Today, there are plenty of outstanding journalists at the networks, national newspapers and Web sites, and other traditional outlets. But there are lots of problems, too. One disturbing trend lies in some reporters’ tendency to parrot rumors and copycat what others say or blog, rather than doing the job we’re supposed to do: original research.
There’s so much information out there on the Web, quasi-news sites, opinion blogs, Twitter and Facebook. News deadlines are short and it’s quick and easy to repeat what’s already been said or heard, and abandon the traditional job of seeking firsthand confirmation or original truth, when one exists. But there are other reasons reporters repeat what they read or hear from others, unchecked: they personally agree with the viewpoints. In other words, they may seek out opinions that fit their preconceived narrative or personal beliefs, and then use that to bolster their own thesis in their own reporting.
Unfortunately, this tendency plays into the hands of paid forces, propagandists, special interests and others who wish to manipulate public opinion. All they need do is create a bit of “buzz” about, or manufacture a controversy on, a given topic and it’s sure to be picked up and repeated by dutiful surrogates and, eventually, bleed over into their unwitting partners in the news media.
Reporters should be better than that. We should be able to scratch beyond the superficial, and recognize and reject propaganda.
A case in point is the unwarranted parenthetical remark that the Washington Post printed about my “medical reporting” in a recent article reported by Paul Farhi. Farhi stated, “Attkisson’s work on medical topics has been controversial” as if to warn viewers, in advance, that my latest report on medical news should be viewed askance. Specifically, he said that “medical experts criticized [Attkisson’s] reporting in 2012 about a purported link between vaccines and autism.” What he failed to note, violating the basic tenets of fairness, was that medical experts and neutral journalism organizations have long recognized my medical reporting for excellence, including my stories on the well-documented links between vaccines and autism.
Indeed, it would be far more accurate to say that some of my medical reporting has been controversialized by “medical experts” who belong to the pharmaceutical-government complex and the medical establishment that relies on it. It’s understandable that they would object to my reporting, as they do any reporting or scientific research on vaccine side effects. Billions of dollars are at stake. And, as designed, some of their criticisms have taken hold among the well-intentioned but uninformed.
However, it’s a misnomer and unfair to state that my medical reporting as a whole is “controversial.” It is always fact-based, opinions are sourced, the stories were pre-cleared without conflict by lawyers at CBS where I worked. In fact, my medical reporting has been widely recognized for achievement by independent entities. And to the extent that it has addressed safety issues, it has often proven ahead-of-the-curve, with government officials and pharmaceutical companies eventually acknowledging the safety allegations raised. After first denying them.
For example, I broke the story that Viagra is linked to blindness and that the FDA would be issuing a warning. (Until that point, the FDA, drug company and medical establishment had denied the link). The L.A. Times broke a lot of important news on the dangerous diabetes drug Rezulin, but when I was assigned to jump into the story and did a series of reports, the drug maker credited my reporting as being the reason the drug was then quickly pulled off the market for safety reasons. (Until that point, the FDA, drug company and medical establishment had denied there was an issue with the drug). I exposed dangers with the dietary supplement Ephedra, which was subsequently pulled off the market for safety reasons. (Until that point, the FDA, supplement maker and the same PR firm that tried to tamp down reporting on the autism-vaccine link had said there was no issue of concern). I was assigned to look into the dangers of military vaccines and stayed on the case of one soldier until the military ultimately acknowledged her death was caused by her multiple vaccinations. Likewise, there was my reporting on other drugs subsequently pulled from the market such as Duract, Propulsid and Vioxx; on the problems with cholesterol-lowering statins; on conflicts of interest among doctors, government officials and the pharmaceutical industry; on articles secretly ghostwritten by pharmaceutical companies and then printed in medical journals to promote upcoming drugs; on fraudulent studies; on the pharmaceutical industry’s control of negative study data. This is just a small slice.
Quite frankly, those affected by my exposes have every right to issue a full court press to try to discredit my reporting. I expect it and I accept it. (It’s a bit like a guilty defendant criticizing the detectives who gathered the evidence: it’s to be taken with a grain of salt.) For example, the agenda editors who serve pharmaceutical interests and control the editing of Wikipedia pages, including my Wikipedia biography, have — much like Farhi — worked to controversialize my widely-lauded vaccine-related reporting and, interestingly, immediately delete all attempts to add scholarly and news references that run counter to their narrative on this matter. (Try it for yourself: see what happens if you go onto Wikipedia and try to edit in a scholarly or peer-reviewed reference to a relevant page, as supposedly permitted, that raises vaccine safety issues. Somebody in Wikipedialand will immediately delete it. At the same time, these same Wikipedia agenda editors add and allow supposedly unpermitted blog and opinion references that disparage the reporters and scientists who investigate vaccine side effects.)
What’s less understandable is when news reporters fail to do the basic work it would take to present an accurate and fair picture of a topic. Instead, they quote the result of propagandists or the criticism of those targeted by a story and leave it at that.
The fact is, the neutral view of my medical reportage is resoundingly positive. It has been nominated for an Emmy award. It has received a prestigious finalist award from the Investigative Reporters and Editors association. It has been cited in the New England Journal of Medicine and the Columbia Journalism Review. All of these facts, and more, are easily findable by a first year journalism student. But conveniently ignored by reporters who wish to repeat what bloggers and critics say. The Post’s Farhi had expressed, in the past, his strongly-held personal beliefs about vaccination and the harm he feels is being done by those who investigate vaccine safety issues. His beliefs are not entirely rooted in fact, in my opinion based on my research, but he’s entitled to them. When I report on medical stories, my goal is to make difficult-to-find information public. People are free to conclude whatever they choose.
After Farhi incorrectly discredited my medical reporting as “controversial,” I sent him a note. I said that if he chooses to report that claim, then for accuracy, fairness and balance, he should also add the fact that my medical reporting has been widely recognized in a positive sense. Cited in a peer-reviewed medical journal. Selected by independent journalism awards. His answer? He said that he didn’t need to add anything to his story because, although he called my reporting “controversial,” “it doesn’t mean it’s wrong.”
Farhi misses the point. He presented an inaccurate view that’s at odds with the facts. Then, he chose to disregard the facts when I presented the basis of and cites for them.
Another interesting example of the aforementioned is the case of media reporters and bloggers who incorrectly implied (in advance) that my reporting for the conservative-backed Daily Signal would somehow be conservatively-biased. (These same reporters don’t accuse reporters from the New York Times or The Washington Post or the television networks of being inherently conservative for making appearances on Fox News). But when my debut report for the Daily Signal, the one that Farhi set up to be “controversial,” turned out to have widespread appeal to readers of any ilk, particularly liberal ones, the media reporters and bloggers suddenly became speechless. My article culled key research from the left-learning Public Citizen and quoted a Congresswoman who happens to be a Democrat. When it couldn’t be made to fit the critics’ preconceived narrative, they promptly ignored it. They also close their eyes to my appearances on and work for a diverse group of outlets including Al Jazeera, CNN, NPR, Sinclair Media and Blue Force Tracker. Doesn’t fit their narrative.
The Post and Farhi often do top notch work. This was an exception. In the end, Farhi suggested I write a Letter of the Editor of the Post. This seemed like a better idea.
Some reporters would be surprised at how much they would learn and how well they would serve their readers and viewers if they were to suspend their preconceived narratives, approach stories with an open mind, and follow them where they lead rather than leading them where they want them to go. Instead of being copycats.
More of this to come in my upcoming book: Stonewalled.
Think for yourself. Make up your own mind.