CBS' Friday morning retraction of a 60 Minutes report on the Benghazi attack wasn't the first time the media has been burned by bad information on the story. The idea that the Obama administration was at fault or complicit in the death of an ambassador — an idea pushed by half of the government — is a difficult idea to abandon.
That's the thing about Benghazi. It seems like such an amazing story: Ambassador Chris Stevens killed on the anniversary of 9/11; confusion and explosions under cover of night. The idea that somehow the Obama administration made things worse by either hiding its failures or, in more active imaginations, intentionally not acting, is tantalizing. And when Dylan Davies, a State Department contractor, says he was there and can give you the low-down?
This is the trap into which 60 Minutes fell. On October 27, it aired an interview with Davies, who said that a coordinated attack from Al Qaeda was both inevitable and immediately obvious on that day. That he went to the compound, knocked down a terrorist with the butt of his rifle, and snuck into a hospital controlled by Al Qaeda to see Stevens' lifeless body. This story undermined the Obama administration's insistence that the attack was a surprise, and its initial reticence to blame the terrorist group. As we've noted, on October 31, The Washington Post found the report Davies had given his employer, in which he said that he never got to the consulate — there were roadblocks. And then The New York Times reported on Thursday that Davies told the FBI the same thing. That, after days of denial, is what spurred CBS to rescind the story entirely. On Friday morning, 60 Minutes' Lara Logan admitted that Davies had given his employer a different account, saying, "We made a mistake... In this case, we were wrong." There was reason to be skeptical — but it was such a good story.
CBS isn't the first network to be burned on a Benghazi story. In May, ABC News was given (apparently by a member of the loyal Republican opposition) copies of emails that, it claimed, showed how the White House had worked to bury the news that the attack was carried out by terrorists. Those emails were revealed in short order to be only summaries of a small portion of the entire chain, a chain which suggested that it wasn't the White House that demanded the reference to terror be removed.
The primary culprit in the CBS case is, of course, Davies, who, the facts support, was working for the government in Benghazi at the time of the attack. Davies' motivation for his exaggerations isn't clear, but the prospect of celebrity is an eternal lure — as is the prospect of the money he'd make from the book that he's currently pitching. (A book, CBS somewhat quietly admitted on Friday, that is being published by one of the network's subsidiaries.) And it is still possible that there will be new revelations that suggest that the Obama administration made mistakes or hid the truth — in the sense that there could always be new revelations to that effect on anything at any time.
Benghazi is one of the tent poles of conservative accusations that the Obama administration is rife with scandal and fundamentally corrupt. The email leak happened in the same week as the revelations that the IRS had improperly set aside Tea Party groups for scrutiny, and of the Justice Department's subpoena of a massive amount of phone records from the Associated Press. Republicans are still pressing the IRS scandal, as a new subpoena from Rep. Darrell Issa's oversight committee suggests. The pattern with the IRS scandal has been similar to that of Benghazi: a new revelation championed by Republicans, discovery that the revelation isn't quite the silver bullet the party has suggested. (We've gone over this before.)
The liberal group Media Matters, recognizing early the flaws in the 60 Minutes Benghazi report, was quick to get Republicans on the record in support of it. They've compiled an extensive list of praise for it, which will almost certainly be followed by calls for apologies that will not be forthcoming. But it points out that the outrage-generation cycle at play in the Obama "scandals" survives largely because it successfully generates outrage. And viewers. And shares. This is why Benghazi is in the conversation at all: because people who don't like Obama want to believe he did something wrong. Sometimes, people who want blockbuster stories fall into the same trap.