“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.