One out of three adult Americans have no trust in our mass media, according to a September 2020 Gallup poll. Sharyl Attkisson attempts to explain why in her new book, “Slanted: How the News Media Taught Us to Love Censorship and Hate Journalism.”
Attkisson argues that we live in an Orwellian news environment: The major media outlets carefully filter information to make sure that journalists only present the “correct” view to their audience. Attkisson says reporters are so aware of this condition that they name it The Narrative.
I wanted to see who Attkisson reveals as the formulator of The Narrative, since she asserts there is a “Big Brother constantly revising ‘facts’ to fit the government’s ever-changing story.” In this book from Attkisson, a five-time Emmy Award-winning investigative journalist and New York Times bestselling author, I was expecting a deep dive into the corporate world to find the culprits. It turns out, Attkisson says, it’s the liberals — not the billionaires.
Although she never directly points her finger at liberals, she does point to left-leaning trademarks: recognizing President Donald Trump’s statements as lies, finding systematic racial, economic and police oppression as the root cause of our social problems, and presenting polling as spelling doom for Republicans.
Attkisson does not see news producers and editors as having evil motives so much as they believe they have a higher purpose. They do not trust the public “to process information and draw your own conclusions because you might draw the wrong ones.” She writes that editors also succumb to pressure to conform to The Narrative from outside lobbyists, lawyers, unions, ideological research organizations, other mainstream media players, etc.
In her opinion, CBS killed an investigative report of hers because it did not lead their viewers to the “right” conclusion — it was critical of President Barack Obama’s administration. She discovered that Michigan labor unions were angry that $300 million of President Obama’s green energy stimulus program was given to Korean companies and foreign Korean workers, at U.S.-based plants. The money was intended to employ U.S. workers.
In another instance described in the book, in 1996, CBS assigned Attkisson to report a story on why Republican presidential candidate Steve Forbes’ flat tax would not work. She noted that the assignment, as worded, assumed a prejudged conclusion that fit The Narrative — his flat tax would benefit the rich and hurt the poor.
It is not always a liberal bias that Attkisson illustrates, though. When Hillary Clinton, then the first lady, stumbled when descending a set of stairs, the news implied that Clinton’s stumble proved she was seriously ill. Attkisson’s point: Truthful information can qualify as a narrative when it is amplified beyond its news value in order to promote a particular bias.
Unfortunately, she tends to set up straw men to make a point. For instance, she recognizes that there may be a good reason to discuss the frequency of tornadoes or rising floodwaters theoretically in terms of global warming. But she says that by linking every weather phenomenon to man-made climate change, without consideration to scientific counterpoints, implies that contrary views are illegitimate. Is that happening? Is the media linking every weather event to global change? Or does mentioning it as a possibility, mean that equal time should be given to say that it may not be happening?
Attkisson says because President Trump has exposed bias, flaws, and weaknesses in the news media, journalists lost “their collective mind and shed all pretense of objectivity.” Particularly when he said that the media is an “Enemy of the People” and provides “Fake News.” She defends Trump saying he was only talking about the dishonest press — not everybody.
Curiously, she doesn’t identify which media organizations Trump considers honest. The pro-Trump, conservative Sinclair Broadcast Group would probably be an honest one. For five years, it has hosted Attkisson’s weekly investigative news program, which reaches 700,000 households on Sinclair’s network of nearly 200 television stations.
She realizes that Trump, like all politicians, exaggerates or make jokes that are taken as serious statements. But she will not call him a liar, nor any politician a liar. It’s up to the public to decide if they are telling the truth. As evidence she cites how she did not call President Obama a liar when he promised that Americans could keep their own health care plans and doctors under the Affordable Care Act. The journalism nonprofit Poynter Institute’s fact-check feature, PolitiFact, did call that Obama claim the 2013 “Lie of the Year.” However, she doesn’t mention that Trump’s own statements were awarded PolitiFact’s 2015, 2017 and 2019 Lie of the Year.
So, when is it the responsibility of a journalist to go beyond just repeating whatever politicians say? Attkisson says that the term “without evidence,” when applied to a politician’s statement, is an invented concept for the purpose of slanting the news. “Throughout time, few newsmakers presented ‘evidence’ when making statements,” she writes. But she does not distinguish the critically important difference between when they were expressing opinions or apparent facts.
When California Secretary of State Alex Padilla, told NPR, that Trump was lying when he spoke at an event in West Virginia in April of 2018 that, “In many places, like California, the same person votes many times — not a conspiracy theory folks. Millions and millions of people.” Was Trump expressing an opinion or was he stating something as a fact. Attkisson’s rule would not include a qualifier of adding “without evidence” to his statement. Is that good journalism, or is it just broadcasting a false accusation.
Attkisson gets credit for listing 12 publications she believes are doing honest, important work. Two of them are left-leaning, The Intercept and The Hill. Seven are right-leaning or just straight out hard-right such as Judicial Watch, which has described climate science as “fraud science.”
A liberal might easily put aside the book as another one written by a Trump apologist or a blinded conservative. However, reading “Slanted” stretches your mind to consider how major networks slant the news to conform to their prejudices. Attkisson assumes that there is a rigid mindset among most major media outlets that presents and shapes the facts to conform with generally liberal beliefs. For evidence, she provides a selection of detailed and presumably accurate examples.
Nevertheless, Attkisson’s Slanted ignores her own strong conservative bias in choosing which examples to support her position. That approach ultimately frames her own confining narrative of the book’s orientation and consequently greatly diminishes its value.