Notes on “Stonewalled,” part 2

Reading Sharyl Attkisson’s Stonewalled from cover to cover over the weekend, I flipped over the book. In this post I continue to jot notes on the book to amplify the (insufficient) attention it has received so far. Part 1 is posted here; our interview with Sharyl Attkisson, recorded yesterday, is posted here.

• Attkisson organizes the book around the Obama administration scandals she covered at CBS News, and she covered just about all of them with the exception of the IRS scandal. Each of the scandals falls into a larger pattern of scandal management practiced by the Obama administration. The book is great at providing the details of the pattern. Without her saying anything about it, the reader can see how the IRS scandal fits the pattern precisely, to a T. This is one respect in which her book is invaluable, combining her reportage with her work behind the scenes inside CBS News.

• What is the pattern? False denials (bald lies) and stonewalling. Attribution of responsibility to the lowest level of bureaucrat when that fails. Rather than responding to straightforward inquiries, administration spokesmen pump reporters for the information they have so they can undermine it. (Attkisson calls this technique “pump and mine.”) Slanted leaks to friendly bloggers and reporters. Characterization of advances in the story as “old news.”

• Disparagement of sources and reporters advancing the story via friendly bloggers and reporters. (Attkisson calls this technique “controversialization.”) Attkisson has been a prime subject of the technique of controversialization. She is speaking from personal experience recounted in the book. Attkisson singles out Media Matters as the prime mover of administration spin into the mainstream media. As Attkisson demonstrates, however, MM’s power derives from the complicity and cooperation of MM’s media allies, i.e., the Obama administration’s media allies.

• And then we have this (page 278): “Perhaps the greatest PR coup of all is that the administration’s expert spinners successfully lead the media by the nose down the path of concluding there’s no true controversy unless there’s a paper trail that lays blame directly on the president’s desk. Time and again, with each scandal and each damaging fact, Democrats and the White House read from the script that says ‘there’s no evidence President Obama knew’ or ‘there’s no evidence of direct White House involvement.’ Anything short of a signed confession from the president is deemed a phony Republican scandal, and those who dare to ask questions are crazies, partisans, or conspiracy theorists.”

• One more quote (also from page 278): “Under President Obama, the press dutifully regurgitates the line ‘no evidence of White House involvement,’ ignoring the fact that if any proof exists, it would be difficult to come by under an administration that fails to properly respond to Freedom of Information Act requests, routinely withholds documents from Congress, and claims executive privilege to keep documents secret.”

• Here Attkisson actually plays a round of her Substitution Game (also from page 278): “If past presidents had received similar treatment, the headline for Hurricane Katrina in 2005 might have read, ‘No evidence Bush had direct involvement in botched Katrina response’ instead of ‘The botching of Hurricane Katrina will affect Bush’s legacy’ (U.S. News and World Report).”

• Finally, Attkisson shows the honchos of the Obama administration berating her and running to CBS management about her and her coverage of the various scandals. She doesn’t understand! She is being unreasonable! She needs adult supervision!

• Attkisson argues that these techniques are common scandal management practices, but (outside national security issues), would Republicans think they can get mileage out of complaining to management? Attkisson doesn’t play what she calls the Substitution Game on this point. Having covered stories highly unflattering to the Bush administration, however, she is in a position to do so, and not hypothetically. I conclude from the evidence she presents in her book that the Obama administration has gotten away with practices that a Republican administration wouldn’t dare to try.

• I should add that Attkisson pays tribute to management’s support of her work up to a certain point. She singles out former CBS News president Rick Kaplan in particular for his support. Kaplan’s successor, however, is David Rhodes, the brother of senior Obama administration adviser Ben Rhodes.

• Nevertheless, Attkisson’s book covers two sets of scandals in the book. The first set is the Obama administration scandals around which the book is organized. The second set is the treatment of these scandals inside CBS News. With respect to each of the scandals, Attkisson demonstrates the success, more or less, of the Obama administration’s scandal management inside CBS News.

• What I characterize as the CBS News scandal thread culminates in Attkisson’s account of the suppression of the 60 Minutes interview with President Obama on September 12, 2012, in which he explained why he did not characterize Benghazi as a terrorist attack. The release of this interview might have been of interest, shall we say, in the aftermath of the second Obama/Romney debate. It was only as a result of the dust raised by Attkisson and others inside CBS News once they belatedly discovered the interview that CBS News posted it online, the weekend before the election — too late to matter.

• You and I will probably never read Hillary Clinton’s memoir of her service as Secretary of State, but Benghazi is one of Attkisson’s stories and Attkisson has read Clinton’s chapter on it. Attkisson includes a devastating reading of Clinton’s take on Benghazi (pages 211-216), concluding with this observation: “Throughout the chapter, Clinton laments ‘a regrettable amount of misinformation, speculation and flat-out deceit by some in politics and the media.’ On that point, many would agree. They just might disagree on who’s responsible for perpetuating the deceit.” This is an observation that applies generally to each of the Obama administration scandals Attkisson covers in the book.

• Attkisson has received multiple Emmys and other awards recognizing the quality of her investigative reporting. Yet her experience inside CBS News “in Obama’s Washington” (to borrow from the subtitle of her book) was so unpleasant that she sought to be released from her contract before its expiration, and CBS News accommodated her. David Rhodes remains president of CBS News, Ben Rhodes remains inside the White House and Attkisson remains off the air as a reporter, at least through whatever period of noncompetition might be specified in her severance agreement with CBS News. (I’m guessing there is one.) From the perspective of the Obama administration, her departure from CBS News is a win/win, though it gave her the time and freedom to write this important book.

Coming soon, I hope: part 3.

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