I dream of a world without smears

I dream of a world without smears
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Smear /smeer/: noun

  1. Carefully timed and publicized release of negative material, true or not, about a target.
  2. Character assassination.

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Smears have become a distasteful staple in our media diet. The nonprofits, LLCs, super PACs, PR firms, crisis management companies and global law firms that organize and promote smears have formed a multibillion-dollar industry. They’re profiting beyond imagination.

Are we?

After interviewing many players who work in the smear industry, I came up with three characteristics that qualify an accusation as a smear. The determination of whether a particular attack is, in fact, a smear lies not so much in the truth of the accusation, but in execution and motivation.

In a smear:

  • The media are used as a tool in an organized effort to amplify accusations, true or not, in a fashion disproportionate to the alleged offense.
  • Though moral outrage is voiced, the accused actually is targeted for entirely different reasons, usually in a campaign by political or financial competitors.
  • The goal of a smear is the target’s destruction.

When a smear is launched against someone we don’t like, we may be happy to enjoy the ride. If it’s against someone we like, we fret about how unjust it is. But we seldom step back and see the big truth: We are little more than an unwitting audience watching a scripted play. There are behind-the-scenes producers, writers and actors. They are experts at working the media, plucking our emotions and prompting their desired results. They carefully time each allegation, roll out demands for apologies or resignations, and organize “grassroots” boycotts. 

We might benefit from asking ourselves if the smear du jour really deserves to dominate national or even global headlines, hour after hour, day after day. Is it really much more important than all of the real news happening around the world? Are we better off for the results?

Can we find kryptonite to weaken or destroy the smear, if we want to?

I don’t have a perfect answer. But what if we were to decide that how much we should care about a particular allegation has something to do with how recent, how provable and how serious it is? For example, an unprovable non-criminal offense allegedly committed 40 years ago would merit less attention than an alleged, documented crime that took place last week. And what if we were to say that, in any event, the “story” may merit news coverage but should be proportionate?

“That’s no good,” you may say. “It matters to me if a politician did dishonest things — or worse — in high school or college. And who decides what’s proportionate, anyway?”

I’m simply saying that if we stopped being so utterly predictable, so responsive to the archetypical smear campaigns launched day in and day out, exactly as the smear artists intend, then the value of their multibillion-dollar industry falls to near zero overnight.

Yes, it would require us to change our worldview a bit. When we sense a smear — and we all know when one is gearing up — rather than cringing if it’s one of our guys and being happy if it’s one of theirs, maybe we should ask ourselves who’s behind the attack and what’s the real purpose, regardless of the target.

The power of the smear lies entirely within its capacity to make us respond. The day we decide not to play the game simply as the audience, we could see a drastic reduction not only in smears but also in smears covered as news. Allegations and accusations still would be reported, but in a far more appropriate, proportional fashion. 

I dream of a world without smears because, in the end, we aren’t the ones who benefit. The ones who gain the most work in that behind-the-scenes, multibillion-dollar industry that’s pulling our strings. And because our attention is diverted from matters that are arguably more important, we lose out twice.

How about a little audience participation in the next passion play?

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