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What happens to veteran news reporter whose network refuses to run her stories?

Stonewalled: My Fight for Truth Against the Forces of Obstruction, Intimidation, and Harassment in Obama’s Washington

By Sharyl Attkisson

HarperCollins

422 pages, $27.99

By Lee Coppola

NEWS BOOK REVIEWER

Her computer mysteriously clicked on, then off while she slept, awakening her. Her telephone calls were interrupted by strange sounds. A security company employee couldn’t identify a wire that hung from the cable hookup to her house.

It was enough to scare veteran CBS investigative reporter Attkisson, and it was the jumping off point for her literary assault on public officials, especially those associated with Barack Obama, network news in general and, specifically, the hierarchy at her former workplace, CBS.

Some might call “Stonewalled” the diatribe of a disgruntled journalist. They’d be wrong. Attkisson backs up her accusations, as most competent investigative reporters do, with hard facts.

Take, for instance, the time she did a story about a credit card scam that included video of a suspect using a stolen card at a store. The video had been released by police and shown on local television stations, but just before the story was to air, a CBS news executive told Attkisson not to show the suspect’s face because he had not been convicted.

“Somebody doesn’t have to be convicted of a crime to identify him or show his face,” Attkisson responded. Undeterred, the executive told Attkisson to call the suspect’s lawyer and ask his permission to show his client’s face. “The idea that we would set a precedent by asking the suspect for permission to use his image has to rank as one of the more preposterous suggestions I’ve ever heard,” writes Attkisson.

Her other laments were more subtle, but also more crucial, than seeking permission to show the face of a yet-to-be convicted suspect. They involve the manner of coverage, sometimes the lack of coverage, of issues concerning the president’s health care plan, the assault on the U.S. consulate in Benghazi, a troubled Boeing airliner, and the government’s role in supplying arms to Mexican drug cartels.

Attkisson was involved in all of them and she uses her experiences to paint a not-so-flattering picture of the way network news determines its coverage while too often bowing to the public relations maneuvering of corporate America and employees of the Obama administration. The latter, she repeatedly reminds her readers, get paid with taxpayer dollars.

Much of what the Washington-based Attkisson writes allows her to vent about slanted coverage, biased story selection and impervious CBS higher-ups in New York, with a particularly sharp dagger directed at anchor Scott Pelley and the crew from the “CBS Evening News.” The reader can almost see the vapor steaming from her ears.

Her outrage at what she perceived as journalistic favoritism toward liberal causes and the Obama administration earned her the label of a right-winger more suited to work for Fox News than CBS. But Attkisson dismisses the categorization and defends her frustration, or perhaps umbrage, as the views of a veteran journalist more concerned with ethical reporting than points of view.

On the administration’s refusal to respond to valid questions or provide information deemed within the public right to know, she writes:

“Their relentless objections are not because they want accurate reporting: their goal is to spin and stop negative reporting. When we allow them to wrap us up in their game, it furthers their propaganda goals. We risk inadvertently giving them inappropriate influence over our reporting, of becoming their tool rather than their watchdog.”

Much of the problem, she claims, stems from social media, that forum where anybody with a computer can be a journalist. Bloggers sympathetic with an issue barrage the Internet with commentary, then politically motivated public officials refer to the blogoshere in redirecting a story to a place more to their liking. What’s worse, writes Attkisson, the major television networks follow the spin like lap dogs.

The administration’s immediate response to the Benghazi attack serves as a prime example. Remember the brouhaha over whether the president described the act as terrorism in his Rose Garden speech the day after a U.S. ambassador and two other Americans were killed? CBS, according to Attkisson, had an interview with the president in which he said he purposely avoided using the word terrorist when the White House was calling the attack a civil uprising over an anti-Muslim video. But, according to Attkisson, her network kept the interview under wraps while the administration’s spinmeisters put the story in a more favorable light for the president.

“It’s a familiar syndrome,” she writes, “the same news outlets that ignore a genuine controversy when it emerges are all too eager to jump in and pick up the story if it means discrediting it … or if it means reporting on the administration’s defense.”

For her part, “Stonewalled” is a spirited defense of principled journalism under attack by the very forces that supposedly uphold it. And by her assessment, she and others of like ilk are losing the battle.

Oh yes, by the way, that computer that awakened her? Attkisson had it tested by a private company hired by CBS and by a source who does such things for a secret government agency. The result: The electronic intruder was traced to an Internet address used only by the government.

Lee Coppola is a former print and television journalist, a former federal prosecutor and a former dean of St. Bonaventure University’s Jandoli Journalism School.