NYT Public Editor Says Paper Playing Down Benghazi; Dismissive Hearing Coverage Vindicates Her Concern

Benghazi hearings open in the House on Wednesday, and the New York Times printed a preview on page 16 of Wednesday's edition that downplayed any possible revelations about the Obama administration's reaction to the terrorist attack, which killed ambassador Chris Stevens and three others. Testimony is expected by three State Department officials, led by U.S. diplomat Gregory Hicks, deputy mission chief in Tripoli, who said his pleas for military assistance were overruled.

Feeling reader pressure after the Washington Post led its Tuesday's edition by setting up the House hearings, Public Editor Margaret Sullivan addressed the issue on her blog Tuesday afternoon, posing a coverage question to Washington bureau chief (and former neoliberal economics reporter) David Leonhardt, who didn't anticipate hearing much new on Wednesday:

Our fundamental view of the story continues to be as it was in the weeks and months immediately after the attack. United States officials appear to have made mistakes in their security strategy in Benghazi, but so far there does not appear to be any major new information this week.

While Sullivan predictably bashed Fox News for stirring the anti-Obama pot, she went some way toward agreeing with the premise of the paper's conservative critics.

Here’s my take: The angry criticism of The Times on Benghazi has been based largely on politics, not journalism,  and fomented by Fox News.  (The conspiracy narrative goes like this: The Times is a liberal newspaper unwilling to take on a liberal president and his administration.)  In fact, what’s been written in The Times has been solid. But my sense is that, starting last fall, The Times has had a tendency to both play down the subject, which has significant news value, and to pursue it most aggressively as a story about political divisiveness rather than one about national security mistakes and the lack of government transparency. Many readers would like to see more on that front, and so would I.

So the Times dutifully filed a report, which made page A16, and it vindicated the public editor's concerns. Jeremy Peters and Eric Schmitt shared David Leonhardt's skepticism and standoffish approach, painting the upcoming hearings as a partisan rehash of old news.

Congressional Republicans, who have been aggressively pursuing information about how the Obama administration responded to the attacks last September on the American diplomatic compound in Benghazi, Libya, say the testimony that a State Department official will give Wednesday will be a damning indictment.

It will show, they say, what they have been claiming all along: that President Obama and Hillary Rodham Clinton, the former secretary of state, did not do all they could to stop the attack, and then misled the public about what they knew.

But much of what the witness, Gregory Hicks, is expected to say -- that he appealed in vain for fighter jets to buzz the besieged compound, and that other American officials sought to send a group of commandos to the rescue but were told to stand down -- would raise questions that have already been addressed in hearings and in a critical report by the State Department.

Gen. Carter Ham, the head of the military’s Africa Command, has said American F-16 fighters in Europe were not on alert the night of the Benghazi assault, and would not have been useful anyway in a confused situation in a major Arab city. Mr. Hicks, who was serving as deputy chief of mission at the American Embassy in Tripoli at the time, is expected to testify that the four Special Operations troops would have been sent on a Libyan aircraft from Tripoli, the capital. But they would not have arrived until after the second attack on a nearby Central Intelligence Agency annex.

The Times even brought former First Lady Hillary Clinton's goofy, Whitewater-era claims about a "vast right-wing conspiracy" to try and pre-politicize Congress's new look into Benghazi.

At the center of the controversy is Mrs. Clinton, who once deplored the machinations of a “vast right-wing conspiracy” out to destroy her and her husband, former President Bill Clinton, and now finds herself at the center of a controversy that in many ways echoes her fight with the political right in the 1990s. This time there are accusations of lying to investigators and a broader cover-up by the administration to further Mr. Obama’s political ambitions and her own, since she is frequently mentioned as a likely 2016 presidential candidate.

The reporters apparently think if they repeat the word "conservative" enough it will make the questions go away.

Many Republicans say they have unearthed a scandal bigger than Watergate. Or, in the words of Representative Steve King, Republican of Iowa, “If you link Watergate and Iran-contra together and multiply it times maybe 10 or so, you’re going to get in the zone where Benghazi is.”

The story of what might have happened inside the Obama White House on the night of the attack and the administration’s response in the days that followed has captivated conservatives on Capitol Hill and beyond for almost eight months now. It is a subject of continuous debate and coverage on Fox News, among conservative talk show hosts and bloggers, and at town hall-style meetings with members of Congress.

The questions that have been raised fit neatly with conservative portrayals of a president and an administration indifferent and disengaged when it comes to terrorism. They include why the president hesitated to call the attack terrorism outright and whether or not he went to bed that night knowing the compound was under assault or ordered his aides to rewrite the explanation of the attacks that Susan Rice, the ambassador to the United Nations, gave on television to deceive the country about their cause.

The Washington Post is taking the story more seriously. Its print edition Tuesday led with "Official  Sought Help for Benghazi," and the Post ran a related story on Wednesday's front page, in contrast to the Times' A16 placement.