Sharyl Attkisson's new book shows the common interest between a discredited journalist trying to cash in on right-wing credibility and the conservative machine that wants its media worldview confirmed.
Attkisson resigned in March after two decades at CBS News, reportedly in part because she believed the network had stymied her reporting due to “liberal bias.” Staffers there reportedly characterized her work, which often focused on trumped-up claims of Obama administration misdeeds, as “agenda-driven,” leading “network executives to doubt the impartiality of her reporting.”
In her forthcoming book, Stonewalled, Attkisson alleges that the press has been protecting Obama from scrutiny for ideological reasons. “Attkisson doesn't explicitly accuse CBS and the rest of the mainstream media of a pervasive liberal bias,” writes Fox News' Howard Kurtz in a review. “But that view is clear from sheer accumulation of detail in her book.”
Based on press accounts, Attkisson's allegations of CBS News' bias rely largely on her own recollections of conversations she says she had with her former colleagues. The network declined Media Matters' request for comment, but one apparent subject of Attkisson's criticism has denied her account.
Attkisson's credibility is central to determining whether to believe her claims. Given her history of conspiratorial claims and shoddy reporting -- including her false and baseless claim that Media Matters may have been paid to attack her -- it is difficult to take her story at face value. But one thing is clear: her message is very valuable to both right-wing media and Attkisson herself.
Attkisson's publisher is HarperCollins, a subsidiary of Rupert Murdoch's News Corp. She's been the beneficiary of a press roll-out backed by the conservative tycoon's media holdings, The New York Post and Fox News, which have depicted the book as very damaging to the press.
The book's press tour launched over the weekend with a glowing 2,000-word review in the Post that concludes, “After reading the book, you won't question whether CBS News or Attkisson is more trustworthy” (the paper has since published at least two additional stories on the book). Special Report's Bret Baier described the book as a “first-person testimonial about mainstream media bias” in one of several segments Fox has run this week promoting Attkisson's allegations.
Those outlets have not disclosed the conflict of interest they have in boosting a product of their corporate cousin.
It's not surprising that the Murdoch press would be so eager to bolster Attkisson's story. Attkisson's claim of liberal bias feeds into the media narrative that they have been promoting for decades -- which is in turn built on the decades-old refrain from conservative politicians that they could not get a fair shake from the press.
“Opportunity exists for an island of difference in the sea of sameness in television news today,” Murdoch said during a 1996 press conference about the then-nascent Fox News. “Opportunity exists in a growing disconnect between television news and its audience. An increasing gap between the values of those that deliver the news and those that receive it.”
Since its founding, Fox has branded itself as “Fair and Balanced” -- headed by Roger Ailes, a former aide to Richard Nixon and George H. W. Bush, the network would be fair, unlike the supposedly liberal mainstream media, and serve as the balance to the rest of the press.
This strategy of instituting a conservative slant to the news while undermining the rest of the media as hopelessly liberal has been very effective. Nearly half of “consistent conservatives” say that Fox News is their main news source, according to a Pew Research study. 88 percent of the group says they trust the network, while all three broadcast networks and major newspapers like The New York Times, Washington Post, and USA Today are all “more distrusted than trusted.”
By making themselves the only credible name in news for conservatives and consolidating the viewership of that audience, Fox has drawn the highest ratings in cable news along with huge profits. Other right-wing outlets have followed the network's example, running down the credibility of mainstream outlets as a way of appealing to the same potential readers and viewers.
It is in Attkisson's interest to play up her conflicts with CBS News as much as possible in order to buttress that notion of the liberal media that has been so lucrative for the conservative press. Since she left CBS in March, she has largely relied on right-wing outlets to publish her work, contributing freelance pieces to conservative outlets like Heritage Foundation's The Daily Signal and the Sinclair Broadcasting Group's network affiliates.
Having crossed that line, Attkisson is now dependent on keeping the favor of conservatives -- and attacking the mainstream media is a great strategy for her.
A decade ago former CBS correspondent Bernie Goldberg was able to turn his own jeremiad against his network into a number one New York Times bestseller and a payday as a Fox News contributor who regularly appears on the network to criticize his former colleagues in the press. That's the gold ring for Attkisson to chase, and if it's up to her would-be colleagues, she will reach it.