. I think I read a little bit of it with a tweet. He’s the liberal publisher of The Intercept. And a lot of classic liberals see these things the same way you do, some of these things that we’re talking about.
He said, “Can you imagine a public that has gotten so basically brainwashed, that everything that happens is deemed to be foreign interference or interference by the Russians and that the public buys that? How sad is that?” And I think he was spot on with that. But that’s all part of the narrative.
It’s been planted since late 2015 or early 2016. And it’s really taken hold among people who are—I won’t say unthinking people because they’re not all unthinking—but a lot of people that don’t have time to do or the desire to do their own thinking for themselves and their own research, and they just are pummeled with these narratives on comedy channels and just everywhere you look. The news of course and social media, it just becomes their reality, and that’s what they believe.
Mr. Jekielek: It’s incredible. A number of media have been largely silent on this, but I did notice, actually, that CBS has started to cover it. I thought that was interesting. And the other thing, speaking of the whole Russia collusion and everything associated with that, the Crossfire Hurricane investigation, the FISA abuse, CBS did hire Catherine Herridge, who seems to be doing a pretty straight-up journalistic job around this material. Does this suggest that CBS is deciding to go off-narrative here?
Mrs. Attkisson: Well, it’s hard to say. If you read the books that I’ve written about this, there’s so many competing things going on at the same time. Sometimes, an outlet, in my view, will hire somebody so that they can keep them quiet or keep them less visible. Catherine Herridge, I believe, had far more visibility when she worked at Fox News because she was on all the time with breaking stories.
I’ve talked to people at CBS. I think she’s done great stuff. I’ve seen her tweet out some things. She’s not—now maybe this has changed in the last month—she’s not seen frequently on the evening news. She tweets a lot of stuff that she probably can’t get on. Or maybe she’s on the morning show. This is how they bury [news]. They pretend to want to cover something, but there’s a way that certain people can, in fact, bury the news and make sure it gets less prominence.
They’re also competing. They hired, I don’t want to name a name who, but they hired somebody else that had a lot of promise and talent in an arena like that some years ago, and then basically proceeded to never use that person on the air. This is not an unusual thing that happens.
That having been said, not everybody at all the networks [is like this]. There’s still some great people, there are still some good news people, there’s still some great reporting being done, even at The New York Times, which is [devolving]. I spent a whole chapter talking about the devolution. Even at CNN. So it’s not a monolithic thing for which there are no exceptions.
But in a general sense, I think, we’ve reached a place where, like you just said, you’re surprised that there’s an instance where, wow, CBS actually covered one of the biggest stories of the last week. They actually gave two minutes to it. It’s sort of like we think that’s progress because the situation is so, the starting point is so bad.
Mr. Jekielek: You mentioned earlier that you feel like in 10 years, we might be past the point of no return. I don’t think you’re meaning to be alarmist, but you’re saying things are heading in this direction where there just isn’t a lot of news anymore, and it seems to, I don’t know if you agree, it seems to be accelerating in that direction. What do you see, and this appears a bit I think in the conclusion of your book, but what do you see as the path forward to try to get back to straight-up journalism and let people make up their own minds?
Mrs. Attkisson: Well, I think people should definitely keep speaking about it. Don’t quiet down and just accept that this is the way it is. Fight and call it out when you see it. But I think the answer—there’s a lot of people working on this problem because in the general public outside of Washington, DC and New York and outside of the newsrooms, the public wants regular old news again.
I’ve asked a lot of questions of people over the years, even those who want to watch CNN and MSNBC for the left news and want to watch Fox News for the right news or CBS or whatever—CBS for their left. They still all say they would go to a place that was in the middle if there was a place because they know they have to kind of discount the news they see depending on where they watch it.
They know that if they see a certain thing, “Well, I know where they’re coming from.” And they want a place where they can go and kind of get the straight story and believe that they’re getting a factual representation. So there’s a market for it, I believe. And a lot of people know this, and a lot of news people are trying to figure out how to make the most of that and how to make it where these big tech platforms then don’t control what they’re doing.
So on two fronts, there are news people that are trying to develop news sources that do that very thing. And secondly, there are technical people that are working on the problem of being able to distribute news and opinion outside the platforms controlled by the big tech companies in a way that they can’t deplatform you and take your opinions off and take certain scientific studies out.
I think we’ll have a breakthrough because there’s smart people working on the problem. I’m not smart enough to know technically what form that’ll take, but I’d like to think we’ll go down that road. One of the scariest things to me, let’s look at the coronavirus example. Google announced that it had developed a partnership on the front end of this with the World Health Organization to make sure when people were searching under coronavirus early on that they would be directed to World Health Organization-approved information and sites.
How dangerous is that, especially when you consider that WHO admits it was wrong about so much? But by doing this, Google has cut us out of the equation of being able to say, “We know you guys are wrong. Medical experts are sometimes wrong and the government is sometimes wrong and certain experts,” and then they’ve cut you out of being able to easily do your own research and find unconflicted information because they’re directing what you’ll see when you look for information.
And again, by their own admission, were dead wrong about quite a few things that they put out. But that’s all we were allowed, that’s where we were being pointed to. So imagine that—and that’s happening with other issues too that they’re not disclosing—on a massive scale where pretty much any information you try to access, they get to control who you’re pointed to, and you will never find the scientific studies that say the other thing because they’ll have effectively buried them or made sure that they’re unseen.
Mr. Jekielek: This is a very interesting point because I think there’s tons of evidence that the WHO was compromised by perhaps the biggest special interest out there, the Chinese Communist Party.
Mrs. Attkisson: That is the most important reason, again, why I at least don’t want special interests coming in and curating my information in my searches. And I firmly believe if a private company wants to offer that service to the people that work with it, “Hey, would you like us to curate your information? Would you like us to aim you to places where we want you to look?” that’s fine.
But I also think we shouldn’t have to opt into that because there are some of us on various topics that want to do our own research. Some of my best stories have come from me being able to go off of the narrative, off of what’s being reported by these news organizations that would be accepted as the only true sources that are actually reporting wrong information.
And I’m able to dig deeply and find counterpoints and people who know different information and other scientific studies that ultimately turn out to provide the truth. If you cut that off from people, you’ve 1,000 percent been able to just control the line of thought in a negative way.
And I joke that if this were the case several decades ago, we would still say cigarettes were safe because let’s say there were all these studies that show cigarettes can cause cancer. Well, the prevailing opinion at the time said that that wasn’t true. Doctors at the time said there was nothing wrong with smoking cigarettes.
They would effectively be able to impact what we see and know so that we would never see those studies that show that cigarettes were actually unhealthy. And we would be bouncing around today, happily smoking or believing that that was true, I guess, and wondering why people were dying without understanding that there were many scientific studies supporting the other view because we wouldn’t have been able to access them under this sort of control that we’re talking about.
Mr. Jekielek: Sharyl, there’s many, many of these examples, and I think your book is an incredibly thoughtful treatment of this whole issue, and frankly, in a very, very balanced way. I actually also haven’t—that’s why I asked you about your political inclinations, because you keep them close to yourself, clearly. When is the book coming out, and how can people get it?
Mrs. Attkisson: November 24. Preorder now anywhere. If you don’t want to order from Amazon, you can order from HarperCollins or anywhere you like to get books. And on my website, thank you for asking, sharylattkisson.com, if you click where I’m promoting “Slanted,” you can find out how to get signed copies or a free signed bookplate sticker to put in there as a gift for somebody, whatever you want to do. All the information’s there.
I’ve said that it would really be nice—my social media is throttled down if people know what that means. My reach is far smaller this year than it has been in past years, even though I have a much greater following because it’s being dialed back. And so I’m trying to promote the book any way I can, and I say: wouldn’t it be nice for The New York Times to be forced to put my third book in a row on its bestseller list when there’s a chapter in it about the devolution of The New York Times? That’s like one of my goals, so I hope people will consider preordering.
Mr. Jekielek: I wish you the best of success with that. Any final thoughts before we finish up?
Mrs. Attkisson: Well, I would just say that as simple as something [like a review]. I’ve gotten some very nice reviews and discussions of the book from people like you and others. But interestingly, I thought it was interesting, Publishers Weekly, wasn’t even sure what that is, but they put out what I consider a very lukewarm review, doesn’t even look like they read the book, very short review, where they call it unconvincing.
I’m thinking, “This is interesting.” It’s another example of, in my opinion, somebody who doesn’t want people to read the book for their own reasons, made sure a review was written—there’s no name signed with these reviews that they put up, but they’re pretty well read inside the industry—and they put out sort of a negative review.
And this is all, again, part of I think, I suspect, a shaping of the information landscape, and it reminds me of Scott Adams, who’s off-narrative. He’s written those comedy books, comics about Dilbert, and he’s a Trump supporter. And he talks about—and I have this in my last book—when he became a Trump supporter, [he] became someone that people didn’t like for that reason.
His speeches got canceled. He got negative reviews about his book that was coming out that were suddenly posted. There are all kinds of things that are happening in ways that are unseen to us. And I just say, dig deeper when you see something happening or a narrative being forwarded by so many people, your first thought should not necessarily be, “I believe that,” but “Who wants me to believe that and why?” And that, I think, will lead to a lot of truth.
Mr. Jekielek: Sharyl Attkisson, such a pleasure to have you on.
Mrs. Attkisson: Thanks so much.
This interview has been edited for clarity and brevity.