By Thomas M. Loarie

BOOK REVIEW: Fake News, Smears, and the Failure of Modern Media’s Stewardship of Honest Reporting

October 7, 2019
Column: CEO Learnings

Book Reviews of Sharyl Attkisson’s The Smear and Howard Kurtz’s Media Madness.

Journalism is in my blood. My grandfather was editor of the Chicago Times and then served as Executive Editor of the Chicago Sun-Times after the Times was acquired by Marshall Field Enterprises. My mother followed in his footsteps with a local newsletter, SCOOP, which focused on the actions of our local village board (Deerfield, Illinois). Our dinner table was frequented by reporters from the local, regional and national papers, and a Pulitzer Prize winning editorial cartoonist, HerBlock, who went to school with my parents.

My grandfather would often sit with me and take me through a newspaper to show me good journalism and bad journalism (Look at the use of adjectives and adverbs!” he would say.). He was emphatic that opinion pieces belonged not in the news section but on the editorial page(s). The job of a journalist was to report the facts and let the reader draw their own conclusions.

Despite today’s claims and concerns with the pervasiveness of “FAKE NEWS,” poor journalism has been around since “Yellow Journalism” had its heyday in the late 19th Century. Yellow Journalism was a style of newspaper reporting that emphasized sensationalism over facts. It sells and its purveyors find it very profitable.

The depths to which journalistic standards have fallen today can find its roots Watergate, after Washington Post reporters Woodward and Bernstein garnered national attention for their investigative reporting. The investigative reporter became the story and with it, fame and big money. More recently, the slow death of the print media (Facebook and Google sucked away the advertising that supported reporting and fact-checking), the ubiquitousness of social media making reporters and commentators of us all, and the rising need for clicks and page views in a crowded information marketplace have taken journalism and with it, the credibility of mainstream media to new depths.

Sharyl Attkisson’s Smear and HowardKurtz’s Media Madness are two important books that provide objective insights into the state of journalism today. Attkisson’s book is a serious investigative effort and is the far better read. In it, she meticulously reports on how the news media has allowed itself to become co-opted by political, corporate and other special interests. She provides great detail on how political operatives have been invited into the newsroom as consultants then as reporters, anchors, and managers. Boundaries (the proverbial “Chinese Wall”) that separated news from opinion have evaporated. Intermingling is not only tolerated, it’s encouraged.

Attkisson exposes smear secrets, its financial underpinnings and its unchallenged path into mainstream media stories. “The smear artist specializes in character assassination driven by passion, ideology and money. It is profitable…making people rich. It has become our biggest global export.” She goes on to note that the smear is equally happy to be the tool of the government, corporations, special interests, and both Democrats and Republicans.

Kurtz plays it straight down the middle. He offers straight reporting on the recent Trump-related-madness of the media that draws from a wide array of reporting and commentary from newspapers, magazines, networks, websites and social media. He believes that the fundamental values of journalism have gotten twisted with the normal rules of balance and “attempted” objectivity being suspended…dismissed as a relic. Kurtz has harsh words for his profession and believes that the media has become tribal with news sources serving as a personal badge of partisan political ideology.

“The press’s attempt to normalizing Trump’s presidency has led to abnormal lying journalism…Perhaps the greatest offense is the distain and derision, if not outright revulsion that seeps into so many reports and segments about the president. This spills into the culture as well.”

Social psychology shows that people tend to spread falsehoods when they feel obligated to have an opinion about something they know little about – and when they feel they are not going to be challenged on it.

When people hear a false claim repeated even just once, they are more likely to let it override their prior knowledge on the subject and believe it. This is called the “illusory truth effect,” which shows that repeated statements are thought to be truer than statements heard for the first time. . It’s easier to process information the second time you hear. It is also time-consuming and difficult to access our previous knowledge, so we often go with information that is close enough. This is a concept promoted by activist Saul Alinsky.

We must be vigilant.

  • We must do our homework and be open to hear opposing sides of an issue.
  • We must be skeptical and analytical in our thinking. A lot of our problems today are because many people do not take the time to think as they ought to and are prey for misinformation.
  • Check the source. Why is this person telling me this? What does this person have to gain?
  • If it sounds too good to be true, it probably is. We suffer from confirmation bias and believe something that conforms to what we already think or want.
  • Ask questions. Why do you think like that? How do you know that to be true?
  • Don’t trust your gut. People who pause and think about whether information is true are better able to detect false information.
  • Seek evidence. Facts don’t lie…but check them to make sure they are real.
  • Pay attention to people who discount evidence. This is a big red flag.

Smears and the present media madness stem from those who want to win arguments, gain status, and get money to get what they want. Language is used to bend and twist the world into delivering what they want. It is an attempt to manipulate and influence others.

Fake news is not external but internal. It persists because we allow it. We need to be better stewards and demand that those who deliver the news do the same. Archbishop Charles J. Chaput notes that “honesty needs protection of those who recognize its value and commit themselves to good stewardship.”


View Articles Thomas M. Loarie is a popular host of The Mentors Radio Show, the founder and CEO of BryoLogyx Inc. (, and a seasoned corporate... MORE »

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