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CBS Lost Appetite For Government Watchdog Stories, Attkisson Says


When investigative reporter Sharyl Attkisson left CBS this year, she did not go quietly. She contends, the network refused to run stories that might damage President Obama. And her claims have become a flashpoint in arguments over ideological bias in the media. NPR's David Folkenflik has more.

DAVID FOLKENFLIK, BYLINE: Attkisson joined CBS News two decades ago and covered medical issues in Congress before becoming an investigative reporter. In recent years Attkisson says, CBS News started to shy away from controversy. And here's the claim that stirs real debate.

SHARYL ATTKISSON: You know, times I've been encouraged to begin covering stories about the Obama administration but then mid-stream I've been clearly discouraged from continuing to pursue them as the stories seem to start to get dicey, or as I seem to be able to turn up very good information and sources.

FOLKENFLIK: Attkisson has aggressively chased stories that bedevil the Obama White House, such as the deadly attack on the U.S. mission in Benghazi, Libya and the botched Fast and Furious gun investigation. Attkisson says, she felt CBS wanted reporters to accept the government statements at face value.

ATTKISSON: That if say something, we're to believe it. If they put out a press release, we're to report it. And I come from an entirely different school of thought where I think - of course we are supposed to check those things out and look at them critically.

FOLKENFLIK: Attkisson left voluntarily. She says, CBS's two top news executives, Jeff Fager and David Rhodes, encouraged her to stay. But she blames CBS evening news anchor Scott Pelley and two veteran producers for keeping her stories off the air.

ATTKISSON: There was a changed appetite for the types of stories that I often specialized in, which tend to be a lot of government watchdog stories.

FOLKENFLIK: She's won fans in conservative media circles, but those are pretty serious charges. Network officials and Pelley were not made available to respond. Instead, CBS News spokeswoman Sonya McNair, sent over a generic statement, saying that quote, "CBS maintains the highest journalistic standards" that are quote, "applied without fear or favor." That said, former NBC News chief investigative reporter Lisa Myers says, Obama has received pretty gentle coverage.

LISA MYERS: Overall, the mainstream media has been less eager to hold this administration accountable than it was to hold the Bush administration accountable.

FOLKENFLIK: Other former network correspondents making similar claims include Bernard Goldberg and John Stossel - formerly of CBS and ABC, respectively. Both are now with Fox News. Myers' worked at NBC for 33 years. She says, the big networks have gradually deemphasized investigative reporting after years of covering terrorism and wars.

MYERS: You have to be able to lay out the facts to make the case, and that requires time. And time was an increasingly precious commodity on network television broadcast. That's just a reality.

FOLKENFLIK: Talking to Attkisson can be an intense experience. She says, her phones are monitored by people unknown and that her computers have been hacked, hinting a possible government involvement - maybe so. Under Obama, the Justice Department has vigorously pursued leaks to reporters, though no public evidence suggests Attkisson is among them. CBS confirms the computer hacking took place, but won't characterize its nature or origin. Detractors say, she sees conspiracies too readily. Erik Wemple is media critic for the Washington Post.

ERIK WEMPLE: I don't buy her act. Especially the act of leaving CBS and emerging to basically call out her supervisors and call out CBS News for not having the guts to publish her stories.

FOLKENFLIK: Last November, Attkisson reported that consumers who signed up for insurance on healthcare.gov, the website for ObamaCare, could be vulnerable to widespread identity theft. Attkisson relied what she called quote, "a first look at a partial transcript of a federal official's testimony." But as Wemple reported, that official then testified publicly, under oath that she was wrong. The two affected portions of the site weren't yet active, and didn't involve consumers. Attkisson and CBS stand by her story, but it's hard for her to prove. And Attkisson's larger accusation, that CBS didn't want stories that were tough on Obama, seemingly runs aground on the 60 Minutes report that gave the network its biggest black eye in years.


DYLAN DAVIES: And he said, they're all over the compound. And I - shocked - I didn't know what to say. And I said just let's keep fighting. I'm on my way.

FOLKENFLIK: The interview with that former British security contractor, named Dylan Davies, served as the emotional core of a now retracted 60 Minutes piece that Attkisson had nothing to do with. It charged that administration officials knew what happened in Benghazi earlier than they acknowledged. Davies' account was urgent, compelling and apparently fabricated. Again, Erik Wempel.

WEMPLE: Right there is some evidence that CBS indeed will stretch its journalistic standards for a hot Benghazi story. So her whole claim is sort of contradicted by one of the biggest media stories of the last year.

FOLKENFLIK: Since leaving CBS, Attkisson has appeared on Al Jazeera America, Fox News, and a new site called The Daily Signal. That's a creation of the conservative Heritage Foundation. Attkisson says she contributes there, only on a story-by-story basis and isn't motivated by ideology.

ATTKISSON: Daily Signal promised that I would have the editorial freedom, that although of course my story will be checked and edited, it would not be steered in an unnatural direction.

FOLKENFLIK: Attkisson's latest for The Daily Signal, reports a disappointing number of people have signed up for ObamaCare. Liberal critics are already picking her piece apart. Conservatives say, she's speaking hard truths once again. David Folkenflik, NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

David Folkenflik was described by Geraldo Rivera of Fox News as "a really weak-kneed, backstabbing, sweaty-palmed reporter." Others have been kinder. The Columbia Journalism Review, for example, once gave him a "laurel" for reporting that immediately led the U.S. military to institute safety measures for journalists in Baghdad.