Several media critics have lambasted the news media’s coverage of the attack on the US consulate in Benghazi and the protests against the film that supposedly inspired the attack — or did it? That’s the question at the heart of these three news stories:
New York Times: Libya Envoy’s Killing Was a Terrorist Attack, the White House Says
Fox News: Carney Says ‘Self Evident’ Benghazi Attack Was Terrorism
NBC News: White House: Libya consulate siege that killed four was ‘terrorist attack’
These three stories provide a good case study in media criticism. Let’s specifically look at the issues of angle and word choice.
In the NYT article the angle is made clear in the first sentence: “The White House is now calling the assault on the American diplomatic facility in Benghazi, Libya, a ‘terrorist attack.'” In other words, the Obama administration declined to use the words “terrorist” or “terrorism” previously and instead depicted the attack as the result of “Muslim rage” over a ridiculous movie.
Fox News took a more oppositional, skeptical approach. Here’s their lead:
The White House, after insisting for more than a week that the deadly attack on the U.S. Consulate in Benghazi was a “spontaneous” act, conceded Thursday that it was “self evident” that it was an act of terror – an admission that took eight days for any administration official to make.
The article, published with no byline, emphasizes the change in the White House’s approach. Where the NYT simply used the word “now” to suggest the change, Fox makes the decision explicit. In fact, the NYT says that “Until now, White House officials had not used that language in describing the assault” — but the NYT never mentions what language the Obama administration previously used. The Fox article makes that clear.
NBC, on the other hand, waits until paragraph four to mention that the White House was using the phrase “terrorist attack” for the first time. They even use some weasel words to muddy the waters:
Since the Benghazi attack occurred amid protests of an American-made anti-Islam video that was circulating on the Internet, it has been unclear whether it was planned independently or launched opportunistically when the demonstration was under way, or if it was a spontaneous attack emerging out of the protests.
To whom has it been unclear? Other media sources reported that the attack appeared to be planned in advance. Where is the lack of clarity? Only in the White House. It seems as if NBC is being excessively deferential. Add to this the fact that NBC only bothered to include official White House sources in their story, and it begins to look like they didn’t really do their homework at all. This might be fairly labeled a classic case of lack of enterprise, otherwise known as passive reporting.
The NYT story provides better context than the NBC story by including a quote from Brian Fishman but no Republican sources are quoted. Of course Fox has a quote from a Republican, Senator Susan Collins (R-Maine), as well as State Department spokeswoman Victoria Nuland. The other quotes came not from interviews but from public sources like White House spokesman Jay Carney (did you notice that Fox never included his first name?) and testimony from Matt Olsen, director of the National CounterTerrorism Center.
So Fox earns journalism points for taking a watchdog stance toward the White House by making the administration’s reversal clear in the very first paragraph. That’s exactly what journalists ought to be doing when covering powerful people and institutions. But let’s look again at Fox’s story:
The White House, after insisting for more than a week for more than a week that the deadly attack on the U.S. Consulate in Benghazi was a “spontaneous” act, conceded Thursday that it was “self evident” that it was an act of terror … The administration is still sticking by its claim that they don’t have evidence the assault was pre-planned. But Carney for the first time Thursday called it terrorism — while downplaying the fact that he was doing so.
There are instances of deliberate word choice here that are more evaluative than descriptive. Words like “concede” and “sticking by” imply that the White House is on the losing side of an argument. It seems that the purpose of the article is to depict a clumsy administration incompetently stumbling through a foreign policy fiasco while unable to keep their facts straight. But those sentences could have easily been rewritten to provide the same information without the spin:
The White House said Thursday that the deadly attack on the US Consulate in Benghazi was a “self evident,” planned act of terror after more than a week of describing it as a “spontaneous” act … The administration continues to claim that they don’t have evidence the assault was pre-planned, but Carney called it terrorism for the first time Thursday .
Let the readers judge for themselves whether or not Carney was “downplaying” anything by printing his quotes in full rather than trying to interpret his motives. Whatever bonus points Fox gained by being skeptical and critical of administration claims have been lost by the use of transparently evaluative (rather than simply descriptive) language.