David Hume Kennerly
Photo taken from Sharyl Attkisson’s twitter profile.
As the House hearings into Benghazi, BENGHAZI!, BENGHAZI! grind on, I’m going to be beating on my little tin drum for a spell about how this is all bringing back to us old-timers the golden days of the 1990s, when there was another Democrat in the White House, and we embarked upon a decade in which “scandals” were defined as that whispered to mainstream reporters by various ratfkers both within and without the color of legal authority. For example, back in the day, there was nobody who dogged the Whitewater “scandal” — and all of its various permutations — than an ABC producer named Chris Vlasto who, at one point, according to Whitewater swindler Jim McDougal, went pole-vaulting over the line of professional propriety by brokering a deal between McDougal and Whitewater special prosecutor Kenneth Starr.
Outside easy public view, Starr even received an unusual testimonial from one journalist whose role in reporting the rolling scandal since Whitewater has been substantial. Whitewater promoter Jim McDougal and ABC News producer Chris Vlasto became friends during Vlasto’s Whitewater investigations. In Arkansas Mischief, his memoir with the Boston Globe’s Curtis Wilkie, McDougal recounted how, in 1996, he was awaiting sentencing after having been indicted on 18 felony counts by Starr’s Little Rock grand jury. Depressed, he told Vlasto he was afraid of dying in jail. “‘Listen, Jim,’ Chris said, ‘you don’t have to go out this way. If you walk in to see Ken Starr, he’ll greet you with open arms.’ He recommended that I at least talk with the independent counsel.” I asked Vlasto whether McDougal’s account was accurate. “In general, absolutely,” he told me. “The gist of the story is true.” Vlasto, who is Jackie Judd’s producer on the ABC Evening News and also produces for “Nightline,” has been relentless in his pursuit of White House scandals. This does not, of course, mean that there is anything wrong with his fact-finding. The fact that he has written for The Wall Street Journal is not necessarily here or there. Neither is the fact that the organ in which he profiled Jim McDougal is the conservative Weekly Standard. Vlasto is entitled to his opinions, and entitled to advise a friend. I asked him whether he had become part of the story by virtue of his conversations with McDougal, in particular his advice. After a very long pause, he said: “I was acting as a journalist. It was a matter of my relation with my sources.”
Well, it seems that B, B!, B! may have its own Chris Vlasto, and her name is Sharyl Attkisson, and she works for CBS News, and she is the subject of a very weird profile today by Paul Farhi in The Washington Post — a piece best read between the lines. On the surface, it reads as though Atkisson is a lonely seeker of truth in a hard and truthless land. However, read closely, she comes across as something of an ideologue and, frankly, quite the sucker.
In 2011, she told conservative radio host Laura Ingraham that she was on the receiving end of a heated scolding by the Justice Department’s chief spokeswoman, Tracy Schmaler, and White House spokesman Eric Schultz over her reporting on Fast and Furious.
Yes, because if I want to defend my bona fides as a journalist, Laura Ingraham’s my go-to gal. Yeesh.
Some of Attkisson’s most controversial reporting hasn’t been about politics at all. She has been widely criticized within medical-research circles for a series starting in 2002 about research linking childhood vaccinations to the rise in autism. The stories have been denounced in some circles as “fear-mongering.” Attkisson is, typically, unbowed: “I stand behind it,” she says. “It’s some of the best work I’ve ever done. My only regret is that we haven’t done more.”
Some of “the best work” she’s ever done involved falling for one of the most dangerous pieces of Luddite nonsense ever to hit the airwaves, and she also got so taken by the whole Fast And Furious nonsense that she got an award from Reed Irvine’s House Of Unemployables.
She also drew attention last year when a conservative group, Accuracy in Media, sought to give her a reporting award at the annual convention of the Conservative Political Action Conference. Despite criticism that the award made her work appear partisan, Attkisson said CBS News decided to accept it on her behalf; it sent its top Washington manager, Christopher Isham, to the presentation when she was called away on assignment. Attkisson said she donated the prize money to a fund created in memory of a slain Border Patrol agent, Brian Terry.
And, CBS, there is one thing we know — the only reason you sent Isham to pick up that award is because you were too scared not to do so. The main problem with the coverage of the Whitewater story was the problem of corruption by access. There were parallel stories going on — the first being the endless ratfking of the Clinton presidency, and the other being the official investigations prompted by said ratfking. If you wanted to cover the latter, and practically everyone did, you had to ignore the former story, or else your access to the leaks from various congresscritters and government lawyers would be cut off. So the story of a campaign to delegitimize a twice-elected president got buried by the delegitmization itself. (There were notable exceptions, of course, my pal Gene Lyons first among them.) I think Sharyl Attkisson has the same problem here. I think, to use a later example, that she’s already drifted across the desert sands into Judy Miller Land.
(According to Tiger Beat On The Potomac, Farhi’s puffer on Attkisson has exacerbated tensions at CBS among those people who already wondered if Attkisson’s main job has been the purchase of magic beans. Why do I believe Fox News already has a contract with her name on it? Am I really that cynical?)
Elsewhere, the entire B, B!, B! centers around a question of talking-points. Who told Susan Rice to say what in public? Oddly, there’s a flashback here, too. There was a “Who wrote the talking points?” scandal that erupted as Whitewater morphed into Lewinsky.
Remember the infamous “talking points,” much bruited about at the beginning of the scandal? Here lies one egregious example of the media running unquestioningly with the OIC’s leaks. Newsweek on Jan. 22 had Starr doubting, given the legalistic prose, that Lewinsky was the sole author of the document. Virtually every major news outlet leaped to speculate that the fine hand of Vernon Jordan or Bruce Lindsay or another lawyer in the White House cabal was detectable. A tattoo of repetition made the speculation seem a no-brainer, an assumption that reached its zenith when Chris Matthews crowed on CNBC that “Monica is not protecting Bruce Lindsey, and not Bob Bennett, and not Vernon Jordan, but the person who gave her the talking points may in fact have been … the President.” No fewer than four versions of the “official” memo surfaced in the fray. While the media hyped this document as a “smoking gun,” the final Starr report referred to it all of twice. It never made the list of possible grounds for impeachment, nor was it used as evidence in the charge of obstruction of justice.
I’d like to think we all learned something. I don’t think we ever will.