Four years ago, Sharyl Attkisson left her job as an investigative correspondent for CBS after 21 years with the network. News was changing, the standards weren’t the same as they used to be, she said, and she wanted out.
Attkisson, who now hosts Sinclair Broadcast Group’s weekly program “Full Measure”, spoke at Chapman’s Musco Center for the Arts Oct. 2 to an audience of at least 500 people about how “fake news” manifests in modern media.
“Fake news has always been embedded in our culture. We saw it, we just didn’t call it that,” she said.
The audience laughed as Attkisson showed a PowerPoint slide that featured covers from the National Enquirer, a U.S. tabloid magazine. She later said that some modern news outlets perpetuate fake news by compromising their ethics.
The lecture is part of the “pilot season” of the Provost’s Arts and Lecture Series hosted jointly by Chapman’s Office of the Provost and the Musco Center of the Arts, said Richard Bryant, executive director of the Musco Center.
Sinclair Broadcast Group stirred up national controversy in April after videos were released that showed news anchors at Sinclair-owned stations reading from a company-mandated announcement warning viewers of fake news. Some thought the language used in the script was similar to that of President Donald Trump.
In a Sept. 27 email provided to The Panther five days before the lecture, Susan Paterno, the journalism program director for Chapman’s English department, wrote to some faculty members urging them to consider Attkisson’s lecture as an example of how the selection of campus speakers can promote certain ideologies.
“While it’s the Provost’s prerogative to pay conservative Sinclair Broadcaster Sharyl Attkisson to speak on campus, promoting her as unbiased on ‘fake news’ is inaccurate and intellectually dishonest,” Paterno wrote in the email.
In a Q&A after the lecture, Attkisson said it’s “nobody’s business” what her personal beliefs are, but did say that her politics have been called into question more frequently since she began working for Sinclair.
“I’ve worked for three very liberal billionaire companies … and in my industry, nobody thinks you’re ‘on the team’ when you work at one of those,” she said. “But as soon as you work for a conservative … that’s to be looked at, that’s suspect, that’s treated differently and that’s why I say now if you’re not left, you’re considered right.”
Comparing modern media consumption to the 1998 movie “The Truman Show,” which follows the story of a man who is unaware that his entire life is part of a TV set Attkisson said there are “powerful people” who want the public to live in a curated “internet world” and do all of their thinking in artificial reality so they can be easily influenced.
In her speech, Attkisson named David Brock, a liberal political consultant and the founder of nonprofit research center Media Matters for America, as one of the main people controlling the internet. She also listed popular social media oulets like Twitter and Facebook as third parties that have a vested interest in controlling news.
“Astroturfing,” or fake grassroots techniques like manipulating social media, Wikipedia and fact-checking websites like Snopes are ways people like Brock control what the public believes, Attkisson said.
While flipping through a powerpoint of compiled “media mistakes,” Attkisson said there’s a difference between intentionally spreading of misinformation and “poor” journalism.
“The left thinks (fake news) refers to completely false information on purpose, and the right uses it to mean biased and sloppy reporting and mistakes made because (reporters) are not being careful enough because of an ideology,” Attkisson told The Panther after the lecture.
In her speech, she cited an instance where Time Magazine incorrectly reported that Trump had removed a bust of Martin Luther King Jr. from the Oval Office as an example of fake news, drawing agreement from some members of the audience.
But Chapman English professor Tom Zoellner, who did not attend the event, told The Panther that Attkisson has been “hiding” behind the Martin Luther King Jr. bust mistake “far too much” and urged students not to “take her message in isolation.”
“Attkisson’s message only deepens the public’s mistrust of basic reality and serves only to heighten confusion in an already tense time,” he said.
In the Q&A, an audience member asked why Attkisson spent “a majority of the time” focusing on liberal bias in media.
“The fact is, when I went to look at media mistakes, I didn’t find any big ones, not one made by the NYT, the Washington Post, CBS, NBC or even Fox that was a mistake that was to Trump’s benefit,” she answered.
Chapman broadcast journalism professor Pete Weitzner, who mediated the Q&A, asked Attkisson if she believed there were any “honest brokers” of media.
“The way I operate is no matter what I hear on the news, I don’t believe it initially,” she said.
Clarification: The words “fake news” have been added to one of photo cutlines in this story to clarify that a source was referring to the university’s promotion of Attkisson’s viewpoint on fake news as “inaccurate” and “intellectually dishonest.”