From the start, the Obama administration’s account of what happened in Benghazi, Libya, on Sept. 11 last year didn’t quite square for Sharyl Attkisson.
So the veteran CBS News reporter dug in, and kept digging.
The result: Attkisson has been a persistent voice of news-media skepticism about the government’s story. On the air and online, Attkisson has questioned the administration’s timeline and its response. She has hunted down important eyewitnesses and pressed for release of documents that might shed more light on the attack that killed four Americans, including Ambassador J. Christopher Stevens.
It’s still not clear what happened at the U.S. compound, but some answers might come Wednesday in a hearing called by the Republican-chaired House Oversight Committee. The committee will hear testimony from three State Department “whistleblowers” who have been called to describe the government’s response to the attacks. Initial reporting on their testimony — by Attkisson, among others — suggests the officials may contradict elements of the White House and State Department’s version of events.
While other media, particularly Fox News, have been similarly skeptical about the official narrative about Benghazi, Attkisson and CBS might put the story in a different light. As a much-decorated reporter from a news outlet often derided by conservatives as a liberal beacon, Attkisson and her network flip the usual script on this highly politicized story. That is, it’s hard to peg her and her network as Republican sympathizers out to score political points against a Democratic president.
The story has made Attkisson — strong-willed, supremely confident and often controversial — a kind of Rorschach test among journalists.
Conservatives see a crusader and truth-teller. Tim Graham of the conservative Media Research Center calls Attkisson “an outlier” among TV reporters — a hard-nosed investigator of “how our public officials behave and misbehave.” Liberals see a partisan tool. “I think Attkisson has completely given herself over to the right and is very happy to be their champion,” says Eric Boehlert, a senior fellow at the liberal Media Matters for America organization.
Attkisson, 52, sees neither. She says she bears no partisan grud-
ges, not on the Benghazi story or another in which her reporting nettled Obama administration officials — the Justice Department’s problem-plagued gun-tracking operation, known as Fast and Furious (for which Attkisson won an Emmy for investigative reporting).
“I’m a political agnostic,” she says. “I don’t think about who’s good and who’s bad. I just go where the story leads. . . . People can say what they want about me, I don’t care. I just want to get the information out there.”
But Attkisson, who holds a third-degree black belt in taekwondo, takes a fighting stance when she feels she’s being stonewalled. Which is exactly what she thinks the White House has done to her on Benghazi. In particular, she is irked by the administration’s non-response to a petition for documents that she filed in November under the Freedom of Information Act.
“I find [that] improper,” she said. “You could say suspicious.” Suspicious? “We don’t know what we don’t know,” she says. “There could be political reasons or valid national security reasons [for not replying]. I just don’t know. I know they haven’t made a good argument” for why public disclosure of the material would harm national security.
White House officials did not respond Tuesday to a request for comment. But they have said previously that they have made extensive disclosures, including making public an internal State Department review of the episode.
Attkisson’s general approach to her work may be spelled out in the self-description on her Twitter account: “Investigative Journalist. Dreaming of a day when public officials answer questions as if they know they work for the public.”
She says she has received “a tremendous amount of pushback” from the White House as a result of her reporting on Benghazi and Fast and Furious. Among other things, she says, White House officials have called and written her bosses at CBS to complain about her work. She says she doesn’t find that unusual or even disturbing.
In fact, Attkisson has occasionally become news herself.
In 2011, she told conservative radio host Laura Ingraham that she was on the receiving end of a heated scolding by the Justice Department’s chief spokeswoman, Tracy Schmaler, and White House spokesman Eric Schultz over her reporting on Fast and Furious. The comment sparked commentary in the conservative media that the administration was “strong-arming” reporters (neither Schultz nor Schmaler, who recently joined a new political communications firm started by former top Obama adviser David Axelrod, responded Tuesday to requests for comment).
She also drew attention last year when a conservative group, Accuracy in Media, sought to give her a reporting award at the annual convention of the Conservative Political Action Conference. Despite criticism that the award made her work appear partisan, Attkisson said CBS News decided to accept it on her behalf; it sent its top Washington manager, Christopher Isham, to the presentation when she was called away on assignment. Attkisson said she donated the prize money to a fund created in memory of a slain Border Patrol agent, Brian Terry.
“I appreciate the recognition,” she said. But she adds that it would be “inaccurate and unfair to imply that my body of work has a [partisan] tilt. It’s understandable that liberals or conservatives will carry the torch for my reporting, or criticize it, depending on how they see it. They are welcome to do so.”
As it happens, Attkisson has won recognition for tough stories on Republicans, too, such as an Emmy-winning series on the Bush administration’s bank bailout and an investigation of fundraising tactics by Republican congressmen at a Florida resort last year.
Some of Attkisson’s most controversial reporting hasn’t been about politics at all. She has been widely criticized within medical-research circles for a series starting in 2002 about research linking childhood vaccinations to the rise in autism. The stories have been denounced in some circles as “fear-mongering.” Attkisson is, typically, unbowed: “I stand behind it,” she says. “It’s some of the best work I’ve ever done. My only regret is that we haven’t done more.”
Despite reports of internal conflicts with her superiors, Attkisson says she has no immediate plans to leave CBS. “I am currently under contract,” she says flatly, declining to say when her agreement lapses or what might follow. “My goal is to report on untouchable subjects in a way that is fearless.”
Paul Farhi is a reporter for The Washington Post.