When ‘Beat Reporters’ Act Like They Work for the Agency They’re Supposed to Cover


NBC Justice Reporter Ryan Reilly is one of many contemporary examples

The following was first published on Sharyl Attkisson’s Substack.

I’ve long written about the syndrome whereby some news reporters tend to act in the interests of the agencies, officials, or industries they cover rather than report fairly as journalists.

There are numerous reasons why this can happen. Here are a few possibilities:

  • A Stockholm Syndrome—type affliction. The reporter deals so closely with those he covers on a daily basis that he loses his sense of neutrality and comes to act in their interests or on their behalf.
  • The Scoop Fallacy. The reporter comes to believe if he pleases those he’s reporting on, he will position himself to get future “scoops” from them. (I personally believe that what we call scoops or “handouts” from the federal agencies and others we cover are generally of little to no true news value. We may bill the news as a big scoop, but all we’re really getting is what they want us to have. It’s delivered when and how they want us to have it. It is often a partial truth, misleading, or pure spin. And sometimes it’s entirely false. In these instances, we’re serving as their propaganda tools.)
  • Adoration and Veneration. Sometimes a reporter is on a particular beat because he admires the people or subject matter involved. This can make blind him to facts and vulnerable to spin. It can also make him anxious to curry favor with those he’s covering. 
  • Mutual Success: A reporter may act in the interest of those he’s covering because it creates mutual success. The agency officials get to collect gold stars for getting a reporter to publish what they want. The reporter gets kudos from his bosses as well as the people he’s reporting on. 
  • Corruption: There are even cases where a reporter may act in the interests of those he’s covering for corrupt reasons. He may be getting favors, compensation, or other personal gains.

There are many other possible reasons. And there are numerous notable cases where this type of conflicted relationship has been exposed. (In an upcoming Substack article here, I will outline a few accounts derived from human sources, Freedom of Information Act documents and Wikileaks emails.)

NBC News Justice Reporter Ryan Reilly is a classic, current example of a beat reporter who seems to acts in defense of the agencies he covers rather than what most of us think of as a traditional journalist. I don’t think I’ve ever met him and hadn’t heard of him until he began attacking me on Twitter (and “X”).

His attacks happen to line up distinctly with positions of the Department of Justice and FBI on noted controversies.

Read on for details.

Ryan Reilly, NBC (photo courtesy: C-SPAN)

For one, Ryan Reilly tweeted out false and defamatory information about my factually accurate reporting on the January 6 Capitol Hill events and riots. In my reporting, two experts with experience in undercover work analyzed video that raised questions about the actions of key instigators in the US Capitol. The instigators, dressed as pro-Trump supporters, were seen behind police lines, conferring with police, then allowed to join the crowd where they led the crowd past police lines to the Speaker’s lobby where a pro-Trump demonstrator was shot and killed by Capitol Police Lieutenant Michael Byrd. One of the most prominent instigators was seen speaking to and interacting with the Emergency Response Team on site seconds after the shooting. They allowed him behind their line where they turned their backs on him, and he could be seen digging through his backpack and apparently changing clothes before being allowed to leave. 

Reilly’s tweets, falsely implying my reporting was deceitful and inaccurate, served to further the official positions of those within the Justice Department and FBI who would rather that reporters and analysts not question what role was played by any agents and informants in the January 6 crowd on that day.

View Part 1 of my January 6 report here

View Part 2 of my January 6 report here

‘The government would never spy on a journalist!’

A second topic that Reilly has rushed to defend the Department of Justice and FBI on, and served as their attack dog, is regarding the forensically-proven government spying on my computers while I was a CBS News investigative correspondent.

Without researching the facts, Reilly has repeatedly passed along false information invented by the propaganda group Media Matters and passed along by others. These entities took a lead years ago in attempting to convince the public there had been no computer intrusions, at all. As a result, a lot of incorrect information was circulated during that time period.

Had Reilly conducted even a basic query that would be required of a first-year-journalism-student, he would have been able to find the accurate, updated information as part of my lawsuit against the government. But accuracy was not on his agenda.

‘Are ear plugs bullets?’

After he posted his slanted and incorrect tweets, some “X” users who are familiar with Reilly noted that his “reporting” typically reads like press releases for the agencies he covers. They also pointed out that he came to NBC from the left-leaning Huffington Post where he became noted for a high-profile embarrassment: While covering the Ferguson, Missouri riots, he apparently thought he’d found evidence that police fired rubber bullets on protesters. But the photo he posted on Twitter actually showed ear plugs, not bullets.

Reporter mocked on Twitter for mistaking earplugs for rubber bullets

Photo: Twitter/RyanJReilly

As for NBC: the network takes the position that Reilly’s posts about me are protected opinions, that they were made on his personal social media account, and that NBC News had no role in their publication. 

My own position is that Reilly is free to serve whatever masters he wishes. He has the right to defend the Department of Justice or carry the water for the FBI. And he is entitled to express his opinions about news topics and criticize my reporting. However, he is not permitted to do so with personal attacks, false information, and defamation

For more information, you can read the letter below that I sent to alert NBC to Reilly’s false and defamatory tweets.

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To: NBC

This letter is to engage for the purpose of seeking redress for a series of social media posts (“Publications”) made by NBC News Justice Reporter Ryan Reilly. Mr. Reilly repeatedly stated and/or implied that my reporting is false, incorrect, and deceptive.

By way of background, I am an investigative journalist whose reporting has been recognized by the national Emmy awards, the Investigative Reporters and Editors (IRE), Loeb, and the Edward R. Murrow Award for investigative reporting, among others. I have had the honor of serving on two journalism school advisory boards. In addition, I have written or reported for CNN, CBS, PBS, The Hill, RealClearInvestigates, and Newsweek. I have given lectures to attorneys at Continuing Legal Education courses on the First and Fourth Amendment, and spoken about journalism at dozens of universities. I have testified to Congress five times as a witness on various journalism-related issues including most recently in April when I appeared before a bipartisan panel of the House Judiciary Committee regarding the PRESS Act. My reporting over the course of 40 years has not been the subject of a single retraction.

My reputation is a precious commodity.

On April 18, and prior to that date, Mr. Reilly engaged in a series of attacks on my reporting and credibililty while making false and misleading statements. Below are the statements for which I seek retraction and a take down of the published material. Mr. Reilly conveyed the false and defamatory gist explicitly and through the juxtaposition of a series of false and defamatory statements, as well as through the knowing omission of material facts. The particular statements made giving rise to the false and defamatory meanings identified herein are as follows:

Rilley Publication #1: “Jan. 6 rioter Zachary Alam, the subject of an absurd @SharylAttkisson segment in October, is set to be sentenced tomorrow. Sharyl didn’t actually cover Alam’s trial, but told her viewers that his indictment doesn’t ‘mention any evidence he’s a Trump supporter.’ In fact and reality, the press release she cited seconds later in the segment noted that he has a MAGA hat on under his fur hat…” [emphasis added.]

Reilly Publication #2: “There’s just so much deception happening in @SharylAttkisson October 2023 segment that it makes you feel like banging your head against he [sic] wall.”

Reilly Publication #3: “The conspiracy theorist who thought she was being hacked because the delete key on her computer got stuck has a new video out on Jan. 6, and it’s somehow worse than you’d imagine.”

The reporting that Mr. Reilly references may be reviewed in full here:

https://fullmeasure.news/news/information-wars/january-6th-10-12-2023#
https://fullmeasure.news/newest-videos/january-6th-part-2#

In short, the publications by Mr. Reilly conveyed the false and defamatory per se accusations and gist that I engaged in acts of dishonesty, and otherwise falsely attacked me in my profession.

To afford you the opportunity to mitigate the substantial harm Mr. Reilly has caused, I hereby demand that you promptly retract the false and defamatory gist and accusations identified herein in as conspicuous a manner as they were originally published.

As brief but necessary background, it has been drawn to my attention that Mr. Reilly has made a habit out of attacking me. Indeed, both within the referenced Publications and generally, it is a pattern and practice at this point. That fact strongly suggests a pre-conceived narrative and bent against me. Cf. Harris v. City of Seattle, 152 Fed. App’x 565, 568 (9th Cir. 2005) (“evidence that a defendant conceived a story line in advance of an investigation and then consciously set out to make the evidence conform to the preconceived story is evidence of actual malice, and may often prove to be quite powerful evidence.”); Barber v. Perdue, 194 Ga. App. 287, 289 (1989) (“Evidence of motive may bear a relation to the actual malice inquiry”) (citing Harte-Hanks Commc’ns, Inc. v. Connaughton, 491 U.S. 657, 668 (1989).

A few factual points to highlight the manipulations of fact present in Mr. Reilly’s Publications:

Contrary to the implications contained in Mr. Reilly’s Publications #1 and #2, my reporting was accurate. As I stated, Alam’s indictment made no mention of Alam being a Donald Trump supporter.1 Mr. Reilly attacks the core facts presented in my report—which were fundamentally accurate. Instead, Mr. Reilly creates “straw man” assertions about claims I simply did not make, and then bolsters them by lack of context, and by conscious manipulation and omission of the true facts I actually reported.

While I certainly respect Mr. Reilly’s right to defend the Department of Justice, express his opinions about news topics, and criticize my reporting, he is not permitted to do so with personal attacks, false information, and defamation.

Also on April 18, as part of his unprovoked attacks on me, Mr. Reilley re-tweeted false remarks he first published about me on October 15, 2023 (receiving 82,500 views). This is Publication #3. In this Publication, Mr. Reilly included a photo of me.

In this Publication, Mr. Reilly’s claims that a “delete key” was stuck on my computer, and that that was why I “thought [I] was being hacked” are false. In fact, evidence of the unauthorized intrusions into my computers was publicly confirmed by CBS News on August 7, 20132 and by multiple independent forensics experts,3 had nothing to do with a computer “delete key” (or any other key) being “stuck.” This is a regurgitation of mischaracterizations and false reporting from more than nine year ago in an opinion piece written by a blogger in the Washington Post.4

Significantly, material that disproves Mr. Reilly’s claims about my computer intrusions has been publicly available for years, in court documents and on my website.5 Not only did Mr. Reilly not take the simple, basic step of checking his facts prior to making his damaging public assertions, he also did not reach out to me for comment or clarity.

Mr. Reilly’s false claims have led countless others to accept them as fact, damaging my reputation.

By way of example, on April 19, 2024, a user under the name @HowertonRuss replied publicly to Mr. Reilly’s assertions: “Sharyl, is your backspace key stuck again?  So now, was it Aliens or Bigfoot?  Who REALLY did it?  Don’t forget to pick up your rubles at the Embassy Comrade!”6

And on April 20, 2024, a user under the name @bc90518488 engaged with Mr. Reilly publicly, stating that I “earned [my] reputation by suing the government because her delete/backspace key got stuck. She’s a conspiracy theory hack who has spewed misinformation & bias wrapped up in truth for a long time. She uses truth to get into our homes then invites the crazy in with it.”7

The Publications #1, #2, and #3 are no doubt defamatory per seSee, e.g., O.C.G.A. § 51-5-4; Smith v. DiFrancesco, 341 Ga. App. 786, 788 (2017) (“Libel per se consists of a charge that one is guilty of a crime, dishonesty or immorality.  Statements that tender to injure one in his trade or business also are libelous per se.”). Moreover, even if the core assertions in the Publications were not themselves plainly defamatory in that they accuse me of intentionally misleading my audience, the law recognizes that meaning is the life of language, and defamers often attempt to “artfully dodge” liability by engaging in implied, indirect defamation. But because it is the meaning conveyed that counts—rather than the words used or questions raised—innuendo and insinuation fair no better than direct defamation. Indeed, defamation “recognizes it is the thought conveyed, not the words, that does the harm,” Bertrand v. Mullin, 846 N.W.2d 884, 891 (Iowa 2014), and it is therefore “well-established that a defendant is liable for what is insinuated as well as for what is stated explicitly.” Solano v. Playgirl, Inc., 292 F.3d 1078, 1083 (9th Cir. 2002). Accordingly, defamation “may be made in indirect terms or by insinuation,” Brewers v. Rogers, 211 Ga. App. 343, 346-47 (1993), and “it matters not how artful or disguised the modes in which the meaning is concealed if it is fact defamatory.” Carwile v. Richmond Newspapers, Inc., 82 S.E.2d 588, 592 (Va. 1954). Mr. Reilly’s defamation was direct from the start—but it was also insinuated and implied.

And, as but one additional point on actual malice, Mr. Reilly’s actions represent classic actual malice evidence. See, e.g., Westmoreland v. CBS Inc., 596 F. Supp. 1170, 1176 (S.D.N.Y. 1984) (malice may be established when defendant “knowingly or recklessly misstates the evidence to make it seem more convincing or condemnatory than it is” or if “it distorts statements of witnesses so that they seem to say more than in fact was said”). There should, at least, be no doubt that Mr. Reilly knew that it was misrepresenting my report as well as the facts of my ongoing lawsuit against the government over its computer intrusions (for which I have received a clerk’s default against one ex-federal agent), if he had done even a basic review of the information about which he was reporting rather than basing his Publications on a pre-conceived bent to attack me.

In conclusion, Mr. Reilly recklessly defamed me by falsely accusing me of intentionally misleading my audience, and by reporting false information about my lawsuit against the government.

Sincerely,

Sharyl Attkisson

1

Alam is one of the few top January 6 suspects for whom DOJ’s indictment cited no discernable history of having supported Donald Trump. According to DOJ’s account, Alam, having never expressed support for Trump on social media or in any forum they identified, turned up on January 6, at one point with an apparent escort in the US Capitol behind police lines. He can be seen on video, first acting up in front of cameras, then conversing quietly with a police officer. Police then allowed him join the Trump crowd where he become a major instigator, leading the crowd in breaking windows of the Speaker’s Lobby where Capitol Police Lt. Michael Byrd shot and killed Ashli Babbitt. Alam could then be seen rushing behind the police ERT line, speaking with officers there. They let Alam remain inside their perimeter while he appeared to change clothes. He was then allowed to leave the premises. These are indisputable facts analzyed in my report by two experts who have extensive experience in undercover operations inside the FBI and other federal agencies.

2

https://www.cbsnews.com/news/cbs-news-confirms-sharyl-attkissons-computer-hacked

3

CBS News spokeswoman Sonya McNair said that a cybersecurity firm hired by CBS News “has determined through forensic analysis” that “Attkisson’s computer was accessed by an unauthorized, external, unknown party on multiple occasions in late 2012Evidence suggests this party performed all access remotely using Attkisson’s accounts…forensic analysis revealed an intruder had executed commands that appeared to involve search and exfiltration of data. This party also used sophisti

4

https://www.washingtonpost.com/blogs/erik-wemple/wp/2015/01/29/justice-departments-ig-report-disputes-attkissons-computer-intrusion-allegations

5

Attkisson v. DOJ and FBI for the Government Computer Intrusions: The Definitive Summary

6


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4 thoughts on “When ‘Beat Reporters’ Act Like They Work for the Agency They’re Supposed to Cover”

  1. Defamation is an emotionally-draining cause of action, and from my own directed experience, it seems as if the courts want it to be that way. A defamation plaintiff has to be almost a psychological samurai to bring and sustain an action in defamation, and has to convey that fearless attitude to the defamer. Otherwise, the defamer is likely to take the position that he or she is being challenged to up the ante, and will respond by cranking out even more material that is even-more defamatory.

    I would advise sending the desired cease-and-desist message forcefully and using as few words as necessary — the idea being to TELL the offender to knock it off, not ASK them to behave themselves. But one should also have an attorney lined up and ready to take the next step ahead of time, if the warning is ignored.

  2. William Bayer,

    Honest Journalism DIED when
    Marxian Abe Lincoln warred
    against our Founders’/Framers’
    Self-Government (( read General
    Sherman’s private letters !—as
    he mocked any people thinking
    they have a right to Self-Rule )).

    Lincoln had attacked journalists,
    and destroyed their print facilities,
    if they had published ANY anti-war
    opinions !

    The root cause of
    Lincoln’s mental
    illness – and that
    of Harriett Beecher
    Stowe and Company,
    explained below :

    Forwarded Message :

    Dear Truthout Editor,

    Re : the Psychology of Political Affiliations

    You are Right-Hemisphere
    Trapped by Emotionalism !
    —not able to apply
    L O G I C and HISTORY
    to Political/Social/Cultural
    topics ( Explanation of that
    DISORDERED brain ) :

    In “My Organic Psychology” report,
    this scribbler applies the term, “devil,”
    to our brain’s — our T W O brains: Left
    and Right — L I M B I C-side drives and
    the term, “G_d,” to our E X E C U T I V E-
    side brain.

    Generally, the Limbic Brain is accessed
    via the right hemisphere ( non-logical,
    emotion-driven, artistic side—W H Y :
    the entertainment class always goes
    for Libertine Liberal Left causes ) while
    the Executive Brain is accessed via the
    left hemisphere, and employs sound
    LOGIC and historical lessons to navigate
    this ( PROJECTED ? ) plane of existence.

    Keep in mind what I’ve termed, “Cross-
    Lateralization,” is the LOGIC-driven
    left brain control of the political Right
    and EMOTION-driven right brain
    control of the political Left—possibly
    why most folks can’t quite fathom those
    confusing brain functionalities.

    “G_d” is the Supreme Logician while the
    “Devil“ is the Supreme ( Dionysian ) Liar.

    It is a deadly conflict — this BATTLE of
    the brains — yet, after decades of explan-
    ation, few are able to comprehend how
    G_d and the Devil are INTERNAL drives
    projected out onto this ( illusory ? ) world.

    -Rick

  3. As a working journalist, I’ve noticed this phenomenon most in business reporting. These craven reporters will do anything to attend freebee events, get the drinks and snacks, and then write sycophantic articles about “icons of industry” as if they are demi-gods.
    Stieg Larsson on p. 53 of “The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo” had it exactly right:
    “His contempt for his fellow financial journalists was based on something that in his opinion was as plain as morality. … The job of the financial journalist was to examine the sharks who created interest crises and speculated away the savings of small investors, to scrutinise company boards with the same merciless zeal with which political reporters pursue the tiniest steps out of line of ministers and members of Parliament. He could not for the life of him understand why so many influential financial reporters treated mediocre financial whelps like rock stars.”
    Stieg Larsson got too close to the truth. He died at 50 after a heart attack, climbing some stairs. Faking a heart attack is a very old trick — a dose of prussic acid in the face will induce one, and a coroner will not pick this up. Financial journalists who do not play the game get very rapidly excluded from the freebee invitations. If you push it too far, you die. Or you get hounded into drinking yourself to death, I’ve seen that often enough.
    Viva independent journalism. It’s the only way.

  4. Karl Muller,

    Michael Hastings
    was removed by
    remote control of
    his car—and local
    police (( always
    subject to Agency’s
    bad influence ))
    helped to cover-up
    that death-by-crash
    MURDER.

    How about restoring school prayer in public schools and
    posting of the Ten Commandments in the public square ?

    -Rick

    P.S.

    The ADL (( American Death League )) and ACLU (( American
    Communist Lawyers Union )) – both directed by the Jewish
    World Congress – imposed IMMORALITY throughout the
    ( once ) United States, by their Commie-type G_dlessness.

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