What Glenn Kessler said on Benghazi: Mercifully, the hurricane has wiped away the need to pretend that we’re discussing the presidential election.
Last evening, TV pundits were stripped of the need to declare that the other side had been lying while their own incomparable side has been telling the truth all along.
As part of this process, Benghazi slid beneath the waves churned by Hurricane Sandy. This lets us offer a bit of history concerning the potent Group Story which grew up around this event.
Within the insider press corps, some narratives are more equal than others. Some narratives possess so much social capital that they end up being adopted by one and all.
No one dissents from the Standard Account, not even our new breed of fact-checkers.
In the case of the Benghazi Group Story, we reviewed the pitiful job Politifact did when it fact-checked this story. Today, let’s look at what Glenn Kessler wrote on September 27.
Kessler is the main man at the Washington Post’s FactChecker site. No one is perfect, but Kessler has done a lot of good work as he’s covered the current campaign.
We’ve often learned facts from reading his posts. In recent days, he has been pounding away at Candidate Romney.
That said, Kessler’s September 27 report on Benghazi shows the power of the Group Story which formed around that event. On that day, Kessler posted a timeline of the events which followed the September 11 attacks. Today, we’ll look at Kessler’s introduction to that timeline.
In our view, Kessler’s introduction would have been extremely speculative as an opinion column. As the work of a fact-checker, we’d say it wandered many miles off the reservation.
Right from the start, Kessler speculated and offered insinuations about the administration’s motives. In these speculations, he kept assuming the worst—and he seemed to make some factual errors as well:
KESSLER (9/27/12): In any kind of confused overseas event, initial reports are often wrong. But the Sept. 11 attack on the U.S. diplomatic post in Benghazi, Libya, in which four Americans were killed, including the ambassador, is a case study of how an administration can carefully keep the focus as long as possible on one storyline—and then turn on a dime when it is no longer tenable.As a fact-check, that’s a work of pulp fiction! Right from his opening paragraph on, Kessler kept assuming and implying that the administration had behaved in bad faith. He never even considered the possibility that administration statements changed as more information came in.
For political reasons, it certainly was in the White House’s interests to not portray the attack as a terrorist incident, especially one that took place on the anniversary of the Sept. 11 attacks. Instead the administration kept the focus on what was ultimately a red herring—anger in the Arab world over anti-Muslim video posted on You Tube. With key phrases and message discipline, the administration was able to conflate an attack on the U.S. Embassy in Egypt—which apparently was prompted by the video—with the deadly assault in Benghazi.
Officials were also able to dismiss pointed questions by referring to an ongoing investigation.
Ultimately, when the head of the National Counterterrorism Center was asked pointblank on Capitol Hill whether it was an act of terror—and he agreed—the administration talking points began to shift. (Tough news reporting—as well as statements by Libya’s president—also played a role.) Yet President Obama himself resisted using the “t” word, even as late as Tuesday, while keeping the focus on the video in his speech to the U.N. General Assembly.
On Wednesday [9/26], however, White House spokesman Jay Carney acknowledged also that Obama himself believes the attack was terrorism—and so more than two weeks after the attack the Rubicon finally was crossed.
As a reader service, we have compiled a comprehensive timeline of administration statements, showing the evolution in talking points, with key phrases highlighted in bold. Many readers sent suggestions for this timeline, for which we are deeply grateful.
We will leave it to readers to reach their own conclusions on whether this is merely the result of the fog of war and diplomacy—or a deliberate effort to steer the storyline away from more politically damaging questions. After all, in a competitive election, two weeks is a lifetime.
Beyond that, he asserted, as a simple fact, that the anti-Muslim video played no role in the Benghazi attacks. As far as we know, the truth of that matter still hasn’t been established.
He asserted that Obama resisted using the “t” word, even though Obama had referred to “acts of terror” on several occasions, starting on September 12.
Kessler also seemed to say that Obama blamed the video for the Benghazi attack when he addressed to the United Nations. That has been part of the Standard Group Story, but Obama simply didn’t do that. In fairness, we note that Kessler used a rather slippery construction in the passage in question. He seemed to imply that Obama blamed the video, without saying so directly.
That's very odd conduct for a fact-checker. But the level of insinuation was high all through this peculiar piece.
The Benghazi episode has been quite remarkable. A powerful Group Story took hold in the press, migrating from the conservative world into our mainstream press organs. Liberals just sat there and watched.
Kessler pushed this Group Story early and often. We’ve learned a lot from Kessler’s posts. But within the conservative world and the mainstream press, the Benghazi Group Story has been very potent.
We’d have to call this the strangest performance Kessler turned in all year.