Inside the Black Market Information Trade
Excerpted from Sharyl Attkisson’s “The Smear: How Shady Political Operatives and Fake News Control What You See, What You Think, and How You Vote,” published by HarperCollins
It’s March 2016. I’m speaking at a meeting on Capitol Hill attended mostly by congressional staffers. Groups of Democrats and Republicans routinely invite me and other journalists to speak. Sometimes I go because it helps me to get to know the players. They try to pick my brain. Why do journalists do such-and-such? Why can’t we get a fair shot from such-and-such news organization? There’s an understandable desire within both political parties to use the media to their advantage. In terms of who has the organization, leadership, strategy, and infrastructure to take better advantage, Republicans tell me they know that going into the 2016 campaign, it’s the Democrats. They ask me how they can get the same edge. I tell them I’m not a political adviser, just an observer.
At this particular March meeting, a hand shoots up in the back of the room during Q&A. I mentally note that the average age of the staffers seems to be dropping. Once they make enough connections to be considered marketable in Washington’s K Street world, they tend to leave elected politics and move on to the big money. They become consultants, advisers, and associates at lobby firms, PR companies, think tanks, strategy groups, and smear operations. Most political staffers don’t grow old in public service.
The young man with the question hasn’t worked on the Hill very long. But he already has ideas about how things work. He stands up and flashes a friendly grin.
“If we wanted to give you—for lack of a better word—‘dirt’ on somebody, and if you looked at it and didn’t want to use it, how could we get you to agree to keep it confidential so we can give it to somebody else? How would we go about that?”
The question is revealing. It tells me that the practice of public officials shopping “dirt” to reputable journalists has become so common, this twenty-something I’ve never met before has no compunction about raising it openly in front of his colleagues. He thinks his job, as he collects a salary from taxpayers, is to conduct and spread opposition research against political enemies. He thinks my job, and that of other reporters in Washington, is to sift through the dirt we’re handed and decide whether to use it or take a pass. It tells me this must happen all the time.
I politely explain that “dirt” really isn’t my thing. I tend to cover issues and angles that are underserved, but generally not because someone is peddling muck. He apologizes for his use of the word. But there’s no need. “I know how it works,” I tell him.
It’s not his fault. It’s my industry’s. We encourage the worst practices by allowing ourselves to be used. The result is transactional journalism. Transactional journalism refers to the friendly, mutually beneficial relationships that have developed between reporters and those on whom they report. It’s when the relationships cross a line beyond chumminess and the players strike clandestine business deals, whether formally or implicitly, to report on people and topics a certain way. Reporters may offer favorable treatment in exchange for getting a “scoop.” They may agree to let an interview subject dictate terms when it comes to topic and timing of publication. They may promise to ask some questions and avoid others.
They may carry on cozy relationships that allow their reporting to be influenced in ways they don’t disclose to the public. Usually reporters afford the most favorable treatment to those with whom they are ideologically in sync. All of this crosses an ethical line, in my opinion.
Transactional journalism results in a perverted dynamic. Public officials manipulate the press into competing to be first to receive government and political propaganda—self-serving rumors or press releases promoting agendas or smearing opponents. The reporter who’s first to publish these handouts gets a hearty pat on the back from colleagues. “Great get!” they say. In the news business a “great get” used to mean that you, as a reporter, got an exclusive story as a result of your ingenuity, shoe-leather journalism, and persistence. Today it simply means you’re the recipient of a White House or political party leak. As one national journalist tells me, “When you’re one of the top dogs in the ‘handout chain,’ you get the info first. And the total shills are feeding the material. The political operatives use [the media] . . . build them, break them down, or bust them when they need to or want to.”
Transactional journalism has become key to a smear artist’s ability to formulate a “Truman Show”-esque alternate existence all around us. As with AstroTurf, it’s a vehicle to create a smoke screen, making narratives appear to be organic, hard-nosed journalism when they’re the exact opposite. Much like AstroTurf, this is a world in which little happens by accident. Topics and people make news because it’s all been prearranged, preplanned, agreed upon.
During the 2016 presidential campaign, an acquaintance who’s also a national news journalist calls me from the road. “Whatever happened to journalism?” this reporter asks rhetorically. “Everyone’s reporting meaningless inside bullshit. I overhear live shots on the campaign trail and the reporters are saying, ‘My inside sources tell me ... ’ And they don’t have inside sources. They’re pretending they have some secret, inside track when it’s someone from a campaign handing them information the campaign wants put out. And it’s stuff the average Joe doesn’t really even care about.”
We’re being led by the nose as we attempt to pull the audience in a given direction. We’re giving a command performance while fooling ourselves into believing it was our idea. And we’re leaving ordinary Americans out of the equation. On a Venn diagram, there would be three circles: The news media and insiders we report on would be two circles that wholly overlap. Regular people would be in a third circle far away that doesn’t intersect the other two.
Consider the weirdly prominent national news coverage given to a smack down between two pro-Hillary super PACs during the 2016 campaign. The groups were competing for the same big liberal donors. The rivalry was of little interest to anyone except the political elite. Yet the “story” prompted dueling hatchet jobs feverishly covered by the national press as if it were a burning issue in the minds of millions. In early February 2015, the whole super PAC feud comes to a head. Hillary ally David Brock quits in a tiff from the board of one of the pro-Hillary super PACs, Priorities USA Action, accusing colleagues of orchestrating a “political hit job” against him and the other super PAC, which he founded, American Bridge. Brock gets his side of the story published in Politico. Politico brags that it’s obtained Brock’s actual resignation letter! In it Brock claims Priorities USA has launched a “specious and malicious attack on the integrity” of his own organizations. “Frankly,” Brock grouses, “this is the kind of dirty trick I’ve witnessed in the right-wing and would not tolerate then.” What an exclusive! What great reporting!
On a scale of one to 10, a neutral assessment would put the newsworthiness of all this at about zero. But each stakeholder in the story has his favorite go-to reporters. And so the drama is extensively covered by Politico, the New York Times, and the Hill. The media is being used. After all the dirty laundry is aired, the two super PACs quietly make their peace and return their joint focus to the business of smearing Hillary’s opponents.
In 2016, many in the news media stop even trying to pretend to be fair or neutral. Smear artists constructing their own desired realities have the phone numbers of all the right reporters. One Republican operative describes his simple strategy for success. He doesn’t work directly for the official GOP but gets picked up for projects on behalf of conservative interests and candidates. He says it’s easy to get sympathetic journalists from certain outlets to report what he wants.
“I have always made it my business to find out where reporters’ sympathies lie and I pitch accordingly.” As if it is an afterthought, he adds, “I’m not saying it’s a nice, clean, happy business.”