Sharyl Attkisson's principled quest to destroy what's left of her credibility

Attkisson quit CBS over ideological interference, and ended up at Heritage's terrible new website

Published June 4, 2014 11:43AM (EDT)

Sharyl Attkisson        (CBS News)
Sharyl Attkisson (CBS News)

Sharyl Attkisson has principles. The former CBS News investigative correspondent became a heroine to conservatives for her intense, unerring, borderline obsessive focus on Benghazi. She ended up resigning from the network in March, implying that her bosses were trying to censor her and infect her reporting with malicious political bias. With that act of career martyrdom she instantly became a candidate for canonization by right-wing pundits and activists, and an important figure in the ongoing Benghazi conspiracy, which assumes a certain amount of media complicity in covering up THE TRUTH.

Since then Attkisson has made the rounds with conservative journalists, helping to confirm their already firmly cemented belief that the mainstream media is infested with sneaky liberals who act on orders from the Obama White House. Meanwhile, the rest of us have been wondering where Attkisson would go to practice her brand of fiercely independent journalism – where she could be free from political influence and the corrupting forces of ideology.

Now we know. The Heritage Foundation.

The right-wing think tank debuted a brand new website yesterday called The Daily Signal, which, according to its founders, will offer “straight-down-the-middle journalism.” Attkisson has signed on to the site as a “senior independent contributor,” a title that has no actual meaning but does quite noticeably contain the word “independent.” The site’s launch featured an interview with Attkisson in which she decries the “tendency in the news media, on the part of some managers, to censor or block stories that don’t fall in line with the message they want sent to the viewers.”

Again, to escape ideological corruption, she went to the Heritage Foundation.

Attkisson’s a big get for the Daily Signal. Conservatives love her for her willingness to flog Obama scandals long after they’ve been debunked and/or ceased being relevant, so brings an audience of people who still get mad over Solyndra. And she’s a big-name journalist to whom media people still pay attention, even though she’s done some terrible work and her former colleagues thought she had a poorly concealed anti-Obama agenda. For now, the Daily Signal will have to lean heavily on whatever gravitas Attkisson provides because the rest of the site is just awful.

Here’s a sampling of their big stories from Day One:

Heritage employee Hans von Spakovsky approves of Benghazi select committee.

Republicans need to win to stop Obama.

How to amend the budget process with a clunky and utterly humorless reference to “Airplane!”

Benghazi. Benghazi. Benghazi. Benghazi. Benghazi. Benghazi. Benghazi. Benghazi.

The best of the bunch is this piece by Heritage Foundation vice president James Carafano, titled “How Obama Should Have Handled Benghazi.” The answer Carafano came up with may shock you:

President Obama had a perfect model for how to respond to the scandal in the wake of the terrorist attack on the U.S. consulate in Benghazi. He could have turned to the actions of another president — Ronald Reagan — to show him how to quickly regain the trust and confidence of Congress and the American people.

Wow. Ronald Reagan. What a curveball.

The way Carafano sees it, Obama should have taken a page from Reagan’s response to the Iran-Contra allegations, which was to “make sure the White House was doing everything possible to get the truth and the whole truth out.” Reagan’s heroic truth-exposing campaign against himself was documented in former Reagan official David Abshire’s book, “Saving the American Presidency,” which Carafano heartily recommends:

Abshire’s account of a White House focused on serving the public rather than obfuscating the truth “not only informs us about the past,” as one review of the book describes, “but offers important lessons on how future leaders can restore their reputations and re-gain the confidence of the people after a public scandal.”

That’s some lofty praise for Abshire’s book. But being the curious sort that I am, I couldn’t help but wonder who wrote that review. A quick Googling turned up the answer: the “review” is actually the book’s product description as it appears on the website for the Center for the Study of the Presidency and Congress, which is chaired by… David Abshire.

The true story of the Reagan response to Iran-Contra is an actual real-life cover-up that extended all the way into George H.W. Bush’s presidency. The National Security Archive at George Washington University wrote in 2006 that a big reason that Reagan made it through the scandal was that his team deliberately kept reporters and Congress focused on the less bad portions of the inquiry in order “to minimize public scrutiny of the president's other questionable actions, some of which even he understood might be illegal.”

Lawrence Walsh, the independent counsel appointed to investigate Iran-Contra, concluded that “large volumes of highly relevant, contemporaneously created documents were systematically and willfully withheld from investigators by several Reagan Administration officials,” and “Reagan Administration officials deliberately deceived the Congress and the public about the level and extent of official knowledge of and support for these operations.”

Bits of knowledge like that would typically dissuade a journalist from recommending that Obama follow the Reagan example in dealing with scandal. But Carafano isn’t a journalist. He’s an ideological crusader. And that gets to the core problem with the Daily Signal.

The conservative media is littered with news websites formed by conservative pundits and activists who despise the “liberal bias” in the media and set out to correct it. The Daily Signal is trying to break into that already crowded space while also offering unbiased reports to appeal to mainstream audiences while also featuring reports from staffers who work at the conservative think tank that bankrolls it. “We plan to do political and policy news,” Heritage VP Geoffrey Lysaught told Capital New York last month, “not with a conservative bent.”

One can’t be a counterbalance to the “liberal media” and be unbiased at the same time. Eventually they’ll have to choose, and since it’s easier to fall back on the built-in audience of conservatives who only want to read what they already believe, the Daily Signal will likely end up preaching to the same choir as Breitbart, the Daily Caller and every other conservative answer to the Huffington Post.

By Simon Maloy

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