Like most journalists, Chuck Todd hates becoming part of the story. So when his recent criticism of Kentucky Democratic senatorial candidate Alison Lundergan Grimes was used as the basis of a Mitch McConnell campaign ad, the new Meet the Press host felt "physically ill."
Todd spoke at length with Media Matters last week about life in the hot seat of NBC's top Sunday morning news program to which he ascended after two decades of political reporting at the network, MSNBC, and National Journal. Since he was handed the Meet the Press reins last month, Todd has to his credit granted extensive interviews to several longtime critics of the program, of which Media Matters is one.
In the first part of a three-part series, Todd shares his thoughts on how the media covers political crises, scandals, and gaffes in the modern era, including how the press has handled Ebola, the 2012 Benghazi attacks, and the alleged IRS political targeting.
Earlier this month, Todd argued that Grimes had "disqualified herself" as a candidate when she refused to answer whether she had voted for President Obama. His comments were quickly turned into a statewide television ad by Senator McConnell's reelection team.
Asked about having his comments turned into a political ad, Todd stood by his critique of Grimes and her alleged obfuscation, though admitted his wording was "sloppy" because he had been trying to suggest that it was Kentucky voters who would decide that Grimes had disqualified herself.
Pressed on what types of things should disqualify a political candidate - like, for example, McConnell's dismissal of climate science - Todd was elusive, saying that candidates being "caught lying" is a red flag, but that it should be up to voters to make those calculations, not reporters.
Todd also discussed the tradeoffs that are necessary when covering Ebola, which has dominated the news in recent weeks.
According to Todd, outlets need to make "smart decisions" and balance the need to provide the public with information about the disease and the government's handling of it without simply stoking hysteria about a domestic outbreak. Todd noted that the nonstop collective coverage from the media has led to a situation where it feels like "one case is going to turn into a hundred," which makes it important for outlets to "explain how hard that is."
Then there are two so-called "scandals" that Republicans have endlessly tried to hammer away at and use to criticize both the Obama Administration and Hillary Clinton: Benghazi and the IRS.
Discussing Benghazi, Todd said there is a "constant campaign" from both the left and the right to "work the refs" on the story, with conservatives engaged in a "search for conspiracies" and the promotion of supposedly scandalous stories that are "not news."
As for the IRS story, in which the agency has repeatedly been accused of targeting conservative political groups, Todd suggested it is symptomatic of how, with the proliferation of opposition research, news outlets need to be active debunkers instead of just reporters, something they cannot always do.
From the October 20 edition of Fox News' Special Report:
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It's become commonplace for the right-wing fringe to respond to breaking news by invoking Benghazi. The Ebola outbreak, the NFL's domestic violence problems, and the missing Malaysian Airlines Flight MH370 are just three recent examples in the panoply of events that remind conservatives of the terrorist attack on a U.S. diplomatic compound, which they've spent the last two years trying to turn into a political scandal.
It's more unusual for a journalist from a mainstream outlet to engage in this sort of behavior. But here's how Josh Kraushaar, the political editor for National Journal, responded to the October 8 Washington Post report that suggested senior White House aides had hidden their knowledge of the fact that "a prostitute was an overnight guest in the hotel room" of one of the volunteers on the advance team for President Obama's 2012 trip to Colombia:
In isolation, the WH cover-up of staff misconduct is a blip. But it fits pattern of the WH hiding damaging info from the public b4 election.-- Josh Kraushaar (@HotlineJosh) October 9, 2014
... makes you wonder if the partisan criticisms have more merit than many first thought. http://t.co/5i7VKu1bXH-- Josh Kraushaar (@HotlineJosh) October 9, 2014
First instinct is to trust what the WH is saying, but they've squandered a lot of that trust lately.-- Josh Kraushaar (@HotlineJosh) October 9, 2014
Kraushaar's National Journal colleague Ron Fournier also recently invoked the administration's response to Benghazi as a reason for the public to doubt the federal government's response to Ebola.
Others referencing Benghazi in their discussions of the prostitution story include Ronald Kessler, the investigative journalist described as "a bit of a kook" who recently drew fire for suggesting that President Obama would be to blame if he were assassinated, and Steve Doocy, the Fox News host who previously complained that the deadly Hurricane Sandy "knocked [Benghazi] off the front page."
From the September 18 edition of MSNBC's The Ed Show:
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The Washington Post reported this week that WJLA, ABC's Washington, D.C., affiliate, has taken a "subtle but noticeable turn to the right" since being taken over by the Sinclair Broadcasting Group. This conservative tilt was on full display this week when the channel ran a news package promoting a baseless conspiracy theory about Benghazi from reporter Sharyl Attkisson.
The Washington Post piece highlighted the concerns of some staff members of local ABC affiliate WJLA, that following the finalization of the sale to Sinclair in August 2014, "some of the stories ordered by Sinclair on a 'must-run' basis don't meet the station's long tradition of non-partisan reporting." One factor in this shift to conservative partisan reporting was announced in July prior to the sale, when Sinclair hired discredited journalist Sharyl Attkisson as an "independent freelance reporter" to "focus on stories that follow the money and waste watch type of investigations."
However, prior to the September 17 opening hearing of the House Benghazi Special Committee, Attkisson ran a dubious report for Sinclair that appeared on WJLA highlighting the unverifiable claims of former State Department employee Raymond Maxwell alleging that some documents were intentionally withheld from the Accountability Review Board investigating the terrorist attacks in Benghazi:
The same day Attkisson's report ran on WJLA, Attkisson appeared on Fox News Channel's Fox & Friends where she reiterated the report's unsubstantiated accusations. Host Steve Doocy lamented that only a handful of outlets such as Fox and the Daily Signal -- the Heritage Foundation website to which Attkisson occasionally contributes -- were covering this latest so-called "Benghazi bombshell." Attkisson concluded the segment by mentioning that her report was also broadcast to "maybe 30 million local news viewers" through Sinclair's affiliate stations.
Although Sinclair's support of right-wing misinformation has been widely documented and criticized for many years, its increasing influence in local media bodes ill for objective journalism at stations like WJLA.
From the September 17 edition of Fox News' The Five:
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From the September 17 edition of Fox News' America's Newsroom:
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Fox News' Bill O'Reilly questioned whether the latest report from discredited investigative journalist Sharyl Attkisson, which baselessly suggested a Benghazi cover-up by State Department officials, actually constituted a "scandal."
On the September 16 edition of his Fox News show, host Bill O'Reilly invited Attkisson to discuss her "troubling accusations against former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton" from "a disgruntled former State Department official." After Attkisson confirmed that her source had not witnessed such actions himself, O'Reilly dismissed the conspiracy explaining that "If no documents were removed, scrubbed, if they weren't taken out or destroyed, then I don't know if there is any scandal":
Later during the segment, Fox correspondent James Rosen reported that Attkisson's source had previously failed to disclose this accusation of a cover-up and that his account "bears a lot of further investigation before it can be deemed credible":
ROSEN: One point about this matter, Democrats on the House Oversight committee, which has previously investigated Benghazi, have noted that Mr. Maxwell was formally interviewed by that panel last year with a transcript prepared and despite many opportunities to do so, Mr. Maxwell never disclosed this shocking scene of obstruction of justice by high level state department officials that he now claims to have witnessed. That omission on his part at that time, along with other issues, will ensure that if and when Mr. Maxwell testifies before the House Benghazi committee, he will face some rough sledding in cross examination.
O'REILLY: Yeah. Why didn't you say it when you had the first opportunity? Yeah, I got it.
ROSEN: Yes now, all of this is not to say that what Mr. Maxwell claims to have witnessed never happen, just that it bears a lot of further investigation before it can be deemed credible.
Fox News' coverage of an evidence-free "bombshell" from Benghazi hoaxster Sharyl Attkisson took just hours to morph from a reiteration of her claim that a disgruntled former State Department employee "couldn't help but wonder" if Hillary Clinton's staff had turned over "scrubbed" Benghazi documents to investigators into full-blown allegations that documents had been "destroyed" -- allegations that remain baseless.
On September 6, Republican Congressman Lynn Westmoreland spoke at a Cobb County Republican breakfast in Georgia to an audience of 75 people, who each paid $10 to attend his "update on the Benghazi investigation."
Westmoreland is one of seven Republican members picked to serve on the House select committee, which holds its first public hearing tomorrow and could stretch its inquiries into the 2016 election year. The latest Republican-run body follows what has been a parade of costly and repetitive investigations into the Benghazi terror attack that killed four Americans.
Despite a laundry list of nearly identical conclusions about the events, and the complete absence of a White House cover-up or wrongdoing, Republicans, spurred on by Fox News, press ahead in search of "answers" to supposedly elusive questions.
But in Cobb County that Saturday morning, Westmoreland insisted the committee's not "a partisan witch hunt." He stressed another point, according to a report in the Marietta Daily Journal [emphasis added]:
"I think our enemy stands on 1600 Pennsylvania Ave.," Westmoreland said to loud applause.
And so it goes.
Last week, as Fox's Benghazi cover-up conspiracy sputtered across the two-year anniversary line, Roger Ailes' team was furiously promoting not one but two new books, claiming both tomes boasted revelations that deepened the alleged controversy. (They do not.)
Benghazi, of course, has been politicized in the most disturbing way possible, to the point where Fox News and conservatives have has turned an American tragedy into something of a macabre Twitter punchline. It's become sort of a Groundhog Day of exploitation and fakery with more than one thousand on-air Fox segments -- during evening coverage alone -- devoted to the endless pursuit. And now the Republicans' select committee, virtually sponsored by Fox News, is set to add more chapters to the sprawling production, which conveniently doubles as a GOP fundraising tool.
According to press reports, the committee's first hearing will focus on the State Department's Accountability Review Board, which looked into the details surrounding the Benghazi attacks. In other words, Republican investigators have decided to investigate the Benghazi investigators. Again.
And at this point, does anyone even remember in 2012 when the family of slain U.S. Ambassador Chris Stevens beseeched opportunists not to politicize his death? ("It would really be abhorrent to make this into a campaign issue.") Or when the mother of one of the other murdered Americans in Benghazi scolded Mitt Romney when he kept referencing her son on the presidential campaign trail? ("It's wrong to use these brave young men, who wanted freedom for all, to degrade Obama.")
Those wishes were almost instantly trampled and are now long forgotten by most; distant echoes drowned out by the churning gears of phony outrage.
The professionally sustained hysteria over the minutia of Benghazi --the YouTube video, Susan Rice's talking points, the allegedly nefarious White House emails, and the imaginary stand-down order -- they were all constructed for partisan purposes and none of them were based on fact or common sense.
With the House Select Committee on Benghazi scheduled to convene for its first public hearing tomorrow, Media Matters is unveiling All Questions Answered, the definitive user's guide to the committee that demonstrates how conservative inquiries into the 2012 attacks have been litigated over and over again.
You can read All Questions Answered at BenghaziHoax.com, a new Media Matters website featuring our latest research and curating nearly 1,000 pieces we have produced over the past two years chronicling and debunking the lies right-wing media have pushed about Benghazi.
Fox News and the conservative media have been politicizing Benghazi for more than two years, seeking to turn the tragic events of that night into a phony scandal in order to damage President Obama and former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton. The network took credit for House Speaker John Boehner's decision to create the select committee, a development Fox News contributors had sought for months. In the two weeks after the announcement the network devoted over 16 hours and 27 minutes -- at least 227 segments -- to Benghazi, a value of more than $124 million.
An excerpt from All Questions Answered details how the right-wing press turned an innocuous email from Deputy National Security Advisor Ben Rhodes into a sham "smoking gun," leading to the creation of the committee:
Conservative media outlets were up in arms, and they were soon followed by mainstream reporters. According to this new right-wing narrative, the White House had been withholding these emails from the public and congressional committees. But what did these emails actually demonstrate?
Rhodes' job on the National Security Council was to provide communications guidance to administration officials speaking on foreign policy issues. In the wake of upheaval across the entire region, with violent protests taking place in Cairo and the attack on the United States' diplomatic compound in Benghazi, Libya, Rhodes was tasked with preparing messaging guidance for then-national security adviser Susan Rice. In the emails unveiled by Judicial Watch, Rhodes took CIA-authored talking points -- whose creation had been made public in detail a year earlier -- and turned them into a messaging document.
That no new information was revealed mattered little. Simply the perception that the Obama administration was hiding something from the public created a media firestorm.
All Questions Answered goes down the list of conservative questions about Benghazi one by one, debunking the lies and myths about the attacks and the Obama administration's response.
All Questions Answered is a supplement to Media Matters' best-selling 2013 ebook The Benghazi Hoax, which "tells in intimate detail the story of the deception created by those who fill airtime with savage punditry and pseudo-journalism and how the Republicans in charge of the investigative committees were empowered but ultimately failed to find a scandal - any kind of scandal - to tar a Democratic White House."
Fox News' evening lineup ran nearly 1,100 segments on the Benghazi attacks and their aftermath in the first 20 months following the attacks. Nearly 500 segments focused on a set of Obama administration talking points used in September 2012 interviews; more than 100 linked the attacks to a potential Hillary Clinton 2016 presidential run; and dozens of segments compared the attacks and the administration response to the Watergate or Iran-Contra scandals. The network hosted Republican members of Congress to discuss Benghazi nearly 30 times more frequently than Democrats.
A new report from discredited investigative journalist Sharyl Attkisson baselessly suggested State Department staff removed damaging documents on Benghazi instead of turning them over to the Accountability Review Board (ARB) for investigation. But Attkisson's claims have been denied by the State Department and are based solely on speculations from a disgruntled employee after he was disciplined for his "lack of leadership" and engagement by the ARB.
In a September 15 report for The Daily Signal, a publication of the conservative Heritage Foundation, Attkisson reported that a former State Department diplomat alleges that "Hillary Clinton confidants were part of an operation to 'separate' damaging documents before they were turned over to the Accountability Review Board investigating security lapses surrounding the Sept. 11, 2012, terrorist attacks on the U.S. mission in Benghazi, Libya." The Daily Signal described this as a "Benghazi Bombshell."
Attkisson reported that the diplomat, Raymond Maxwell, a former deputy assistant secretary responsible for North Africa, says that in late 2012 he observed an "after-hours session" at which a State Department office director "close to Clinton's top advisers" directed staff to separate out Benghazi documents "that might put anybody in the Near Eastern Affairs front office or the seventh floor in a bad light" from "boxes and stacks of documents." Attkisson notes that "'seventh floor' was State Department shorthand for then-Secretary of State Clinton and her principal advisors." Maxwell told Attkisson that while he was present, Clinton Chief of Staff Cheryl Mills and Deputy Chief of Staff Jake Sullivan "appeared to check in on the operation and soon left."
Speculating that potentially missing, possibly damaging documents made it impossible for the ARB's investigation to be thorough, Attkisson reported that Maxwell said "he couldn't help but wonder if the ARB--perhaps unknowingly--had received from his bureau a scrubbed set of documents with the most damaging material missing."
Fox News' America's Newsroom quickly reported Attkisson's claims, calling them a "bombshell development" and a "smoking gun of a potential cover-up":
From the September 11 edition of Fox News' The Kelly File:
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