Sailing Away to Irrelevance, Part IV: The Benghazi Scandal vs. The Benghazi Scandal™
On election night at Fox News there was one question that was asked over and over by desperate anchors, experts and reporters alike:
Why had the American people ignored the Benghazi story? Or to be more specific, why had their fellow citizens reelected this President despite sweeping coverage of a scandal that conservative media promised would end Obama’s career – if it didn’t put him behind bars first?
It’s a damn good question.
The preliminary answer guessed at by the FOX staff was similar to what I saw from conservatives elsewhere, including here: The mainstream media, in an attempt to ensure the reelection of an unqualified Commander In Chief, had conspired with Obama to bury the story. And if you tend to be the kind of person that believes the White House is preparing to let the United Nations take your guns away, then I suppose that cloak and dagger theory doesn’t sound particularly far-fetched. After all, it cannot be denied that the public did not focus on a Benghazi story that, in another place or time, would surely have garnered more interest.
But what if the fault of the country’s collective yawn lay not with the mainstream media, but rather with the right wing media machine? What if the need to frame actual condemnable miscues by the Obama administration around a preposterous, sensational narrative designed to boost ratings was what ultimately gave the White House a pass? Voters had spent months (actually, years) being told by the conservative media that they had elected a sleeper-cell president bent on destroying America; would it be really be so outlandish to imagine that those voters tuned out the media machine’s lupine cries at a time they actually needed to be heard?
What happens when you construct a fake scandal where a real one might already exist?
On September 11 of this year the White House confirmed events that were just starting to be mentioned by the press: An attack on an American post in Libya had led to the death of Ambassador Chris Stevens. At 10:08 pm, Secretary of State Clinton issued a statement condemning the attack and the perpetrators. Sixteen minutes later, then-candidate Romney issued a statement condemning the White House for “not [condemning] attacks on our diplomatic missions, but [sympathizing] with those who waged the attacks.” In retrospect, it appears that the Romney camp was attempting to use sleight of hand to obfuscate the attack in Libya with a press release from a US embassy official in Egypt; the Egypt embassy had issued the release in an attempt to placate an angry, violent mob in Cairo. (It should probably be noted that the White House had in fact disavowed the Cairo press release prior to Romney’s statement.)
If conservative media is questioning why the American People did not rise up against President Obama on Libya, I might suggest that the answer starts here – right here – with Romney’s statement and the conservative media meme it begat.
As I reported back in September, I had the opportunity to see live and in person many of the country’s most prominent conservatives discuss the Benghazi attack less than 48 hours after the story broke. And when I say prominent, I really mean it: Among those that I saw discuss the attack were Romney’s running mate Paul Ryan, US Rep. and presidential primary candidate Michelle Bachmann, House Majority Leader Eric Cantor, Rep. Jim DeMint, Gary Bauer, Bill Bennett, Tony Perkins, Rep. Steve King, Star Parker and Governor Jan Brewer.
Though almost none of these people mentioned Mitt Romney (at all), Mitt’s comment had already been adopted as Truth by the media machine, its spirit already deeply absorbed into their comments. Speaker after speaker discussed the president’s refusal to condemn the atrocities, and lashed out at his cheering on the terrorists who had killed Stevens. Some spoke of the attack as being the first step in the president’s plot to implement Sharia law here in the United States; others warned of inside information that if elected, Obama would make Christian and Jewish houses of worship illegal in this country. In addition to being covered extensively by the right wing media machine, all of these speeches were shown live on CSPAN.
Of course, none of this was remotely true. By this time the president had already issued an official statement that condemned the attack; there was not (and has not been since) any statement from the White House or any other US government officer or agency that cheered the killing of Stevens.
As with the story of Obama coming to take your guns, the driving force behind the narrative was not the GOP’s attempts to build a credible case against their opponent – it was the media machine’s desire for ratings and ad revenue. Mitt might have thrown out a questionably timed stink bomb, but it was the conservative media that backed him that made the decision to run with it 24/7. Also like the UN gun treaty story, the fact that the mainstream media was ignoring the (entirely fictitious) story was announced by the conservative leaders I saw as proof that it was God’s truth. And to be fair to the media machine, this narrative was exactly what its audience was requesting. As I wrote in September:
One of the memes people want to talk to me about my first day is that President Obama issued a statement applauding the Libyan terrorists for killing Ambassador Chris Stevens. I mean, a lot of people tell me this; they bring it up without my mentioning the President, Muslims, or the Libyan attack. They are outraged. They mention it so consistently, in fact, that I finally Google the actual White House statement (which condemned the actions) on my phone, and I start reading it to people who are making this claim to get their reaction. Each person’s response is some variation of noting that of course after the public outrage both the White House and the Associated Press were going to claim that that was the original statement, but clearly it had been changed to cover the President’s tracks.
As the days dragged slowly on to election, the media machine found other ways to craft narratives that excited its audience, but turned everyone else off completely.
There was much gnashing of teeth over how many days it took the White House to stop saying that they were still looking into the event before making a definitive statement about what had happened. Did the White House take more time than it needed to make the call? Maybe. Was it the proof of a President that was purposefully working against US interests, as it was presented? No. Those not already regular customers of the media machine found the argument both uncompelling and uninteresting.
To make matters worse, at the exact same time that the media machine’s biggest dog was screaming “Benghazi!” at the top of its lungs, it was also getting caught on a regular basis creating fictitious government spending statistics, unemployment rate analyses and National Pirate Day scandals. If you were not already drinking the anti-Obama Kool-Aid, the criticisms had long since lost any semblance of credibility.
And then, what do you know, the media machine finally got its hands on something tangible – something that might have actually been the smoking gun they had sought.
In October the press obtained several cables from Ambassador Stevens, over a period of two months, requesting he be allowed to keep additional security through mid-September. The request was not granted, and the SST team assigned to the post was withdrawn as was previously scheduled. Had the request been granted, Benghazi might have ended differently and the Americans that perished there might be still alive today.
It is hard to see how this could not be a black eye for the White House, especially a month before an election. Congressional hearings will be held; when they are it’s possible that the reasoning behind the failure to grant Stevens’ request might make sense. Perhaps it will charitably be seen as the best choice given resource availability and what was known at the time. It might be determined that extra security would have simply led to additional American bodies. It might turn out that there were pressing intelligence reasons not to discuss all of this publicly after the attacks. But however you slice it, that’s a lot of “mights.”
Whatever we discover in the months ahead, the stone cold fact that cannot be denied is that the attack did happen, and it did lead to the death of four Americans. That’s a giant fail, pure and simple. I don’t believe that there was any way that this story could have changed the outcome of last week’s election. If voters had been paying greater attention than they were, however, I can easily see where it might have made it a little more interesting. But they didn’t really pay that much attention, and part of the reason for they didn’t was that the conservative media continued to report the narrative that sold ad revenue instead of the actual story at hand.
For example, one of the “stories” covered non-stop by the right wing media machine was that only the right wing media machine was covering the story. The Stevens cables existed, the pho-story went, but the mainstream media was continuing to bury them in an attempt to reelect the president for whom they were in the tank. This “scandal” fit in neatly with the larger narrative the conservative media had been constructing over the past four years, and its audience at it up. (To this day this claim is still made by League commenters and contributors alike.) However, this “scandal” would have come as rather curious news to the mainstream media viewers Romney desperately needed to sway: Those Stevens cables that finally provided a potential smoking gun for the actual, real-life, non-made up scandal? They were first obtained by ABC, who made them their top story on October 8 and continued reporting on them throughout October. The story was also reported throughout the month by NBC, CBS and CNN.
In addition, the right wing media began pushing the incredibly bizarre story that Obama refused to order any CIA forces in to assist in Libya… while reporting on the tragedy that two of the four American dead were part of CIA forces sent in to assist in Libya.
But of course the real moment that the Republicans lost any hope of voters tuning them in on the Benghazi story occurred over a two-minute period on October 16. And even though it was Mitt Romney alone that thrust the final dagger, there is absolutely, positively no doubt in my mind that the echo-chamber of misinformation employed by the right wing media machine is entirely to blame.
In the days leading up to the second presidential debate, conservative pols and pundits warned liberals to look out: Mitt Romney was going to get a chance to confront the President of the United States on Benghazi on live TV, and it was going to be one of those moments that would be played over and over on YouTube for all eternity. (They were certainly right about that last part.) As we all now know, Romney got his chance and took it with a vengeance. In fact, as you will see below, the President himself opens the door to the idea of his office holding back information for political reasons – something it now appears that they actually did.
If you’re enough of a political junkie to be reading this post then you’ve already seen this clip multiple times. But I’m going to ask your indulgence to take another look now, paying very careful attention to Romney’s face:
Did you look at Romney’s face? You should have. Because there, for your edification, is the danger that the right wing media machine now poses to the Republican Party in a nutshell.
Remember, the falsehood that the President refused to condemn the terrorist act in Benghazi was one started by Romney’s own camp just 30 days earlier. Somewhere in between the time when his team decided to float that lie and the debate – with the “story” that President refused to call the attack an act of terror being echoed 24/7 in the conservative media – they actually came to believe the lie that they themselves had kicked off. The transcript of the Presidents remarks in the Rose Garden weren’t hidden; indeed, they must have been read multiple times by Romney and his staff immediately after they were made. And yet when I watch his face, there is no doubt in my mind that when Mitt makes his case he has talked himself into believing it to his core.
And just like that, Benghazi was officially a non-issue for any on-the-fence independents and moderates still up for grabs.
This past Monday evening, the League’s conservatives gathered and recorded a Leaguecast about last week’s election results and the future of the Republican Party. If you haven’t seen it yet, you should. Their analysis is thoughtful, honest, varied and insightful. It even featured two League commenters, WillH and Dennis Sanders, who absolutely knocked it out of the park. If it is a little long at two hours, it is so because they take the time explore ideas rather than spit out sound bites. Each of them takes the time to provide the kind of quality the right wing media machine should be providing its own audience.
I will, however, disagree with one conclusion that many of them came to regarding the conservative media: It was said by several on the panel that Fox, talk radio and right-wing websites aren’t consumed by moderates, and because of this the media machine provides no real downside to the GOP’s chances of electoral success.
Later this week I’ll zoom out and make a more detailed case for why I actually think the GOP has reached the tipping point where its media machine is hurting the party more than it’s helping. I’ll explain why I think what we’re seeing is actually unprecedented, and why it is far different and more self-destructive than what the left is doing with its media.
Until then, for those conservatives that are truly upset about the way that the White House handled the Libyan attacks and disappointed that the story did not resonate more with voters, I offer this mental exercise:
Imagine an alternate universe that is exactly like ours, save this: In this alternate reality, the GOP has long since ceased to be dependent on its own media machine. Further, imagine that instead of making up constant sensational yarns to drive ratings, the media machine took the expertise, man-hours and airtime needed to build credible cases against its Democratic foes (because let’s face it, there is more than enough material with which to work).
Imagine as well that in this universe the media machine had not spent the past four years trying to convince Americans that Barack Obama was born in Kenya… or that he was a Kenyan Anti-Imperialist (or that that’s even a thing)… or that he was raised as a Muslim in a madrassa… or that he was the secret illegitimate son of Malcolm X… or that he pals around with terrorists… or that, despite having been President, a Senator, and the head of the Harvard law Review, he is unable to speak in coherent sentences without the use of a teleprompter… or that he is working with the Muslim Brotherhood… or that he’s working with George Soros to turn you into a Communist… or that he celebrates the killing of cops… or that he’s replacing FBI agents with Muslim thugs for the next phase… or that he’s created Death Panels to kill all the old people… or that he wants to create a Nazi Youth Program to brainwash your child… or that he’s secretly bringing 100 million Muslims to America in order to do something Muslimy… or that he is about to make it illegal to go to church… or that his campaign killed his grandmother to cover up his nation of origin… or that he and is wife use the word “whitey”… or that he and Michelle’s playful fist bump was really a terrorist call sign… or that he is planning to give US islands to Russia… or that he killed Andrew Breitbart… or that he refuses to salute the flag… or that any government statistic that makes the economy look like its getting better is a fake, but any that shows the economy isn’t is real… or that he has white slaves fling kittens high in the air at the White House Trap & Skeet Range (ok, ok, I made that one up)… or that he might be the Anti-Christ… or that he exiled his gay lover… or that he secretly speaks Arabic… or that he was planning on faking an assassination attempt to garner sympathy before this election… or that he faked Bin Laden’s death… or that (because, it really, really is my favorite) he tries to quietly seduce the nation into submission with pictures of pirates.
Are you imagining such a universe, conservatives? Good. Now, I want you to ask yourselves:
In that alternate universe, would voters have been more likely to listen to you about Benghazi?
 There are lots of reasons I can think of that the right wing media machine would try running the brain-hurting narrative that no assistance was sent to Benghazi in the middle of a story about the different levels of assistance that were sent to Benghazi. Maybe they got carried away in the moment, or maybe they have absolutely no respect for their audience, or maybe its just an unspoken agreement the machine and its audience has – as long as it’s anti-Obama, the story doesn’t actually have to make sense. Maybe at that point they just didn’t care anymore.
But my favorite theory, which I will confess I just made up now, is this:
This “Reporting That They Wouldn’t Help in the middle of a Story About How They Helped” narrative is actual a tactical weapon to be used against our country’s newest and most insidious enemy. President Barack Hussein Obama is now in league with… the evil androids from “I, Mudd!”
Note: This is the fourth in a series of posts about the right wing media machine, and how it has gone from being an asset to a liability for both the GOP and the advancement of conservatism in America.
The initial post, which was written back during the Sandra Fluke affair, can be found here. The second installment, where I began to ague that the tipping point I worried about last spring had finally arrived this past election is here. A look at this summer’s right wing media meme that Obama was working with the United Nations to eliminate the second amendment and take your guns is here. A wrap-up post, where I will argue why this is more serious than conservatives are willing to admit, will go up later this week.