Sharyl Attkisson on Fake News, Propaganda and Sinclair Rumors (Q&A)

Screengrab/Sinclair Broadcast Group
Sharyl Attkisson

"I'm saying conservative-owned media corporations seem to be treated differently," says the former CBS News journalist.

Sharyl Attkisson, the former CBS News investigative reporter that now works for Sinclair Broadcasting Group, is stepping up her criticism of how some media frame "fake news." 

The journalist who hosts Full Measure with Sharyl Attkisson, which was recently renewed for a third season, has written a book on the media titled, The Smear: How Shady Political Operatives and Fake News Control What You See, What You Think, and How You Vote

Plus, based on its success with Full Measure, Sinclair announced Tuesday that it is creating a national investigative unit that it says will eventually be staffed by more than 100 reporters.

The Hollywood Reporter spoke to Attkisson about a border wall, her lawsuit against the Department of Justice, some persistent rumors involving Sinclair and, of course, fake news.

The left thinks the term "fake news" applies to the right and the right thinks it applies to the left. Which is it?

It depends on where you sit. There isn't a dictionary policeman that gets to tell us what new phrases mean. When the phrase first arose, it smelled like it came out of a propaganda campaign. Since it was a topic I was writing about, I was curious about it.

So where did the term come from?

The first time it came on my radar was when President Obama talked about it in a speech where he talked about the need to curate news. At the time, nobody was demanding that. It wasn't a grassroots movement, so there had to be a reason for him mentioning it. Sure enough, something that no one was paying attention to was suddenly in headlines every day, as if the media had its marching orders. Then Hillary Clinton picked it up, and David Brock announced his cause celebre was to go after fake news. Later, Brock told donors he was largely behind the effort to get Facebook to curate news. Then I found that the idea to curate news came from a nonprofit group.

What group?

First Draft. I first looked for their nonprofit papers to see where their funding came from, but I couldn't find any papers, so I called them. They said they were calling themselves nonprofit but hadn't received nonprofit status yet. They were very nice. They told me they were started in the U.K. at the beginning of the last election cycle with money primarily from Google, whose parent company, Alphabet, is run by an ardent Bernie Sanders and Hillary Clinton supporter. (THR reached out to Google and Alphabet, but they were unavailable for comment).

Which means?

You put it all together and it looks like the rollout of a propaganda campaign. But what I saw happen was Donald Trump, being the wild card, co-opted the phrase, "fake news," doing something they didn't predict that he would or could do. Now, a lot of people think Trump invented or popularized that phrase when in fact it came from the left.

What else did First Draft do?

They're the same group that picked the curators. They partnered with liberal organizations and so-called mainstream press and, of course, no conservative organizations. Then the examples of fake news they used were all conservative news stories. And that does exist, but there's also examples of liberal fake news, which they didn't seem interested in. (THR reached out to First Draft, but it was unavailable for comment).

So then, is this a conspiracy involving Google?

No, it's a propaganda campaign from the same group of funders who pull the strings in a lot of arenas that the public is unaware of. There's a handful on the conservative side, and a handful on the liberal side, and you keep running into the same ones.

What are their names?

The famous names are George Soros and David Brock on the left and the Koch brothers and the late Richard Mellon Scaife on the right.

Are they as nefarious as their enemies make them out to be?

I haven't researched them as personalities, but I guess they are ideologically committed to the things they support, and they believe they are doing the right thing for the country in their own way. On the other hand, the operatives they sometimes use, like David Brock who founded Media Matters, are equally reviled on the left and the right. These characters are contracts for hire. (THR reached out to Brock, but he was unavailable for comment).

Why do you say Brock is reviled by the left?

John Podesta, people at the Center for American Progress, other prominent liberal activists, they are at odds with his techniques and, amongst each other, they call him every kind of name. They think he oversteps his bounds, like when he was trying to help Hillary Clinton by demanding to see Bernie Sanders' health records. There were emails back and forth from people saying they couldn't imagine anything more harmful to Hillary Clinton than what David Brock was doing. He's also not fully trusted because everybody knows he used to be a right-wing hitman, and he basically changed his allegiance overnight.

Give me an example of right-wing fake news that you dissect in your book.

I tell the story of a beauty queen, Laura Hunter, where there were things published under her name that were right-wing. It turns out someone had stolen the use of her name, face and identity and, in fact, she supported liberal candidates. Nothing that had been written or said came from her, and she initiated a lawsuit. It's one of the tactics to use a pretty person because the stories get widely circulated because they have a lot of followers in social media.

So give me an example of left-wing fake news.

Conservatives say mainstream news that turns out to be a mistake is fake news, because they've dropped journalistic standards compared to four years ago. One example was the false report that Donald Trump removed the bust of Martin Luther King from the White House. That mistake was pretty shocking, because in journalism school you learn not to make an assumption by looking around a room and not asking for comment. That reporter put out a pool report without ever asking a White House official. According to everybody else, the bust was right there in the room, but he didn't see it because it was behind a piece of furniture or an open door or something. And the corrections never make the rounds as much as the salacious reporting. The smear operators know this, though this isn't an example of a smear.

What's the most egregious example of fake news in your book?

Perhaps it's the most well-known example. It wasn't considered fake news at the time, but it fits the definition today — that is when the forged documents were used for Dan Rathers' 60 Minutes II report on George Bush's Vietnam era military service. I was at CBS at the time, and what qualifies that story as something other than just a mistake is that there were red flags, like handwriting experts who could not validate the documents, but it still made it on air.

When we last spoke, you said CBS had killed stories due to bias, that there was a whisper campaign to discredit you, that the policy was to label conservative guests but not liberal guests. Anything come of those accusations?

I think they got to a place where they'd be equal in labeling both sides. But I didn't hear from anybody, and I maintain a friendly relationship with many people there, including management. The whisper campaign was not network-wide. I had a lot of great years at CBS. 

Now you work for Sinclair, and all of a sudden that company seems to be in the crosshairs of the activist left. What's that about?

Much like CBS and CNN are run by liberal billionaires, Sinclair is run by a rich conservative, so there are natural questions to be asked, especially when Sinclair is poised to become such a powerhouse. That's scary to people who disagree with the ownership, so there's an organized campaign against Sinclair as it tries to purchase Tribune.

Any truth Sinclair wants to develop a competitor to the Fox News Channel?

My show is under the Sinclair umbrella, but I haven't had any discussions about their national plans. I'm a little twig on a big tree. 

By the way, what billionaire liberals are you referring to at CBS and CNN?

At the time I was there, Sumner Redstone at CBS and Ted Turner at CNN. We all knew where their interests lie. In general, I don't think we as reporters capitulated to liberal interests because of that, and at Sinclair they haven't reached into my show with any political philosophy. But no one ever worried that my reporting was compromised because Les Moonves and Sumner Redstone were at the top, but the same people who had no concerns about liberals at the top suddenly have a concern when there are conservatives at the top. 

Is it a valid concern?

It's a valid question about any news organization, not just a conservative one.

Are you suggesting that when it comes to the mainstream media, conservative journalists are suspect while liberal journalists are not?

I'm not a liberal or conservative journalist, I'm saying conservative-owned media corporations seem to be treated differently. They'll dissect Sinclair's political philosophy, as they should, but these same people never dissected the political philosophies of Moonves and Redstone when I was there. To be fair, there was a little discussion about Turner's proclivities when I was at CNN, but it was never treated like the attacks I see on Sinclair.

What's the latest on your computers at CBS being hacked?

At CBS and my personal computers, I've had a federal lawsuit against the Department of Justice pending for two-and-a-half years. We had a hearing about two weeks ago. We've survived, so far, all the government's attempts to have it dismissed. We're still trying to get discovery giving us information on who had access to the IP address owned by the government that was found in my CBS computer.

Even though you're accusing the DOJ under Obama of hacking you, the Trump DOJ isn't helping you?

Not that I know of. I started working as a journalist under Bush, then Clinton, then Bush, then Obama. Every time there's a change, I used to think, "Now they'll shake the tree loose and my FOIA requests will be answered and there will be more transparency." But what I've learned is that these mid-level bureaucrats who are nameless and faceless and who people don't know — they persist from administration to administration and nothing much changes. I've continued to be stonewalled under the Trump administration.

So what's up next for Full Measure?

Our audience is up more than 100 percent in the key demographic from last year. Season three started Sunday. I reported from Korea about the North Korean conflict, and in the next show I go to the Texas border and give a no-spin look about what people think about building a wall.

So what do people in Texas think about a border wall?

We went to Laredo, the busiest commercial land port in the U.S., a primarily Hispanic community that is tough on border security. By and large, they don't want a wall because they think the Rio Grande river is good enough, and a wall is offensive to Mexico, which is an important trade partner for them. We also spoke to border patrol agents who told us a wall would definitely help ... I saw a map that the Trump administration would not verify for me that shows no wall in Texas at the Rio Grande, and the mayor assured me there'd be no wall, but the Trump administration wouldn't confirm that.

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