Benghazi and the Media’s ‘Republicans Seized’ Syndrome

by Stanley Kurtz

Republicans apparently have a penchant for seizing on things. No need to worry about the Obama administration making mistakes or covering up scandals. The more serious danger facing our republic is the GOP’s continual attempts to “seize on” trivialities in an effort to embarrass the Obama administration, stuff like health-care exchanges with a couple of glitches or e-mails that only a partisan conspiracy theorist would take as evidence of a cover-up.

This report from McClatchy runs on for almost its entire length trying to convince readers that the Benghazi story is little more than a Republican political ploy. Only toward the very end does it mention the previously withheld White House e-mail that so many Republicans have “seized” upon. McClatchy provides no clear explanation of why that e-mail might raise legitimate concerns.

Today’s New York Times buries its story on Speaker Boehner’s decision to create a select committee on Benghazi on page 11, a masterpiece of the “Republicans seized” genre. I don’t recall the Times previously discussing the phrase “mainstream news media.” Here it cleverly uses the claim that mainstream outlets are ignoring the Benghazi story to dismiss the whole issue as a conservative political gambit.

The Times piece isn’t so much about Benghazi as it is about conservatives: “In a move that conservatives had long pressured him to make . . . fueled by attention from some conservative news outlets that say others are undercovering the issue. . . . Benghazi has been a rallying cry on the right . . . Many Republicans believe that. . . . Republicans have shown a keen interest in [i.e. have seized on]. . . . Conservative passion around the story . . .”

The Washington Post story on Speaker Boehner’s authorization of a select committee (on page 2) takes essentially the same tack, if a bit less egregiously. The author’s understanding of the politics behind the story are further explained here, complete with a “Republicans seized.”

No doubt the appointment of a select committee on Benghazi has an important political aspect. Yet the ratio of mainstream news coverage on this perfectly serious and legitimate issue is massively skewed toward the politics.

Contrast this with the New York Times’s treatment of the Obama administration’s decision to launch an inquiry into the handling of sexual assault cases at 55 colleges. Not only does the Times fail to raise the possibility that Democrats might be using this investigation to gin up partisan enthusiasm among single women in advance of the midterms, the story gives no hint of the deep controversy over due-process issues kicked off by the Obama administration’s pressure campaign against colleges.

No doubt if Republicans were to raise legitimate questions about the due-process implications of the Obama administration’s sexual-assault policies, Democrats would “seize on” this as proof of a Republican “war on women.” But of course, few media outlets would use “Democrats seized” in their stories in that case.

So on one issue, the Times is effectively acting as the administration’s stenographer, while on Benghazi it is trying to bury a legitimate story in claims of partisanship.

Who actually won the “War on Fox News?” Supposedly, the administration hastily retreated from its 2009 attempt to prevent other news organizations from taking critical Fox stories seriously. In the fullness of time, however, the War on Fox News may turn out to be the only war that Obama has ever won.

There really isn’t any way to seriously cover the Benghazi controversy that doesn’t reflect poorly on the Obama administration. The same can be said for the IRS scandal. When it comes to issues that can only hurt Obama, the mainstream press either ignores them or turns them into “Republicans seized.”

With all its limitations, there are enormous advantages to our two-party system. The two parties crystallize and clarify the fundamental alternatives from which the people choose. And each party’s scrutiny of error and corruption in its counterpart serves as a check on misgovernment.

It’s perfectly appropriate for the press to remind its readers of partisan motivations lurking in the background of legitimate stories. Yet that is not what we are seeing. The mainstream press has essentially turned itself into a party instrument, and it remains far more powerful than alternative, more conservative media. This is a problem beyond Benghazi. It is a problem for democracy.