Benghazi Blackout: How the Big Three Networks Have Censored or Spun Obama's Deadly Foreign Policy Failure

Wednesday marks the one year anniversary of the attack on the U.S. embassy in Benghazi that left Ambassador Chris Stevens and three other Americans dead and sent the Obama administration scrambling for a cover story that the Big Three broadcast networks initially bought and were slow to unravel.

A similar pattern has emerged in 2013. As new information about the administration’s actions before and after the attacks have been revealed through congressional testimony, whistleblowers, and eyewitnesses, the Big Three have responded by censoring, breezing past or spinning politically damaging bombshells. (full special report after the jump)

From praising Hillary Clinton’s January testimony on Benghazi as a “fiery” “valedictory” to ignoring accusations of witness intimidation, the networks have, for the most part, operated as an arm of the White House PR machine. The only events that drew truly critical coverage were Gregory Hicks’ compelling testimony of the events of that tragic day and the release of e-mails that proved the administration had engaged in scrubbing CIA talking points. However these stories came in the midst of the intense but relatively brief period in May that the networks were forced to cover the myriad of scandals (IRS, AP, NSA) breaking all at once.

But when it was revealed, in July, that Benghazi survivors, State Department and CIA employees were being forced to sign non-disclosure agreements the Big Three networks responded with a yawn, offering not one single story.

The following is a chronological list of key developments in the Benghazi scandal and how they were covered or not covered on ABC’s World News, Good Morning America, CBS’s Evening News, This Morning, and NBC’s Nightly News and Today show.

Hillary’s ‘What Difference at This Point Does It Make?’ Hearing Performance Praised

On January 23 Hillary Clinton came before Congress to testify about her State Department’s bungling of Benghazi, and when pressed about how the administration misled about the causes of the raid coldly pronounced: “The fact is we have four dead Americans. Was it because of a protest or was it because of guys out for a walk one night who decided they’d go kill some Americans. What difference, at this point, does it make?” The reaction of network anchors and reporters wasn’t to condemn the chilling dodge, but to herald it as a moment of righteous indignation.   

On the January 23 edition of ABC’s World News, anchor Diane Sawyer announced: “And now we turn to the fiery appearance for Secretary of State Hillary Clinton...The indignation, and then, the tears in her eyes...It was a valedictory that showed her indignation and emotion as she ends this tenure on the public stage.” Her colleague Martha Raddatz added: “What a way to end her four-year tenure as Secretary of State...a month a go, she was flat on her back with a nasty concussion,” but “today, this woman who has traveled the world as America’s top diplomat, came to the Hill ready for a fight.” Raddatz touted that Clinton was “in rare public form, at times angry, aggressively on the defense. At another point, choking up over her four lost colleagues.”

NBC Nightly News anchor Brian Williams began his newscast that night announcing that Clinton “leaves her post as the most admired woman in the world in the Gallup poll, for the 11th year in a row.” NBC’s Andrea Mitchell offered a rave review: “Parrying hostile questions all day, Clinton was also the political pro. Massaging big egos, sidestepping attacks when she could. When she couldn’t, giving as good as she got.”

Over on CBS Margaret Brennan, on the January 23 This Morning, was impressed at how Clinton “fiercely defended the office that she will soon be leaving” and “took ownership of the State Department’s handling of the attack.”

Total Big Three Network stories/briefs: 23 (NBC 4 stories/5 briefs, CBS 5 stories/3 briefs, ABC 4 stories/2 briefs)

 

Panetta Testimony Reveals Obama Was Disengaged During Benghazi, ABC Ignores

On February 7 former Defense Secretary Leon Panetta testified that Barack Obama seemed disengaged on the night of the Benghazi attack. CBS’s Nancy Cordes, on the February 8 This Morning, reported: “Panetta revealed that he briefed the President at the start of the attack, but the two men did not speak again that night...Republicans say it’s a sign that the President was disengaged the night of the attack....he said as well that he did not speak to Secretary Clinton the night of the attack either.”

NBC’s Kelly O’Donnell, on the February 8 Today show, reported “Republicans pounced on testimony that after first informing the President about the attack, neither” Panetta or Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Martin Dempsey “heard directly from him as the siege unfolded.”

ABC never mentioned Panetta’s disturbing revelation about the Commander-in-Chief.

Total Big Three Network stories/briefs: 2 (CBS 1 story, NBC 1 story, ABC 0)

 

Blistering House Report Places Blame for Benghazi on Obama and Clinton, NBC and ABC Ignore

On April 23 The Washington Times reported that “House Republicans have concluded that the Pentagon and U.S. intelligence agencies bear no blame for failing to halt the terrorist assault” in Benghazi but that “President Obama and the State Department set up the military for failure.” The report ultimately found, according to the Times’ Stephen Dinan, that “Mr. Obama’s team lied about the attacks afterward, first blaming mob violence spawned by an anti-Muslim video, and then wrongly saying it had misled the public because it was trying to protect an FBI investigation.”

Both NBC and ABC skipped the findings of this report. CBS offered two full reports on the April 23 CBS Evening News and April 24 CBS This Morning. On the April 23 Evening News CBS’s Nancy Cordes relayed the seriousness of the findings: “The congressional report cites a State Department cable from April 2012; five months before the Benghazi attacks. The cable acknowledges the U.S. ambassador's request for additional security, but instead according to the report, ‘Articulated a plan to scale back security assets for the U.S. mission in Libya, including the Benghazi Mission.’ Republicans who viewed the cable say it bears Secretary Clinton’s signature which they claim contradicts this assertion she made in a hearing this January.”

Total Big Three Network stories/briefs: 2 (CBS 2 stories, ABC 0, NBC 0)

 

Whistleblower: Special Forces Could’ve Responded to Benghazi Attack, Networks Bypass

Fox News offered bombshell testimony, first aired on the April 29 Fox Special Report with Bret Baier, from a witness of the Benghazi attack, Fox News correspondent Adam Housley, in his April 30 Fox News.com article reported the following:

“A military special ops member who watched as the deadly attack on the U.S. Consulate in Benghazi unfolded last September told Fox News the U.S. had highly trained forces just a few hours away, and said he and others feel the government betrayed the four men who died in the attack.

Speaking on condition of anonymity, and appearing in a Fox News Channel interview with his face and voice disguised, the special operator contradicted claims by the Obama administration and a State Department review that said there wasn’t enough time for U.S. military forces to have intervened in the Sept. 11 attack in which U.S. Ambassador to Libya Chris Stevens, an embassy employee and two former Navy SEALs working as private security contractors were killed. ‘I know for a fact that C-110, the EUCOM CIF, was doing a training exercise in...not in the region of North Africa, but in Europe...And they had the ability to act and to respond.’”

Housley went on to report:

“The source says many people connected to the Benghazi bombing feel threatened and are afraid to talk. ‘The problem is, you got guys in my position, you got guys in special operations community who are still active and still involved,’ the source said. ‘And they would be decapitated if they came forward with information that would affect high level commanders,’ he said.”

Total Big Three Network stories/briefs: 0

 

Benghazi Whistleblowers Being Threatened, Networks Refuse to Report

Also on the April 29 edition of Fox Special Report with Bret Baier, chief Washington correspondent James Rosen reported the following:

“Fox News has learned that at least three career State Department employees and at least one more at the Central Intelligence Agency have retained lawyers or are in the process of doing so in order that they can provide sensitive information to Congress about Benghazi. The four consider themselves whistleblowers and want their counsel to receive the security clearances that would enable them to review classified documents, but the lawyer representing one of the employees at State told us the department is not providing a process for that and even worse is actively threatening her client and the others.”

In his April 30 press conference President Barack Obama was forced to respond to the allegation whistleblowers were being intimidated and he claimed: “I’m not familiar with this notion that anybody has been blocked from testifying.”

Total Big Three Network stories/briefs: 0

 

Gregory Hicks Testimony Exposes Obama Administration Cover-Up, Networks Grant Story Only Five Days of Coverage

In early May the networks couldn’t ignore the compelling testimony of State Department officials, including the number-two diplomat at the U.S. embassy Gregory Hicks, that undermined Obama administration claims about the Benghazi attack. CBS’s David Martin, on the May 5 Evening News, reported: “In an interview with the House Oversight Committee...Hicks directly contradicts administration claims that at first, the attack was thought to be nothing more than a demonstration growing out of a similar protest that day in Cairo. ‘I thought it was a terrorist attack from the get-go. I think everybody in the mission thought it was a terrorist attack from the beginning.’”

NBC’s Brian Williams, on the May 8 Nightly News, relayed Hicks delivered an “emotional testimony” and “chilling account of what really happened in Libya,” in his congressional hearing that day. ABC’s Diane Sawyer, on the May 9 World News, teased her viewers: “dramatic story told today by people at the center during that attack in Benghazi last year, people who said they were pleading for help.” Interestingly, for all the talk of Hicks’ “emotional” and “dramatic” story none of the networks brought Hicks on to retell it in a live exclusive interview at the time. (Hicks was finally interviewed on the September 8 edition of ABC’s This Week, where he told anchor George Stephanopoulos he’s been “punished” for speaking out.)

Altogether the networks devoted a total of only five days of coverage to Hicks, beginning on May 5 and ending on the morning of May 9, the day after Hicks’s congressional testimony.      

Total Big Three Network stories/briefs: 20 (CBS 8 stories/1 brief, NBC 4 stories/3 briefs, ABC 1 story/3 briefs)

 

E-Mails Prove Obama Administration Scrubbed CIA Talking Points on Benghazi, Networks Report Then Quickly Move On

On the May 10 ABC World News Jonathan Karl reported the following: “The White House said that information about the [Benghazi] attack was based on talking points drafted entirely by the CIA. And that neither Hillary Clinton’s State Department nor the White House made anything more than stylistic changes. But today, ABC News has exclusively obtained 12 versions of the talking points, showing they went through extensive edits. The early drafts point to evidence that an al Qaeda affiliated group took part in the attack and that the CIA has warned about al Qaeda threats in Benghazi.”

Karl went on to report that “Secretary Clinton’s spokesperson objected, saying in an e-mail obtained by ABC the information quote, ‘could be used by members of Congress to beat up on the State Department for not paying attention to warnings, so, why would we want to feed that?’ After those objections were raised, all references to al Qaeda and the CIA warnings were deleted from the CIA talking points.”  

While all three networks did cover the e-mails, it wasn’t long before they started spinning. On the May 13 CBS This Morning host Charlie Rose asked: “Is this a burgeoning cover up or is it at the same time simply political thing to try to get at Hillary Clinton campaign that might happen in 2016?” To which CBS News Political Director John Dickerson responded that while it “looks like a cover up...let’s not go too far with that language. It looks right now like a sort of normal ass covering that happens in a bureaucratic back and forth....that kind of day to day bureaucratic protecting of turf is different than a highly-orchestrated-by-Hillary Clinton approach.”

When the White House later released more e-mails, after Republican pressure, Dickerson came back on the May 18 This Morning to claim the newly released emails “were helpful to the White House” as they “helped knock back the story that Republicans had been pushing that the administration came up with a kind of false story. And if you look at the emails, the White House’s hand in creating those talking points to inform the press, the White House was not as involved as some Republicans had suggested.”

On May the 14 Today show both NBC’s Chuck Todd and Matt Lauer signaled they were ready to move on from the e-mail controversy. Reporting on Obama’s May 13 press conference, Todd relayed: “Obama defiantly rebutted Republican charges that his administration initially downplayed that the attack had ties to terrorism, calling the controversy a political circus.” Todd then played a clip of the President charging: “The whole issue of this, of talking points frankly throughout this process has been a sideshow.”

In an interview with Donald Rumsfeld, Lauer repeated the “side-show” line to the former Defense Secretary: “Yesterday, the President said there is no there-there, that it’s a side-show and that it defies logic to say there was a cover-up. Do you still think there was?” Lauer then seemed to dismiss the matter as pure partisan politics as he pressed Rumsfeld: “Do you think that the administration has answered enough questions on it? Do you think it’s possible that some Republicans are trying to use this to discredit Hillary Clinton in case she decides to run for president in 2016?”

But as with the Hicks testimony, the networks immediately dropped the e-mail controversy, with the last story coming on the May 18 CBS This Morning.

Total Big Three Network stories/briefs: 30 (NBC 12 stories, CBS 10 stories, ABC 7 stories/1 brief)

 

Obama Picks Benghazi Scandal Figure Susan Rice to Be National Security Adviser, Networks Yawn

By early June, the media climate surrounding the Benghazi scandal was so friendly Barack Obama felt secure in selecting Susan Rice to be his new national security advisor, despite Rice being at the center of controversy in the early days after the attack. Her nomination only brought a handful of mentions (NBC 5, CBS 3, ABC 1) to her role in the Benghazi cover-up.

On the June 5 NBC Nightly News Chuck Todd mentioned: “Rice was at the center of the Benghazi firestorm, as Republicans tried to make her the fall-woman for the President” but Todd never clarified that the “firestorm” was the result of Rice making false statements about Benghazi. On the June 6 Today show, Todd’s colleague Andrea Mitchell went as far to assert: “Rice was the President’s first line of defense after the September 11th Benghazi attacks. But back then those CIA talking points cost her the nomination to be Secretary of State,” then added “but the recent release of all the talking points e-mails vindicated Rice,” even though those e-mails actually showed how involved the White House and State Department were in scrubbing the original CIA talking points.

On the June 5 edition of ABC’s World News Diane Sawyer briefly mentioned: “Rice was at the center of that firestorm from Republicans after the attack on the U.S. consulate in Benghazi.” CBS’s Major Garrett, on the June 5 Evening News, also just briefly mentioned her role in Benghazi, but at least ran a sound bite of Rice’s false statements on the attack in the following excerpt:

GARRETT: Susan Rice was battered for her televised description of the deadly September 2012 attack on the U.S. mission in Benghazi.

SUSAN RICE: We do not have information at present that leads us to conclude that this was premeditated or preplanned.

GARRETT: Republicans were furious she did not call it a terrorist attack and their opposition led Mr. Obama to nominate John Kerry over Rice as secretary of state.

Total Big Three Network stories/briefs: 0

 

ABC, CBS and NBC Ignore More Reports about Benghazi Witness Intimidation

On July 18, as reported by The Weekly Standard, Republican Congressman Frank Wolf went to the House floor to claim survivors of the Benghazi attack, State Department and CIA employees were being forced to sign non-disclosure agreements. The charge was brought up again on the August 1 edition of CNN’s The Lead with Jake Tapper, by CNN correspondent Drew Griffin:  

“CNN has learned the CIA is involved in what one source calls an unprecedented attempt to keep the spy agencies Benghazi secrets from ever leaking out. Since January, some CIA operatives involved in the agency’s missions in Libya have been subjected to frequent, even monthly polygraph examinations, according to a source with deep inside knowledge of the agency’s working. The goal of the questioning, according to sources, is to find out if anyone is talking to the media or Congress. It’s being described as pure intimidation with the threat that any unauthorized CIA employees who leaks information could face the end of his or her career.

In exclusive communications obtained by CNN, writes, ‘you don’t jeopardize yourself, you jeopardize your family as well.’ Another says, ‘You have no idea the pressure being brought to bear on anyone with knowledge of this operation.’”

Griffin went on to report:

“Among the many secrets still yet to be told about the Benghazi mission is just how many Americans were there? The night Ambassador Chris Stevens and three others were killed. CNN has now learned that number was 35 with as many seven wounded, some seriously. While it’s still not known how many of them were CIA. A source tells CNN 21 Americans were working in the building known as the annex believed to be run by the agency.”

Appearing on the August 1 edition of FNC’s On the Record with Greta Van Susteren Republican Congressman Trey Gowdy made the accusation that witnesses names were even being changed, as see in the following exchange:

GRETA VAN SUSTEREN: I mean, we can’t find these survivors. I’d love to interview the survivors. But the administration is doing everything it can to hide them. They're dispersing them around the country. And of course, you know, the CNN report shows that even CIA operatives who were there are getting intimidated from above!

REP. TREY GOWDY: Including changing names, creating aliases. So you stop and think, What things most are calculated to get at the truth? Talk to people with firsthand knowledge. What creates the appearance or perhaps the reality of a cover-up? Not letting us talk to people who have the most amount of information, dispersing them throughout the country and changing their names!

Total Big Three Network stories/briefs: 0

 

State Department Employees Disciplined Over Benghazi Go Back to Work, Only CBS Reports

On the August 20 edition of FNC’s Fox Special Report with Bret Baier, James Rosen reported the following: “In the nearly 12 months since a premeditated attack at two U.S. installations in Benghazi killed four Americans, including the U.S. ambassador to Libya, not a single terrorist has yet been brought to justice. But at the State Department, an investigation by the Accountability Review Board or ARB resulted in four employees being placed on administrative leave. Now, Secretary of State, John Kerry, has ordered all four reassigned to different jobs.”
        
Total Big Three Network stories/briefs: 1 (CBS 1 brief, ABC 0, NBC 0)

 

Benghazi Investigative Team Being Pulled Out, Networks Don’t Notice


On August 23 FNC’s Adam Housley, on FoxNews.com reported: “Two weeks after the Obama administration announced charges against suspects in the Benghazi attack, a large portion of the U.S. team that hunted the suspects and trained Libyans to help capture or kill them is leaving Libya permanently. Special operators in the region tell Fox News that while Benghazi targets have been identified for months, officials in Washington could ‘never pull the trigger.’ In fact, one source insists that much of the information on Benghazi suspects had been passed along to the White House after being vetted by the Department of Defense and the State Department -- and at least one recommendation for direct action on a Benghazi suspect was given to President Obama as recently as August 7.” 

Housley went on to report: “Months after video, photo and voice documentation on the Benghazi suspects was first presented to high-level military leaders, the State Department and ultimately the White House, prison breaks in the country have eroded security. U.S. special forces have now been relegated to a ‘villa,’ a stopover for the operators before they’re shipped out of the country entirely. ‘We put American special operations in harm’s way to develop a picture of these suspects and to seek justice and instead of acting, we stalled. We just let it slip and pass us by and now it’s going to be much more difficult,’ one source said, citing 1,200 prisoners escaping two weeks ago. It’s already blowing up. Daily assassinations, bi-weekly prison escapes, we waited way too long.’
 
Housley then added: “The latest development raises questions about when the attackers will be brought to justice in the murder of Ambassador Chris Stevens and three other Americans last September. The special operators are starting to get frustrated at the lack of action, and Fox News has been told by multiple sources that one special forces leader ‘literally yelled’ at former Libyan Chief of Mission William Roebuck and told him, ‘so you’re willing to let these guys get away with murder?’ The outburst was ‘met with crickets,’ the sources said.”

Total Big Three Network stories/briefs: 0

 

Book Claims State Department Was Told Benghazi was a ‘Terrorist Attack’ Minutes After It Started, Only CBS Reports

On September 3 the Washington Examiner’s Paul Bedard reported: “Just minutes after 35 jihadists crashed through the U.S. diplomatic compound in Benghazi, Libya, nearly one year ago, the facility got word to the State Department, FBI and Pentagon that terrorists were attacking, according to a forthcoming book that provides the fullest review of the assault to date.”

In the book called “Under Fire, the Untold Story of the Attack in Benghazi,” Bedard notes that “it is revealed that an unidentified security official in the Benghazi compound protecting Ambassador J. Christopher Stevens messaged the U.S. embassy in Tripoli: ‘Benghazi under fire, terrorist attack.’...Twenty-five minutes after it began, the operation center at State received an electronic cable announcing the attack, according to authors Fred Burton, a former State Diplomatic Security agent and Samuel Katz, an author and expert on international special operations and counterterrorism. Their findings in ‘Under Fire,’ based on exclusive interviews of those in the battle, refute days of claims by the administration that the attack was sparked by Muslim anger at a U.S.-made anti-Muslim film.”

Burton appeared on the September 3 edition of CBS This Morning to discuss the book with hosts Charlie Rose, Gayle King and correspondent John Miller.  During the interview Burton made the point that “the moment that the first round was fired, the agents that were there knew absolutely that this was a terrorist attack.” So far CBS is the only network to mention the book’s findings.

Total Big Three Network stories/briefs: 1 (CBS 1, ABC 0, NBC 0)

 

Conclusion

The degree to which the Big Three networks have censored, briefly noted or spun the ongoing revelations about how the Obama administration blundered its handling of the Benghazi attack reveals how far they will go to insulate this White House from its own self-inflicted scandals. It must be asked, if new reports of a disengaged president during a terrorist attack, whistleblowers exposing a cover-up, and witnesses being intimidated have not been enough to drive the Big Three networks into wall-to-wall coverage, what will?

Geoffrey Dickens
Geoffrey Dickens
Geoffrey Dickens is the Deputy Research Director at the Media Research Center.