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."

As September ended, the newspaper delved into the Obama Administration's misplaced faith in on-site Libyan security, reporting:

With as few as four armed Americans and three armed Libyans guarding the mission as the attack began, Mr. Stevens' own bodyguard was so far away that he needed to sprint across the compound under gunfire to reach the building where the ambassador was working at the time. But the bodyguard ultimately left without Mr. Stevens, who died of smoke inhalation. And even after eight additional American security officers arrived from Tripoli, the roughly 30 Americans were surprised and outgunned again in the second attack, dependent on an ad hoc collection of Libyan militiamen to protect their retreat and avoid greater casualties, Libyan officials said.

An October 2 story led with the House Republican critique:

WASHINGTON -- Republicans on the House oversight committee on Tuesday accused officials in Washington of turning down repeated requests for increased security in Benghazi, Libya, before the fatal attack on the diplomatic compound there last month.

The same day, liberal columnist Maureen Dowd wrote:

There was something off-kilter about the tragic saga of Christopher Stevens from the beginning. Even for a highly regarded ambassador with a dash of Lawrence of Arabia's empathy and mistaken sense of invulnerability, Stevens was obviously too lightly guarded in a region roiling with threats and hatred; he was in a susceptible complex without enough armed security and basic emergency equipment. Even afterward, the place was so unprotected that a CNN staffer could walk in and pick up Stevens's private diary, which reflected the ambassador's fear about never-ending attacks and being on an Al Qaeda hit list.

There were, after all, Al Qaeda sympathizers among the rebels who overthrew Muammar el-Qaddafi with American help. House Republicans will hold a hearing next week and have asked Secretary of State Hillary Clinton to explain why the consulate was not better defended given, as Representative Darrell Issa noted in a letter, the "long line of attacks on Western diplomats and officials in Libya in the months leading up to September 11, 2012." Susan Rice's tumble is part of a disturbing pattern of rushing to pump up the president on national security, which seems particularly stupid because it's so unnecessary.

Here's the lede of an October 10 story:

WASHINGTON -- The former chief security officer for the American Embassy in Libya on Wednesday told a House committee investigating the fatal attack last month on a diplomatic compound in Benghazi that his request to extend the deployment of an American military team was thwarted by the State Department's Bureau of Diplomatic Security.

But a senior State Department official said after the hearing by the House Committee on Oversight and Government Reform that keeping the team would not have changed the bloody outcome in Benghazi because it was not based there but in Tripoli.

In his October 13 column, Douthat panned Team Obama's response to Benghazi:

For days after the attack, as it became clearer that the Benghazi violence was a Qaeda operation rather than a protest, White House officials continued to stress the importance of the "hateful" and "disgusting" video, and its supposed role as a catalyst for what Susan Rice, the ambassador to the United Nations, insisted was a spontaneous attack.

This narrative was pushed on Sunday morning programs, on late-night talk shows and at news conferences, by everyone from Rice to Hillary Clinton to the president himself. When Obama spoke at the United Nations shortly after the attacks, the video was referenced six times in the text; Al Qaeda was referenced only once.

 

Eventually, the White House let the video slip quietly out of its public rhetoric, and refocused on terrorism instead. But everything else that's come out about Benghazi has seemed much more damning because the administration practiced a strange denial at the outset.

Attacks by Mitt Romney, Paul Ryan, Rudy Giuliani, and Republicans generally received coverage. On October 16, the newspaper covered Hillary Clinton's statement taking responsibility for the attack. An October 18 article summarized the known facts about the attack, and on October 19 the Times reported, "Days after President Obama vowed to apprehend those behind the Sept. 11 attack on American diplomats, a suspected ringleader spent an evening at a luxury hotel full of journalists." 

The newspaper's public editor dedicated her October 21 column to assessing the NYT's Benghazi coverage. Margaret Sullivan criticized the page placement of a couple stories and said that the newspaper could do a better job connecting all the dots in a difficult to report story, but also noted (emphasis added):

...it is utterly wrong to say that The Times has ignored or buried the Libya story. As of Friday, editors had placed it on the front page on 18 days out of 38, sometimes with news, sometimes with analysis. The coverage has been extensive, aggressive and sweeping. And I see no evidence that The Times is pushing the Obama agenda, overtly or otherwise.

Many readers believe that it is, so I read with particular care on this subject.

An October 25 column reported that "leaked State Department messages stirred new debate about the Obama administration's shifting positions on why four Americans were killed," and an October 31 story noted that "though the State Department received many warnings about the deteriorating situation in Benghazi, none focused on the diplomatic compound that was attacked."

As noted above, this is by no means an exhaustive account. There are lots of articles I haven't mentioned. I haven't gone all through the NYT stories published from November 1, 2012 to the present day either, but if you search Benghazi there are 27 pages of stories that come up between those dates.

With scores of articles published on Benghazi, I am sure that there are numerous smart critiques of the coverage, including some from a conservative perspective. I am sure there are parts of this sprawling story that other outlets reported but the New York Times missed. But the notion that the newspaper hasn't treated the story like a big deal, or that readers of center-left publications like the Times would be surprised by the controversy, are so totally without merit that it's difficult to believe that any actual reader of the publication could make them. Every MSM outlet hasn't covered the story to the same degree -- the NYT has more resources than most -- but a cursory search demonstrates that, whatever you think of MSM coverage generally, the story hasn't been ignored, and even conservative criticism of Benghazi has been aired.
 

The "Mainstream Media" and the Benghazi Story
Even setting aside the New York Times coverage, numerous mainstream-media outlets, reporters and commentators contributed significant work on the Benghazi story. It is hardly practical to give an exhaustive account, given the ubiquity of the story and the number of outlets. What follows, combined with the NYT summary, is more than enough to show significant "MSM" contributions.

Investigative Reporters and Editors awarded CNN its highest honor in 2012 for its coverage. The citation sums it up:
When a militant group overran the U.S. consulate in Benghazi, resulting in the death of the ambassador and staffers, initial information was contradictory. CNN correspondent Arwa Damon and photojournalist Sarmad Qaseera arrived quickly in Benghazi to find valuable clues in the wide-open but looted and burned ruins of the consulate. Damon's stories refuted reports that the attack on the consulate was part of larger anti-American demonstrations throughout the Middle East. Damon's courageous reporting showed it appeared to be a planned attack that came after U.S. diplomats had been warned days before by Libyan officials about the deteriorating security there. The network stood firm in the face of harsh criticism from the State Department. The U.S. government's investigation later proved CNN's reporting to be accurate. Damon also spoke to Libyans who tried to save the ambassador that night, shedding light on what happened to him during his final hours. Her reporting provided additional valuable context about the milieu in which the consulate attack occurred.
CNN wasn't shy about running conservative commentary on events in Benghazi either. Five days before the presidential election, for example, William C. Bennett wrote, "The Obama administration fiddled while Benghazi burned and four Americans died .... Either there was serious malfeasance on the part of this administration or a knowing cover up with shifting stories and blame. Either way, the American people deserve to know the full story of the disaster in Benghazi." And, of course, CNN aired the latest scoop about a possible CIA coverup.

The Washington Post's news coverage and extensive commentary on Benghazi is rounded up here (and Jennifer Rubin's employment there ensures the organization aired most every GOP talking point).

Eli Lake of The Daily Beast/Newsweek is a Benghazi journalist of note. "If you've been following the story of the terror attacks in Benghazi and their scandalous fallout here at home, there's a good chance you've been reading Eli Lake's coverage at The Daily Beast," National Review wrote in a glowing October 27, 2012, profile. "Lake, the Beast's 40-year-old senior national-security correspondent, has been the indispensable reporter on the case." He remains one of them.

A CBS News reporter evidently pursued the story doggedly:
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 network's topic page on the controversy shows she is hardly alone in covering the subject.

As for ABC? John Karl appears to have been a bit overzealous in his reporting -- his scoop on edited Benghazi talking points turned out to be misleading. Prior to Karl's apology, The New Yorker's Alex Koppelman wrote a post titled "Spinning Benghazi," in which he complained that the ABC story "seriously undermines the White House's credibility on this issue," and flayed Jay Carney. The "MSM" doesn't get credit for flawed stories, but the ABC and New Yorker pieces demonstrate a willingness to aggressively criticize the Obama Administration on Benghazi.

There's a lot more MSM coverage of Benghazi, but again, what's already presented is enough to demonstrate that conservative claims about the MSM ignoring the story are far from accurate. Again, that doesn't mean there haven't been any problems with "mainstream media" coverage.
 
Conservative Misinformation on Benghazi
There are conservative outlets that have published good articles on Benghazi, and conservative pundits who've contributed smart commentary on the subject, but there has also been all kinds of misinformation published by the conservative media -- so much that conservatives have no grounds for feeling as though they've gotten the story more right than "the MSM."

The Weekly Standard ran with a story that had the same flaw as John Karl's already mentioned ABC report. The aggregator Memeorandum rounded up commentary on the whole episode. (UPDATE: Steven Hayes contests this characterization of The Weekly Standard piece: "The TWS piece did not have the same flaw as the ABC story, as alleged in the Maddow piece you linked. The TWS piece, which ran a week earlier than the ABC story, did not quote inaccurately from Ben Rhodes' email because we didn't quote it at all. We didn't have the email and, as I explained in this follow-up story, near-verbatim is not verbatim and cannot be quoted.")

On October 26, Fox News' Jennifer Griffin published a scoop widely cited among conservatives as proof that conservatives were doing the heavy lifting on a story the "MSM" was ignoring:
Fox News has learned from sources who were on the ground in Benghazi that an urgent request from the CIA annex for military back-up during the attack on the U.S. consulate and subsequent attack several hours later on the annex itself was denied by the CIA chain of command -- who also told the CIA operators twice to "stand down" rather than help the ambassador's team when shots were heard at approximately 9:40 p.m. in Benghazi on Sept. 11.
The "stand down" story was repeated everywhere on the right. If you want a quick take on its inaccuracies, Dave Weigel's dispatch will do. Or if you want the definitive exploration of its shortcomings, Erik Wemple's multipart series is the place to go. That isn't to disparage Fox. Benghazi is a complicated story. Diligent reporters have gotten aspects of it wrong, both in the "MSM" and in the conservative media. But not everyone deserves the benefit of the doubt -- like the Fox News commentators who kept saying that the White House watched the Benghazi attacks on real time video.

Or talk-radio hosts. Newsbusters amused me by suggesting that I'd have known the facts about Benghazi a long time ago if only I'd listened to Rush Limbaugh's radio broadcast since the attacks of September 11, 2012. This is the biggest conservative delusion of all: the idea that Limbaugh is trustworthy.

As it happens, I regularly check in on his show*. The man talks for three hours a day, often reading or summarizing mainstream-media stories, so he's bound to say various things that are accurate.

But in Rush Limbaugh land, "our ambassador to Libya, Chris Stevens, had no security assigned to him ... None."  His theory for any the Obama Administration failed to anticipate the attack in Benghazi? "They think we're unjust, we're immoral in our founding and the way we've conducted our affairs, and that enemies' hatred of us is somewhat justified, and therefore if they could just establish commonality with our enemies on those same lines, that they can mollify our enemies."

In Limbaugh land, one problem in Benghazi was that "the Marines were not armed; they weren't allowed to carry live ammo." In fact, there were no Marines in Benghazi, and Marines elsewhere in Libya were allowed to be armed. Later in the same segment, we learn that the purported lack of weapons weren't to blame anyway: "All of this happens because of liberalism."

(After all, "both of them -- both liberals and terrorists -- have a lot in common. The one thing that they hate the most is freedom .... A leftist and a terrorist -- a leftist and a totalitarian -- are one and the same.")

On October 12, 2012, Limbaugh again inaccurately invoked the unarmed Marines in Benghazi:
Do you know why there were no live bullets in the weaponry held by our Marines in Cairo or Benghazi? Do you know why there was no enhanced, armed security? Do you know why? Do you want to know the real reason why? You're gonna laugh. You're gonna cry. You're gonna think I'm making it up.

And I'm telling you, I am not.

The reason we didn't have real bullets -- the reason we didn't have kill orders, the reason we didn't have enhanced security, the reason we didn't have even a visible security deterrent -- is because the thinking with people like Barack is that if you don't show any strength, if you don't display live ammo, if you don't act in a threatening away, then people will be nice to you. I am not making this up.
He was, in fact, making it up. 
 
Here's Limbaugh on October 16:

We're going to learn that all of this was orchestrated by the campaign, Axelrod, David Plouffe, or whoever else. I'm going to predict to you that a reporter already knows that that's the case and is probably saving it for the usual book that comes out months after the campaign. I don't have any doubt. I've got zero doubt that the campaign is running this whole show. The campaign's running the story on the video.

We have not, in fact, found out that the campaign orchestrated the response to Benghazi, not even in the post-campaign books.

That's just some of the misinformation Limbaugh passed along in the first month and change after the attack. I'm sure readers lack the patience for a full accounting of his errors up to the present, but if you go back and listen to all his Benghazi coverage between last October and now you're bound to find them. The man daily broadcasts all manner of bullshit -- that is to say, he doesn't seem to care if his information is true or not, and utters lots of words in both categories.

What Should Conservatives Take From All This?
Four lessons:
  1. Effective media criticism must be specific and accurate. As noted, I have no doubt that there are any number of problems with "MSM" coverage of Benghazi. But a refusal to take the story seriously isn't one of them. The notion that the story has been ignored is fantastical and discrediting. The notion that the entire "MSM" is engaged in a cover-up is idiotic. And when your overall media narrative is wrong, your media criticism is going to suffer. Insofar as people like me tuned out the story, it is largely because so much of the conservative commentary was implausible, right from the first time that Mitt Romney accused his opponent of sympathizing with the terrorists.
  2. For all its faults, "the MSM" has orders of magnitude more reporting resources and reportorial talent than the conservative media, even acknowledging the many talented journalists at conservative outlets, who are simply outnumbered. Little surprise that "the MSM" has contributed far more to our understanding of Benghazi than conservative outlets, especially the ones that only do commentary -- which isn't to say there haven't been conservative contributions.
  3. Generally respectable outlets and reporters in "the MSM" and the conservative media have made mistakes on the Benghazi story. Various conservative pundits have butchered it embarrassingly.**
  4. Don't ever rely on Rush Limbaugh as a reliable source, or recommend him to others as such, if you want to be taken seriously. Every week, he broadcasts misinformation, and anyone who listens critically to his show can flag any number of obvious examples without much effort. Mistaking it for anything other than a partisan's guilty pleasure is bound to result in folly, and guarantees that he will continue to be an albatross around the neck of movement conservatism. 
In closing, note that nothing in this item is inconsistent with the claim that "the mainstream media missed aspect X of Benghazi." I am sure it did. It probably missed Y and Z too. It is imperfect!
 
__
*Note to P.J. Gladnick of Newsbusters: My claim that Rush Limbaugh is a race-baiter is very well-documented.

**I haven't consumed the performance of liberal pundits enough to comment on it and render no judgement on that question.
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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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