Politics

The Media Dropped The Ball On Benghazi

Hillary Clinton’s State Department stonewalls a victim’s mother, while tossing the White House under the bus. But is the press giving Libya big enough play?

Members of the media at Wednesday’s House Oversight Committee hearing on the security situation in Benghazi. Brendan Hoffman / Getty Images

The jaw-dropping testimony at the House Oversight Committee Wednesday completely shredded the Obama Administration’s original story about what happened in Benghazi, while offering damning evidence that the State Department ignored multiple, urgent requests for better security at the American outpost in eastern Libya.

“It was abundantly clear we were not going to get resources until the aftermath of an incident,” said Eric Nordstrom, a former Regional Security Office at the U.S. Embassasy in Libya,. “How thin does the ice have to get before someone falls through.”

Nordstorm testified that he’d been “fighting a losing battle” to get 12 more agents to the outpost, and was told by his superior “you’re asking for the sun, moon and the stars.”

The hearings also revealed deep divisions within the administration over its handling of the response in the aftermath of the tragedy. The White House stuck to the fiction that the attack was somehow caused by a ridiculous anti-Islam video, and continued to suggest there had been a protest occurring at 10 p.m. that acted as cover.

Neither of the key elements in the administration’s first draft of the Benghazi story — which, coincidentally, helped create the perception that this was a spontaneous, unforeseeable uprising rather than a preventable intelligence failure — ultimately turned out to be true.

And in the latest and most disturbing bit of news, we learned Wednesday night on “Anderson Cooper 360” that the State Department is stonewalling the mother of one of the victims, Sean Smith. (This despite the recent claims that State had the best interests of the families at heart.)

On Cooper’s show, Pat Smith said she had been personally promised information about her son by President Obama, Vice President Biden, Secretary Clinton, and Secretary Panetta. “I begged them to them to tell me what happened,” said Smith. “No one, not one person has ever — ever gotten back to me other than media people and the gaming people.”

Taken together, this is the kind of unfolding scandal the media typically loves to make Issue Number One — the drip-drip quality of each revelation; the gut-wrenching drama of that horrible night; the shoddy treatment of the victims from the State Department; the fact it should have been prevented, and smoking guns that prove it; Hillary Clinton’s political future; and, the shifting explanations from the White House during an election year, calling into question one of its signature foreign policy victories.

Instead, Benghazi has been a below-the-fold story. The New York Times gave Libya a 23-word tease on the bottom of its front page the morning after the hearings. And not one nightly newscast Wednesday led with Benghazi — in favor of horse-race coverage, NBC and CBS had it as their third story, and ABC as their second.

So why hasn’t it yet captured the collective media mind? Republican critics make the case that it’s the pro-Obama main-stream media at work again, and the Republican National Committee has kept up a steady stream of product, making the case that Benghazi should be a much bigger issue.

And they might have a point — more than a few members of the media covering the story have privately wondered whether the widespread editorial disinterest can be chalked up to Big Media’s preference for Obama.

Certainly, it’s hard to imagine that under a Bush administration it would be treated the same. If this kind of catastrophic attack — and cover-up — had happened in 2004 or 2008, it would have likely dominated presidential debates and re-shaped election coverage.

“Romney had front pages of fucking The Toledo Blade attacking him for his press release after Benghazi,” one Republican official told BuzzFeed. “You can quibble over timing , but there was outrage on the cable channels about it. Where are those voices now saying, ‘what’s the administration bungling here, didn’t they fuck this up?’”

It’s not that there hasn’t been excellent coverage of Libya: The New York Times, The Washington Post, and ABC News, among others outlets, have delivered outstanding on-the-ground reporting and scoops from inside the State Departement and White House. In fact, before yesterday’s hearing, the only credible information about Benghazi had come from the media, not the government, which was too afraid until just last week to go back in. (Another American official murdered or kidnapped in Libya would have been a political knockout punch.)

Yet that reporting hasn’t yet driven the political framework surrounding the attack, according to critics. “Most of the media stations covered the events, trying to figure out the details. But the big gap was in the political coverage of it,” continued the Republican official. “We’ve had a lot of conversations with big TV stations and newspaper about the gap.”

Media critics contacted by BuzzFeed said they weren’t quite sure if whether it was an instance of liberal media bias at work, or just a lack of appetite for foreign news.

“I’m dismayed this story was unspooled so slowly,” says Andrew Beaujon, a media critic at the Poynter Institute. “I thought the story would dominate national news after Michael Birnbaum [of The Washington Post] reported last week that the U.S. consulate still hadn’t been secured and that he’d easily gathered personal information about Libyan contractors in the consulate.”

“What does get done just isn’t as entertaining as, say, Mitt Romney talking about Big Bird,” adds Beaujon.

Says Dartmouth media professor Brendan Nyhan: “I wonder whether the aftermath of the first debate drowned out the Benghazi allegations, which might have received more attention if it looked like Obama was cruising to victory.”

“Typically,” said Nyhan, “you would expect more coverage of weakness or failed security policies under a Democratic administration.”

Robert Entman, media scholar and author of Scandal and Silence, rejects the liberal bias claim completely, and gives the administration the benefit of the doubt. “The White House, like every other one, deals with the problem of having to process uncertain information under time pressure, with conflicting reports on the ground, different bureaucracies protecting their turfs and shading info they pass on to the president to suit their own interests,” said Entman.

“The idea that the media have been light-peddling this because they love Obama is also silly,” he adds.

There is, though, one particularly surprising dog that has not barked in the coverage of the events: what happened in Benghazi has not led to any discussion about whether intervening in Libya was the right idea — not the kind of immediate second-guessing that came with the Iraq War.

The intervention was sold as a way to get involved in the Middle East without paying a high price — France and other NATO allies taking the lead, U.S. muscle and technology backing them up, no boots on the ground. And perhaps it has been a cheap intervention — after all, it’s only cost four Americans lives.

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