Fox News' assertion that a New York Times reporter who was at the scene of the 2012 attack on the U.S. compound at Benghazi, Libya, should have alerted authorities is drawing harsh criticism from veterans of war coverage who say the critique demonstrates a lack of understanding about the role of journalists.
The comments came in reaction to a lengthy series published December 28 by the Times. The series, authored by Mideast Correspondent David D. Kirkpatrick with additional reporting from journalists in Benghazi and Cairo, refutes many of the claims about the attack that conservatives have used to portray it as a scandal for the Obama administration.
Notably, the piece reveals that a Libyan journalist working for the Times was present during the event, when dozens of heavily-armed Libyans attacked the U.S. compound and set it on fire. Some of the attackers told the reporter and other onlookers that they were acting in response to an anti-Islam video that had been posted on YouTube.
Fox and Friends co-hosts Brian Kilmeade and Steve Doocy responded to this revelation -- which undermined months of Fox News claims that the video had played no role in the attack -- by attacking the Times reporter who had been present.
"[T]he question comes to mind," said Kilmeade, “is, okay, if you have a reporter at the scene and you know Americans are in danger and you are working for The New York Times. Did you, I don't know, have a sat[ellite] phone? Number one. Number two, did you use that sat phone to call in help or announce what was happening?”
“He probably had a phone, probably had a sat phone” Doocy agreed during a later segment. “That would have been the perfect time to call in for help. Did they?”
Kirkpatrick did not respond to Media Matters' requests for comment on the Fox hosts' views, but Times Executive Editor Jill Abramson said in an email, “This is just Fox being Fox” and called such claims “ridiculous.”
War reporters and groups that represent them say that the Fox critique shows a fundamental lack of understanding of the role of journalism, particularly during dangerous conflicts.
“When you're in the middle of a riot or an attack like that, first of all, it is not a reporter's job to call the authorities and he would have to assume the authorities know about it. It seems so bizarre,” said Josh Meyer, director of education and outreach for the Medill National Security Journalism Initiative and a former Los Angeles Times national security reporter who has reported from Afghanistan, Saudi Arabia and Pakistan.
Sonya Fry, executive director of the Overseas Press Club, an association for foreign correspondents, agreed. “The job is to be an eyewitness and report on what they see, sometimes the consequences of that are that help arrives. It is not their job to call in the ambulances,” said Fry. “Their job is to report. It is a sad state of affairs that people don't understand what journalists do these days.”
Other war correspondents pointed out that it's unclear who the Times reporter could have called for help. As the series makes clear, Libyan militia leaders who were alerted as the attack unfolded refused to aid the Americans, Libyans who did seek to help were turned back by the attackers, while U.S. forces in Tripoli were quickly alerted. No help arrived until long after the first stage of the attack had concluded.
Matt Schofield, a McClatchy reporter who has covered conflicts in Iraq and Israel, wondered who Kilmeade wanted the Times reporter to call in for help.
“Call who?” Schofield asked after viewing video of Kilmeade's comments. “As a reporter on the scene, I don't think you have a direct line to Obama.”
He later added, “If you are covering Libya, you may have some contacts, but you cannot call anyone to order an attack ... I don't see any sense of outrage in the fact that The New York Times had a reporter there and they did not order an attack. It's not like the Times has its own air force.”
Jonathan Landay, another McClatchy reporter who has covered conflicts in Afghanistan and Iraq, said such a criticism “verges on the ridiculous.”
“Firstly, which authorities (should be called)?” he asked via email. “There were no capable authorities in control of the city at the time. It was - and still is - largely under the sway of Islamist militias, one of the largest of which was implicated in the attack even though it had been hired to protect the compound. Secondly, the assault came out of nowhere - there was no protest before hand - and took everyone by surprise. Thirdly, whoever came up with the notion that a journalist caught in the middle of an armed clash has the time to make such a call has never been in such a situation themselves. Fourth, the same critic appears to have never heard of journalistic neutrality. A journalist reports a story, and should try to avoid becoming part of it.”
Bryan Bender, president of the journalism association Military Reporters & Editors and a Boston Globe reporter, said Kilmeade and others should not criticize the Times without knowing the facts.
“I don't have enough verified information about what exactly took place on the ground in Benghazi and what role, if any, a local New York Times journalist played on the night of the attack against US diplomatic personnel in Benghazi, Libya. And the Fox News hosts don't either,” he said in an email. “Until the individual in question can be interviewed I don't think anyone can say much of anything intelligent about their activities. Journalists in combat zones take enormous risks and rely on brave locals to bring the story to their readers and viewers back home. Hundreds of journalists -- including many locally hired -- have been killed in recent years in conflict zones around the word, including Libya. I am not going to second guess any of them without more facts.”
According to the Committee to Project Journalists, six journalists have been killed in Libya since 2011.