Sunday, October 01, 2017

The Smear

The Smear: How Shady Political Operatives and Fake News Control What You See, What You Think, and How You Vote by Sharyl Attkisson

(Update edit:  I should mention right off the bat that Attkisson was an Emmy-award winning CBS reporter for many years.  I don't know if she still is. I think not.)

I have cynically said for years that Republicans lie 50% of the time and Democrats 90%. I may be upping those numbers to 70 and 95 after reading this book.

There are two related books happening at once here. The second title, How Shady Political Operatives and Fake News Control What You See, What You Think, and How You Vote  is about the manipulation of information in general. How the media gets co-opted by politicians and groups who offer to do their work for them and restrict access to those who agree to write favorably or do softball interviews.  While this has been going on as long as I have been following the news, Attkisson provides solid evidence that it has become much worse, especially over the last decade. She repeatedly uses the image of The Truman Show, where an entire false reality is inserted. She means it. She doesn't believe that much of anybody actually gets the news these days.

She names names and gives examples.  A fair sampling of individuals are identified, but a lot of the list is groups who are doing all the behind-the-scenes work. Information-managing is a pretty formidable PR and oppo research business at this point, employing thousands of people, not only in DC and New York but for/against major industries and causes. I had not known how extensively the money and influence is spreading out to smaller players on the web, not only to helpfully run stories to create an impression of a groundswell of public opinion, but to comment and push back against a site’s general thrust.  Undermining the opposition’s information may be more important than providing your own. Notice the frequent-flier opponent commenters on the sites you frequent. They may be getting paid for that work. She describes "transactional" journalism throughout the book.

She describes how the fact-checking sites get manipulated, and the ways that even Wikipedia and Snopes can shade things to create - or allow - a narrative. (Yes, even Snopes, especially the last half-dozen years.)

The second book is The Smear, and this is a textbook about how its done, how to spot it, and who’s doing it. It is all as we suspected and worse. It has multiplied in the internet era, enough that people who speak up can be destroyed virtually overnight.  Most outrage you read about these days is manufactured. Examples are provided - ones you will recognize, such as the sudden destruction of Don Imus over the Rutgers basketball comment. He is a shock jock and had been making such comments for years, but coincidentally, it occurred when he had taken to calling Hillary "that buck-toothed witch, Satan." Media Matters (of course!) assigned Ryan Chiachierre to listen to every syllable Imus uttered until they had one they could astroturf, creating the impression that there was general outrage about his Rutgers comment.  There wasn't. At least until there was an engineered outrage against him, anyway.

It worked. These people know how to isolate you and force even people who like you to distance themselves from you and deny you.

It’s important to remember that much of the information being spread is at least partly true, and the criticism deserved, but the timing and placement are such that equivalent truths are obscured. Lying is only one tool in the box. (Though it is used frequently.) Secondly, the semitrue information is often the sort that is only uncovered by private detectives. Also, much of what is put forward is opinion disguised as fact.  Nor is this simply a matter of reasonably hiring better, though legal and above-board PR firms than your opponents. When journalists are corrupted, and entire networks and news organisations are willingly seduced into reporting scandals about one side but not the other, or undermining one set of critics but not the other, it may be legal, and the information true, but still deceitful.

I had to keep reminding myself of this in certain sections.  I would think to myself, Okay, this is a little low and cheap, but what they are doing is completely legal.  Let’s not oversell this. Then I would remember: the title of the book is The Smear. Even if the information is true, it may have been organized and packaged by professionals, who are suppressing counter-information.  Its main focus is not to force investigations, but to instruct the reader how to see through this.

Or one main focus, anyway.  Ms. Attkisson clearly wants to make sure that some important people get exposed and publicly kicked. For example (in keeping with Assistant Village Idiot’s renewed awareness of stories that have gone down the memory hole), she reminds us that during the investigation of Bill Clinton in the late 90’s, Kathleen Willey had her children threatened during the period she was testifying about him.  This came up as an addition to the description of the smear tactics used against her. Border and Customs and ATF whistleblowers, including Fast and Furious.

So who’s worse, you all want to know, and I have intentionally dragged my feet in revealing.  She repeatedly says it’s many groups: industries and corporations trying to highlight some information while burying other, both political parties, supposedly neutral media sources, and hosts of advocacy groups or lobbyists, and gives examples.  More than once I saw a name heave into view and thought Oh no, not them.  I thought they were among the good guys. Most prominently, she comes back to three villains:  Sidney Blumenthal, David Brock, Hillary Clinton. She multiplies example upon example. Even subtracting out that trio she seems to have more examples of liberals and Democrats, but those three dwarf all other players in her estimation.  I was surprised she referenced Barack Obama as little as she did.  Perhaps she thought she had already covered that in her previous book Stonewalled. For conservatives and libertarians who sense this very easily about others, it pays to remember that there are lots of people who try to get their word out by getting their story into Rush Limbaugh's hands, or Jonah Goldberg's or Glenn Reynolds. Those people can't read everything and rely on people to send them stories, news, and immediate counterarguments.  They develop a network of people and organisations they trust. There doesn't have to be anything the least illegal or even unethical about this.  It might just be like-minded people cooperating and sharing resources.

Yet it can also bring pressure to bear far more quickly than you or I could do, and one can see how it could easily go bad. They have no obligation to tell you the other side.  They are trying to convince you of an entire array of ideas.  Let the other guy tell the other side.

The textbook part, Smears 101, is very helpful.  It confirms much of what I suspected, and added things I kicked myself for not having seen on my own. The simple steps of the smear are described, so that ye may be ready. Here’s one reminiscent of CS Lewis, who suggested when one sees the word debunked or discredited, it is worth asking “When? How? By Whom?” Attkisson suggests something very similar, that the use of these words is often a sign that no one actually has debunked or discredited the idea – they are used much more often when untrue than when true.

Predictably, if you Bing, Google, or DuckDuckGo for her first book, the second entry is from Media Matters discrediting the book in a sneering, insulting manner, relying heavily on irrelevant but emotion-laden details. Also, if you browse through the Amazon reviews, you can spot which ones are professionally done. Attkisson raises your awareness and you skill level in these matters and hopefully, encourages you to use them against your own side as well.


Almost the last half of the book is about the 2016 campaign, as she is fascinated by the Trump phenomenon that takes smears full-bore and seems to benefit from them, even when they are true. Though Donald Trump is perceived as an attacking and smearing politician, this is because he does it all on his own, right out in front of others.  Obama and Hillary do this more artfully, and have network that creates and then supports their attacks. He doesn't have any network of information-placers, attack dogs, or softball interviewers. Or at least, he didn't used to.


Unknown said...

I find this interesting in that I see the author's name, and immediately think "isn't that the paranoiac who was fired by CBS for being political?"

But going to Wikipedia (which cannot be assumed to be unbiased) I see the link to a story pushed by Brock's "Media Matters" about her allegedly hacked devices, and their report at perfectly lines up with the thesis above -- it cleverly omits mention of her CBS work computer being compromised, as reported by people at CBS other than her who sought and got independent expert confirmation. And my recollection about her departure from CBS doesn't seem to fit with the evidence presented there either.

Assistant Village Idiot said...

That's the sort of spin/respin undermining she is writing about. She does not reference that incident in this book. As I noted at the end, she may have covered that material in Stonewalled, which I have not read. She resigned from CBS, was not fired, though such things are sometimes ambiguous.

Sam L. said...

I've stopped reading the lap dog media and the alphabet networks. For this, and other, reasons.

james said...

"He who controls the present controls the past."

I don't see a grand plot to destroy print media--that seems to be happening independently.

It is interesting to watch the machinery gearing up to suppress "hate speech." Can you say "mission creep?"

Sam L. said...

"Hate Speech", of course, is anything the Left doesn't like.

Texan99 said...

I laughed when I read "even Snopes." They're a very serious offender. I often check stories there and, if there is the least political whiff about the story, routinely conclude that the analysis is wildly biased, even if a little good information can still be gleaned from it. They're not bad when it comes to debunking run-of-the-mill urban legends and fake internet memes, especially quotations attributed to surprising people in anonymous poster form.

GraniteDad said...

Texan99, I find them very useful if you need to prove something to a left-leaning friend. If Snopes says that it is not true, that is much more convincing to someone then sending them an article from the Daily Caller or something similar.

Assistant Village Idiot said...

@ Granite Dad - true. I had a helluva time finding all-liberally biased sources for my gun control FB discussion last night (I hope you skipped it), but I managed it, and I know linking to Washington Post and Boston Globe articles kept some dismissal at bay.