Public Editor

May 1, 2014

No Benghazi story in print — but it isn’t quite what some think it is

I spoke to many readers who were very upset that the May 1 print edition didn’t include the latest news about politicking over the Benghazi embassy attack. It should have been in the paper, but there is also widespread misinformation about it.

I spoke to many readers who understandably ranged from disappointed to infuriated that the May 1 print edition didn’t include a story about a new development in the ongoing fight over what the Obama administration knew and said about what led up to the attack on the U.S. mission in Benghazi, Libya in the final days of the 2012 presidential campaign.

There have been several stories on about the conservative watchdog group Judicial Watch’s obtaining internal email about administration talking points over the attack.

This story is extremely convoluted

, and it’s beyond the scope of this blog post to go over all its details here. But the bottom line is that Obama critics charge his administration sought to portray the attacks as the result of a spontaneous uprising by a mob angry over a YouTube video blasphemous to the prophet Mohammed, rather than a coordinated terrorist attack. The critics say deflecting the attention away from terrorism was an electoral strategy to hide Obama’s weakness in preventing this attack and other acts of terrorism.

Here’s the problem, in my opinion: I agree with the critics that the news of the newly-revealed email should have been in the print edition. But on the other hand, I disagree that it’s a major

“smoking gun,” as Sen. Lindsey Graham characterized it

. It’s a relatively incremental development in a story that is far from black and white.

Using the LexisNexis archived news database, one can easily go back and see what was being reported as the attack was underway. And the record very clearly shows that many different news sources were reporting at the time that the rising mob was mad about the video.

For example, Bret Baier reported on Fox News from Sept. 11, 2012: “Ultra conservative Islamist protesters climb the walls of the embassy late today. They are protesting a video, they say, (INAUDIBLE) Prophet Muhammad.” Multiple sources quoted people participating in the protest specifically saying they were there because of the video.

Today, it’s common to hear claims that everyone knows the YouTube video wasn’t really the cause. It’s reasonable to suspect that the terrorists planning the attack whipped up the crowd with the video as a cover story.

But that was very obviously not the case contemporaneously. You can’t rewrite history that’s so well documented. Cover story or not, that’s what people on the ground were telling journalists at the time.

Conservatives often warn armchair quarterbacks about the “fog of war.” Facts that appear self-evident with the luxury of subsequent reflection often do not look that way as they’re happening.

Yes, there is evidence that administration’s account of what it knew and when has been inconsistent. But the biggest problem with “what we know now” about the whole Benghazi incident is the way it has been grossly mischaracterized by some Obama opponents.

I have spoken to many people who believe what really happened is that Obama was watching the attacks unfold in real time from cameras on a drone, and he then chose to allow them to happen, resulting in four Americans’ deaths.

These bizarre, demonstrably untrue beliefs are not difficult to find on the Internet.

So news stories such as this, which are far overplayed in partisan news channels, are a problem for a news organization such as The Star, which attempts to be fair and use perspective in reporting the news. Publishing stories knocking down the partisans’ most outrageous claims can look defensive, and it can also be journalistically problematic in that it gives undue attention to falsehoods.

I do think the question of the administration’s spin is one journalists should look at closely. But as Obama’s defenders point out, the president did most certainly directly refer to “acts of terror” three times on Sept. 12 and 13, in remarks specifically about Benghazi. I find it disingenuous for critics to claim that this means he was saying the attacks weren’t terrorism. That is an unpersuasive semantic game.

But at the end of the day, The Star should have included at least one of the several versions of the story that ran on in the print edition today. And I’d also argue that a fair and meticulous look at the claims and defenses on both sides would be of great interest to readers who haven’t already made up their minds about the story based on partisan politics.

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