Sharyl Attkisson has problems.
The Obama administration won’t answer the CBS News correspondent’s questions because her investigations — into Benghazi, Fast and Furious, Solyndra — often reflect negatively on it. Some colleagues at CBS News, where she has worked for two decades and earned multiple Emmy awards, dismiss her work because they perceive a political agenda. And now, she says, someone may have hacked into her computers.
Attkisson’s one piece of solace may come from finally gaining some like-minded colleagues in the media. For years, Attkisson has been one of the few mainstream reporters pursuing critical stories about the Obama administration. Today, as “scandal season” takes hold in Washington, she has seen her longstanding skepticism of the White House and the Justice Department become the conventional attitude among a formerly deferential Beltway press corps.
Attkisson is a dogged reporter, driven by a strong skepticism of government. Producers at CBS News once nicknamed her “Pit Bull,” a source said, because she gets on a story and won’t let go. But that is seen as both a strength and a weakness. Her drive can produce great journalism, but it can also cause her to push stories to the point that colleagues — especially those of a more progressive bent — suspect a political agenda.
Among conservatives who rarely find champions in the mainstream media, however, Attkisson is widely respected.
“She goes after the stories others won’t go after, and she was right to go after them,” Greta Van Susteren, the Fox News host, told POLITICO.
“She is actually doing what journalists are supposed to do,” said Laura Ingraham, the conservative radio host. “That’s not easy in Washington, D.C., where we have a president with whom the majority of reporters agree with politically.”
Last year, in a rare moment of right-wing support for a mainstream reporter, the conservative watchdog group Accuracy In Media gave Attkisson an award for her “outstanding contribution to journalism.”
Earlier this week, Attkisson told POLITICO her personal and work computers had been “compromised” and were under investigation. Though she said she was “not prepared to make an allegation against a specific entity,” she said elsewhere that “there could be some relationship between these things and what’s happened to James [Rosen],” the Fox News reporter who became the subject of a Justice Department investigation after reporting on CIA intelligence about North Korea in 2009.
Dean Boyd, a Justice Department spokesperson, told POLITICO, “To our knowledge, the Justice Department has never ‘compromised’ Ms. Atkisson’s computers, or otherwise sought any information from or concerning any telephone, computer or other media device she may own or use.”
The bulk of Attkisson’s work over the past five years has focused on the failures or perceived failures of the Obama administration, which has led to an icy relationship with the White House and the Justice Department.
In February 2011, Attkisson wrote a landmark report about the Fast and Furious gun-walking scandal, which earned her an Emmy award. Months later, she went on Ingraham’s radio show and said that officials from both the White House and the Justice Department had yelled and screamed at her because of her report.
“[The White House and Justice Department] will tell you that I’m the only reporter — as they told me — that is not reasonable,” Attkisson told Ingraham. “They say The Washington Post is reasonable, the L.A. Times is reasonable, The New York Times is reasonable, I’m the only one who thinks this is a story, and they think I’m unfair and biased by pursuing it.”
White House spokespeople declined to discuss their attitude toward Attkisson’s reporting on the record, though they are said to view her recent work as being more in line with that of Fox News than CBS.
Attkisson has caused similar frustrations within the Department of Energy for her extensive reporting on the administration’s failed green energy investments, including Solyndra, Beacon and Abound Solar — all of which have filed for bankruptcy.
But nothing has earned Attkisson a greater reputation for opposition to the administration than her sustained efforts to uncover information about the attacks in Benghazi. Outside of Fox News, Attkisson has been the most persistent media critic of the administration’s version of events there — a topic the White House has often dismissed as a partisan sideshow.
Liberal media watchdogs have tried to discredit some of Attkisson’s work. Media Matters for America has accused her of “shoddy, irresponsible reporting” and pointed to holes in her reporting on green energy and autism vaccines. This month, she quoted summaries of the email correspondence between the White House and State Department (about the Benghazi talking points) that gave an inaccurate depiction of what those emails actually said and of the White House’s role. ABC News correspondent Jon Karl, who made a similar mistake, later issued a formal apology. Attkisson has not, although CBS News later reported on the discrepancies between the actual emails and the summaries that had been earlier provided by Republican sources.
Attkisson declined to be interviewed for this article, but she defended her reporting on the Benghazi talking points in an email. “The talking point emails were never represented to me, or by me, as direct quotes,” she wrote. “I accurately disclosed prominently, in every instance, that they were provided by a source who had taken handwritten notes and had repeatedly pointed out they may be ‘paraphrased’ since the Administration did not allow the Congressional committees to copy the actual emails. The email paraphrases, as provided to me, matched up well with the actual emails when the Obama administration finally released them to the public a week later, and in no instance contradicted their general meaning.”)
In light of the Washington press corps’ current distrust of the Obama administration, much of Attkisson’s reporting now seems prescient — the sort of thing one might expect CBS News executives to celebrate publicly.
Instead, suspicions of partisanship have made Attkisson a polarizing figure within her own organization.
CBS News President David Rhodes is said to value her diligence, but there are others, most notably Pat Shevlin, the executive producer of CBS Evening News, who are wary of her motives and have even dismissed her, in private, as a partisan carrying water for Republicans.
Alternatively, some sources suggested that Shevlin’s own political bias, which they described as liberal, was to blame.
Either way, the tension has caused Attkisson to feel that she’s been marginalized at the network, sources said.
“She doesn’t get much love here,” one CBS News source told POLITICO. “Part of that is her fault — she doesn’t have a filter on when to push certain stories, when to say that’s not big enough for the Evening News.
“She is a dogged reporter, a good reporter, but some people here get the feeling she goes too far — that she’s agenda-driven,” another source said. “She’s not afraid, and that’s a great thing. But sometimes, people here believe she has to be reined in.”
As of last month, Attkisson has been in informal talks to leave CBS News ahead of contract, though sources tell POLITICO that the network is making a concerted effort to keep her there. CBS News spokesperson Sonya McNair said that Shevlin and Rhodes would not be available to comment.
“Patricia Shevlin and Sharyl Attkisson are two of CBS News’ most respected journalists whose countless contributions speak for themselves,” McNair said.
In fact, Attkisson has written many stories about GOP failures as well as Democratic ones. Her 2008 investigations into the so-called “TARP Bait & Switch” under then-Treasury Secretary Henry Paulson won her an Emmy award for investigative reporting. In March 2012, she reported on GOP freshmen betraying their promises of reforming Washington and instead hobnobbing with fundraisers at a resort in Key Largo.
Attkisson has said before that she is not a Republican reporter, and sources at CBS News said that the effort to cast Attkisson as an agenda-driven reporter were misplaced.
“You ask what makes Sharyl tick: It’s that she’s highly skeptical of people in power, and right now the people in power are Democrats,” one source said. “I don’t see her as an agenda-driven reporter.”
“[Attkisson believes] that public officials and federal officials work for us, and that it’s gotten to the point where they don’t believe that they should be held accountable,” another source said. “That’s not partisan.”