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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Ethics in the Real World by Peter Singer

Ethics in the Real World: 82 Brief Essays on Things That Matter

by Peter Singer
Princeton University Press

reviewed by Christopher Klim

“Once we start to question our evolved and culturally transmitted intuitive responses to moral issues, utilitarianism is, I believe, the most defensible ethical view…”

Peter Singer, bioethics professor and prolific essayist, has assembled a collection of writings on ethics. Sharing his views for decades, there are few topics, if any, this modern thinker has not touched upon. To cover the breadth of them in this review would be futile. While his point of view might be controversial to opposing thought, his words are vital in a society sorely lacking in civil public discourse. Regardless of our individual beliefs, it is essential that we consider arguments of focused and reasoned philosophers. In a time of swords and blood, thinkers like Singer are the antidote.

From the opening of this compendium, Singer is unafraid to tackle the big questions, and the existence of God is a philosophical debate for the ages. He focuses often on feelings as a supporting argument, particularly human suffering and its recurring merciless state. True, how can one assert the presence of an all-powerful God and justify world suffering in all of its forms? With this criterion as the basis, belief in God is impossible to sustain. However, Singer’s arguments are cherry-picked and at times more interested in highlighting the points he’s scored in public debate. He’s failed to absorb the full question, overlooking the existence of evil in all of its forms. Including this battleground and the mission of faith on Earth, so central to the Judeo-Christian tradition and others, might form a more complete debate.

Singer argues strongly in favor of godless morality, that it is human nature to construct morality. Moral principles, whether God-given or a manifestation of humankind, help to create a social structure in which people thrive. No one can deny this as a driving factor in the advancement of civilization. The author’s godless morality harkens Eric Hoffer’s query that the Ten Commandments, which is essentially an ethical code to lessen the chaos of humanity, was either divine in origin or man’s greatest invention. Singer plants himself in the latter camp. However, it makes one think: Does the genesis of morality really matter? To the pragmatist or historian, no. To the humanist or spiritualist, yes.

The author makes a strong case for the humane treatment of animals, including not killing or eating them. This has long been one his hallmark debates. Indeed, there is much evidence for the existence of emotional reason within nonhuman life forms and that the slaughter of animals for food is inhumane, if not unnecessary and perhaps nihilistic, in the modern world. This argument contradicts his support for abortion. He further asserts that not all life is worth the resources required to preserve or elongate it. This includes the right to choose death over life. The belief in the innate compassion of animals versus the selective diminishment of human life is a long-standing progressive conundrum that won’t be resolved any time soon.

The author delves into politics as well. Here we see progressive tenets addressed in summary fashion: defending utilitarianism, limiting religious freedom, embracing climate change solutions, pushing toward socialism and global governance, and demoting the US Constitution, to name a few. None of the pitfalls of these movements are touched upon. He hints at the egregious impingement of rights following 9-11, and he thankfully supports the complete freedom of speech, which has been for decades under assault by a neo-fascist progressive wing. He supports ethics—not fundamentalist restrictions—in science, which include global access to technology and information, humanitarian and environmentally conscious progression of the disciplines, and the silly notion of rights for robots. On that latter point, if one rejects the metaphysical nature of human existence unless given empirical proof, it’s easy to view a spirit in anything, even in a tumbling rock.

Singer’s writing is succinct and accessible as a manner of intent. Being able to write clearly and without pretension is a sign of intelligence and humility, for which any reader will be grateful. His arguments are well-defined, if not at times self-limited, although most skilled debaters tend to circumnavigate points that most challenge their suppositions. His essays do provoke an issue not often considered: Ethics are subject to a person’s belief system. We each have a belief system that falls somewhere between atheism and fundamentalism, and the dreaded confirmation bias is unavoidable. The world is a patchwork of various ethical codes, and when brought into bitter conflict, they can provoke outright war. The futility of this is difficult to refute. While the hope of assimilating ethics into a common code is slim, discussing various philosophies is useful and helps to maintain a civil opposition. Singer has his firm beliefs as well, and his book might be more appropriately called “Ethics in the Atheist World.” It’s a valid point of view of the godless moral principles. Nowhere are these better explained.

RECOMMENDED by the US Review

The Importance of Finding a Mentor

Two decades ago, years before my first novel was published, I discovered the man who would change my writing life. I’d been thrashing around with a few novel submissions, limited short story success, and a pile of neatly printed form rejections from Manhattan. I was in the pool with a million wannabe writers, who talked the talk and walked the walk but got virtually nowhere.

Then I made a fateful decision. With my latest rejection, I had received a handwritten note of encouragement from a New York editor. He didn’t want my bad novel, but everything I’d been told in writing groups, conferences, and the endless volumes of guidebooks was that a personal note was unusual. I shot back a letter of thanks for the feedback and asked one simple question: Any suggestions?

Weeks later, that editor wrote that there was an author/friend in Delaware who occasionally took on emerging writers. He was moderately expensive, and I had to audition first. No promises were made, but I was excited. I felt like I was finally getting somewhere. The author took me on and eventually dropped the per page charge. He became the most influential person in my life—the writing mentor who coached me to publishing my first novel and guided my career for decades.

My mentor began by showing me what I did well and how to feature it within my writing. That understanding still effects my work today. He also pointed out my deficiencies and showed me ways to strengthen them. As a sounding board, he shaped every one of my novel concepts. I’m not sure I even understood what a novel was before I met him. I was too much raw talent, rolling around aimlessly through words. With my mentor, I discovered both the joy and responsibility of writing a novel. He taught me how to focus and raise my profile as a writer.

At some point in your career, you’ll seek a mentor to get you to the next level. A mentor is someone who has gone ahead of you on the journey, knows the pitfalls, and can provide timely advice. You have to find a mentor. He won’t find you. In my case, I’d experimented with writing teachers and groups, hoping to make a helpful connection. For the most part, it was a waste of time when I should have been reading or writing, but I was putting myself out there and asked questions. Eventually the right mentor crossed my path—a bestselling author at the end of his career who wrote the kind of books I’d like write and had accumulated priceless wisdom.

Today the world is bigger than hit or miss hometown connections and the cruel realities of pub row in Manhattan. There are industry-specific mentor groups, which are accessible on-line through a variety of social media platforms. In the writing world, don’t be a pest. Don’t send unsolicited manuscripts to authors. Don’t corner them at conferences. Connect with them on-line. Ask a question. Offer to buy them a cup of coffee. The majority of the time, you will be ignored. Everyone is busy. But eventually you will connect with the right person who will help you in unimaginable ways.