The news that CBS News investigative reporter Sharyl Attkisson is leaving the network does not come as any great surprise to those who have followed her career. Last year, at a time when we learned that the Obama Justice Department was spying on Fox News’ James Rosen as well as a group of reporters at the Associated Press, Attkisson reported that her computer had been hacked. But, as Dylan Byers wrote in Politico, Attkisson had an even bigger problem: most of her colleagues at CBS didn’t like the fact that she had spent the last few years reporting aggressively about the Obama administration’s various shortcomings and scandals. Journalists at mainstream media outlets like to pretend that they play it down the middle when it comes to whoever is in power. But it was hardly a coincidence that the prevailing office culture at the network that the president trusted, in Steve Kroft’s memorable phrase, not to make him “look stupid,” would think ill of a reporter that thought it worth her time to investigate stories like Fast and Furious, Solyndra and Benghazi. If, as Byers reports today, Attkisson has come to a parting of the ways with CBS after “hard fought negotiations” that led to her departure prior to the expiration of her contract, it was due to the following factors:
Attkisson, who has been with CBS News for two decades, had grown frustrated with what she saw as the network’s liberal bias, an outsize influence by the network’s corporate partners and a lack of dedication to investigative reporting, several sources said. She increasingly felt that her work was no longer supported and that it was a struggle to get her reporting on air.
At the same time, Attkisson’s reporting on the Obama administration, which some staffers characterized as agenda-driven, had led network executives to doubt the impartiality of her reporting. She is currently at work on a book — tentatively titled “Stonewalled: One Reporter’s Fight for Truth in Obama’s Washington” — that addresses the challenges of reporting critically on the administration.
While Attkisson is just one reporter and CBS has long since ceased being a dominant force in the national media, this may be a crucial moment in the history of American journalism. It was assumed that any major news outlet would regard aggressive coverage of all administrations as a given. But that ceased to be the case when Barack Obama entered the White House. If Attkisson is being shown the door at CBS it is not because her work is not highly regarded but because she has violated the prime directive of liberal media insiders: thou shalt not report on Obama in the same way that you reported on George W. Bush or even Bill Clinton. The liberal bias that conservatives have long complained about is out of the closet.
While most journalists have been reliably liberal in their politics for decades, the culture of the profession has always valued an “agin’ the government” mentality in which all politicians are viewed with cynicism. So long as even liberal journalists regard it as their duty to ferret out stories about corruption, mismanagement and failure within the government, we can feel safe that no administration, even one that is favored by the left, will escape the scrutiny necessary to provide accountability.
But there is little doubt that this has begun to change since Obama came to office. After the media hammered both Bill Clinton and George W. Bush throughout their presidencies, Obama has had it relatively easy. Part of it is due to the special hold that this historic president has over liberals. The growing bifurcation of American society in which the country has been divided between those who read the New York Times, listen to NPR and watch mainstream networks and MSNBC and those who read the Wall Street Journal, listen to talk radio and watch Fox News, has also affected journalists who should know better. The culture at CBS and like-minded outlets is to see any aggressive reporting about the president and his policies as evidence of wrong thinking rather than part of their obligation to ask uncomfortable questions and speak truth to power.
There was some hope last year that the spying on the AP and James Rosen would, especially when combined with other scandals involving the IRS and Benghazi, motivate the liberal media to start doing its job with regard to this administration. But the ouster of Attkisson combined with the relative lack of interest on the part of most of the press to follow up on those scandals while treating those involving Republicans — like Chris Christie’s Bridgegate — as the second coming of Watergate, means that partisanship has prevailed over integrity in much of the mainstream media.
One has to wonder why anyone interested in anything but White House talking points would choose to watch CBS News if a reporter like Attkisson couldn’t work there. This partly explains the decline of CBS and other liberal networks. But it also sends a clear message to the public that they can’t trust CBS and any other network where aggressive coverage of the administration is no longer welcome. This confirms what conservatives have been talking about for years but it ought to sadden anyone, no matter their politics, who understands the role of a free press in a democracy.