The Smear: How Shady Political Operatives and Fake News Control What You See, What You Think, and How You Vote 

by Sharyl Attkisson
Harper Books

reviewed by Christopher Klim

“In the news business a ‘great get’ used to mean that you, as a reporter got an exclusive story as a result of your ingenuity, shore-leather journalism, and persistence. Today it simply means you’re the recipient of a White House or political party leak.”

Imagine your friend just told you that the former President of the United States was dealing drugs from the White House. This friend quoted several articles from apparent reputable news sources who are calling for the prosecution of the former president. The story is everywhere, echoed on the twenty-four hour news cycle. You are shocked, but then after a cursory examination of the facts, you realize that the story sources are unnamed, the facts are unsubstantiated, and the experts are questionable. Your friend has bought into fake news—a smear campaign against the former president’s legacy. Your friend is an intelligent, good person, but you are embarrassed for him or her, that they were duped so completely.

Now, substitute former president for current president and switch drug dealing for Russian collusion. The story is just as bogus as the first example, but the person duped by it could be you. It has you upset and repeating it to friends, and the people running the smear campaign are patting themselves on the back for a job well done.

This scenario isn’t entirely your fault. You’re a busy, industrious person, who relies on the snippets of news gathered from print, radio, and/or television. Unfortunately, those sources are the dog being wagged by the vast smear industry on both the left and right side of politics. You likely don’t know who the smear merchants are, how they work, and how much they influence twenty-first century thought. Luckily, Sharyl Attkisson, one of the last investigative journalists of integrity left in a field of pretty faces and posers, identifies the producers of heavily biased and fake news and their methods of delivery. It’s a fascinating and startling tour, which exposes just how far journalism has fallen.

Attkisson begins by mapping the various groups and modes that deal in negative information, where an adherence to the truth is practiced if and only if it serves their purposes. Once the exclusive domain of PR firms and media departments, smears are generated routinely by super PACS, think tanks, nonprofits, shadow organizations accepting and allocating dark money, activist journalists, and a variety of real and fake persons and groups on the Internet. These organizations carry a billion dollar war chest, feeding multi-layers of slime producers through shadowy sub-organizations and multi-pronged subterfuge. With tremendous manpower and resources, they can mobilize at a moment’s notice to sway the public away from reason—all while appearing to be either the exclusive authority on a particular subject, from a different origin than in actuality, and/or much larger in numbers when in fact the source could be a single person you’ve never heard of yet posing as thousands.

“During the ’90s the flow of misinformation was established.”
–David Brock, political operative

Master propagandist and Nazi Joseph Goebbels, who had mastered Edward Bernays philosophies of mass persuasion and weaponizing information, believed that the truth could be manufactured by the state. While Goebbels might be daunted by the extent of the current propaganda industry, its objective has remained consistent: to obtain and maintain power by any means possible.

The American smear can trace its roots to the earliest days of politics. Jefferson, for example, smeared Adams through the press to effectively boot him from office and assume his job. Attkisson reveals today’s players—men like David Brock, a failed conservative gun for hire turned left-wing political operative, and his flagship organization Media Matters. He is both admired and reviled, depending on whether you’re on the giving or receiving end of his dirty work. This giant of the smear industry has likely rationalized his actions as a necessary means to an end. Keep in mind that Hitler and Stalin employed the same logic and tactics—the deliberate isolation and personal destruction of anyone who did not tout the party line.

Perhaps the most disturbing aspect for Attkisson is the media’s willingness to play along with smear tactics, behaving as an echo chamber for dirt without factual verification and in some cases generating the dirt themselves. Many of today’s journalists want “to change the world.” This would be fine if it meant the traditional journalism role of informing the public by recording events and uncovering facts, but the sentiment seems to be to actually change the world via reporting. This makes it easier for activist journalists, of which there is no shortage, to accept questionable leads to advance both their careers and personal agendas. In the past, a news bureau editor would ask reporters to “go find a story,” perhaps with a lead or two in hand. Today, a news bureau editor says, “This is the story. Now go find supporting material,” which often includes unnamed sources and little else. The storynow comes from high up in the corporate boardrooms and government hierarchy, instead of down on the streets where stories actually exist. Keep in mind that a former editor of Pravda, Russia’s premiere state newspaper, once admitted that it didn’t matter if the people realized that its newspaper’s stories were not true, only that they, the soviet government, determined the truth.

“[Trump thinks] he can control exactly what people think, and that is our job.”
–Mika Brzezinski, MSNBC

The result of activist smear journalism has been threefold. First, the average consciousness is no longer tangent to the facts, missing stories altogether and absorbing mostly commentary designed to obfuscate reality. You have to operate as your own journalist to uncover what’s really happening—digging, probing, and questioning everything—an impractical task in a busy world. Second, the thinking public has lost faith in once-heralded media institutions. Media outlets have pared down their editorial focus to a handful of topics, and then put on blinders to resist the facts. Like Pravda, they’ve predetermined the truth. Great, prizewinning journalists have walked their halls, and some still do, but the media has self-tarred and feathered itself via a lack of journalistic integrity. They’re hopping around, burning, half-crazed at times, and they are the only ones who don’t see the hideous joke they’ve become. Third, this journalistic implosion kicked open the door for a brash, big-mouthed, brilliant, bully outsider to become President of the United States, simply because he pointed out that the media was dishonest, and then the media lifted up this candidate by, well, lying about him.

And if you didn’t see the last election as anything other than a people’s revolution—about insiders vs. outsiders, about the players vs. the citizens, about socialist insurgency vs. libertarian pushback—then you weren’t paying attention. You were likely still mesmerized by the big media machine and its droning message.

“I think we spend too much time in New York.”
–Dean Baquet, executive editor New York Times

Sharyl Attkisson is no conservative. Her reporting on the Bush administration’s Halliburton connection, for example, was insightful and relentless. However, for turning a spotlight on the media, Attkisson has drawn fire from the smear merchants who cannot understand why doing her job includes investigating both sides of the political fence. It’s a good thing she’s a tough veteran of news ink. She’ll survive. Her book bravely dives into the bad, the ugly, and the ugliest of modern media. If you want to remain ignorant, don’t read The Smear. Keep regurgitating media talking points. They love it! The only question will be: How much power are you going to lend these people by not paying attention, by not calling them out? Attkisson has called them out.

Throughout the book, the author maintains grace and an obvious passion for a field and the principles it had once pledged to uphold. Her writing is clear, accessible, and carries appropriate depth for the subject matter without being condescending or leading. Isn’t that what good journalists are supposed to do? She should change her name to something other than a journalist, perhaps traditional journalist or truth teller or fearless fact finder. Or maybe those other guys should change their names to political hacks or yellow journalists or flat out liars.

RECOMMENDED by the US Review


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