Commentary Magazine


Attkisson’s Problem and the Public’s

CBS News reporter Sharyl Attkisson has a bigger problem than the possibility that someone or some government agency has been tampering with her computer. Last week the investigative journalist acknowledged publicly that her work computers had been compromised. But as Dylan Byers makes clear in his piece about Attkisson in Politico published on Friday, her bigger problem is the fact that a lot of people at CBS think there’s something wrong with a journalist who is willing to report aggressively about the Obama administration’s shortcomings and scandals. That her willingness to push hard to find out the truth about scandals such as Fast and Furious, Solyndra and now Benghazi would be excoriated by left-wing websites such as Media Matters is no surprise since such partisans regard any scrutiny of a Democratic president as unacceptable. But what is truly worrisome is that Attkisson’s work is, we are told, seen by many at CBS as evidence of a “political agenda” and therefore unacceptable.

There are conflicting rumors about whether she’s on her way out at the network, and it may be that she will stay in her mainstream perch for the foreseeable future. But what is so ominous about this article is the way her critics at CBS—none of whom will speak publicly—seem to be echoing the views of the flacks at the White House. As Attkisson said on Laura Ingraham’s radio show in 2011:

“[The White House and Justice Department] will tell you that I’m the only reporter — as they told me — that is not reasonable,” Attkisson told Ingraham. “They say The Washington Post is reasonable, the L.A. Times is reasonable, The New York Times is reasonable, I’m the only one who thinks this is a story, and they think I’m unfair and biased by pursuing it.”

If, as Politico seems to imply, a lot of people working at CBS agree with this point of view and see any aggressive reporting about the president and his policies as evidence of wrong thinking, it appears as if this signals a fundamental shift in the way many in the mainstream media think about their profession. This won’t be a surprise to their conservative critics, who have long thought the major networks and leading dailies are hopelessly mired in liberal groupthink. But it ought to sadden anyone, no matter what their politics might be, who understands the role of a free press in a democracy.

While most journalists have been reliably liberal in their politics for generations, the culture of the profession has always valued an “agin’ the government” mentality in which all institutions are viewed with a fair amount of 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 if the zeitgeist at CBS, and, no doubt, other such organizations has been altered to believe that President Obama must be treated with kid gloves, then mainstream journalism has been proven bankrupt. Coming after eight years during which these same news institutions hammered the George W. Bush administration (including hard-nosed stores by Attkisson), their cozy relationship with Obama has been highly suspicious. The fact that Obama prefers, as CBS’s Steve Croft memorably put it, to go on the network’s 60 Minutes show because he knows he won’t be made “to look stupid” fits in with the groundswell against his colleague.

That many journalists are starting to rethink their protective attitude toward Obama in the wake of this season of scandals, and in particular because of the shocking treatment of both the Associated Press and Fox News’s James Rosen, is to be commended. The administration’s unhinged war on journalists has opened some eyes to its flaws that were heretofore resolutely closed. But if a lot of people in the press think there is something partisan about giving Obama’s policies the same harsh treatment afforded to those of Bush, then they simply can’t be trusted.

Many in these same institutions decry the fact that many readers and viewers stick only to those outlets that represent their political point of view. But if Sharyl Attkisson’s reporting about Obama’s scandals is seen as out of the mainstream or excessive by her colleagues, then that is a warning to all that CBS and other mainstream institutions are not be trusted to tell the truth. Under those circumstances, why should anyone who wants something other than the latest White House talking points watch or read the mainstream media? In that case the big loser isn’t so much independent journalists like Attkisson but a public that must rely on the free press to play its vital role in ensuring that our democratic system works.

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