Reprinted with permission from Media Matters for America.
In the month after Navy SEAL William “Ryan” Owens was killed in a botched raid on a terrorist camp in Yemen, none of Fox News’ prime-time hosts even mentioned the incident.
During that January 29 raid — the first counterterrorism operation of President Donald Trump’s administration — “almost everything that could go wrong did,” according to The New York Times. Several news outlets have produced reports suggesting the raid was ordered without sufficient intelligence and preparation and that the administration has been untruthful about the operation.
But Fox’s evening lineup has been virtually silent, airing only 12 segments with significant discussion of the story from January 30 to February 28, according to a Media Matters review.
By contrast, the network’s evening programs devoted a whopping 140 segments to the September 11, 2012, Benghazi attacks in the first month after that tragedy, according to data Media Matters compiled for a 2014 report. (NOTE: That study did not include Fox’s 7 p.m. Eastern Standard Time hour because it was not in Nexis, making the disparity even more stark.)
The two incidents are not perfectly comparable. One involved a U.S. ambassador being killed in an attack by terrorists, while the other involved a U.S. servicemember being killed in an assault on terrorists; one was immediately politicized by the opposition while the other was not.
And yet, the parallels between Fox News’ criticisms of the Obama administration’s handling of the Benghazi attack and the actual facts of the Trump administration’s handling of the Yemen raid suggest the network’s silence is deliberate.
Every show but The O’Reilly Factor aired more segments on the Benghazi attacks in the month after that event than the entire network lineup did following the Yemen raid. Special Report and Hannity each aired more than 40 Benghazi segments, averaging more than two per broadcast.
By contrast, Special Report with Bret Baier was the network’s leader in raid segments, but it produced only five in the first month; The Five was next, with just three.
After 7 p.m., none of Fox’s hosts said a word about the story. The rare discussions on their programs came from guest hosts or correspondent news briefs. Sean Hannity’s program never mentioned the raid in any way.
That drought ended on March 1 as the pro-Trump propagandists rushed to praise the president for recognizing Owens’ sacrifice during Trump’s February 28 speech to a joint session of Congress. Hannity, Bill O’Reilly, and Martha MacCallum all lauded the president while lashing out at progressives who suggested that Trump had used Owens’ death for political gain.
It’s not only the volume of coverage that has changed dramatically after a Republican became president — the character of the segments have changed as well.
One can’t overstate the degree to which Fox News sought to turn the Benghazi tragedy into a political cudgel with which to hammer the Obama administration.
Over a period of years, the network flooded its airwaves with coverage that portrayed the administration’s response as a major political scandal. In the first months, Fox’s focus was on President Obama, who was running for re-election. After he was victorious, attention shifted to then-Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, the front-runner to be the Democratic nominee in 2016.
Fox repeatedly pushed myths about the attack, seeking to convince its audience that the administration had engaged in a conspiracy to deliberately withhold aid from the besieged Americans and then lied about the attack to the American people, all for political gain.
That narrative began immediately. In the first month after the Benghazi attacks, nearly a third of Fox’s segments suggested that Obama or members of his administration deliberately misled or outright lied to the public about the events. In a similar number of segments, Fox figures or guests characterized the administration’s response as a “cover-up.” Seven of the segments featured comparisons to the Watergate or Iran-Contra scandal.
These claims were false, as numerous investigations eventually showed.
Over the past month, several criticisms of the Trump administration’s handling of the Yemen raid have emerged. These include:
- Due to insufficient intelligence and preparation, “the attacking SEAL team found itself dropping onto a reinforced al Qaeda base defended by landmines, snipers, and a larger than expected contingent of heavily armed Islamist extremists.” This led to U.S. casualties and civilian deaths.
- Trump was not in the White House situation room for the raid — his Twitter account tweeted and deleted a promotion for an upcoming interview while the attack was ongoing. He approved the action over dinner at a meeting that included political staffers.
- The Trump administration has repeatedly falsely suggested that the Obama White House approved the raid.
- Contrary to public claims from Trump and his administration that the raid was a successful intelligence gathering mission, reports suggest part of its purpose was actually to kill a top leader of al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula, who “either slipped away or was not at the location.” The raid reportedly produced “no significant intelligence” according to U.S. officials who contradicted Pentagon statements in comments to NBC News. As evidence of the raid’s success, the Pentagon produced clips which were subsequently determined to be from a 10-year-old video that was already in the public domain.
- During an interview on Fox News, Trump blamed Owens’ death on the military, saying, “They came to me, they explained what they wanted to do ― the generals … And they lost Ryan.”
Based on the Benghazi precedent, it is very clear that if a similar set of facts had emerged during a Democratic presidency, Fox’s coverage would have been apocalyptic. Instead, the network’s commentators have sought to carry water for the president.
“Also, what you probably have heard, and maybe not, is that there was an incredible amount of information, a treasure trove of intel that they were able to recover, they said, similar to the amount in terms of its importance to the intelligence community that we got with Osama bin Laden at Abbottabad,” The Five host Kimberly Guilfoyle said during a February 1 segment praising Trump for visiting Dover Air Force Base for the arrival of Owens’ remains.
Bud Jackson, chairman of the American Working Families PAC, was one of the only voices on the Fox evening shows to offer criticism of the Trump administration, suggesting the president’s decision to order the raid was “cavalier,” pointing out that “a lot of things went wrong” during the attack, and accusing White House press secretary Sean Spicer of using Owens as “a human shield.”
But during that February 27 edition of The First 100 Days, guest host Sandra Smith repeatedly sought to pivot away from Jackson’s comments, suggesting that Obama was really responsible for the raid. The other guest, former SEAL Carl Higbie, attacked Jackson for being “extremely disrespectful.”
At times, Fox did report on facts that cut against the administration’s narrative. On January 30, Jennifer Griffin said on Special Report that “One senior defense official told us this operation would not have been approved by the last White House.” On February 3, she pointed out that in “an embarrassing about-face,” the video clips the Pentagon had released as evidence that the raid had recovered valuable information were actually 10 years old and in the public domain.
Neither fact has been mentioned since during Fox’s evening programming.
Media Matters identified segments based on a search of Nexis transcripts for The Five, Special Report with Bret Baier, The First 100 Days, The O’Reilly Factor, Tucker Carlson Tonight, and Hannity between January 30 and February 28 for “Yemen” or “William pre/2 Owens.”
We included each segment where the raid was the stated topic of discussion. We also included segments that were not limited solely to the raid but that featured significant discussion of the topic. Significant discussion is defined as at least two speakers in the segment talking about Benghazi to one another (e.g. the host asking a guest a question about the raid during a multi-topic interview).
IMAGE: Media Matters for America