How CBS and CNN went from reporting the news to distorting it
When Sharyl Attkisson discusses media bias, she isn’t just sharpshooting from a distant perch. She’s a true insider, having worked at CNN in the early days, when it was all news instead of peacocking personalities and venting about politics. She went on to be a star correspondent and anchor for CBS News, from which she resigned in frustration six years ago. When she talks about what kinds of stories get on the air and why, she has specific, damning details. In her new book “Slanted: How the News Media Taught Us to Love Censorship and Hate Journalism” (Harper), out later this month, she brings the receipts.
The book opens with a stunning array of examples of undisguised bias from her superiors and colleagues as she fought to get investigative stories on the air at CBS. Back in 1996, when media mogul Steve Forbes was running for president, the following assignment came down to her at the Washington bureau: “Do a story on why Steve Forbes’ flat tax won’t work.” Forbes was running for president on a revolutionary idea about simplifying federal income tax so that an entire family tax return would fit on the proverbial postcard. Attkisson wasn’t told, “Do a story on the pros and cons of this” or “Look into whether this would work.” She was handed a conclusion and told to pick whatever facts might lead to it.
Later she did a story on people who misused New York state stimulus payments intended to be spent on school supplies — “people were taking money straight from the ATM machine to buy beer, cigarettes and lottery tickets,” a bodega owner in Manhattan told her. Attkisson was told to yank the piece because “all of the people are — of a certain color.” She pointed out that the people profiled sympathetically in the story were also “of a certain color,” including a concerned social worker, a needy family that spent its stimulus money as intended, and workers at the bodega. The report never aired.
Motivated reporting meant to lead the consumer to a given point of view, or hide inconvenient info, is everywhere in the media, and sometimes it perplexes reporters who mistakenly believed they were going into the business to explore the world and follow the truth wherever it led. When a colleague came into Attkisson’s office in 2014, she said she’d been assigned to do a story on how vital food pantries were to poor people. But “every food pantry family she connected with had proven to be relatively well off financially.” Attkisson wondered, “Why not report what she was actually learning from her experience in the field?” This idea, that she would simply tell the truth about what she had discovered, led the young reporter to look “at me as though I had grown a second head.”
Attkisson herself spent considerable time researching a story for CBS Weekend News to locate and profile a family that was struggling to get by on minimum wage. Despite starting out, as reporters usually do, by turning to an advocacy group with an interest in the matter, Attkisson couldn’t find a family that fit the bill. The anti-poverty activists she spoke to couldn’t locate any families in which two parents were raising kids while on minimum wage. So Attkisson hit the bricks herself.
At McDonald’s, a manager told her, “I’ll be honest with you. Even if I had someone starting at minimum wage, they don’t stay there. If they just show up for work every day, they get a 25 cent raise every three months. Nobody here is living on a minimum-wage salary.”
Media bias kicked up to a delirious new level in the Trump era, which was marked not only by hysterical exaggeration by the likes of Brian Stelter but a litany of errors Attkisson lists in a damning 25-page appendix of false media reports. Still, the raging desire to harm Republicans and cover for Democrats has been there all along.
Any version of events that counters ‘the Narrative’ is called partisan spin.
When Attkisson explored discrepancies in John Kerry’s Vietnam record she met a total lack of interest — “Vietnam was a long time ago,” a colleague told her — even though the same people were obsessed with finding evidence that Kerry’s opponent George W. Bush had used cocaine around the same time. A story Attkisson did on school-lunch fraud — she discovered big corporations were cheating schools out of millions of dollars — was killed because it might have embarrassed Michelle Obama, a cheerleader for school lunch, she says. Producers refused to even read the script of her story, she adds.
Motivated reasoning was everywhere Attkisson looked: If a societal trend is at issue, journos carefully handpick extreme, antagonistic figures to be the public face of some idea they hate, but choose wonderful, nice people to embody policies they like. When Attkisson set out to cover a story on religion in America that included a profile on a group of Christian teens in Maryland, she at first got a thumbs-up from a senior producer at CBS headquarters in New York. The next day, the producer changed her mind: “Can’t you find someone with a more extreme position?” she asked, suggesting a profile of the polarizing TV pastor Jerry Falwell instead of the likable Christian teens.
The weekday evening news program dropped the story, so Attkisson pitched it to the weekend program she hosted. She happened to be walking by the desk of the show’s executive producer when she discussed the contents of that week’s edition. “The anchor has a pro-Bible story she wants to air,” the producer said, on a speakerphone conference.
“There was a sniff of clear distaste in her voice,” Attkisson recalls. The story wasn’t “pro-Bible.”
And even if it had been, since when has it been beyond the pale to mention the Bible in a favorable way? It’s hard not to remember New York Times chief Dean Baquet’s startlingly candid admission, shortly after the 2016 election that, “We don’t get religion. We don’t get the role of religion in people’s lives.” Baquet promised to do a better job covering average Americans and their concerns. Instead he turned the paper into the leading voice of the anti-Trump Resistance.
Selecting and shaping facts to fit a predetermined narrative, rather than starting with curiosity about the way things work, is what used to be considered a tawdry approach to the news. Now it’s what virtually the entire media establishment does, from tabloids to buzztastic websites to the most prestigious newspapers to the cable news channels.
Take CNN. When Attkisson was an anchor there, in the early 1990s, the company brand was all news, all the time. Political quarrels were not the focus. “Back then, I think we were just about as ‘just the facts’ as it was possible to be,” she recalls. “We news anchors wouldn’t have dreamed of slamming political figures or giving editorial monologues about them … Most of the news we aired wasn’t Washington, DC-centric.”
Things went so far in the other direction that even CNN’s proudly left-wing founder, Ted Turner said, in 2018, “I think they’re stickin’ with politics a little too much. They’d do better to have a more balanced agenda.” A former network official tells Attkisson, anonymously, “We’ve decided that commentating is more important than news. I left cable because I couldn’t understand the screaming. I fought the fight to do quiet, straight journalism. And it didn’t win at CNN.”
Lou Waters, an avuncular anchor, told Attkisson in an interview that in the early years, anchors were admonished not to make themselves the stars. Initially they weren’t even supposed to identify themselves to viewers. Waters says, “It depresses me actually” to see what has become of CNN. “Back in the day, we did very little politics.” “Crossfire,” a 30-minute show, was about it.
A former prominent CNNer, whose name Attkisson withholds, notes sadly that “There’s a lot of showboating going on on television at every level, now. News was the star. And now the star is the star. ‘Hey, look at me!’ ”
Yes, that means divas like Jim Acosta. A former top CNN exec (again, the name is withheld by the author) tells Attkisson, “If I were chairman of CNN, I would call [Acosta] and say, ‘Nobody elected you, and you’re not there to fight with the president of the United States.’ ” At the old CNN, Attkisson says, “a Jim Acosta would not have been possible.”
There’s a convenient term for all of the tendencies Attkisson identifies: “the Narrative.” Once the Narrative is established, Attkisson writes, “contrary views, facts and science must be shoved down the memory hole.” Serving the narrative may involve approaches as simple as taking facts out of context, making too much of some information or, sometimes, amplifying false allegations via insinuation.
“Any version of events that counters the Narrative is called partisan spin,” she notes. Those who advance the Narrative may be acting in accordance with what they truly believe is in the public interest, but they tend to believe that they’re “smarter than you are” and that therefore “they do not trust you to process information and draw your own conclusions.”
Because you might draw the wrong ones. America’s news media see themselves as your teachers, thought leaders and protectors, and it’s vital that you believe exactly what you’re told.
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