Whopper of the Year: 'The Mainstream Media' Ignored Benghazi

Love or hate their coverage, the notion that a scandal went uncovered is a conservative delusion.
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What explains the widespread conservative belief that "the mainstream media" has been ignoring the attack on an American compound in Benghazi? On Friday, when I published "The Attack in Benghazi: Worth Investigating After All," I noted that while I'd personally tuned out the story, a CNN report on efforts to keep CIA agents from talking to Congress stoked my desire for a Congressional oversight. In response, the conservative site Newsbusters wrote that most of the MSM has tuned out Benghazi, and that liberal readers of mine would be shocked to learn there's a story there. Various conservative email correspondents and Twitter users seemed to believe the same thing. Their belief is common and longstanding on the right.

A few Google searches demonstrate the prevalence of the claim. Another typical Fox segment, titled "Liberal Media Bias?", features images of the New York Times followed by a guest who says the news media's cover-up is so disgraceful that it's the enemy of Americans.

Or take Jonah Goldberg of National Review, whose October 31, 2012, column began, "If you want to understand why conservatives have lost faith in the so-called mainstream media, you need to ponder the question: Where is the Benghazi feeding frenzy?" He went on to say, "This is not to say that Fox News is alone in covering the story. But it is alone in treating it like it's a big deal."

That narrative persists to this day in conservative media and among the rank and file. Conservatives believe the MSM has largely ignored the Benghazi story even as conservative outlets diligently report it out. This perception has little grounding in reality. That isn't to say that no conservative criticism of Benghazi coverage has been accurate. As on any subject, there are many flawed stories put out there by outlets right, left, and center. But the conservative claim that "the MSM" has ignored the story is a mass delusion.

It is time to end it. In what follows, I'll show three things.

  1. Prior to Election 2012, the Benghazi attack was covered exhaustively by the "mainstream media." Since the New York Times is part of the MSM by everyone's definition, and because Fox News, among many others, specifically called out the newspaper, I'll focus on its in my analysis.
  2. For the whole life of the story, mainstream and left-leaning outlets haven't just pursued it -- they've published many of the biggest scoops.
  3. In addition to sound reporting, many conservative outlets have published lots of misinformation on Benghazi.

Note the specificity of these claims. This article is not an evaluation of the Obama Administration's handling of Benghazi. For all I know, he mishandled it egregiously, and as I wrote back in September of 2012, I definitely think he mishandled the filmmaker behind that YouTube video. Nor am I attempting a comprehensive assessment of the quality of "mainstream media" reporting on this story. My more modest goal is just demolishing the most wrongheaded conservative claims. They're far too common relative to how easily debunked they are, and almost everyone would benefit from retiring them, non-demagogue conservatives most of all.  

Case Study: Pre-Election Coverage of Benghazi 
in The New York Times

The New York Times is among the most widely read newspapers in America, and a major influence on network television and public-radio coverage as well as what is discussed online. The newspaper covered so many aspects of the Benghazi attack so frequently in its pages that it is too unwieldy to list them all -- what follows is a lengthy summary, but it is not nearly exhaustive. In addition to news coverage, the paper regularly published conservative and liberal takes on the controversy, including multiple pieces criticizing Barack Obama and Mitt Romney.

The attack occurred on September 11, 2012. The next day's newspaper included three articles on Benghazi:

Said the last article:

To understand why Mitt Romney was so quick to condemn President Obama for "sympathizing with those who waged the attacks" in Libya, read Mr. Romney's 325-page political manifesto, "No Apology," whose very title encapsulates his approach to such moments.

In the book, published almost three years ago, Mr. Romney, the Republican nominee, repeatedly returns to the same conclusion: President Obama is overly sensitive to the grievances of America's enemies, especially in the Muslim world.

One of the several Benghazi articles published September 13 included revisions to the original narrative: "The mayhem here that killed four United States diplomatic personnel, including the ambassador, was actually two attacks," it began, "the first one spontaneous and the second highly organized and possibly aided by anti-American infiltrators of Libya's young government."

On September 14, Peter Baker reported that "while the president receives an intelligence briefing in writing every day, he does not sit down with intelligence officials for an in-person briefing every day. To Republican opponents, that has become a symbol of inattentiveness to a dangerous world." Another article that day stated that "According to guards at the compound, the attack began at about 9:30 p.m., without advance warning or any peaceful protest."

Ross Douthat's column on September 15 stated in its opening sentence that "the greatest mistake to be made right now, with our embassies under assault and crowds chanting anti-American slogans across North Africa and the Middle East, is to believe that what's happening is a completely genuine popular backlash against a blasphemous anti-Islamic video."

The same day an article datelined Cairo dug into the militia said to be responsible for the attack.

On September 18, the newspaper wondered if the attack meant that al-Qaeda was more potent than previously thought. Benghazi was being reported as a "terrorist attack" by September 20:

WASHINGTON -- The White House is now calling the assault on the American diplomatic facility in Benghazi, Libya, a "terrorist attack."

"It is self-evident that what happened in Benghazi was a terrorist attack," the White House press secretary, Jay Carney, told reporters aboard Air Force One on Thursday. "Our embassy was attacked violently and the result was four deaths of American officials." Until now, White House officials have not used that language in describing the assault. But with the election less than two months away and President Obama's record on national security a campaign issue, they have come under criticism from Republican lawmakers who say the administration is playing down a threat for which it was unprepared.

Mr. Carney offered the new assessment in response to a question about remarks by Matthew G. Olsen, director of the National Counterterrorism Center, who told a Congressional committee Wednesday that J. Christopher Stevens, the United States ambassador to Libya, and three other Americans had died "in the course of a terrorist attack."

Asked if the president drew a connection between the Libyan attack, which occurred on Sept. 11, and the attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon 11 years before, Mr. Carney said, "The attack occurred on Sept 11, 2012, so we use the same calendar at the White House as you do." In a highly charged political atmosphere, the mere use of the term "terrorist" is loaded, not least, as one administration official acknowledged privately, because the phrase conjures up an image of America under attack, something the White House wants to avoid.

The CIA presence in Benghazi was the focus of a September 23 article. On September 27, the newspaper reported that "Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton suggested an affiliate of Al Qaeda in North Africa was behind the attack," and a September 29 presidential campaign story noted that "changing explanations of the attack on the diplomatic compound in Libya have left President Obama exposed on foreign policy, where he had enjoyed an advantage over Mitt Romney."

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Conor Friedersdorf is a staff writer at The Atlantic, where he focuses on politics and national affairs. He lives in Venice, California, and is the founding editor of The Best of Journalism, a newsletter devoted to exceptional nonfiction.

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