2014 was a year of eye-popping media numbers, from millions of dollars' worth of coverage devoted to a trumped-up scandal to mere seconds devoted to historic news. Here are some of the most important -- and most surprising -- figures from the year.
"[W]hen they make victimhood a coveted status that confers privileges, victims proliferate."
This single phrase has followed George Will for the last six months. The syndicated conservative columnist, considered by many a thoughtful intellectual rather than a bomb-thrower, severely damaged his brand when he wrote a June 2014 column dismissing efforts on college campuses to combat the epidemic of sexual assault and suggesting that women who say they were raped receive "privileges." The column has sparked hundreds to protest his public appearances, challenges from U.S. Senators and women's rights groups, and the dropping of his column from a major newspaper.
Will's 2014 misinformation was not limited to attacking and dismissing rape victims. Throughout the year, Will failed to disclose several major conflicts of interest in his columns, and his tangled relationship with political entities backed by Charles and David Koch was cited by the outgoing ethics chair of the Society of Professional Journalists as the kind of conflict journalists should disclose in their writing. His history as a prominent denier of climate change also helped further undermine his credibility, with more than 100,000 people signing a petition demanding the Washington Post stop printing the science misinformation he and others regularly push in its pages.
Will has written a column for the Post since 1974, which is syndicated in over 450 papers. He started his career as a Republican Senate staff member and speech writer before moving into the ranks of the conservative press, contributing to The American Spectator and working as the Washington editor for the National Review for a time. He has become a fixture in the right-wing think tank infrastructure, serving as a board member of the Bradley Foundation, which funds conservative groups such as the Heritage Foundation, the Hudson Institute, the American Enterprise Institute, and the Federalist Society. But Will was always careful to keep one foot in the mainstream -- in addition to his Post column, for which he won a Pulitzer Prize for commentary in 1977, he served as an ABC News commentator for three decades and was even a featured interview in several Ken Burns documentaries.
Yet late last year, he left ABC to join Fox News as a political contributor, cementing his increasingly conservative and counterfactual tendencies. Some of his politics -- such as his longstanding climate change denial -- seemed to fit in at the network. But at the time, Media Matters wondered if an association with Fox's more angry and crude fare would ruin the brand of the staid conservative pontificator, shifting his erudite elitism towards the hard-edged style of misinformation for which Fox is better known. Will's accomplishments in 2014 revealed our suspicions were well-founded.
Media Matters isn't the only organization to recognize the damage Will's commentary did to the discourse this year. When PolitiFact awarded its 2014 Lie of Year to "exaggerations about Ebola," they cited Will as a prime example. Will used his Fox News platform to spread lies about the disease, falsely claiming that it could be "spread through the air." As PolitiFact noted:
Will's claim that Ebola could spread through the air via a cough or sneeze shows how solid science got misconstrued. The conservative commentator suggested a thought shift about how the virus could spread. In reality, Will simply misunderstood scientists' consistent, albeit technical explanation.
Ebola spreads through direct contact with bodily fluids such as blood, vomit and diarrhea. Coughing and sneezing are not symptoms.
Will has a long history of pushing misinformation, but it finally caught up with him in 2014, tarnishing the reputation as a public intellectual he had spent decades cultivating. He started the year one of the most respected members of the conservative media elite, and ended it with hundreds protesting his speeches. For this reason, Media Matters recognizes George Will as the 2014 Misinformer of the Year.
Past recipients include CBS News (2013), Rush Limbaugh (2012), Rupert Murdoch and News Corp. (2011), Sarah Palin (2010), Glenn Beck (2009), Sean Hannity (2008), ABC (2006), Chris Matthews (2005), and Bill O'Reilly (2004).
Michigan State University is delaying publicly releasing its contract for George Will's speaking engagement until after his speech by giving themselves an extension in responding to a Freedom of Information Act request.
Will is scheduled to speak at the school's December 13 commencement ceremony and receive an honorary doctorate, despite his controversial comments arguing that efforts to combat sexual assault on college campuses have made "victimhood a coveted status that confers privileges." Graduate and undergraduate student government associations have passed resolutions denouncing this honor, and U.S. Senator Debbie Stabenow (D-MI) -- herself an alumna -- issued a statement expressing deep disappointment with the school.
Media Matters contacted MSU requesting information about how much Will would be paid for the speech on December 3. The university responded that per "usual protocol" they could not give out contract information directly, and instead instructed that we file a FOIA request, which we did that same day.
According to the state's law, the university had to respond within five business days. They responded six business days later, on December 11, and told Media Matters they required ten more days "to process" the request "thoroughly" (emphasis added):
A public body must respond to a Michigan Freedom of Information Act (MIFOIA) request within five (5) business days after it receives that request. However, the MIFOIA also permits the public body to obtain additional time to complete its response to an MIFOIA request by issuing a notice to the requester extending the response deadline by up to ten (10) additional business days. This communication serves as notice that in order to process your MIFOIA request thoroughly, additional time is required ... The University will respond to your request on or before 5:00 p.m., Monday, December 29, 2014.
A Rolling Stone article about campus rape and how universities respond to sexual assault has raised an important debate about what the proper standards for reporting on sexual assault should be -- but it's crucial that whatever standards are ultimately chosen, they don't make it impossible to tell these stories.
A University of Virginia student named Jackie told Rolling Stone that she was gang raped in 2012 by members of a campus fraternity, and that campus administrators failed to investigate her story when she reported it. Jackie was one of several students in the piece who criticized UVA's response to sexual assaults, and the school is currently under federal investigation for its handling of such cases.
The Rolling Stone article initially received widespread acclaim and triggered swift action from UVA. But it has since come under fire from critics who say that the magazine violated journalism best practices, particularly with regard to its handling of the alleged assailants. Sabrina Rubin Erdely, the author of the article, and Rolling Stone, have since explained that they corroborated Jackie's story by talking to dozens of her friends, in part to ensure that she had consistently told the same story for years, but were unable to reach the accused rapists (one of whom is identified with the pseudonym "Drew" and others who are not identified at all) for comment -- a fact which was omitted in the article. (UPDATE: After the publication of this post NPR's David Folkenflik brought to our attention that in an interview with him, Erdely said she had not contacted the alleged assailant at the request of Jackie. Her editor Sean Woods made similar statements to The New Republic. These comments appear to contradict other statements Erdely gave to Slate and Woods gave to The Washington Post, on which the criticisms referenced in this post were based.)
A number of journalists have criticized Erdely for this omission. Slate's Hanna Rosin and Allison Benedikt wrote that the "basic rules of reporting a story like this" include doing everything possible to reach the alleged assailant, and, if one is unable to do so, including a sentence "explaining that you tried -- and explaining how you tried." They criticize Rolling Stone for failing to include such a sentence, writing that this is "absolutely necessary, because it tells readers you tried your best to get the other side of the story."
The Washington Post's Erik Wemple took this critique a step further, saying that Rolling Stone had "whiff[ed]" with the article and suggesting they should have held the piece until they were able to name the accused in print (Erdely says she had agreed to Jackie's request "not to name the individuals because she's so fearful of them"), or find some other "solid" evidence:
The publication says it didn't name the perpetrators because Jackie is "so fearful of them. That was something we agreed on," Erdely commented. That's a compelling reason -- to hold the story until Jackie felt comfortable naming them; or until she filed a complaint; or until something more solid on the case emerged.
In voicing these concerns about Erdely's journalistic practices, these reporters are proposing that there is a standard these types of stories should meet -- perhaps before they can even be published -- which includes a high bar for finding of proof, including doing everything in the reporter's power to identify and contact the accused, informing the reader of those attempts, and possibly going as far as to include their name and perspective in the piece.
Reporters may find such standards appropriate. Sexual assault, and particularly gang rape, is a terrible crime, and it is logical that journalists would want to tread carefully when assessing the validity of accusations. Rosin's and Benedikt's argument that it would at the very least have been simple for Erdely to include a sentence noting she had attempted to reach out seems reasonable.
However, previous reports on sexual assaults -- including from the Post and Slate -- have not met these standards, and have not come under similar scrutiny or criticism. Rolling Stone's Tim Dickinson, who has said he was not involved in the editing of this particular piece, tweeted several examples of reporting on sexual assault in which publications did not include any mention of ever attempting to contact the accused for comment and did not name the alleged perpetrator.
In response to questions from Media Matters about whether the university had considered Will's comments on sexual assault before deciding to honor him, MSU spokesman Jason Cody said in a statement that Will was selected in recognition of his "long and distinguished career as a nationally recognized journalist" rather than "in reference to any individual viewpoint." He added: "In any diverse community there are sure to be differences of opinion and perspective; something we celebrate as a learning community. We appreciate all views, and we hope and expect the MSU community will give the speaker the same respect."
MSU's decision to honor Will is already drawing criticism from a prominent women's rights group. "George Will's continued attacks on campus rape survivors make him an unfit speaker for any University," said Shaunna Thomas, co-founder of UltraViolet. "George Will may have a right to publicly speak out against survivors of sexual violence, but schools like Michigan State University should know better than to honor Will's dangerous views with honorary degrees and a speaking gig at commencement."
Conservative columnist George Will is scheduled to speak at Michigan State University this month during graduation ceremonies, despite ongoing controversy surrounding his past comments on campus sexual assault.
The Detroit News reported that Will is scheduled to be a commencement speaker at the December 13 ceremony, and will receive "an honorary doctorate of humanities."
Will's previous speaking engagements at universities have come under fire after he published a syndicated column in June disputing the evidence that 1 in 5 women on U.S college campuses experience sexual assault, while arguing that efforts to fight sexual assault have made "victimhood a coveted status that confers privileges." His remarks received widespread criticism from U.S. senators, media, and women's equality groups.
In October, Scripps College of Claremont, Ca. canceled an appearance by Will, with college president Lori Bettison-Varga explaining in a statement that because Will had questioned "the validity of a specific sexual assault case that reflects similar experiences reported by Scripps students," they would not move forward with the speaking arrangement.
Hundreds protested another Will appearance, at Miami University of Ohio in October. Nearly 1,200 students, faculty, and staff signed a letter stating that hosting Will "sends the wrong message to current students, prospective students, and their families about the tolerance of rape culture and predatory sexual behavior at Miami University," according to the Miami University Women's Center. The speech also drew criticism from professors at the school's Women's, Gender and Sexuality Studies program and the national women's rights group UltraViolet.
At that speech, a student who identified herself as a sexual assault survivor told journalists that Will claimed treatment for victims was "worth it ... only for real survivors of real rape."
Michigan State University is currently under federal investigation for its handling of sexual assault accusations. On December 1, MSU's president posted a note about the school's efforts to combat sexual assault on campus, including "frank conversations and open dialog" to build a "culture of respect" (emphasis added):
As I said in my September 2 letter to the campus community, sexual assault is a serious problem on American college campuses, and ours is no exception. It will take leadership from all quarters to create the change necessary. I commend our students for the way they have stepped forward. Featured below is a video created by Associated Students of Michigan State University (ASMSU) as part of the national It's On Us campaign. And earlier this year, a group of eight current and recently graduated students released a documentary film, "Every Two Minutes," with a powerful message about the impact of sexual assault. This kind of work encourages frank conversations and open dialog, while at the same time building a culture of respect and concern for one another.
I encourage all members of the Spartan community to watch these videos. But I ask you to do more. Take it upon yourself to address this issue in whatever way you can. Sexual assault is everyone's problem, and it's on all of us to take action, whether that means protecting a fellow Spartan from sexual violence, providing support to a survivor, or raising awareness on campus or in your home. Members of the MSU community must not be passive.
Image via Miami University's Women's, Gender and Sexuality Studies program.
White guests greatly outnumbered all other guests on Fox News Sunday's November 30 segments on civil rights protests in Ferguson, MO, and the resignation of Ferguson police officer Darren Wilson. CBS' Sunday morning political talk show had a small majority of white guests during similar segments, while ABC's and NBC's shows were more ethnically diverse.
Sharyl Attkisson is now claiming she doesn't know who was behind the hack of her computer, after writing in her book that her sources gave her "the name of the person responsible for my computer intrusions."
Attkisson's former employer CBS News confirmed in June 2013 that her CBS-issued Toshiba laptop was compromised by an unknown party. Attkisson has since claimed that the hack was conducted by a government agency. She has not produced evidence of this, but she claims the Department of Justice's Inspector General is currently investigating her personal Apple computer.
During a November 5 interview with HuffPostLive, Attkisson was asked "how much do you think that it really is the administration doing this to you, or people within the government spying on you because of your reporting?" In response, Attkisson claimed she had evidence of a "government tie," but did not know who or what organization had specifically conducted the cyberattack:
ATTKISSON: I can only tell you what the forensics shows. And I'm not a forensics expert. We've had three separate computer forensics exams by three different people that have showed highly sophisticated remote intrusion of my computers.
The forensics says that there was a government tie to this, because there was, as one of them said, proprietary software to one of the four federal government agencies. Doesn't mean I know who was on the other end or was it an organization or was it a person, a rogue person, I don't have the answer to those questions, I just know that there's that government tie.
But in her new book Stonewalled, Attkisson writes that a source gave her the name of the individual responsible:
On May 6, 2013, I make contact with an excellent source who has crucial information: the name of the person responsible for my computer intrusions. He provides me the name and I recognize it. I'm not surprised. It strikes me as desperate and cowardly that those responsible would resort to these tactics. That's all I can say about that for now.
Two paragraphs later, a source code-named "Number One" tells Attkisson that the inspector general's office "works for the people who did this to you." (In May 2013, the Justice Department said it had never compromised Attkisson's computers.)
Attkisson has also reversed herself on whether various technological problems she experienced in 2012 and 2013 were tied to the intrusion on her system. In the book, she suggested her phone, television, personal laptop, and cable systems had all malfunctioned due to the hacking by a government agency. But on November 4, she told radio host Don Imus that those "disruptions happening in my electrical systems at home may in the end have nothing to do with the intrusion."
Challenged on that reversal during her HuffPostLive interview, Attkisson claimed:
I was trying to explain, because there were so many people anxious without full information, and I understand, to try to discredit and poke holes and controversialize all of this. And, I had heard it said mistakenly that if all of that stuff was just normal miss-wiring, which I don't believe it was, then nothing really happened. And I was making the point that take all of that aside, that was just a symptom that I saw that had nothing to do with the forensics which proved the remote intrusions. That was just the thing that triggered me and my sources to say, "something is indeed probably happening to you, let's take a look." So even if you scoop those out, even if you want to say, I was holding my backspace key down or whatever they said, you have to look at the forensics from the three separate experts, and you really can't argue with that.
After Attkisson released a video she had taken that reportedly showed text from a Microsoft Word document on her laptop being erased, Media Matters asked computer security experts to review that video. Those experts said that rather than showing evidence of hacking, the video seemed to show her computer "malfunction[ing]," likely due to a stuck backspace key.
The epigraph of Stonewalled is "The truth eventually finds a way to be told."
Watch Attkisson saying she didn't know who was responsible for the hack on HuffPostLive:
Sharyl Attkisson is now claiming that the various technology problems chronicled in her book "may in the end have nothing to do with the intrusions" into her computer, after she previously suggested her phone, television, personal laptop, and cable systems had all malfunctioned due to hacking by a government agency.
In June 2013, CBS News confirmed that then-reporter Attkisson's CBS News-issued Toshiba laptop was breached using what the network said were "sophisticated" methods. But Attkisson has taken this further, stating in her new book Stonewalled that unnamed sources have confirmed for her that an unnamed government agency was behind the attack, and that it also breached her personal Apple laptop and affected her other household electronics.
In a chapter titled "Big Brother," Attkisson highlights the warning of a pseudonymous "well-informed acquaintance" who is "connected to a three-letter agency" who tells her that the government is likely monitoring her due to her reporting on the Benghazi attacks. Attkisson writes that the "warning sheds new light on all the trouble I've been having with my phones and computers." She details a variety of ongoing technology problems she experienced at her home starting in the autumn of 2012, including strange sounds on her telephone (which unnamed sources tell her may be tapped), a television that "spontaneously jitters, mutes, and freeze-frames," a house alarm that repeatedly goes off at night, and a mysterious fiber optics cable cord that appears behind her house. Her Verizon FiOS system controls her internet, phone, and home security systems, which Attkisson suggests links these electronic malfunctions to her computer problems.
Now, Attkisson seems to be reversing the sinister suggestion that these electronic malfunctions are all the work of "Big Brother." In a November 4 interview on Imus in the Morning, Attkisson said that "all these disruptions happening in my electrical systems at home may in the end have nothing to do with the intrusion," suggesting instead it was a "gift" to experience these problems so that experts could find the legitimate hack into her computer (emphasis added):
DON IMUS: A big story out of all of this, apparently, is somebody is hacking your computer? Tell me about that.
ATTKISSON: It sounded very far-fetched at first, because the news hadn't come out yet about the government spying on Fox News reporter and confiscating personal records or phone records of Associated Press reporters and Ed Snowden so in that era, when I was having disruptions and things happening in my systems at home, I certainly didn't imagine the government was behind any of it but I had sources come to me and a couple of them, inside sources, say similar things, that I was probably being monitored because they had been seeing the work I had been doing on Benghazi and so on.
IMUS: Inside sources from CBS News?
ATTKISSON: No, from government-connected people and...
ATTKISSON: I don't want to say.
ATTKISSON: But they use very similar wording, two of them, in retrospect, they said something like the public would be shocked at the extent to which the government is spying on private citizens or monitoring private citizens and that kind of rang in my head especially when the second person used similar language, and just by coincidence all these disruptions happening in my electrical systems at home may in the end have nothing to do with the intrusions but it was enough to alert people that said something may be happening and it gave me the gift of being able to connect with someone who could do a forensic examination on my computer and discover apart from these disruptions in my house, they found forensic evidence of highly sophisticated remote intrusions into my home computer and my CBS laptop computer. In all I had three forensic exams done which all found evidence of the remote intrusions into these computers, not garden variety hackers, phishers, or that sort of thing.
As computer experts have noted, many of Attkisson's electronic problems may have non-suspicious causes. Security expert Robert Graham went through each example offered by Attkisson and concluded none were "credible" evidence of hacking -- instead, he thought they were likely the result of "common" problems like bad cables and old systems:
It's not that hackers can't cause these problems, it's that they usually don't. Even if hackers have thoroughly infested your electronics, these symptoms are still more likely to be caused by normal failure than by the hackers themselves. Moreover, even if a hacker caused any one of these symptoms, it's insane to think they caused them all.
Media Matters also asked several computer experts to review a video Attkisson has offered as evidence that her personal laptop was being tampered with. According to them, her computer "malfunction[ing]" was likely due to a stuck backspace key, not hacking by government agents.
Sharyl Attkisson's new book attempts to cast the former CBS News reporter as an intrepid reporter fighting against intractable barriers. But the book's sloppy inaccuracies and absent context reinforce her image as a journalist more interested in a biased narrative than uncovering the facts.
Attkisson resigned this year after two decades at CBS and promptly launched a media tour attacking her former employer for supposedly protecting the Obama administration from her reporting. Her new book has been published and promoted by conservative interests, who clearly see this narrative as a confirmation of their worldview that the "liberal" media is biased against them.
But Attkisson doesn't portray herself as a conservative folk hero pitted against "liberal bias." In fact, she sees that kind of rhetoric as distracting "from the real issues," and the real reasons she left CBS. Instead, Stonewalled: My Fight for Truth Against the Forces of Obstruction, Intimidation, and Harassment in Obama's Washington is meant to confirm her place in the pantheon of nonpartisan journalists, who will "follow a story wherever it leads, no matter how unpleasant, no matter whom it touches or implicates." In her account, Attkisson is one of the few reporters who have been trying to hold the Obama administration accountable by investigating its supposedly scandalous behavior in the face of "forces" who seek to protect the White House.
Attkisson organizes the book around her coverage of four major news stories -- the botched law enforcement Operation Fast and Furious, the bankruptcy of a few green energy companies that had received federal funding, the Benghazi attacks, and the rollout of the Affordable Care Act's website, Healthcare.gov -- which she casts as symbolic of her desire to investigate administration failures. But Attkisson claims her efforts were repeatedly stymied by CBS.
Attkisson's claims of the opposition she faced at CBS News are difficult to confirm, as they rely on private conversations and anonymous sources. (The Washington Post's Erik Wemple has been attempting to identify and reach out to some of them, but has received few confirmations.) But her account inflates those supposed scandals by hiding key facts in favor of pushing conservative talking points -- the sort of behavior that led CBS officials to fear that she was "wading dangerously close to advocacy" in her reporting.
Attkisson was one of the first reporters to cover Operation Fast and Furious, under which Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives (ATF) agents allowed firearms to be trafficked across the U.S. - Mexico border, hoping to follow the guns to high-level Mexican drug cartel targets. ATF lost track of the guns, some of which ended up at crime scenes in Mexico, while others were found at the scene of the fatal shooting of a U.S. Border Patrol agent in Arizona.
Stonewalled details Attkisson's role in reporting the story, for which she won an Emmy. However, her book also floats a number of debunked conservative conspiracy theories about the botched operation, while promoting the 2012 Department of Justice Inspector General report that undermines those same theories.
For instance, Attkisson falsely suggests that her reporting proved Attorney General Eric Holder was lying about his knowledge of Fast and Furious. Holder testified under oath that he was unaware of the operation until it became public knowledge in early 2011, but Attkisson claims Holder was aware several months earlier:
Unfortunately for Holder, it wasn't long after his testimony that we obtained internal documents showing he was actually sent weekly briefings on Fast and Furious as early as July 2010, ten months before. The briefings came from the director of the National Drug Intelligence Center and from Holder's own Assistant Attorney General Breuer.
However, the Inspector General report found that Holder did not personally review those reports, and that those reports did not refer to the agent's major failure to stop the firearms from crossing the border. The report went on to completely exonerate Holder, placing the "primary responsibility" for Fast and Furious on the ATF's Phoenix field office and the Phoenix U.S. Attorney's Office. Even House Oversight Chair Darrell Issa (R-CA) has acknowledged that he has "no evidence" or even a "strong suspicion" that Holder was aware of the gunwalking tactics.
Attkisson calls the Inspector General report "scathing" while acknowledging that its findings contradicted some of her reporting. Nevertheless, she misleadingly concludes by blasting the press for accurately exonerating Holder, accusing them of a "generous interpretation of the facts."
Attkisson goes on to attack the Obama administration's electric vehicle initiative, a part of the Department of Energy's clean energy loan program. She focuses on several failed companies that received federal funds, including Fisker Automotive and A123, and falsely claims their eventual bankruptcies were representative of the entire program:
Were these failed enterprises alone among an overwhelming body of successful green energy initiatives funded by tax dollars? No.
This is false. Despite conservative media's fixation on the few beneficiaries of clean energy loan programs that failed, such as Fisker and Solyndra -- and despite Attkisson's previous error-ridden report on what CBS called "new Solyndras" -- 98 percent of clean energy funds went to successful ventures:
Attkisson criticizes the media for a double standard when covering the bankruptcies, insisting that journalists gave President Obama a pass that they wouldn't have afforded President Bush -- all while insisting that she would have covered each president fairly (emphasis added):
Imagine a parallel scenario in which President Bush and Vice President Dick Cheney personally appeared at groundbreakings for, and used billions of tax dollars to support, multiple giant corporate ventures whose investors were sometimes major political campaign bundlers, only to have one (or two, or three) go bankrupt. At a cost to taxpayers of hundreds of millions of dollars. During a presidential election. When they knew in advance the companies' credit ratings were junk. News headlines would have been relentless with images of Bush and Cheney smiling and waing at one contrsuction-start ceremony after another, making their invalidated claims about jobs and untold millions...contrasted with images of empty plants and boarded-up warehouses. And I would have been proposing those stories.
But the program that started the Fisker loans -- called the Advanced Technology Vehicles Manufacturing program -- did begin under Bush.
In fact, Fisker itself was approached by the Bush administration and encouraged to apply for the loan, and they were in charge when the application was filed. Attkisson does not mention this context in her description of Fisker; instead, all she offers is a brief note that she had broadly investigated "the backgrounds of some troubled green ventures that benefited from federal tax dollars, whether under Bush or Obama."
Attkisson hides basic facts to suggest the Obama administration is trying to cover up the truth about September 2012 terrorist attacks in Benghazi, Libya.
She narrates a moment in November 2012 when she attempted to find a photograph of President Obama on the night of the Benghazi attacks as a way to account for his "actions that night." Conservative media, and Fox News in particular, have repeatedly questioned the whereabouts of various administration officials the night of the attacks.
Attkisson claims the White House isn't being forthright about the President's whereabouts, which she characterizes as suspicious and politically motivated, given that "tax dollars pay to have a professional photographer cover most every aspect of the president's work life."
A photo of the president in the Oval Office taken the night of the attacks has been available on the public White House Flickr account since October 11, 2012, three weeks before Attkisson claims she started looking for a photo.
The photo depicts Obama meeting with Denis McDonough, then-Deputy National Security Advisor, Vice President Joe Biden, then-National Security Advisor Tom Donilon, and then-Chief of Staff Jack Lew. The existence of the photo has been repeatedly documented. Attkisson apparently did not know about the photo at the time, but she does not attempt to reconcile the facts now.
Attkisson criticizes her CBS bosses for not letting her repeatedly report on theoretical security problems the Affordable Care Act's insurance exchange website faced -- while hiding key testimony that confirmed there had been no security breaches.
Attkisson highlights the closed-door House Oversight Committee testimony of Teresa Fryer, a lead cybersecurity official on the project, who Attkisson holds up as "a knowledgeable insider" whose testimony is worth trusting as a "current, sitting, senior manager." Fryer testified that there had been two high-risk security findings on Healthcare.gov "after it went live October 1" (emphasis original), which Attkisson claims is a "bombshell" and reveals that the Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) has misled journalists when they confirmed that "all fears about security risks in the past never came to pass."
What Attkisson fails to note is that during her testimony Fryer also explained there had been "no successful breaches" of the website; the "several layers of security" in place had performed as expected. The two findings Fryer mentioned were simply red flags -- they did not result in any real security failures, according to Fryer herself.
Attkisson notes that according to HHS one of the findings was a "false alarm" and the second was fixed, but insists "that may or may not be true. No proof is offered." She insists until evidence is produced it's simply the government's "side of the story," and derides media figures who accept the HHS "claims." She does not mention that Fryer made the exact same claims.
Computer security experts say that a video released by former CBS News reporter Sharyl Attkisson appears to show her computer "malfunction[ing]," likely due to a stuck backspace key, not being hacked by government agents as she had suggested.
In her new book Stonewalled, Attkisson claims that her personal Apple laptop, personal Apple desktop, and a CBS News-issued Toshiba laptop were hacked in late 2012 while she was reporting on the Benghazi terrorist attacks. In June 2013, CBS News confirmed that the CBS News computer was breached, using what the network said were "sophisticated" methods. According to the book, unnamed sources confirmed for Attkisson that an unnamed government agency was behind the attack. She also claims that she has submitted her personal Apple desktop to the Department of Justice's Inspector General for additional review.*
On October 31, Politico reported that Attkisson had released "a video she took with her cellphone of one apparent hack" of her personal Apple laptop. The video shows words typed into a Microsoft Word document rapidly disappearing. During the video, Attkisson's voice can be heard saying she's "not touching it," as the camera pans down to the keyboard. As Politico reported, "There is no way to confirm from the video alone that a hack is actually taking place, and there's reason to doubt that Attkisson was hacked at all," but "Attkisson's decision to release the video suggests she plans on using it to make her case."
Computer security experts who reviewed the video suggested to Media Matters that it seemed to show the results of a stuck backspace key rather than hacking, and said the government and other sophisticated hacking enterprises were unlikely to use such methods.
Matthew Brothers-McGrew, a senior specialist at Interhack Corp. in Columbus, Ohio, said that sometimes computers "malfunction, a key can get stuck, sometimes dirt can get under a keyboard and a key will inadvertently be held down." He explained that sometimes there can be software issues "where the computer will think a key is held down in fact it is not," and said that his firm tested holding down the backspace key on a computer in their offices, and found "if you have Word open it will continually backspace text at about the same rate we are seeing in the video."
Brad Moore, also a senior specialist at Interhack Corp., agreed, noting, "From what we looked at and what we were able to replicate, from that piece of video we don't see what we would call evidence of hacking. There are multiple explanations and we were able to demonstrate quickly and easily one possibil[ity], the backspace key."
Peter Theobald, computer forensics investigator with TC Forensics in Syosset N.Y., said that while he would not be "terribly surprised to find out that someone in the government could or would hack her," he also did not think the video proved "anything."
"If a hacker were to infiltrate her laptop and delete her files there would be better ways to do it, it wouldn't be so obvious to her," Theobald said. "It did not look like a hacker attack to me."
All of the experts agreed that hackers would more typically use other methods to delete documents from a computer.
"The way to do it wouldn't be to hold down the delete key," explained Sam Plainfield, of Syntax Technical Computer Forensics in San Francisco, which is what he thinks appears to be happening in the video. Instead, "you wouldn't see a visual indicator that files are deleting, [they are] just gone."
Brothers-McGrew noted "in our experience if you have the ability to be able to access and submit keystrokes on someone's computer, you generally have system level access where you can just delete or modify the file yourself. The user would not ordinarily see what is going on."
He added, "If the government were in there they would most likely be doing it without making themselves known."
Theobald concurred, saying that the government "would be able to access the files on her hard drive and manipulate and delete them without having to remote control her screen and keyboard while she is sitting at the keyboard."
*The language in this post has been updated to clarify that Attkisson submitted her personal Apple desktop computer to the DOJ for review, not her personal laptop.