The Media’s Coverage of the Libya Attacks: From Slanted to Suppressed

Americans of all political stripes were distressed by the September 11 attack on the U.S. consulate in Benghazi, Libya, that killed four Americans, including the U.S. Ambassador. But the reaction of the national broadcast networks has been demonstrably and shamefully partisan from the beginning of this story.

In the immediate aftermath of the terrorist attack, all three broadcast networks touted the political angle that the events would bolster President Obama — “reminding voters of his power as commander-in-chief,” as NBC’s Peter Alexander asserted on the September 14 edition of Today — while Mitt Romney would be damaged by his supposedly flubbed initial reaction.

But as the story progressed and reports indicated that the Obama administration knowingly misrepresented the nature of the attack, failed to provide adequate security, and refused to authorize a potential rescue mission to save those under fire, those same journalists have been either slow to report those developments, or altogether silent.

Taken together, the shifting coverage provides a case study in how the elite media will skew an important story to aid the political interests of the liberal incumbent. A chronology of how ABC, CBS and NBC have twisted this story from the very beginning:

■ First, Blame Mitt Romney: In the immediate aftermath of the attacks, all three networks pounced on the supposed mistake Romney made by deploring a September 11 U.S. embassy statement that condemned a YouTube video for “hurting the religious feelings of Muslims.” Team Obama claimed that Romney’s statement showed he was over his head on foreign policy, and all three networks dutifully incorporated the Romney flap into their September 12 Libya coverage.

NBC’s Brian Williams opened that evening’s Nightly News: “Romney is taking fire tonight for the way he went on the attack politically.... Somehow [Romney] wanted today to be about America apologizing for its values, even after it became clear today was about the death of an American ambassador and others.” CBS Evening News anchor Scott Pelley noted: “Democrats said the Governor had injected politics into a tragedy.” Over on ABC’s World News, Diane Sawyer announced: “Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney under fire for comments he made about the upheaval as it was unfolding.”

That first night, an MRC analysis found the Romney angle received nearly ten minutes of coverage on the Big Three evening newscasts (9 minutes, 28 seconds), vs. just 25 seconds questioning Obama’s Middle East policy (a brief discussion at the end of Jake Tapper’s story on ABC), a greater than 20-to-1 disparity.

■ Slow to Report Team Obama’s Dissembling: For more than a week after the attack, top Obama officials insisted there was “no information” that the assault was anything but a “spontaneous” reaction to the anti-Muslim video. On September 14, press secretary Jay Carney stated from the White House podium: “We have no information to suggest that it was a pre-planned attack.” Two days later, U.N. Ambassador Susan Rice was dispatched to all five Sunday talk shows to assert the same thing, declaring on NBC’s Meet the Press: “This is a response to a hateful and offensive video that was widely disseminated throughout the Arab and Muslim world....This is a spontaneous reaction to the video.”

But in the early morning hours of September 26, Newsweek/Daily Beast correspondent Eli Lake broke the news that “within 24 hours of the 9/11 anniversary attack on the United States consulate in Benghazi, U.S. intelligence agencies had strong indications al Qaeda-affiliated operatives were behind the attack, and had even pinpointed the location of one of those attackers.”

That means that long before Carney, Rice and other officials spoke, the Obama administration suspected that it was a planned terrorist attack, contrary to their public statements. But these revelations drew far less network interest than the flap over Romney’s early statement. ABC waited nearly 40 hours to publicize this news; White House correspondent Jake Tapper confirmed Lake’s story on the September 27 World News:

Sources tell ABC News that intelligence officials on the ground immediately suspected the attack was not tied to the movie at all. Arousing their suspicion: the fact that the attackers knew where to get Ambassador Stevens after he’d fled to a so-called safe house half a mile away. The building was hit with insurgent mortars, suggesting the terrorists knew what they were doing.

NBC waited another 24 hours, until the Obama administration put out a statement from the Director of National Intelligence, James Clapper, accepting responsibility for the changing accounts (“We revised our initial assessment to reflect new information....”) Fill-in Nightly News anchor Savannah Guthrie led off the Friday night newscast: “It has been more than two weeks since the U.S. Ambassador to Libya and three other Americans were killed at the U.S. consulate in Benghazi. Tonight, a rare reversal. Intelligence officials say they originally got it wrong.”

CBS never aired a full story on these revelations, but mentioned it in passing on two occasions, including a question from Bob Schieffer to Newt Gingrich on the September 30 Face the Nation. Earlier, on the September 28 edition of CBS This Morning, senior correspondent John Miller quickly mentioned it, but talked about it as part of the messy process of government: “The simple fact is, if you ever worked with classified intelligence in ongoing, fast-moving events, that’s the way information evolves.”

And, over the next few days, none of the networks produced follow-up reports to this information, or made the Obama White House’s evident duplicity a major controversy in campaign coverage.

■ NBC’s Today Ignores News About Security Deficiencies: In the days leading up to the October 10 House Oversight and Government Reform committee hearing, journalists were handed scoops about how requests from those in Libya for more security were denied by Obama’s State Department. But while ABC and CBS covered this information on their morning news programs, NBC’s Today was conspicuously silent until the morning of the hearings themselves.

ABC’s Jake Tapper provided full reports for Good Morning America on both October 5 and October 8. During the latter appearance, he revealed that the commander of the security team fought against being withdrawn in August, the month before the attack.

“In the memo, obtained exclusively by ABC News,” Tapper reported, “the embassy in Libya did not mince words, requesting that the State Department keep the 16-member security support team in the country. ‘Quite simply, we cannot maintain our existing levels of embassy operations without a continued security support team presence,’ the memo says.”

Over on CBS that same morning, correspondent Sharyl Attkisson showed clips of her own interview with Colonel Wood. She asked, “So, all the experts on the ground are telling headquarters at the State Department, we need this. And the answer kept coming back as?”

Wood replied, “‘You’ve got to do with less.’ For what reasons? I don’t know.”

While ABC and CBS were advancing the story forward, NBC’s Today show was silent, with no coverage after a September 29 news brief until the morning of the hearings on October 10, when Andrea Mitchell filed the first report in nearly two weeks. The next morning, after the hearings, Today relegated the explosive information to a 28-second news brief.

■ ABC Buries Email Evidence of White House Lying: On October 23, the CBS Evening News exclusively reported that State Department e-mails sent during the September 11 attack refer to how the terrorist group Ansar al-Sharia claimed responsibility — more evidence that the Obama administration knew at the earliest stages that this was likely a terrorist attack.

The next morning, however, NBC’s Today show ignored the new report, while ABC’s Good Morning America logged just 35 seconds of coverage. On the October 24 evening newscasts, CBS followed up with a full report on how the U.S. military declined to launch a rescue mission, while the NBC Nightly News provided a two-minute report on the e-mail evidence.

Yet ABC’s World News limited its coverage that night to a 20-second item noting that Secretary of State Hillary Clinton had dismissed the significance of the e-mails. Anchor Diane Sawyer’s entire item: “And the White House also weighed in today on e-mails sent while the attack was underway. The e-mails informed them that a radical Islamic group was claiming responsibility, but Secretary of State Hillary Clinton says those e-mails were not hard evidence, and all the incoming information had to be evaluated.”

World News offered no further coverage of the Libya e-mails, but Sawyer did carve out time that week for stories about the capture of a monkey in Florida (1 minute, 42 seconds) and whether dogs yawn when they see people do the same (1 minute 47 seconds).

That same week, NBC’s Brian Williams also had a chance to interview President Obama for an October 25 Rock Center profile. While Williams shadowed Obama for the better part of two days, his finished report included just a single question on Libya; instead of demanding answers from the President, Williams suggested Obama should be angry that he wasn’t better served by the intelligence professionals:

Have you been happy with the intelligence, especially in our post-9/11 world? The assessment of your intelligence community, as we stand here, is that it still was a spontaneous terrorist attack, and were you happy with what you were able to learn as this unfolded? It went on for several hours.

■ No Coverage of Reports CIA Officers Ordered to “Stand Down:” On October 26, the Fox News Channel’s Jennifer Griffin reported that “sources claim officers at the nearby CIA annex in Benghazi were twice told to stand down when they requested to help those at the consulate. They later ignored those orders. Fox News was also told that a subsequent request for back-up when the annex came under attack was denied as well.”

In apparent defiance of these orders, two ex-Navy SEALs left the CIA annex to rescue several Americans from the consulate; Ty Woods and Glen Doherty later died defending the CIA annex after it came under attack from the same terrorists who killed Ambassador Chris Stevens and State Department officer Sean Smith.

In the week since that story broke, not one of the broadcast networks has even mentioned what Fox discovered — either to confirm it, or knock it down.

A local Denver reporter did manage to ask President Obama about this during a campaign stop on October 26. Obama responded that “the minute I found out what was happening, I gave three very clear directives. Number one, make sure that we are securing our personnel and doing whatever we need to....I guarantee you that everyone in the State Department, our military, the CIA, you name it, had number one priority making sure that people were safe.”

Yet Fox’s report — that help was requested and denied — contradicts Obama. Either he never gave that order, he gave it too late, or his staff chose to ignore him. At best, it suggests utter incompetence. Such a contradiction is usually a red flag for a journalist to keep digging. Yet, so far, the President’s comments have also gone unreported on the Big Three networks.

The only mentions on the broadcast networks came when Republican guests mentioned it on the October 28 Sunday shows. Carly Fiorina brought it up ten minutes into NBC’s Meet the Press, but moderator David Gregory cut her off, promising: “We’ll get to Libya a little bit later.” He never did. Fiorina’s brief mention was the last word on Libya during the hour-long program.

Ty Woods’ father, Charles, appeared on FNC’s Hannity on October 29. He pleaded for the White House to come clean: “There are people in the White House — whoever it was — that was in that room watching that video of my son dying, their cries for help. Their order, ‘Don’t help them at all, let them die,’ whoever that might be, it might be numerous people — you have the blood of my son. You have the blood of an American hero on your hands. I don’t know who you are, but one of these days, the truth will come out. I still forgive you, but you need to stand up.”

As the unanswered questions multiply, the broadcast networks’ Libya coverage is dwindling. On the October 28 Fox News Sunday, Brit Hume commented that “the mainstream organs of the media — that would be after this like a pack of hounds, if this were a Republican President — have been remarkably reticent....A lot of the media, who are a combined potent force, have not done their job.”

Campaign or no campaign, the networks have a responsibility to hold those in power accountable. Seven weeks ago, network correspondents eagerly tweaked Mitt Romney for his campaign statements regarding Libya, but now are flinching from covering the much more serious questions surrounding the Obama administration’s handling of the entire matter.

It sure looks like the media are being partisan. What other explanation is there?