Many people seem shocked by claims from a former New York Times reporter who says the newspaper sat on her 2004 information exposing alleged sexual misconduct by Hollywood mogul Harvey Weinstein. (The Times told Newsweek they would have only withheld information for good reason.)
The Weinstein question aside, I can tell you that every day, in newsrooms around the country, stories are killed because powerful people know how to get them killed.
Recently, a former managing editor of Time magazine said that the only bias reporters have is their bias to get a great story on the front page. That may be true of good journalists — and there are many. But good journalists’ intentions are impacted by managers and editors with authority to shape and censor; by managers and editors who are lobbied, enticed, pushed, pressed, cajoled and threatened by PR companies, crisis management specialists, global law firms, super PACs, advertisers, “nonprofits,” business interests, political figures, famous people, important people, wealthy people, and their own corporate bosses.
An entire industry has been built around companies and operatives that work to get stories placed, discredited or wiped. They obfuscate, confuse and attack. Their targets include ideas they oppose, whistleblowers and advocates who are exposing the truth, journalists uncovering the facts, and news outlets publishing the stories.
They deploy every tool imaginable: fake social media accounts, letters to the editor and editorials, journalists, nuisance lawsuits, bloggers, nonprofits, online comments, Wikipedia, paid “articles” written by for-hire “reporters.”
One operative matter-of-factly described his strategy to me: “You call the [news division’s] attorney, you call the general counsel, and you say ‘Do you understand what you’re doing?’ … We’ve killed several stories by using that method.”
In my two decades as a reporter for CBS News, my stories were often on the receiving end of these efforts. The pharmaceutical industry is probably the most aggressive and persuasive, considering how much media advertising it buys, how much influence it wields within government and how much money it has at its disposal. I’ve written about one of my best CBS executive producers who recounted getting harassed by the network sales department; at issue were my investigations exposing risks of medicine produced by some big pharmaceutical advertisers. More pressure came after off-the-grid conversations and meetings that pharmaceutical lawyers arranged with certain news producers and executives; I wasn’t invited.
Over the years managers asked me to to soften or remove information from stories — or “held” stories — related to the NFL, the American Red Cross, Ford Motor Company, People to People, Feed the Children, the government, a college football player, Goldman Sachs and Boeing, to name but a few. (This implies no illegal activity or wrongdoing on anyone’s part; it simply raises ethical questions within the journalism industry.)
At CBS News, it became routine for my stories to be met with organized resistance when the White House felt those were contrary to its interests. One White House operative might contact a CBS manager in New York. Pretty soon, we might be fielding calls to our Washington office from political figures; another White House flack might call my bureau chief after hours. All would use similar phraseology and talking points.
“What was his complaint this time?” I asked my CBS bureau chief on one occasion when he mentioned the regular post-story call from a White House spokesman.
“He didn’t really have a specific one,” the bureau chief replied with a chuckle. “He just didn’t like the whole story.”
If nothing else, they hope to wear you down. Or better yet, wear down your bosses so that they seek to avoid the stories altogether.
The multi-pronged outreach strategy was more obvious than usual in September of 2013, with the benefit of a few emails. It was after CBS News assigned me to cover the Benghazi story (for which we received a nomination for an investigative Emmy Award). Two White House operatives separately emailed two CBS figures about an hour apart to complain about my stories. They proposed a story, instead, about “exculpatory” material, which they attached to the email.
From White House spokesman Jay Carney to the CBS bureau chief:
“… we know if it was the reverse — we’d be deluged in coverage. So it only seems fair to report on the exculpatory material. Three different themes we noticed below (with page number cites!)… let me know if we can otherwise be helpful. – Jay”
Meantime, White House spinmeister Eric Shultz fired off a nearly identical complaint and pitch to the CBS White House correspondent:
We know if it was the reverse — we’d be deluged in coverage. So it only seems fair to report on the exculpatory material. Three different themes we noticed below (with page number cites!) … let me know if we can otherwise be helpful. – Eric
I pointed out to my bureau chief that we had already reported the angles they were pushing.
“They’re just doing their propaganda job trying to harass you guys so you’ll harass me,” I noted. “Right you are,” replied my boss.
I was lucky. Most of the time, I had managers who stood up to the obvious attempts to draw us away from important reporting; I think most news organizations have managers like this. But it became tougher and tougher.
In the last ten years, I’ve talked to many reporters who have complained to me that they believe they’ve had stories improperly changed or killed at CBS, NBC, ABC, Fox News, The Wall Street Journal, The New York Times, The Washington Post and in local news.
At a conference for investigative reporters, a small group of us circled up and compared notes. We all agreed it’s getting worse.
Several years ago, I began trying to think of ways that our profession could address its problem. How can we install firewalls that keep us separate from corporate and political interests that may seek to improperly sway us?
When news executives are lobbied by the advertising division, corporate bosses or outside interests, they could simply point to policies that don’t allow them to engage outside a carefully set-forth process. Corporate executives above the news division could do the same. In my view, such policies wouldn’t restrict us: they would free us.
But it seems few want to address the elephant in the room.
In the end, the biggest problem just might be self-censorship. Why waste time on stories that will never air, or stories that will only make your professional life difficult? We come to understand what types of stories “they” want and which “they’ll” kill — “they” referring to that nebulous, changeable group of deciders in the news division or on a specific program.
A colleague once told me “they don’t pay” him enough to do stories that take on certain powerful interests. Another says he avoids the hassle by sticking mostly to features about animals and weather. “Everybody’s happy” after those stories, he says. “Nobody complains.”
In this way, the propagandists have accomplished their job without lifting a finger. We’ve done it for them.
All of this explains why, when I read or watch the news, I often wonder what parts might have been forced into the story or what material might have been removed.
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.”