Let's start giving media manipulation the attention it deserves

Let's start giving media manipulation the attention it deserves
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Whether it’s a Friday leak to the press (meant to overtake a damaging narrative on Sunday news programs) or a Friday “document dump” of damaging material (meant to be overlooked by reporters ready to start their weekend), such news events rarely happen as a result of a reporter’s intrepid independent digging.

They’re orchestrated, leaked, planted and timed. 

And too often, we in the media serve as willing repositories for propaganda, talking points and spin du jour, whether generated by Democrats, Republicans or corporate interests. Deals are cut in secret. Backs are scratched. One hand washes another.

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The transactional nature of relationships between newsmakers and the media can make it easy for special interests to advance a narrative or accomplish a smear. Sometimes, it’s as if the newsmakers have state-run media or free advertising at their disposal, masquerading as news.

 

In October 2011, the Department of Justice was roiling in controversy over the multi-layered cover up of Operation Fast and Furious, where federal agents secretly allowed the trafficking of thousands of weapons to Mexican drug cartels. 

“Where are our surrogates,” then-Attorney General Eric HolderEric Himpton HolderTrump, Obamas and Clintons among leaders mourning Aretha Franklin With bash-Trump day, press acts like opposition party Sanders to appear next week on Colbert's 'Late Show' MORE asks his top press aide Tracy Schmaler in an email.

“Gave our stuff to some of the regular dem pundit and bloggers on cables,” replies Schmaler. “Lanny D – was on o’reilly this week and pushed back. Talked w/him at length last night and gave him our stuff…Reaching out to some others.” 

In another email, adviser Matthew Miller recommended, to Holder: “Find a way for you to get in front of a reporter or two about this…you could find a way to ‘run into’ a couple of reporters on your way to something. Maybe Pete Williams, Carrie, Pete Yost – that part can be managed. Most important is that you’re in front of a camera in a relaxed manner giving a response you have rehearsed.”

Other emails from the 2016 campaign show Hillary ClintonHillary Diane Rodham ClintonPapadopoulos's wife wants him to scrap plea deal with Mueller: report FBI chief: I'm trying to bring 'normalcy' in 'turbulent times' Senate Intel chief slams ex-CIA director for timing of claims about Trump-Russia ties MORE officials confident that they can plant stories and dictate terms of news coverage with multiple national news outlets.

Fortunately, not everyone in the press plays along all the time.

An email on May 2, 2015 showed Hillary’s camp was furious that NBC supposedly violated an agreement dictating how a story was to be written in exchange for an interview with former President Clinton.

“Going in, NBC agreed to do 70 percent of the piece on work of the [Clinton] Foundation and 30 percent about the book,” the Clinton campaign’s Jennifer Palmieri wrote to staff. 

“Cynthia McFadden was the interviewer and didn’t ask one question about work of the Foundation. Not one,” Palmieri complained. “Absurdly, NBC is still promising Craig that they will stick by 70-30 agreement by using footage of the events and Cynthia describing the work of the Foundation.” 

Palmieri added, “Not sure it will help, but I called Chuck Todd (as head of [NBC] political unit) to let him know how outrageous and ludicrous this was and that our side of the house is watching to see how NBC handles this…I think we have to make this public.”

How pervasive is all of this? Surely Republicans seek to be as successful as Democrats. But one of the best in the business is the pro-Hillary super PAC Correct The Record, one of the myriad of partisan groups started by Hillary Clinton ally David Brock of Media Matters. 

In internal memos revealed by WikiLeaks in October 2016, Correct The Record boasted it conducted “over 900 on-the-record and off-the-record media interviews” and sent “80 sets of talking points, background materials and briefings on topical issues” to defend Clinton to “372 surrogates including influential and frequent pundits on broadcast and cable news.” It also sent “media advisories” and “talking points” to “960 members of the national media and 10,756 regional reporters in 28 states,” and to “369 televisions producers and bookers.”

In the end, I don’t blame the PR flacks, the spinners or the politicians for trying to work us. It’s our fault in the media for being so eminently susceptible to manipulation.

Knowing all this, I view news differently than I used to. I don’t assume it’s false, but I also don’t assume it’s true. Even if true, I don’t assume it’s the whole story or that it’s presented in context until I can find out more. More frequently, I ask myself:

Who wanted this story placed at this time?

Who wants me to believe this, and why?

Answers to those questions can generate entirely different stories. Those stories aren’t being pushed by influential people, companies or political interests. Instead, they are stories that the powerful are trying to censor, “controversialize” or mute. These stories, I would argue, may be more important and insightful. And they’re not told often enough.

Sharyl Attkisson (@SharylAttkisson) is an Emmy Award-winning investigative journalist, author of the New York Times bestsellers “The Smear” and “Stonewalled,” and host of Sinclair’s Sunday TV program “Full Measure.”