Sharyl Attkisson on C-SPAN: Team Obama 'Has Perfected The Stall, The Delay, The Redaction, The Excuses'

Emmy Award-winning investigative reporter Sharyl Attkisson -- who recently left CBS News and accused the outlet of a reticence to criticize the Obama administration -- appeared on C-SPAN's Q&A Sunday evening to discuss her forthcoming book Stonewalled: One Reporter's Fight for Truth in Obama's Washington.

Attkisson, who recently joined the Heritage Foundation's Daily Signal website as a senior independent contributor, explained that between an opaque Obama administration and timid "powers that be" in corporate liberal media outlets, journalists like her interested in doggedly pursuing the truth have a rougher go at things than before.

Attkisson told Lamb she left CBS because there was "no longer a market for investigative reporting." She argued that what she enjoys doing is reporting on "under-reported" stories, but those stories often faced a lot of push-back because "it goes after the powers that be." The CBS alum cited political and financial connections between corporations and networks as the cause for the decline in investigative reporting.

Throughout the hour-long discussion Attkisson informed Lamb of the challenges journalists face today. She made it clear they are not new challenges, but rather have increased greatly during the Obama presidency:

"Freedom of information process has become a joke. It was already well on its way before the Obama administration. This administration has perfected the stall, the delay, the redaction, the excuses."

The CBS alumna has requested information repeatedly via Freedom of Information requests but has found herself waiting years that by the time she does receive anything it’s either had information redacted or no longer newsworthy. Often times the information is withheld and the only way to get the full story would be to file a lawsuit.


Attkisson spoke at length about the Benghazi scandal, pointing out the lack of information regarding the timeline of events, something she has perceived to be a “basic question” because Americans “have no idea what the Commander in Chief was doing” when the attacks transpired. Attkisson is of the understanding that the administration would answer that basic question “if there was something positive to say about it.” So as a journalist the lack of answers has caused her to to be curious about a cover-up, so she has continued to press for answers.

For his part, Lamb likened the digging for information on Benghazi to be on the same page as the Obama birth certificate search:

"We lived for years of the stories about President Obama and his birth certificate and where he was born. Eventually.., it came out, the birth certificate and all that. There wasn't a negative story to that. He got through the election. Why are you so sure there will be a negative on the Benghazi story? What difference would it make now? Kinda like what Hilary Clinton said."
 

Attkisson responded that letting go of something because time passes -- an "at this point, what difference does it make" posture -- is the:

"...worst kind of message to send when something does happen. If a politician knows all they have to do is wait long enough, no matter what happens, that it will go away."

The Daily Signal contributor told Lamb that she hopes to spend her time doing coming up with "original stories that maybe go against the powers that be." She no longer wants her stories to be "shaped by the efforts that are out there" to shape stories that favor a specific direction.

The relevant portion is transcribed below:

C-SPAN
Q&A
June 22, 2014
8:00 p.m. Eastern

BRIAN LAMB: Now you're three months passed being with CBS. You've talked a lot about it. Tell us why you left.

SHARYL ATTKISSON: Primarily because there just wasn't a market for what I think I do best, which is good investigative reporting preferably on topics that are under-reported or under-served otherwise and often on topics people don't want to touch because they get push back or blow back. I like covering these kinds of topics. It doesn't mean they're easy to cover, but I think that's important.

[...]

ATTKISSON: I think over all, not just at CBS but according to my colleagues in print and broadcast and elsewhere, there's been a declining appetite for investigative reporting. It's gotten harder and harder. Not just political reporting, which is really not my favorite kind to do, but any kind of reporting that goes after the powers that be. There are such organized, well financed efforts that go after the reporters and reports before, during, and after they're being crafted. It's a lot of trouble.

LAMB: Why are they concerned about the powers that be?

ATTKISSON: I think that there's an element of it's easier just to do -- to take the path of least resistance. If you're a manager, why do you want the headaches of all the things that they do and all the tactics they engage in to stop and stall stories. I think there are financial connections between people that we may do stories on and the networks and entities we work for. I think there are political connections sometimes. There's a complex web of factors that have come together in a perfect storm. that led to this declining appetite for investigative reporting. All the investigative reporting from CBS are gone.

[...]


LAMB: Why the subtitle, One Reporters Fight for Truth in Obama's Washington?

ATTKISSON: Specifically, the way Washington has been transformed in the last couple of years, it's always been tough. It was tough as we discussed under Clinton. It was tough under Bush for journalists in many respects. Journalist by in large, I'm talking about journalists in "New York times," Washington post, ABC, NBC, CBS agree this is the administration we've worked for in terms of transparency and trying to hold the powers that be accountable. Journalist have banded together and written letters to the white house expressing this thought. There has been the spying, snooping scandals that journalist banded together and written objections to this administration and specifically said this is the worst atmosphere that we've faced.

LAMB: What grade would you give him [on transparency]?

ATTKISSON: An F on transparency and freedoms of information. I think my colleagues in journalism would give a similar grade whether they're liberal or conservative. The Freedom of Information process has become a joke. It was already well on its way before the Obama administration. This administration has perfected the stall, the delay, the redaction, the excuses.
It's shocking because I feel very strongly that the information that they withhold and protect many times belongs to the public. We own it. There's no sense of that when we ask for it. They covet it as if they're a private corporation, protecting their trade secret rather than understanding that what they hold is information they've gathered on our behalf. I have a healthcare.gov freedom of information request. When sued they have to produce material under court order to this organization, that de facto becomes public. I still can't get that. I'm still fighting with them to say, you lost. You have to provide at least the chunks of information you lost in court and to me and those who requested it. They just ignore it. There's no consequence to it.. unless you file a lawsuit.

[...]

ATTKISSON: I do think access is overtly threatened. I've been told since I left CBS, some of the reasons -- by other journalist and executives -- I think three executives -- they told me similar stories. That the administration, I think the Bush administration may have done something similar, will literally tell the morning shows they will be out of the rotation on getting the next interview with Mrs. Obama or other officials if they do the wrong kind of reporting. They're so concerned about getting that interview. I argue there's nothing that the interview can offer the viewers that's original and unique. It's propaganda that the government wants to get out anyway, it's publicity for the agents they're putting out there.


[...]

ATTKISSON: For Benghazi, I'm just still surprised this much after the fact that we have no answers to the time line or generally what the commander in chief did while Americans were under attack on foreign soil. The Egyptian attack happened and Benghazi attack happened, other embassies could have been going up in the middle east. We have no idea what the commander in chief was doing. I think that's a basic question they would have answered if there was something positive to say about it. So it leaves you as a journalist to assume there’s something they don’t want you to know since they aren’t telling you.

LAMB: Let me -- we lived for years of the stories about president Obama and his birth certificate and where he was born. Eventually, I'm sure this is going to get me in an argument, it came out, the birth certificate and all that. There wasn't a negative story to that. He got through the election. Why are you so sure there will be a negative on the Benghazi story? What difference would it make now? Kinda like what Hilary Clinton said.

ATTKISSON: I didn't cover the birth certificate story at all. I can't comment on what was found and what was positive there. I think Americans have every right not to care -- to say this is old, I don't care and I don't have a problem with that. As a journalist, it's important for us to learn not to let go of something because some time passes. That's the worst kind of message to send when something does happen. If a politician knows all they have to do is wait long enough, no matter what happens that it will go away. That's one of my specialties is to keep digging until it reaches a conclusion rather than a lot of people go away when questions aren't answered. At the end of the day, there have been enough times where is information comes out later that is significant and important to enough people that it makes me think it's still worth asking and pursuing.
[...]

ATTKISSON: I think my main goal at this stage in my life and career is to be able to publish stories that have some meaning, that are original, that maybe go against the powers that be that others are afraid of and have it done in a way that's honest and straightforward. Not shaped by the efforts that are out there to shape it in one way or another.

Jackie Seal
Jackie Seal is a 2014 summer intern with the MRC's News Analysis Division.