Media outlets are overlooking President Obama's consistent emphasis on eliminating the threat posed by the extremist group the Islamic State -- and the U.S. airstrikes against it -- to fixate on Obama's recent reference to shrinking the group's influence to a "manageable problem."
ABC News' Jonathan Karl hyped misleading accusations from Rep. Darrell Issa (R-CA) that the Obama administration obstructed investigations into Benghazi by not releasing an email showing the White House contacted YouTube with concerns about an anti-Islam video as the attacks unfolded. But the White House's contacts with YouTube were reported by ABC News mere days after the attacks and acknowledged by the White House.
In the days immediately following the attacks on U.S. diplomatic facilities in Benghazi, then-U.N. Ambassador Susan Rice and other members of the administration described the assault as developing from spontaneous protests against an anti-Islam video that had been posted on YouTube, which had inspired riots across the Muslim world. That conclusion was consistent with the analysis of the intelligence community at the time. But because it was later revealed that there was no protest in Benghazi, conservatives led by Fox News have since claimed the Obama administration engaged in a deliberate effort to deceive the American people about the cause of the attacks.
In a May 22 post, Karl quoted Issa's selective leak of a single sentence from a State Department email sent on the night of the attack. That sentence explains that the White House was reaching out to YouTube with concerns that the attack stemmed from the anti-Islam video. Issa, the Republican chairman of the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee, claimed the State Department "has attempted to obstruct" the email's disclosure:
A still-classified State Department e-mail says that one of the first responses from the White House to the Benghazi attack was to contact YouTube to warn of the "ramifications" of allowing the posting of an anti-Islamic video, according to Rep. Darrell Issa, the Republican chairman of the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee.
The subject line of the e-mail, which was sent at 9:11 p.m. Eastern Time on the night of the attack, is "Update on Response to actions - Libya." The was written hours before the attack was over.
Issa has asked the White House to declassify and release the document. In the meantime he has inserted a sentence from the e-mail in the Congressional Record.
"White House is reaching out to U-Tube [sic] to advice ramification of the posting of the Pastor Jon video," the e-mail reads, according to Issa.
"The e-mail shows the White House had hurried to settle on a false narrative -- one at odds with the conclusions reached by those on the ground -- before Americans were even out of harm's way or the intelligence community had made an impartial examination of available evidence," Issa said.
Issa is calling on the White House to release an unclassified version of the document.
"While the information I have cited from this e-mail is clearly unclassified, the State Department has attempted to obstruct its disclosure by not providing Congress with an unclassified copy of this document," Issa said.
Mainstream media outlets attempted to cast doubt on White House press secretary Jay Carney's explanation that a memo advising Susan Rice on her TV appearances referred to global protests as opposed to the September 11 attack specifically. However Sunday news coverage from Rice's press tour demonstrates that discussions of Benghazi did include broader context of anti-American protests in the region, as Carney had asserted.
From the April 30 edition of ABC's ABC World News:
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ABC's Jonathan Karl, who was previously burned when he pushed falsehoods about CIA talking points generated in the wake of the 2012 Benghazi attacks, is now adopting the conservative distortion of a separate set of talking points authored by the White House for media appearances by then U.N. Ambassador Susan Rice.
On September 16, 2012, Rice appeared on the Sunday political talk shows and suggested that the Benghazi terror attacks had grown out of spontaneous protests like those that were occurring worldwide in response to an anti-Muslim video. Conservatives have claimed that Rice's comments on the Sunday shows were part of a deliberate effort to deceive the American people about the cause of the terror attacks, to bolster President Obama's re-election campaign. This effort has often involved distorting the CIA-approved talking points that Rice used to prepare for the interviews.
Karl came under fire in May 2013 after reporting that the network had "reviewed" emails from administration officials regarding the creation and editing of those CIA-generated talking points. While nothing Karl reported undermined assertions from the CIA that the intelligence community had approved those talking points, Karl suggested that the emails bolstered the conservative critique of the administration's response.
In fact, Karl had never seen the emails in question -- his story was based on "summaries" of the emails and "detailed notes" from a source who, it turned out, had misrepresented what the documents actually said. After media observers slammed Karl's "sloppy" reporting, ABC News issued a statement saying that the network "should have been more precise in its sourcing of those quotes, attributing them to handwritten copies of the emails taken by a Congressional source. We regret that error." Karl himself apologized in a statement to CNN.
Now Karl is returning to the subject of talking points used to prepare Rice for those September 16, 2012, interviews, seizing on a separate email authored by Deputy National Security Advisor Ben Rhodes that was released yesterday. The email details "Goals" and "Top-lines" for Rice's interviews and provides sample questions and answers.
Conservatives have fixated on one of Rhodes' recommendations for the interviews, detailing one of the goals as "To underscore that these protests are rooted in an internet video and not a broader failure of policy." Conservatives claim this is evidence the White House was seeking to deliberately mislead the public by blaming Benghazi on the anti-Muslim video rather than terrorism in the region.
In what Mediaite described as a "heated back and forth" during the April 30 White House Press Briefing, Karl hyped this false attack, repeatedly challenging White House Press Secretary Jay Carney over the Rhodes email and Rice's interviews.
During their exchange, Carney sought to make clear that the Rhodes email was not just about the Benghazi attacks but was a more extensive document detailing the situation in the Middle East more broadly, and thus that the comment that "these protests are rooted in an internet video" was not about Benghazi specifically. According to Carney, Rice depended on the CIA talking points for information on Benghazi and the White House talking points for other topics.
Conservative media have been quick to use the exchange to attack Carney and the White House. But the White House documents upon which Karl based his misleading questions support Carney's argument.
On September 11, 2012, terrorists killed four Americans during attacks on U.S. diplomatic facilities in Benghazi, Libya. Conservatives immediately sought to use those tragic killings for political benefit.
By January 1, with conservatives having failed to prevent President Obama's re-election, but succeeding in using the issue to torpedo Susan Rice's bid for Secretary of State, Media Matters had some reason to hope that this effort would subside.
We were wrong.
Fox News and the rest of the right-wing media doubled down, spending much of the year trying to turn Benghazi into Obama's Watergate (or Iran-Contra, or both) and try to end any potential presidential run by Secretary of State Hillary Clinton before it can begin. And some mainstream outlets, more eager to win over a conservative audience than to check their facts, ran their own misleading, sketchily-sourced Benghazi exposés.
Much of the discussion has centered around two "unanswered questions" that in reality were answered long ago.
Right-wing media outlets (and mainstream outlets seeking to attract their audience) have been obsessed with asking why the Obama administration initially linked the attacks with an anti-Islam YouTube video that spurred violent protests across the Middle East in mid-September, even after it became clear that the CIA's Office of Terrorism Analysis had believed there was a connection between the two.
They've also taken every opportunity to question why help wasn't sent to aid U.S. diplomats in Benghazi. Reporters have continued asking this "lingering question" even as a long line of national security experts, from both inside and outside of the administration, have explained that while the Defense Department quickly deployed Special Forces teams to the region, due to logistical issues they were unable to reach the scene until long after the attacks had concluded.
To comprehensively debunk these claims and many more about the attacks, in October 2013 Media Matters' David Brock and Ari Rabin-Havt released the ebook The Benghazi Hoax.
Here are seven of the worst media reports and conspiracies from the last year on the Benghazi hoax:
Appearing on MSNBC's Morning Joe just days before the looming deadline for a federal government shutdown, Politico's Mike Allen was assessing the politics of the controversy and predicting which Beltway players would get tagged with the blame for the intentional legislative debacle. Despite the fact that Republicans were refusing to fund the government if the White House balked at the demand to essentially repeal its 2010 health care law, Allen suggested President Obama would be the real political loser.
Why Obama? Because he's more famous than the GOP congressional leaders whose actions are causing the impasse.
"A lot of people in the country don't know John Boehner. There's no one in the world who doesn't know Barack Obama," Allen explained. "So when Washington is not working, it's going off the rails in a very visible way, a way that is vivid and touches people, that's not good ultimately for the president."
That's an awfully tenuous path to blame Obama for the Republicans' proudly obstructionist strategy to stop funding the government.
Yet so it goes within portions of the Beltway press corps who are straining to include Democrats in the shutdown blame game; to make sure "both sides" are targeted for tsk-tsk scoldings about "Washington dysfunction," and that the Republicans' truly radical nature remains casually ignored. This media act is getting old. And this media act may be emboldening the Republicans' extreme behavior.
Note that unlike the government shutdowns during the Clinton administration, this one was not prompted by a budgetary disagreement between the two parties. It was provoked by the GOP's unheard of demand that in order to vote for government spending they agree is necessary, the White House had to strip away funding for its health care law. Also note that the looming showdown over the debt ceiling represents another orchestrated crisis in which the GOP is making unprecedented demands on the president in exchange for their votes for a policy they say they support. Both cases illustrate the folly of trying to blame the White House for failing to engage with Republicans, who have embraced a path of purposefully unsolvable confrontations.
What's been clear for years is that the press clings to its preferred storyline: When Republicans obstruct Obama's agenda, the president's to blame for not changing the GOP's unprecedented behavior. In other words, "both sides" are to blame for the GOP's radical actions and the epic gridlock it produces.
The media lesson for Republicans? There's very little political downside to pushing extremism if the press is going to give the party a pass.
ABC News Chief White House Correspondent Jonathan Karl's statement in response to criticism for the deceptive sourcing in his so-called "exclusive" on administration talking points on the September attacks in Benghazi is fundamentally misleading.
In a statement to CNN, Karl claimed that ABC News "updated our story immediately" when it became clear it was based on misquoted emails from administration officials. But Karl also insisted the story "still entirely stands," and the network has issued no on-air corrections. In fact, in two on-air reports on the release of administration emails that debunked his reporting, Karl said that those emails "confirm" ABC News' original story.
Conservatives have long claimed that the Obama administration edited references to terrorism out of the Benghazi talking points for political reasons. Karl buttressed those allegations with a May 10 report that claimed, based on what appeared to be direct quotes from the emails of White House and State Department aides, that "the edits were made with extensive input from the State Department."
Karl's "exclusive" received widespread coverage even though it was largely a rehash of previously covered debates on who gave input into the talking points. It did not disprove what Gen. David Petraeus, former head of the Central Intelligence Agency, testified in November: that the intelligence community signed off on the final draft of the talking points, and that references to terrorist groups in Libya were removed in order to avoid tipping off those groups.
But Karl's story dissolved after CNN's Jake Tapper obtained a key email from a White House aide that differed substantially from how it had been quoted by Karl. The ABC News reporter then acknowledged that he had never seen the actual emails on which he had reported. Rather, a Republican source had read him their own summaries of those emails.
On May 20, CNN's Howard Kurtz reported the following statement from Karl: "Clearly, I regret the email was quoted incorrectly and I regret that it's become a distraction from the story, which still entirely stands. I should have been clearer about the attribution. We updated our story immediately."
This statement merely compounds the dubious practices that in which Karl and ABC News have engaged with regard to this story.
From the May 19 edition of CNN's Reliable Sources:
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On May 15 the White House released the full email chain regarding the much-discussed Benghazi talking points, and in doing so deflated conservative and Republican allegations that the administration had engineered a politically minded "cover-up" of the circumstances surrounding the September 2012 attack on the diplomatic facility. The release of those talking points was spurred in no small part by separate reports from The Weekly Standard and ABC News that wrongly suggested the White House's overriding concern in editing those talking points was helping the State Department dodge political attacks from Republicans.
Now that the actual emails are in the public record, we can go back and see exactly what errors ABC and The Weekly Standard made that helped lead us to this point.
(For an easier-to-navigate version of the email chain, check out Yahoo News' interactive feature.)
Weekly Standard writer Stephen F. Hayes' article for the May 13 edition of the magazine noted that after the initial draft of the talking points was sent, State Department spokeswoman Victoria Nuland "responded to raise 'serious concerns' about the draft." Hayes, working primarily off a House GOP report on Benghazi, wrote that Nuland "worried that members of Congress would use the talking points to criticize the State Department for 'not paying attention to Agency warnings.'" That was, we now know, an incomplete description of Nuland's email, and made it seem as though her only concern was protecting that State Department from political attacks.
The controversy surrounding the editing of the administration's Benghazi talking points took an interesting turn on Monday when CNN's Jake Tapper reported that a newly obtained email from White House aide Ben Rhodes written during the editing of those talking points "differs from how sources inaccurately quoted and paraphrased it in previous accounts to different media organizations."
Tapper was referring, in part, to a May 10 report from ABC News' Jonathan Karl, who in that report claimed to be citing both administration "emails" and "summaries" of those emails, provided what appeared to be direct quotes from those emails, and said on air that he had "obtained" them. Karl reported the emails suggested the White House had been deeply involved in crafting a political response to the terror attack that occurred at the U.S. diplomatic facility in Benghazi September 11, where four Americans were killed. The ABC exclusive, accusing the administration of having "scrubbed" vital information from the talking points, ignited a controversy about the White House's handling of the attack.
Referring to the emails quoted in the ABC piece, Tapper stressed that, "Whoever provided those quotes and paraphrases did so inaccurately, seemingly inventing the notion that Rhodes wanted the concerns of the State Department specifically addressed."
(Both the Rhodes email and those of the State Department bolster testimony from then-CIA director David Petraeus noted, the talking points were changed to avoid interfering with the ongoing investigation into the perpetrators.)
As Media Matters noted, Karl responded by explaining that he had not actually reviewed the emails himself, but had been "quoting verbatim a source who reviewed the original documents and shared detailed notes." He added that the source "was not permitted to make copies of the original e-mails," indicating that Karl's original piece was based entirely on his source's summaries.
Karl insisted that the summaries represent an accurate take on the emails.
But the email obtained by CNN makes it clear that in at least one key instance Karl's source, who he quoted "verbatim," got the emails' contents wrong, leading to a misleading picture of the process by which the talking points were edited.
Was that error accidental? It's hard to imagine how simply writing down the contents of an email could lead to such a glaring discrepancy. And the administration's release yesterday of roughly 100 pages of emails detailing the exchanges between administration aides around the creation of those talking points does even more to put out the fire that Karl helped to ignite. This raises the question of whether misinformation was passed along to Karl deliberately in order to create a political firestorm.
The revelation that the source passed along inaccurate summaries of the emails raises troubling questions for Karl and ABC News: Do Karl's bosses know who the source is who misled the reporter? And do other reporters at ABC News regularly use, and trust, the same source?
Another key question is whether Karl should reveal the source who misled him. While journalists take seriously the vow to not reveal the identity of confidential sources in exchange for the information that those sources provide, it's not unheard of for journalists to reveal source identities if it's proven that that person badly misled a reporter or passed along bogus information. Some observers think that's what happened in the case of the Benghazi talking points.
ABC's Jonathan Karl is drawing criticism from journalism veterans and media ethicists who say his recent reporting on talking points related to the September attacks on diplomatic facilities in Benghazi, Libya has been "sloppy" and "highly problematic ethically."
The conservative media and Republican politicians have claimed for months that the Obama administration had for political purposes edited references to terrorism out of a set of talking points used shortly after the attacks.
On May 10, Karl gave those claims new life with an "exclusive" online report that found, based on what appeared to be direct quotes from the emails of White House and State Department aides, that "the edits were made with extensive input from the State Department."
Karl's muddled account reported both that "White House emails reviewed by ABC News" and that "summaries of White House and State Department emails" led to that conclusion. He also repeatedly produced quotes from what he described as "emails," suggesting that he had personally reviewed the original documents. In on-air reports, Karl and his colleagues subsequently claimed he had "obtained" the emails.
But after CNN produced the full text of one of the emails Karl had cited and reported that the version in Karl's article had made it "appear that the White House was more interested in the State Department's desire to remove mentions of specific terrorist groups and warnings about these groups so as to not bring criticism to the State Department" than was actually the case, Karl acknowledged that he had actually been "quoting verbatim" an unnamed source "who reviewed the original documents and shared detailed notes," and had not seen the emails himself. Observers have suggested that Karl had been burned by his source, given the discrepancies between what Karl reported about the email and what it actually said in full.
The slippery language Karl and ABC News adopted in describing the emails has drawn fire from media ethicists and veteran journalists.
"At best, it's extremely sloppy. At worst, it's a deliberate attempt to conceal the secondhand -- and possibly distorted -- nature of the information ABC was relying on so as to put its shoulder to the wheel of a highly prejudicial reading of the affair," said Edward Wasserman, dean of the Graduate School of Journalism at the University of California, Berkeley, and a Miami Herald columnist. "Whether best or worst is true, it's highly problematic ethically, and the failure to acknowledge and correct is even worse."
Tim McGuire, journalism professor at Arizona State University and former president of the American Society of News Editors, criticized Karl for failing to adhere to basic standards of ethics.
ABC News is now claiming that its Benghazi "exclusive" was based on summaries of emails between administration aides, not the emails themselves -- an assertion belied by their earlier reports.
CNN's Jake Tapper reported on May 14 that he had obtained an email sent by White House aide Ben Rhodes that "differs from how sources inaccurately quoted and paraphrased it in previous accounts to different media organizations," including ABC's Karl. According to Tapper, previous accounts of the email made it "appear that the White House was 'more interested in the State Department's desire to remove mentions of specific terrorist groups and warnings about these groups so as to not bring criticism to the State Department than Rhodes' email actually stated.'"
The conservative media has spent months obsessing over the Benghazi talking points that administration officials were discussing in those emails. According to right-wing conspiracy, the administration edited the talking points to downplay the role of terrorism in the attack in order to benefit the Obama reelection campaign. In fact, as then-CIA director David Petraeus noted, the talking points were changed to avoid interfering with the ongoing investigation into the perpetrators -- an account bolstered by the full version of the Rhodes email.
ABC News has responded by claiming their original reporting was based on summaries of the emails, not the emails themselves. In a statement to the Washington Post's Erik Wemple, an ABC spokesperson wrote: "Assuming the email cited by Jake Tapper is accurate, it is consistent with the summary quoted by Jon Karl." Karl himself has responded that rather than reviewing the emails themselves, he actually had been "quoting verbatim a source who reviewed the original documents and shared detailed notes." He added that "[t]he source was not permitted to make copies of the original e-mails," suggesting that his original report was based solely on that source's summaries, and denied that the summaries provided an inaccurate take on the original email.
But ABC News and Karl himself have repeatedly suggested he had obtained the actual emails, not summaries of emails from Rhodes and others in the administration.
In the third paragraph of his May 10 ABCNews.com article, Karl reported that "White House emails reviewed by ABC News suggest the edits were made with extensive input from the State Department" (emphasis added). Three paragraphs later, he wrote that "Summaries of White House and State Department emails -- some of which were first published by Stephen Hayes of the Weekly Standard -- show that the State Department had extensive input into the editing of the talking points" (emphasis added). That was the sole reference to "summaries" in the online article. Instead, he repeatedly produced quotes from what he described as "emails," suggesting that he had personally reviewed the original documents.
Karl and his ABC News colleagues also repeatedly suggested on-air that he had obtained the actual emails.
Reporting on ABC's Good Morning America on May 10, Karl neither said he had personally reviewed the emails, nor said he had reviewed summaries. Instead, he said he had "had emails read to me," then provided what he described as a direct quote from a State Department spokeswoman's email.
Karl likewise cited "an email obtained by ABC" on the May 10 edition of ABC's World News and read the comments from the State Department spokeswoman as a "quote" from that email. (via Nexis).
Similarly, ABC's Martha Raddatz referred to Karl having "exclusively obtained the emails" on the May 12 edition of This Week, while Reena Ninan referenced "emails exclusively unearthed" by Karl on the May 11 World News.
It seems reasonable for readers to assume that when, for instance, a reporter publishes a direct quote attributed to a White House staffer from what is described as "an email dated 9/14/12 at 9:34 p.m.," the reporter is producing the actual words the aide wrote. Now ABC News is claiming that that is not the case.
ABC News Chief White House Correspondent Jonathan Karl is helping to promote a dishonest narrative regarding why then-CIA director Gen. David Petraeus expressed disapproval for a set of talking points written in response to the September attacks on diplomatic facilities in Benghazi, Libya.
Karl's reporting on the issue has ignored the central reason Petraeus said that he didn't like the talking points: he thought they didn't do enough to connect the attacks to demonstrations in Cairo that were triggered by an anti-Islam video. Since right-wing media and Republicans in Congress have spent months accusing the Obama administration of politically-motivated lying for stating that there was a link between the attacks and the video, this point is crucial.
According to CBS News, in a September 15 email, Petraeus wrote that "he doesn't like the talking points and he would 'just assume they not use them... This is not what [Rep.] Ruppersberger asked for. We couldn't even mention the Cairo warning. But it's their call.'"
The "Cairo warning" Petraeus mentioned appears to refer to the following sentence that CBS News reported was added to the original talking points but subsequently removed:
On 10 September we warned of social media reports calling for a demonstration in front of the Embassy [in Cairo] and that jihadists were threatening to break into the Embassy."
As has been extensively reported, the September demonstrations in Cairo, Egypt, were part of a series of global riots and protests in Muslim countries that came in response to increasing awareness of the anti-Islam video. In the days and weeks following the attack, President Obama both referred to the attacks as an "act of terror" and offered criticism of that video for "spark[ing] outrage through the Muslim world."
It was not unreasonable for Petraeus and Obama to cite a link between the attacks and the video - according to the New York Times, the Benghazi attackers told bystanders that "that they were attacking the compound because they were angry about the video." In fact, the original set of talking points prepared by the CIA's Office of Terrorism Analysis stated that the attacks "were spontaneously inspired by the protests at the U.S. Embassy in Cairo."
But in reporting on the same Petraeus email, Karl has left out Petraeus' stated reason for disliking the talking points and in one case allowed his interviewer to suggest that Petraeus actually opposed linking the attacks to the video.
ABC News is falsely suggesting there is a contradiction between the Obama administration removing references to terrorist groups in Libya from talking points about the September 11 attacks on diplomatic facilities in that country and pointing to President Obama's statements that those attacks were an "act of terror."
The original September 14 version of a set of talking points compiled by the CIA's Office of Terrorism Analysis stated that "Islamic extremists with ties to al Qa'ida participated in the attack," and specifically suggested the involvement of the group Ansar al Sharia. Those specifics were subsequently removed, with the final version of the talking points stating only that "extremists participated" in the attacks.
In closed congressional testimony following his resignation as CIA director, Gen. David Petraeus reportedly said that these specifics had been "removed from the public explanation of the attack immediately after the assault to avoiding alerting the militants that American intelligence and law enforcement agencies were tracking them." Administration officials have also said that there were other intelligence and legal concerns with naming the suspected perpetrators:
"The points were not, as has been insinuated by some, edited to minimize the role of extremists, diminish terrorist affiliations, or play down that this was an attack," said a senior official familiar with the drafting of the talking points. "There were legitimate intelligence and legal issues to consider, as is almost always the case when explaining classified assessments publicly."
Some intelligence analysts worried, for instance, that identifying the groups could reveal that American spy services were eavesdropping on the militants -- a fact most insurgents are already aware of. Justice Department lawyers expressed concern about jeopardizing the F.B.I.'s criminal inquiry in the attacks. Other officials voiced concern that making the names public, at least right away, would create a circular reporting loop and hamper efforts to trail the militants.
Indeed, ABC News has reported that in an email in response to the initial talking points, State Department spokesperson Victoria Nuland "objected to naming the terrorist groups because 'we don't want to prejudice the investigation.'"
By contrast, in his September 12 and September 13 remarks, President Obama described the attacks as an "act of terror," but did not specify who the perpetrators of that act might be. Presumably such comments would not alert the perpetrators that they were being tracked or jeopardize the criminal probe in the same way that the naming of the specific group might.
Despite that clear distinction, ABC Senior Foreign Affairs Correspondent Martha Raddatz and White House Correspondent Jonathan Karl both suggested that the White House is trying to "have it both ways."