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-five years and is host and managing editor of the nonpartisan Sunday morning TV program "Full Measure with Sharyl Attkisson." She has covered controversies under the administrations of Bill Clinton, George W. Bush, Barack Obama, and Donald Trump, emerging with a reputation, as the Washington Post 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 fifth degree blackbelt master in Taekwondo.
- Item Weight : 1.09 pounds
- Hardcover : 304 pages
- ISBN-10 : 0062468162
- ISBN-13 : 978-0062468161
- Dimensions : 6 x 1.01 x 9 inches
- Publisher : Harper (June 27, 2017)
- Language: : English
- Best Sellers Rank: #25,384 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)
- Customer Reviews:
Top reviews from the United States
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depth, relevant, and not focused on whatever the "hot" topic of the day is. One of my greatest
frustrations is that that most Sunday morning "news" programs (Meet the Press, Face the
Nation, This Week, etc.) are almost carbon copies of each other, sub out Chuck Todd for
George Stephanopoulos or John Dickerson. The lineups are nearly identical and both the
commentators and the guests seem to be on very limited talking points. Really the only
difference comes down to style and preference much like the difference between a Toyota and
a Honda. I prefer Face the Nation to Meet the Press much like someone might prefer the Accord to a Camry. The little nuances make them feel different but really they are almost the same.
Attkisson's program is different. She is not a political reporter although her work does encompass the political - how could it not? Instead her stories are focused on reporting news like America's nuclear waste or the potential impacts of gadolinium not recycling opinions about Trump or Clinton. She also appears to be fairly balanced in her reporting; while I can watch most shows and be able to say without a doubt whether the host leans right or left, I would not be so quick to judge Attkisson's politics. This is important because this a major reason I was drawn to The Smear. Attkisson strikes me as what reporters should be - as neutral as possible (recognizing that by the
nature or being human there is always some level of bias). I also was incredibly appreciative of the fact that I learned about her book not from her shamelessly plugging it on her show (like so
many hosts do ) but from an interview she gave on another show, not even on her network.
The premise of The Smear is that we live in an age where the news media is corrupted by
smear campaigns conducted by partisan interests trying to blur what is fact and fiction.
According to Attkisson many reputable media sources have been compromised by journalists
and/or producers willingness to accept and even solicit the narratives distributed by partisan
sources masquerading as neutral non-profits, think tanks, etc. Instead of conducting
independent investigations and/or trying to find balance for news stories, news media is tossing
journalistic ethics to the wind for easy pieces fed to them by partisan interests and “smear
In some ways I think the term “blur” is a more appropriate term for what is happening. The intent is to confuse and/or distract from the issue so that the less favorable narrative is
hidden/discredited and the more favorable narrative is marketed/shared. These smears/blurs are instigated through outright lies/fiction , the misconstruing of grains of truth, illegal planting of/manipulation of information, and/or astroturfing. When consumers can’t tell what is fact from fiction, the truth is easier to manipulate. In clearly organized detail, Attkisson lays out the progressively more prevalent takeover of media by “smear artists” and the eventual evolution to what is now been coined as “fake news.” Interestingly though many of those demanding that fake news be suppressed, are the original architects of smear tactics. Attkisson also shares examples how smear campaigns are conducted by governments (including our own) as well as partisan interests outside of government.
While The Smear is a very worthy read, it was not quite what I had expected. In many ways the
book felt like a hit job (a smear perhaps?) on David Brock, and to a lesser extent, Hillary Clinton, et.al. Brock is portrayed as a villainous puppet master much as the Koch's were portrayed in Jane Mayer's Dark Money. Their roles in the development of smear is unquestionable but I couldn’t help but wonder why it seemed as if only token coverage was given to some laudable conservative smear artists. Regardless of the culprit’s political leanings, the mechanistic techniques remain the same; I just wish that there was a little more balance of sides, which is surprising because I have always felt like Sharyl Attkisson was balanced. In this case I think the she lost a little of that.
My other critique is a stylistic one. In the introduction she warns that a lot of her sources asked to remain anonymous for obvious reasons when you read the book. Even so I wish she gave
more detailed citation of facts/articles (footnotes, bibliography, something). As I read about different events, articles, etc., I found myself regularly checking online sources to verify/find more information. This felt awkward given the book calls into question many of the online checking sources I had to employ (including Google).
Even with the mild partisan imbalance and the citation protocols used, the core message of The
Smear is one that needs to be heard and heeded. Just over ten years ago Larry Beinhart gave
caution to similar issues in his book Fog Facts. His work was largely ignored. With Sharyl
Attkisson’s reputation and more focused attention on the subject, perhaps now the message can be heard and the spiral of media smear can be curtailed.
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.
Top reviews from other countries
Her subject is the way unscrupulous politicians in the United States have co-opted equally shameless journalists to do their dirty work for them, by making unsubstantiated claims about opponents. The way it works is very simple. The politicians get obliging journalists to peddle identical stories, simultaneously. It doesn't matter if the stories are true, only partly true, or completely false, as long as they get maximum publicity. Any subsequent retraction will appear in very small print on page three hundred and forty-seven. Attkisson shows how certain journalists make their services willingly available to the dissemination of propaganda. Although Sharyl Attkisson is herself admirably even-handed and points to Republican abuses, as well as Democratic ones, the fact is that nearly ninety per cent of American journalists admit to Democratic leanings, so the huge majority of the cases she documents are Democratic ones. Hillary Clinton, John Podesta, Debbie Wasserman Schultz and especially David Brock don't come out of this book too well.
British readers who are unfamiliar with American politics may not recognise Brock's name. He looks like a blow-dried raccoon and miraculously metamorphosed from an intensely anti-Clinton writer in the early Nineties, to a fanatical Clintonista from the end of that decade and ever since. Quite what caused the transformation is unclear, but he probably thought Al Gore was going to win the 2000 election and that Hillary Clinton had 2008 in the bag. He clearly thought the same about 2016, so Sharyl Attkisson takes some rather obvious pleasure from pointing out how often Brock has got it wrong; she also quotes Democrats who think he's a liability. All the same, in between whiles, Brock has attempted to ruin reputations and has arguably succeeded on some occasions.
Sharyl Attkisson has produced an almost encyclopaedic account of how smear merchants work. It's not simply a question of telling blatant lies, although there is plenty of that. There is also the way exactly the same message is put out at exactly the same time by a whole group of media outlets, supposedly spontaneously. I remember the way Peter Mandelson and the Chief of the Defence Staff miraculously managed to use identical expressions, when writing letters to the Daily Telegraph on the same day. Well, multiply that by about six, for the American version. Sharyl Attkisson is nothing if not dogged and she can list instances where the Democrat-leaning press has used the Democrats' choice of vocabulary with remarkable unanimity.
Then there is the "astroturfing": basically, chucking around uncomplimentary adjectives in the hope that some will stick. Think of when Democrats accuse opponents (every day with a "D" in it) of being "racist", or when they claim a Republican has links to the ku klux klan (actually an organisation with solidly Democratic connections). Attkisson can produce whole catalogues of these slurs. The cleverness of this technique is that the ordinary observer, with a thousand and one better things to do than to analyse political matters, may accept astroturfing at face value. Sharyl Attkisson's genius is the ability to spot the trick and to expose it.
There is one little failing in her writing and that is her persistent use of the "historic present", i.e. using the present tense, in place of a past tense, to create greater immediacy. It's something I have noticed in another book of hers and I don't pretend to understand her preference for it. There are no footnotes, but she is clear about her sources, where she can be. Given the nature of the subject matter, it's not a huge surprise that quite a few of her informants had no desire to be "on the record".
So Sharyl Attkisson has a bit of trouble with her tenses, but she is a journalist with rock-solid integrity. If only there were a few more like her.