This piece originally appeared on Media Matters.
Talk about a wild pendulum swing.
After relentlessly attacking and mocking presidential candidate Hillary Clinton for much of 2015, often depicting her as a hapless and phony pol, the Beltway press wrecking ball dramatically reversed direction last week when pundits and reporters announced the Democratic frontrunner had performed valiantly in front the Benghazi Select Committee.
I’ve been watching Clinton press coverage, on and off, for close to two decades, and I honestly cannot remember a time when the Beltway press corps — so often suspicious and openly critical of Hillary Clinton — was so united in its praise for her and so contemptuous of her partisan pursuers:
- Benghazi Has Become A Political Trap From Which Republicans Cannot Escape [Vox]
- The Benghazi Hearings Sham [Slate]
- The Benghazi Hearing Farce [Time]
- Hillary Had A Lovely Benghazi Day [Daily Beast]
- Benghazi Bust [Washington Examiner]
- The GOP’s Unfortunate Benghazi Hearing [Washington Post]
- Benghazi Committee Gives Hillary Clinton Presidential Platform [ABC News]
- Trey Gowdy Just Elected Hillary Clinton President [Rolling Stone]
On and on and on it went, as the rave reviews for Clinton poured in and the Republican catcalls mounted. (Committee chairman Trey Gowdy must be seeing those headlines in his sleep by now.)
I’m in heated agreement with virtually all of the analysis that found fault with the Benghazi witch hunt. (“What, exactly, is the point of this committee?”) Indeed, much of the biting commentary echoes Benghazi points Media Matters has been making for three years. But my question now is this: What took the press so long, and when will the press pause and reflect on the central role it played in producing the GOP witch hunt?
I don’t want to punish good behavior by criticizing the press for now accurately portraying the Benghazi pursuit as a fraud. (That’s why I recently urged the media to break up with the Benghazi committee.) But it might be nice amidst the avalanche of Benghazi Is Bogus pronouncements if folks in the press took time to admit the media’s part in the unfortunate charade.
To hear many pundits and observers describe the Benghazi collapse, Republicans — and Republicans only — are to blame, and they’re the ones who overplayed the pseudoscandal and tried to hype it as a blockbuster.
Much of the press is presenting a view from above: Here’s what Republicans did and here’s why it failed. Missing from the analysis is, ‘Here’s how the press helped facilitate the Republican failure for many, many years.’ The media want to pretend they haven’t been players in this drama.
Sorry, that’s not quite right. For years, Republicans often found willing partners in the Beltway press who were also eager and willing to overplay Benghazi and play it as a blockbuster scandal. The press cannot, and should not, simply whitewash the very important role it played, even though that muddles the media’s preferred storyline of How Republicans Botched Benghazi.
I realize that immediately examining the media’s role in this story might not be a priority for editors and producers. But I also realize what’s likely to happen is this window of opportunity for self-reflection will soon close and the press will once again fail to hold itself accountable for its often reckless behavior in marketing a bogus Republican-fueled “scandal.”
Here’s a concrete example: Lara Logan and her completely flawed Benghazi report that aired on 60 Minutes in 2013. Preparing the unsound report, Logan reportedly met behind the scenes with one of the GOP’s most vociferous Benghazi crusaders, Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.) According to a report in New York magazine, Graham helped shape the CBS Benghazi story. When the 60 Minutes segment aired, he immediately cheered it on, calling it a “death blow” to the White House and announced he’d block every White House appointee until he got more answers about Benghazi.
Then when huge holes began to appear in the story, as one of Logan sources was revealed as a fraud, “Logan called Graham and asked for help,” New York reported. (Note to reporters: When your sources have to make stuff up about Benghazi, it’s a pretty good indication the ‘scandal’ is lacking.)
It’s true that Logan’s example was an extreme one. But the press is kidding itself if it’s going to pretend Republicans didn’t recruit lots and lots of journalists to help tell the GOP’s preferred Benghazi ‘scandal’ story over the last three years.
Thankfully, some prominent journalists have recently shone a spotlighting on the press’ Benghazi failings. “The real losers here are the reporters and centrist pundits who let themselves be played, month after month, by Trey Gowdy and company,” wrote The New York Times’ Paul Krugman.
Today, there’s broad media consensus that the Benghazi Select Committee is wasteful and unnecessary. But that was utterly predictable last year when the eighth investigation was formed. At the time, many in the press brushed aside Democratic objections. (Try to imagine the media response if Democrats had demanded eight separate 9/11 commissions under President George W. Bush.)
Why the nonchalance? Because the press, I’m guessing, liked the idea of a standing Congressional committee to chase Clinton, to possibly wreak havoc on her campaign, and to leak gotcha stories to eager reporters.
By raising so few doubts about the absurdity of creating yet another Benghazi inquisition last year, the press helped fuel the charade that unfolded last week. It’s time to own up to the unpleasant truth.
This piece originally appeared on Media Matters on October 26, 2015.
Eric Bohlert is a Senior Fellow for Media Matters, and the author of Bloggers On the Bus: How The Internet Changes Politics and the Press, and Lapdogs: How the Press Rolled Over for Bush. Previously, he wrote on staff for Salon and Rolling Stone.
Photo: Former Secretary of State and Democratic presidential hopeful Hillary Clinton testifies before the House Select Committee on Benghazi on Capitol Hill in Washington, D.C., on Thursday, Oct. 22, 2015. (Olivier Douliery/Abaca Press/TNS)