Oct
18
2012

Factchecking Libya

Debate dispute sheds light on media's cockeyed standards

Note: The Media Advisory "The Moderators' Agendas" is at http://www.fair.org/index.php?page=4644

The September 11, 2012, attack on a U.S. diplomatic outpost in Benghazi, Libya, that killed four Americans, including Ambassador Christopher Stevens, became a contentious issue in the October 16 presidential debate (FAIR Blog10/17/12). The discussion didn't do much to illuminate U.S. foreign policy, but it exposed the essential uselessness in what corporate media offer as political "factchecking."

In the debate, Romney made an issue of how Obama initially referred to the attack:

The president just said something, which is that on the day after the attack he went into the Rose Garden and said that this was an act of terror.... I want to make sure we get that for the record, because it took the president 14 days before he called the attack in Benghazi an act of terror.

Moderator Candy Crowley of CNN, in a rare real-time correction, pointed out that Obama had indeed used that phrase in his statement the day after it occurred. In a Rose Garden press conference about the attacks (9/12/12), Obama had said: "No acts of terror will ever shake the resolve of this great nation, alter that character, or eclipse the light of the values that we stand for."

Seems pretty straightforward: Romney had criticized Obama for not using specific language, and it turned out that Obama in fact had used those exact words.

If you think that corporate media factcheckers would leave it at that, however, you don't understand the main imperative of the factchecking business, which is to maintain an appearance of impartiality by making it seem like both sides are about equally dishonest. As Factcheck.org's Brooks Jackson (FAIR Blog10/9/12) said in regard to whether factcheckers could distinguish between more and less honest candidates:

Even if we could come up with a scholarly and factual way to say that one candidate is being more deceptive than another, I think we probably wouldn't, just because it would look like we were endorsing the other candidate.

Accordingly, post-debate factchecks tended to find some way to give Romney at least partial credit for his plainly inaccurate statement. Here's the Washington Post's resident factchecker Glenn Kessler (10/17/12):

Romney’s broader point is accurate--that it took the administration days to concede that the assault on the U.S. mission in Benghazi was an "act of terrorism" that appears unrelated to initial reports of anger at a video that defamed the prophet Muhammad.

This "fact," that the attack on the consulate was unrelated to the video insult to Muhammad, was widely accepted by corporate media despite being contradicted by on-the-ground reporting by the New York Times. The Times report from the scene of the attack (9/13/12) stressed that the attackers themselves stated they were retaliating for the anti-Muslim video:

Fighters involved in the assault, which was spearheaded by a Islamist brigade formed during last year's uprising against Col. Moammar Gadhafi, said in interviews during the battle that they were moved to attack the mission by anger over a 14-minute, American-made video that depicted the Prophet Muhammad, Islam's founder, as a villainous, homosexual and child-molesting buffoon....Interviewed at the scene on Tuesday night, many attackers and those who backed them said they were determined to defend their faith from the video's insults.

Over a month later (10/16/12), the Times was reiterating what its reporting had revealed at the time:

To Libyans who witnessed the assault and know the attackers, there is little doubt what occurred: a well-known group of local Islamist militants struck without any warning or protest, and they did it in retaliation for the video. That is what the fighters said at the time, speaking emotionally of their anger at the video without mentioning Al-Qaeda, Osama bin Laden or the terrorist strikes of 11 years earlier.

Given that the New York Times account appears to be the most detailed firsthand U.S. reporting on the Benghazi violence, it's unclear how the conventional wisdom came to be that the video played no role in the attack.Even Crowley, after pointing out during the debate that Obama had said what Romney said he hadn't said, afterwards on CNN cited the supposed non-involvement of the video to maintain that Romney was really mostly right after all:

I did turn to Romney and said you were totally correct but they spent two weeks telling us that this was about a tape and that there was this riot outside of the Benghazi consulate, which there wasn't. So he was right in the main, I just think that he picked the wrong word.

Kessler likewise suggested it was a matter of Romney having "picked the wrong word," noting that while Obama referred to "acts of terror," "the president did not say 'terrorism'--and Romney got tripped up when he repeated the 'act of terror' phrasing." The implication that Kessler would have rated Romney's statement as fully accurate if he had said that Obama had not called the attack "terrorism" for two weeks shines an unsettling light on the Post's factchecking standards.Similar word games were played by ABC News' Jonathan Karl (10/16/12):

The president did use the words "acts of terror," but he wasn’t directly talking about the attack in Libya. What he said in his statement was: "No acts of terror will ever shake the resolve of this great nation, alter that character or eclipse the light of the values that we stand for," and then he went on to talk about what happened in Libya. So clearly he was referring to it, but for the next 14 days the president never came out and actually said "that was a terrorist attack." So I would say mostly true on the president, not entirely factual though.

...Politico's Josh Gerstein and Darren Samuelsohn (10/16/12):

While Romney insisted Obama never made this statement, on the day after the Benghazi attack, the president did strongly suggest it was a terrorist strike. But he didn’t say outright that the Benghazi attack was an act of terrorism.... The ambiguity there has given Romney and his supporters something to latch onto--they say the president was talking broadly, and not about the Benghazi attack specifically.

...and Brian Montopoli of CBS News (10/17/12):

You can make the case that the president was referring to the Libya attacks as well as other "acts of terror," since he made the comment in the course of a statement about those attacks. But the stronger case would seem to be that the president did not specifically refer to the attack as an act of terror--as Romney said.

The absurdity of these defenses can be gauged by imagining that Romney in the debate had spelled out what these factcheckers credit him as intending to say. "The president condemned 'acts of terror' in his statement about the attacks, but he didn't explicitly say that that's what the attacks were." Or: "The president talked about 'acts of terror,' but not 'terrorism.'"There is no way to frame these kinds of criticisms that doesn't sound nonsensical. Yet the factcheckers have to pretend that they make sense--because their main job is not to be fair, but to seem fair (FAIR Blog9/11/12).