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The Smear: How Shady Political Operatives and Fake News Control What You See, What You Think, and How You Vote Hardcover – June 27, 2017
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From the Back Cover
Don’t believe everything you read.
Behind most major political stories there is an agenda: To destroy an idea or the people advancing it. Maybe you watched someone on the news report that Donald Trump is a racist misogynist, read that Hillary Clinton used a body double, or heard that Bernie Sanders cheated in the primary. Regardless of accuracy, the themes get repeated until they become accepted by many as the truth. It’s called “the smear.” Sophisticated operatives work behind the scenes to establish narratives, manipulate journalists, and shape the images you see every day. Nothing is by accident.
Now hard-hitting investigative journalist Sharyl Attkisson, the New York Times bestselling author of Stonewalled, takes you behind the scenes of the modern smear machine, exploring how operatives from corporations and both sides of the political aisle have manipulated a complicit mainstream media to make disinformation, rumor, and dirty tricks defining traits of our democracy. Pulling back the curtain on the shady world of opposition research, she reveals how those in power create well-funded, organized attack campaigns to take down their enemies and influence your opinions, offering a detailed examination of the think tanks, super PACs, LLCs, and nonprofits that have become the hidden backers of some of the biggest smears in American politics.
And she doesn’t just tell stories—she names names, sharing her deeply researched account of how smears take shape and who their perpetrators are—from Clinton confidant Sidney Blumenthal to liberal political operative David Brock, who, along with his expansive Media Matters for America empire, has been rewriting the rules of the smear game for decades while raking in millions of dollars in generous compensation. In addition, Attkisson reveals outrageous transactional journalism and exposes scandalous emails behind the smear industrial complex, showing how Campaign 2016 became the exclamation point on the thirty-year evolution of the smear machine. Dissecting the most divisive, partisan election in American history, she explores how both sides used every smear tactic as a political weapon, culminating in Donald Trump’s hard-fought victory, even as his detractors have continued their smears against him into the Oval Office.
What emerges is a timely assault on the mainstream media’s willingness to sacrifice ethics for clicks, and the cynical politicians and high-paid consultants who exploit this reality. A critical discussion for this perilous moment, The Smear is a disturbing look at how the black market serving professional propagandists really works.
About the Author
Sharyl Attkisson has been a working journalist for more than thirty years and is host of Sinclair's Sunday morning TV program "Full Measure with Sharyl Attkisson." She has covered controversies under the administrations of Bill Clinton, George W. Bush, and Barack Obama, emerging with a reputation, as the Washington Post recently put it, as a “persistent voice of news-media skepticism about the government’s story.” She is the recipient of five Emmy Awards and an Edward R. Murrow Award for investigative reporting. She has worked at CBS News, PBS, and CNN and is a fourth degree blackbelt in TaeKwonDo.
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This situation didn’t just happen—it’s been a long time coming: “The past two decades have served as an ideal incubator for an industry of smears and fake news.” Attkisson documents, in great detail, many of the behind-the-scenes organizations with political agendas. The consumer of news is “pummeled by countless narratives—some based on grains of truth; others wholly invented for the audience.”
The author warns news consumers to be cautious even if all the media outlets are parroting the same line: “Today, if enough pundits, operatives, and media parrot the same narrative, it becomes incorporated into the fabric of the news as an accepted fact.”
And yet, smear campaigns are not new—they are as old as the Republic: “Our founding fathers knew very well the power of a sharp character assassination . . . Hamilton and Jefferson were planting stuff on each other’s sex lives.”
The author documents many smear campaigns—originating from both the Left and the Right. She cites the Clarence Thomas hearings as an example of smears from both sides, and also, how one might fight a smear. “The Clarence Thomas Supreme Court nomination showed both sides that the best way to fight a smear might not be to take a defensive posture—but to mount an offensive countersmear.”
Attkisson is careful to define what she means by “smear.” It’s not the dissemination of falsehoods, so much as exaggeration: “Expert smear artists take a sprinkle of truth—in this case Imus’s objectionable comments—and pervert it into a weapon of mass destruction to advance a larger goal, often political or financial.” Smear campaigns take something that is true and "amplify a misdeed out of proportion.”
For me, one of the most fascinating sections was the explanation of a variation of smear called “Astroturf.” In this variation, the pros pretend they are ordinary folks: “Paid interests disguised as ordinary people troll assigned topics, news sites, reporters, blogs, and social media for the purpose of posting comments that spin and confuse.” The idea is to “give the impression there’s widespread support for or against an agenda when there’s not.”
Attkisson concludes with this sobering warning: “One thing you can count on is that most every image that crosses your path has been put there for a reason. Nothing happens by accident. What you need to ask yourself isn’t so much Is it true, but Who wants me to believe it—and why?”
So all in all, I found THE SMEAR to be a solid work, with lots of good points. The author writes extremely well. The topics and chapters are logically presented, making the stories reasonably easy to follow. The author relates many detailed cases on both sides of the political spectrum. Of course, I already knew about many of the tragic stories, but I had no idea of the magnitude of the smear machines.
Those who follow politics closely will not be surprised by Attkisson's narrative, but some will be surprised by the extent of the shenanigans she describes - the vast scope of media manipulation, the huge sums of money, and the number of people involved. Worst of all, our own government seems to be an active player in much of this.
Although smears and media manipulation come from both sides of the political spectrum, more than 80% of what Attkisson describes comes from the left.
Among her most serious allegations:
1. Many op-eds that you read on the editorial page are not written by the person whose byline appears beneath them, but by activists working for political campaigns, corporations, and special-interest groups.
2. The Obama Department of Justice and other Obama agencies targeted reporters, stonewalled investigations, and maintained behind-the-scenes relationships with special interests.
3. The federal government creates fake Internet identities to flood social media with propaganda in support of, or against, various policies, media outlets, or individuals. Fake Internet identities are also created by hired consultants and political operatives
4. In the 2016 presidential campaign, there was back-and-forth collusion between the Clinton campaign, the DNC, and major media outlets.
5. Left-wing consultants and operatives conspire to dig up dirt on conservative media personalities with the intent of forcing them off the air. Fox News in its entirety has even been targeted.
6. When you see numerous media outlets use almost the identical language and phrasing to describe a story, it is no accident; they are responding to cues given them by paid political operatives.
This book should alert the naïve, confirm the suspicions of the wary, and shame professional journalists. It will NOT shame the spinmeisters and scandal-mongers who earn big money by corrupting politics, journalism, government, corporations, special interests, and the entire fabric of our social media.
I give the book four stars instead of five mainly because it is not properly footnoted, a deficiency which critics will no doubt bring up. Sources are usually referenced, but specific footnotes giving actual dates are not provided. I do not doubt the sourcing because I specifically remember many of incidents described by Attkisson when they were first reported, but footnotes would have been helpful.
Another quibble is that Attkisson seems to alternate between present and past tense, perhaps because much of the book was written as events were actually unfolding.
Finally, the book has what I consider to be some major omissions. Most notably, there is no mention of the "Plamegate" controversy during the Bush administration, when the media conducted a two-year smear campaign of innuendo against the Bush administration even though the media almost certainly knew they were pushing a false narrative.