by Paul Bond
“I kind of assume I’m on a list. I don’t think I’m the only one”
Sharyl Attkisson is an investigative journalist who became the story when she quit CBS News after two decades amid allegations that the network refused to run some of her stories that were critical of President Barack Obama. Ahead of the Tuesday release of her book Stonewalled: My Fight for Truth Against the Forces of Obstruction, Intimidation, and Harassment in Obama’s Washington, she spoke to The Hollywood Reporter about her struggles with CBS executives and her assertion that her computers were hacked, possibly by Obama operatives.
THR reached out for a response from CBS News, but the organization declined to comment.
Who did you tell at CBS that your computers were hacked?
The first person I spoke to was Washington bureau chief Chris Isham.
Did he believe you?
He appeared to.
Did CBS care? Did they do anything about it?
God, you know, there’s a lot of people there. He seemed to care. He hired a separate computer forensics firm to look at the computers. They, too, agreed that there had been highly sophisticated remote intrusion of my computers. They decided to dig deeper and embark upon a process that spanned a number of months, during which time the situation with the Associated Press and the government spying on Fox News reporter James Rosen was disclosed, as well as Edward Snowden’s NSA information.
Did they ever find out who hacked your computers and spied on you?
I don’t believe their computer forensics team concluded who spied on me.
Did they ask anybody in the Obama administration if they were the culprits?
Not to my knowledge. Executives discussed with me that they assumed that was the case. And we discussed how to proceed with that information and what we could do about it.
So what did you do about it?
It seemed to fall off the radar after the forensics report was delivered to CBS. And so I hired a — I have a legal and forensics team that began work.
Did they conclude anything yet?
Yes. Her work is still very much active, but they have told me they have evidence of highly sophisticated remote intrusions into my personal and work computers by someone using software proprietary to a government agency.
CBS executives suspect that the government hacked your computer, and CBS computers, but there’s been no accountability? CBS just dropped the matter?
As far as I know, although what they told me was they wanted to heavily pursue it and find out who was responsible. I discovered on my own they have a computer security specialist working for CBS … But nobody ever questioned me, came to my house, checked the security of my system, asked me for more information, or followed up with me.
Do you believe that people working for the president of the United States hacked your computer and spied on you?
The way you phrase the question makes me want to couch it a little bit. I have been told by two computer forensics experts that a highly sophisticated entity using abilities outside non-government resources, using software proprietary either to the DIA, CIA, FBI or NSA made repeat remote intrusions into both my computers over a period of time. And we have evidence of a government computer connection into my computer system.
And why do you think they would target you as opposed to more partisan voices, like Rush Limbaugh or Glenn Beck?
The question carries the assumption that they haven’t targeted others. I kind of assume I’m on a list. I don’t think I’m the only one, along with James Rosen and the Associated Press, that garnered special attention. There’s probably a list of people.
So an enemies list, like in the Nixon administration?
I’ve been told there is such a list, yes.
And who do you suspect is on that list?
Well, there’s an internal email that indicated reporters who were working with leakers in government agencies or perceived as enemies of the White House are being targeted. So I think that’s probably accurate — anybody that they perceive as harmful to their agenda or working with leakers and whistle-blowers, which I did a lot of.
Do you have sources who told you the names on that list? Is Rush Limbaugh on that list, for example?
Another reporter told me — I can’t remember who — that they thought he was on some sort of target list, but I don’t know that to be the case. I have someone who told me the existence of a list but not the names on it.
You’re being accused of being a partisan right-winger. Have you reported negative stories about conservatives?
Most of my reporting has not been political in nature. Some of the stories that were politicized, I don’t consider political stories, but they were made out to be by people who obviously didn’t want them reported, and I would put Fast and Furious and Benghazi in that category. But other stories include the one I won an investigative Emmy Award for last year, which was a series of stories from the time I went undercover to investigate freshmen Republican fundraising. I also did a story that MSNBC’s Rachel Maddow complimented in a seven-minute long segment, exposing Congressman Steven Buyer, a Republican from Indiana, and his possible and allegedly fraudulent charity, which was followed shortly thereafter by his resignation from Congress.
Did your colleagues give you grief about your negative stories on Obama?
Not my reporter colleagues.
But you have said your bosses kind of shut down a lot of your reporting?
Some of them did. It was very complicated. All of them encouraged my reporting initially, and then as time went on some of them encouraged it and some of them discouraged it.
Who were the ones discouraging it?
Nobody ever discouraged it to my face, they just would not run the stories or would have other stories they wanted to put on every time the stories were offered. That was CBS News with Scott Pelley and his executive producer Pat Shevlin primarily, but there may have been others.
You’ve said they did this because of liberal bias?
I’m not sure I’ve ever said that. But I think there was a complex list of reasons why a lot of stories did and didn’t make it on the air the last couple of years. But in a general sense, I noticed a tendency to avoid stories that would draw pushback form people they didn’t want to have pushback from, whether it’s corporations, advertisers or politicians.
Has CBS ever cared about pushback from politicians before, or only under this administration?
I don’t know how these same people would have acted under a different administration. They came in shortly after the Obama administration.
Do you think CBS was unlikely to run negative stories about President George W. Bush for fear of pushback?
They might have been just as likely to be fearful of stories that drew controversy or pushback from corporate entities, charities, politicians, whatever the special interest might be.
Since when has CBS ever been afraid to air controversial political stories? It ran those memos claiming Bush was trying to avoid the Vietnam War. That wasn’t controversial?
CBS is hundreds of people and they’ve changed over the years. It’s not a monolithic organization that has one viewpoint, and that’s why for everything you try to put into a box there are exceptions. For example, they assigned me to cover Benghazi, that wasn’t my idea. And they were very enthusiastic about the story for a period of time. Why they changed on that, I tried to figure out many times and I can’t say, I can only say what my experiences were.
You must have a theory as to why, right?
They simply didn’t want stories on any controversies, whether that involved corporations, advertisers, charities or other special interests. They were not impossible to get on the air, but very difficult. So we just concluded that there was not the same appetite as there had been in the past.
You’re acting like it was a monetary decision on the part of CBS, like it didn’t want to risk its advertising. But these were government stories we’re talking about.
No, I’m trying to explain to you it wasn’t just government stories, although that’s what the media tended to focus on.
Okay, then, name the corporations that wanted to kill your stories.
I don’t think any corporations killed my stories. I said CBS had a tendency, in the last couple years especially, to appear to want to avoid controversies or stories that they felt would get pushback from certain corporations and politicians and special interests and charities.
Can you tell me the names of these corporations, charities and politicians?
I hate to tick them off because I feel like the story should be told in some context for legal reasons, but I think that you can pull some ideas from the book.
Does CBS go after liberal policies that are failing with as much gusto as they do conservative policies that are failing?
Well, whether something’s failing is a matter of somebody’s opinion. But I would say, as Lisa Myers has observed, as USA Today has observed, the media in general has been less enthusiastic about government accountability under the Obama administration. And I concur with those observations.
Why is that the case?
In my view, trying to avoid the pushback, and the fallout, and the headaches that come with doing stories on whatever the topic may be that the powers-that-be don’t like.
So, in journalism today, it works to bully the reporters and they’ll lay off? ‘Speak truth to power’ — that saying from the 1960’s — that doesn’t apply to journalism anymore?
Reporters want to, as you say, ‘speak truth to power,’ but it’s harder to get those types of stories past the gatekeepers.
So what good is CBS News if it’s just going to bow down to the bullies who tell them to shut up?
Those were your words, but I think they do a great job on some controversies and investigations. 60 Minutes still does some great work. So I’m not saying there aren’t very good journalists and work being done, but on the whole, as many other journalists have observed recently and publicly, the media is not as good at holding the powers that be accountable, for whatever reason.
And that reason has nothing to do with political bias?
It’s a complex set of factors involving politics, relationships with corporations and advertisers and, at times, just the idea that they’d rather not have the headache of doing a story that they have to defend.
You seem to be going way out of your way not to label the media biased. But in your book you talk about how one of your bosses insisted on labeling conservative analysts but not labeling the liberal ones, and if they really didn’t like an analyst, they’d label him or her ‘right-wing.’ So if that’s not bias, what is it?
I didn’t say that nobody is ever biased. I’m not trying to be cagey. It’s not one factor at play … I never told CBS when I wanted to leave that I thought anybody was liberally biased. I never argued that point. People kind of drew that conclusion because it served a certain narrative on both sides. It served the narrative of conservatives who were happy to feel like someone was spilling the family secret and it served the narrative of liberals who didn’t like some of my reporting and thought it could be explained away if I were a right-wing conservative. So everybody sort of adopted that line and that’s something that I never said.
So whose rule was it at CBS that analysts who were conservative be labeled as such and analysts who are liberal not be labeled?
I’m not going to name her. And it was some time ago, but she did say after I brought it up, she’d think about it, and she agreed that what I brought up was a good point and she changed — at least with me — what she’d been doing.
And who at CBS got mad at you for going on Laura Ingraham’s radio show because Ingraham is right wing?
I don’t want to say her name, either.
It sounds like you criticize Obama officials by name but you won’t say names when you’re criticizing CBS. Why the double standard?
I said a lot of names in the book, and I have my reasons why … I described it in the book as I wished to describe it.
Did anybody at CBS get mad when reporters went on liberal outlets, like MSNBC?
I can only speak for myself. I saw other reporters go on conservative and liberal outlets and I never heard that they received blowback. So I don’t know if it was just me. But in my experience, they did tell me to not go on the Laura Ingraham Show.
Just the Laura Ingraham Show or all conservative shows?
That’s a good question. At the time it was, ‘just don’t ever go on her show again.’ And then they denied other interview requests on both liberal and conservative outlets after that — a lot, but not all the time.
Are there any celebrities mentioned in your book?
Sheryl Crow and Sinbad. I traveled with them on a trip to Bosnia with Hillary Clinton. They were entertaining the troops. But First Lady Hillary Clinton and her daughter were on a work trip and I was there covering it. I mention them briefly in light of the fact that I did the story that exposed that Mrs. Clinton’s account that we’d been fired at by snipers was not true. I mentioned that Sinbad and Sheryl Crow were on the plane with us.
Was there any pushback on your Hillary-Bosnia report?
No. That sort of highlights the changes that had occurred because that was a different executive producer who, as far as I know, is actually friendly with the Clintons but nonetheless was very gung-ho on the story because he was like most journalists — able to get outside of his own friendships and belief systems and just be a newsman.
Who at CBS did you tender your resignation to?
The first time I tried to leave, a year before I left, I had my agent call CBS president David Rhodes.
What was your interaction with David Rhodes like?
Well, for most of my tenure at CBS he was very supportive. We met privately a lot about how he wanted my stories to get exposure.
When did that change?
As I tried to leave, there were some tense times. But it ended up cordial.
Why did you want to leave?
The bottom line is, the last couple of years it was clear for me that there was nothing meaningful left for me to do at CBS, and I just wanted to move on. They had plenty of talented reporters but, for what I did, investigative and original reporting, there was no appetite for that.
What are your politics personally?
I don’t talk about my politics, but I would say I’m like a lot of Americans. I’m mixed. I can honestly see two valid sides of a debate. That’s not to say I don’t have positions and thoughts on things, of course I do, but I don’t let those things get in the way of my work.
The primary issues in your book are Benghazi, Fast and Furious, the alleged green energy scandals and Obamacare. Which of those four needs further reporting?
Wow. There’s a great deal of reporting to be done on all of them. I can’t pick one. At CBS, I would have continued on all of them, if I was able to.
It sounds like you’ve been telling me that journalists at CBS who don’t toe a certain line have something to fear there. Is that the case at other networks, too?
I’m not sure we have anything to fear, it’s just that if you want to keep working there, you may not be doing what you want to do. In my case it was not being willing to do what they wanted me to do, or disagreeing with it so much that I just would rather move on. I don’t think reporters are fearful, per se, but I think they will tell you at the other networks that it’s getting more difficult to get original and hard-nosed stories on, especially if they don’t fit with the narrative that the gatekeepers in New York are trying to portray.
You were accused by some at CBS of agenda-driven news stories against Obama. Has anyone at CBS ever accused a reporter of agenda-driven stories against Sarah Palin, or George W Bush, or anyone prominent on the right?
When I did stories that clearly were not positive toward Republicans, I was never accused of being a crazy liberal or having an agenda. That only happened when I did stories that were perceived as being negative toward Democrats.
Did your executive producer, Patricia Shevlin, accuse you of not being supportive enough of green energy because of your stories about taxpayer money given to Solyndra before it went bankrupt?
She never told me that — that was her answer to another executive who raised the question: ‘Shouldn’t we be doing these stories on evening news?’
Why is that anecdote about Shevlin significant?
She is a well-known liberal ideologue who let that get in the way of her decisions and judgment. Whether people will say that to you or not, that was the consensus. That was discussed sometimes daily at CBS.
You also said somebody hacked your TV. How would you know? Why would someone want to hack someone’s TV?
I didn’t say that. What I said was the anomalies that were occurring in my house all seemed to be associated with my FIOS line … I think that the work that they were doing to get into my computer system may have interfered with the other systems in the house.
The progressive watchdog group Media Matters for America is leading the charge against you, it seems.
Media Matters has acknowledged targeting me, yes. Not with a computer intrusion, just with trying to discredit the stories I did as much as possible.
Do you think they were paid to do so?
They said they weren’t, but the question has certainly crossed my mind.
Do you know of any occasions where Media Matters was given money earmarked to targeting somebody?
David Folkenflik of NPR told me they were paid to target Rush Limbaugh. He may have misspoken on that, because someone told me it may have been Glenn Beck. He gave me two instances in which they were paid to target. He also said that they were paid to target Fox News. I’m not sure if that’s correct. It was just another reporter relaying that information to me.
(David Folkenflik did not respond to a request for comment. Media Matters president Bradley Beychok told THR: “Media Matters has never taken a dime to target Sharyl Attkisson.”).
Do you think Media Matters has libeled you?
That’s a good question. I haven’t had a legal review of what they’ve said. I actually read little to zero of what they write. They have definitely said many, many, false things. But I’m not sure it qualifies as libel under the law.
They’re a media watchdog. They tell the truth about what the media is reporting, right?
I don’t think they have an obligation to, no. Anyone can say they’re a media watchdog and then give their opinions … most people understand it’s a propaganda blog. They are very close to the Obama administration, Hillary Clinton and Democratic interests.
What does the press think of Media Matters?
Like anybody that reaches out to us, we may take under consideration an idea that they propose. But I never get asked about their conservative counterparts, such as Media Research Center or Accuracy in Media. In my experience, no one ever takes their criticism as if it is something legitimate to be answered, but when Media Matters says something, many people in the media almost treat them as a neutral journalism organization.
Is that biased?
That probably is the result of an unintentional bias.
As we’re talking, I got an email from Media Matters that says a video you released of your computer being hacked is probably just a stuck backspace key.
It’s what I would call a video anecdote, something that happened along the way. It has nothing to do with the forensic evidence and the analysis. It’s just something interesting, a punctuation mark of things that were happening. And, certainly, I expect Media Matters to say that the backspace key was held down.
What story were you working on when your backspace key started operating by itself?
I was preparing questions for my interview with Ambassador Thomas Pickering about Benghazi and the Accountability Review Board.
So of all the stories you did that were seen as negative against Obama, Benghazi was the one that really irritated them?
I think green energy got under their skin first, and the remote intrusions into my computer pre-dated Benghazi.
From what you told me thus far, it sounds like you’re accusing CBS of cowardice more than liberal bias. Is that correct?
I haven’t used that word, ever. CBS is hundreds of people. It’s not a monolithic organization. That’s the hard part about trying to make a statement or draw conclusions. I would use the word ‘fearful,’ rather than ‘cowardice.’ Some people in the decision-making process, not necessarily reporters at the ground level, but some of those deciding what goes on television have become very fearful of the sponsors and would just prefer to avoid conflict and controversy, which means you’re not going to do a lot of original investigative reporting.
You mentioned your former boss David Rhodes. His brother is Ben Rhodes, a security adviser to the president. Is there at least an appearance of a conflict of interest there when he’s telling you to lay off Benghazi while his brother works for the president?
David didn’t tell me to lay off Benghazi, and I don’t really have an opinion of his relationship with his brother, and how that might have affected things.
Did anyone tell you to lay off Benghazi, or did they just stop using your stories on TV?
They started not using my stories. I don’t know what goes on in the decision-making process, but in general the shows’ producers and managing editors and so on would be the ones that decide what goes on the broadcasts and what doesn’t. I certainly had people joining me at CBS and pushing for stories to get on television that didn’t get on. And they were stopped, as far as I was concerned, somewhere in New York.
What reasons did they give you for not airing your stories?
They would just say — and they didn’t talk to me personally, this was to senior producers — they would just say things like, ‘There is no time on the show for it tonight;’ ‘That’s a great story but maybe we’ll get to it tomorrow;’ ‘Not today, but tell us when there are other developments, we’ll consider it again.’
Why would the administration blame the murders in Benghazi on a YouTube video if that was untrue?
Some of the information the administration is withholding from public release involves a meeting or meetings that occurred in which this was presumably discussed. So, we can only wonder, but the body of evidence that’s come out in the two years since would lead a reasonable person to conclude they wanted to steer the public’s direction away from the idea that this was definitely an act of terror, technically on U.S. soil if it was U.S. property overseas. It occurred on the president’s watch, very close to an election, at a time when he had claimed Al Qaeda was on the run.
But that reason sounds fairly pathetic and unworthy of such a huge lie. Doesn’t it?
From whose viewpoint? I mean, it’s apparently important enough for them to deflect opinion, and I’m not sure if that is indeed why they did it, that’s just the best reason most of us can come up with, looking at the evidence that has come out since. Maybe there is a better reason why they did it, I don’t know. I have a feeling we won’t ever have the full story.
What news network do you think you’ll land with next?
I certainly haven’t decided I’ll ever work at another network or even necessarily work full-time again. When I decided to leave CBS, the discussion I had with my husband was, I have to be prepared to walk out and not work anywhere ever again, and we were fine with that.
Have you had offers?
Yes, but I don’t want to discuss them.
Media Matters and others say that you’re pushing a media-is-biased narrative to curry favor with conservatives.
Anyone who knows much of anything about me knows that I don’t curry favor with people. Period.
Being targeted, allegedly, by the Obama administration, and your stories allegedly being shunned at CBS — were those ultimately good things for you?
I don’t think those were pleasant things, but where I sit today I would say, ‘fine, I’m exactly where I ought to be.’ And I will tell you, before all this stuff happened, I did hope to, and thought I would, work the rest of my career at CBS doing as much as I had been doing over most of the last 20 years. It didn’t work out that way, but I’m not sorrowful over it … I think there is a cultural change in journalism that’s going on — a turn away from the kind of reporting that just holds the powers-that-be accountable. It’s not just a CBS thing.
The major news networks are just afraid of the powerful all of a sudden?
Well, when you put it that way, it makes it sound silly, and that’s what I’ve written about in the book. I don’t think there was a sudden switch.
Nobody was saying that the media was afraid of George W. Bush, now all of a sudden they are afraid of Barack Obama?
There were times when people said that — inside CBS, after Rather-Gate.
Were there some depressing days for you at CBS toward the end?
I was very disheartened when my producer and I would have great stories, and in some cases, whistleblowers we convinced to go out on a limb and tell their story, only to then have to go back to them and say nobody’s interested. So, we’ve had to do that more times in the past few years than I’ve had to do in the previous 30.
An Obama spokesman called you “unreasonable.” Are you?
I’m probably one of the most reasonable reporters out there. But their definition of unreasonable is when they answer a question, if it doesn’t make sense or if it contradicts other facts, I don’t just accept it and go away. What have I not asked you about yet that you deem important?
What haven’t I asked you about that you think is important to mention?
A couple people have told me that CBS News has started a whisper campaign to say that I’m paranoid, crazy, and a liar?
Are you paranoid?
I’d like to think not. It’s just a good word they use to discredit and “controversialize” reporters and stories they don’t like.
Assuming this whisper campaign against you is true, who is orchestrating it?
I was told that Chris Isham, the bureau chief in Washington, was a part of it.