National Press Club

The art of the smear: Attkisson on the story behind her new book

September 5, 2017 | By Mark Krikorian | msk@cis.org

Sharyl Attkisson (right), former CBS News correspondent, spoke about her book at a National Press Club Headliners Book Rap on Aug. 31. Gifting her a Club coffee mug is moderator Betsy Fischer Martin (left), co-chair of the Club Headliners Committee.

Sharyl Attkisson (right), former CBS News correspondent, spoke about her book at a National Press Club Headliners Book Rap on Aug. 31. Gifting her a Club coffee mug is moderator Betsy Fischer Martin (left), co-chair of the Club Headliners Committee.

Photo/Image: Cheriss May                                                                                                                       

The best smears are based on a grain of truth, often a verbal slip-up identified from 24/7 tracking of every word spoken or written by a public figure, which is then escalated into a smear.

Given that grain of truth, what distinguishes a smear from news is that "its purpose is rooted in annihilation of the target," Sharyl Attkisson, an investigative journalist, said at a National Press Club Headliners Book Rap on Aug. 31. She interviewed many "smear operators" for her new book, The Smear: How Shady Political Operatives and Fake News Control What You See, What You Think, and How You Vote.

Attkisson, a longtime broadcast journalist at CNN, CBS, and now Sinclair, said the operators were proud of the work and spoke freely to her, though few wanted their names used. She said some were ideologically motivated while others simply loved the game, but in either case, that target is selected "because that person is seen as damaging to the paid interests of the people that are perpetuating the smear."

Launching a smear does not require large expenditure; Attkisson described the chill she felt go up her spine when one smear operator told her, "You know, a whole movement can be started in Twitter with a handful of fake accounts and 140 characters."

Referring to David Brock and Media Matters for America, the flagship of his network of perhaps two dozen organizations, Attkisson said the Republican- turned-Democrat would not talk to her for the book, but is the subject of a chapter nonetheless. "Media Matters is just the most clever group of its kind," she said. Attkisson added that both Republicans and Democrats she interviewed look upon Brock "with equal parts awe and disgust."

It's not only politicians who can be targeted by smear campaigns; journalists face them too, in an effort to discredit their reporting and besmirch their reputations. Attkisson said fears expressed to her by reporters were the impetus for the book. "To hear these reputable journalists, who had never done anything, that I could tell, incorrect or wrong, to be so frightened of a propaganda movement…I thought if we call it for what it is, and if the public becomes more aware of it, we don't have to be afraid of it," she said.

Her advice for news consumers trying to avoid being taken in by a smear: Skepticism. When a story "goes on day after day," she said, "to the exclusion of news that really matters more to more people…and when you see that going on and taking on a life of its own, you don't know for sure, but you can suspect there's probably a paid effort behind it."

When the same handful of items are covered night after night, with similar language, quoting the same people, "that should be a sign to you," Attkisson said. "It doesn't mean it's not true, but you should be asking yourself…'Who wants me to think this, and why?'"

Betsy Fischer Martin, co-chair of the Club's Headliners Team, moderated the discussion.