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The result, in the Benghazi case, has been something strikingly similar to the old “Whitewater scandal” early in the Clinton administration. I bet not one American in 100 could explain what the underlying “scandal” in that case is supposed to have been, or why it should have occupied press and government attention over a span of years. Yet, as it happened, it was highlighted by the Times of that era as a journalistic campaign; this added to the sense that there must be some kind of scandal here, since readers kept hearing about it. In turn there were investigative committees and ultimately Kenneth Starr. This gave us Paula Jones as a witness, which gave us a sitting presidential undergoing a deposition on videotape, which gave us (thanks to gross irresponsibility by that president) Monica Lewinsky, which gave us impeachment and all that flowed therefrom.
The parallel with Benghazi? In this latest case we have, different from Whitewater, a genuine tragedy. But that tragedy was already the subject of multiple investigations—none of which (including those run by Republicans) traced responsibility to Hillary Clinton—before Gowdy and his team got into action. But as they have kept feeding out the leaks, and as the press has kept front-paging them, the result has been something similar to the Whitewater → independent counsel sequence.
Thanks to the endless leak-driven reports, “everyone knows” that there’s a problem with Hillary Clinton and her emails. It’s not a one-day story, like Colin Powell’s also having used personal email when he was secretary of state, or Mitt Romney’s having erased all email records at the end of his time as governor of Massachusetts. Instead it “feeds the perception” of Hillary Clinton’s shady evasiveness. It “raises questions” and “has a drip-drip-drip” effect, to quote things I’ve heard on the news in the past day. Count how many times you hear the phrase “Clinton email scandal” in the next news report you listen to, and wait to see if anyone explains exactly what the scandal (as opposed to misjudgment, bad decision, etc.) was.
Along the way, the faux-scandal coverage has led to the collateral-damage demonization of her former White House aide and longtime friend Sidney Blumenthal. Blumenthal (also a longtime friend of mine) has been cast as Hillary Clinton’s principal advisor on Libya, which is preposterous; as having somehow played a dangerous role by sending her out-of-official-channels information, whereas most experienced government executives seek out old friends who will do just that; and for having some kind of personal-profit motive, an implication for which there is no evidence in the Libya case or his entire past career.
You learn over the years which motives really matter to which people. For some it’s money, for some it’s the personal limelight, for some it’s partisan or personal loyalty, for some it’s a cause or principle, for some it’s something else. No sane person can have observed Sid Blumenthal’s journalistic and political record and have concluded that he’s mainly driven by money, but that’s become part of the caricature these leaks have created. We have a “scandal,” we have a “narrative of evasiveness,” and we have a “controversial advisor,” all thanks to the conjunction of a post-mainstream-media congressional oppo-research group and a media organization whose reflexes have not fully caught up.
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What’s the next step in dealing with the Benghazi committee? For readers, it is to view upcoming reports as you would others from partisan organizations with an unreliable track record, for instance James O’Keefe and his Project Veritas. What they say could be true, but beware.
And for reporters, it is to recognize the way today’s GOP has played on yesterday’s reflexes within the press. And don’t let it keep happening.