In recent days, CBS News correspondent Sharyl Attkisson has come under criticism for an award she is due to accept later this week at the Conservative Political Action Conference, and yesterday, Media Matters for America called on the network “to reconsider [its] decision to legitimize a discredited, fringe organization by accepting AIM award at CPAC.” Everyone likes being recognized for their work. But Attkisson’s prize is a useful illustration of those cases when an award can bring an organization the wrong kind of recognition.
First, there’s the group conferring the prize. “Accuracy in Media” (AIM) peddles conspiracy theories ranging from assertions that President Obama is a socialist and a non-citizen to suggestions that mainstream media outlets encourage Occupy Wall Street protests to turn violent to boost ratings. The group has regularly criticized CBS and its affiliated networks for sins ranging from airing an episode of the legal drama The Good Wife that cast the Tea Party in a negative light to “tricking” Republican presidential candidates for agreeing with Obama administration policies in a primary debate. It’s not clear why CBS News wants Accuracy in Media’s approval or thinks it’s an organization that’s qualified to judge the network’s journalism.
Then, there’s the prize itself. As my colleague Brad Johnson noted, Attkisson is being honored for her work on a report that purported to reveal that the Obama administration had funded 11 other failed green energy projects like Solyndra, but the numbers that underly that report don’t support Attkisson’s claims. Rather than proving that the administration dumped money into failing projects, Attkisson is counting organizations that never got federal money at all or who haven’t gone bankrupt. That’s not the kind of work that most news organizations would be excited to get the in spotlight: it’s more invigorating to truly land the evidence that nails the case you’re trying to make than to repackage weak numbers under a flashy headline.
None of this is to say that big news outlets should never accept awards from small organizations, or from interest groups who are excited to see their issues be recognized. But CBS News should reconsider Accuracy in Media’s award because it’s not particularly clear that AIM and CBS News have the same standards for what constitutes strong reporting. If AIM is honoring CBS News for reporting that is politically biased or unlikely to stand up under serious scrutiny, CBS News shouldn’t risk validating standards that it wouldn’t use on a day-to-day basis in evaluating its own work.