How the Press Can Deal With the Benghazi Committee

When a congressional investigation turns into a partisan operation, the media need to treat it as such.

Representative Trey Gowdy of South Carolina, asking questions in 2014. (Kevin Lamarque / Reuters)

Hardly anyone still working in today’s media can remember an era in which “mainstream media” practices, as we now think of them, actually prevailed. By which I mean: a few dominant, sober-sided media outlets; a news cycle punctuated by evening network-news shows, morning (and sometimes afternoon) newspapers, weekend newsmaker talk shows, and weekly news magazines; and political discourse that shared enough assumptions about facts and logic that journalists felt they could do their jobs by saying, “We’ve heard from one side. Now let’s hear from the other.”

I can barely remember any of that, and I got my first magazine job (with The Washington Monthly) around the time of the Watergate break-in and subsequent Woodward-and-Bernstein scoops, when all parts of the old-style journalistic ecosystem were still functioning.

Although that era is long gone, and had its share of problems even at its best, its mental habits persist, as we’ve often discussed in the “false equivalence” chronicles. The recurring theme here is the discomfort of reporters, old and young alike, with recognizing that the United States doesn’t currently have two structurally similar political parties approaching issues on roughly comparable terms. We have one historically familiar-looking party, and another converting itself into something else.

Here’s how this leads us to the Benghazi committee:

1. It took mainstream journalism a long time to feel comfortable stating an obvious fact: that the modern Republican party is going through a push to the extreme unlike anything that is happening to today’s Democrats, and unlike anything else that has happened in politics since at least the Goldwater era and probably since long before. (After all, the Goldwater-era GOP had a significant liberal/moderate wing: Rockefeller, Scranton, Javits, Ford, George Romney, even Nixon and the first George Bush.) It feels so much more responsible, and is certainly safer, to write about “extremists on both sides.”

Three years ago, the think-tank eminences Norman Ornstein and Thomas Mann wrote a Washington Post essay called “Let’s Just Say It: The Republicans Are the Problem.” That was an inspired headline, because it captured the fact that even now it is harder than you would think for reporters just flat out to state that truth. This summer Christopher Ingraham of the Post’s WonkBlog provided a chart that should run alongside any “extremists of both sides” discussion. As the little thumbnail below shows, the Democrats are about as extremist-and-moderate as ever; the Republicans are not.

From WonkBlog this past June, showing proportion of House members from each party who are not moderate or centrist, from 1879 through 2014.

The point is: Only now, a year after Eric Cantor was driven out of his House seat by a challenger not closer to the middle but further to the right; a month after John Boehner decided to leave one of the theoretically most-powerful jobs in American governance; when possible savior-successor Paul Ryan is being attacked as too liberal; and during a GOP presidential primary campaign whose “center” is further to the right than any in memory—only in these circumstances have reporters begun to talk directly about the Republican party’s move toward the fringe. We’d all still really prefer to warn against “extremists on both sides.” If you listen you’ll still hear that on talk shows.

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2. It took mainstream journalism a long time to be comfortable saying flat-out that today’s congressional GOP is set up to obstruct rather than govern, and that the really bitter division is between those, including RINOs like Boehner, who think the Republican majority has any responsibility to pass budgets or to oversee normal government functions, and those who think it is there to take stands against Obamacare, Planned Parenthood, the ExIm Bank, etc.

An astonishing exchange on Meet the Press two days ago may have helped reporters comprehend this point, because it was amazingly bitter, and it was between two Republicans. One was Representative Charlie Dent of Pennsylvania, who argued that for the good of the nation and the good of the party, his fellow Republicans needed to show that they could get things done. As Dent put it:

We have to get back to functionality. We have to prove to the American people we can govern. And that means we have to make sure the government is funded. We must make sure that we're not going to default on our obligations. We have to take care of transportation issues, tactics, extenders, et cetera.

(You can see the full NBC transcript here, and commentary here and here.) On the other side was Representative David Brat of Virginia, the man who knocked off Eric Cantor in the primary, essentially saying: You weak RINOs are the real problem. You’d even compromise with Pelosi!

Again the main point: We in the press are so much more comfortable talking about “congressional dysfunction” than “the GOP’s abandonment of governance.” It becomes easier only when another Republican says so. Update: or when a conservative-friendly writer like David Brooks says so. From his column in Tuesday’s New York Times:

The Republican Party’s capacity for effective self-governance degraded slowly, over the course of a long chain of rhetorical excesses, mental corruptions and philosophical betrayals. Basically, the party abandoned traditional conservatism for right-wing radicalism. Republicans came to see themselves as insurgents and revolutionaries, and every revolution tends toward anarchy and ends up devouring its own.

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3. It has taken mainstream journalism too long a time to catch up with the reality of the “Benghazi Committee,” run by Representative Trey Gowdy of South Carolina. (He is from our beloved Greenville, in fact.) The reality is that the Republican staff and majority of the committee have made it function as an oppo-research arm of the Republican National Committee, far more interested in whatever it might dig up about or against Hillary Clinton than any remaining mysteries on the four Americans killed in Benghazi.

Evidence to that effect has been mounting for months, and the case is comprehensively assembled in Sunday’s big NYT take-out. This story really is worth reading in detail. (Update: As is this analysis just now by the Atlantic’s own David Graham.)

The piquant aspect of this Times story is that the pattern it describes—a partisan-minded effort to find anything potentially damaging to Hillary Clinton, whether or not it has any connection to the Benghazi tragedy—got as far as it did largely through reliance on those old mainstream-media habits of mind, including at the NYT. By instinct reporters treat a congressional investigative committee as presumptively legitimate; and when they receive leaks from informed committee sources, as obviously has happened for many months, they (we) are honor-bound to protect their sources’ identities.

But the good part of that old-school confidentiality commitment—making clear to our informants that we won’t ever give up their names—has shaded over into a cynically exploitable part. The latest Times article makes clear in retrospect what I thought was evident all along: that the steady stream of leaks was coming either from Republican staffers or Republican committee members. But while these stories were dribbling out, most notably with the completely false report that Hillary Clinton was the object of a criminal investigation, a claim the Times trumpeted on its front page, reporters added no shading to suggest that these allegations were coming essentially from a partisan oppo-research group. To do so would have been to “take sides.” Yet as Kevin McCarthy inconveniently blurted out, through their commitment to “neutrality,” reporters had been taking sides all along.

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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.