NEW YORK -- Benghazi is back in the spotlight this week, as the House on Wednesday begins its select committee hearings on the Sept. 11, 2012, attacks. But given that conservative media have claimed for more than two years that the Obama administration orchestrated a cover-up of critical information about the attacks, it's not like Benghazi ever really went away.
Fox News, which has led the cover-up charge in conservative media, aired 1,098 evening television segments on Benghazi between the night of the attacks and the formation of the select committee in early May of this year, according to a new study from liberal watchdog Media Matters. The study, provided in advance to The Huffington Post, is set to be released Tuesday morning.
Media Matters founder David Brock plans to aggressively rebut charges leveled against Hillary Clinton during the hearings on the attack. On Tuesday, Democratic super PAC American Bridge and pro-Clinton group Correct the Record, two other organizations he has launched, unveiled a new Benghazi rapid response site, Politico reported.
For the Media Matters study, researchers examined five Fox News evening and primetime programs -- “The Five,” “Special Report with Bret Baier,” “On the Record with Greta Van Susteren,” “The O’Reilly Factor” and “Hannity” -- and found that they averaged 13 Benghazi segments per week.
The network’s 6 p.m. newscast, “Special Report,” aired 382 segments, the highest among those five programs. Megyn Kelly's primetime program, "The Kelly File," did not air during the 20 months studied and was not included in the report.
The Benghazi attacks, which resulted in the deaths of Ambassador Chris Stevens and three other Americans, raised serious questions about security at U.S. facilities abroad, and clearly warranted media attention. And comprehensive coverage, in and of itself, is not a bad thing.
But the study shows how Fox News, which is run by former Republican operative Roger Ailes, often fixated on minor details and storylines that seemed less about establishing the facts of the Benghazi story and more about scoring political points against President Barack Obama and Clinton, who was secretary of state at the time of the attacks and is the presumed 2016 Democratic front-runner.
For instance, Fox News aired 244 segments suggesting “the Obama administration did not initially refer to the attacks in Benghazi as ‘terror’ or a ‘terrorist act,’” according to the study. The truth is that Obama referred to the attacks the next day as an “act of terror,” a fact Republican nominee Mitt Romney seemed unaware of during a famous presidential debate exchange in October 2012.
The network aired 174 Benghazi-related segments in the month leading up to the November 2012 presidential election. Indeed, Fox News even largely ignored Hurricane Sandy that month to focus on Benghazi, as The Huffington Post noted at the time.
During the 20-month period studied, Fox News aired 478 segments invoking the administration talking points used by former ambassador to the United Nation and current National Security Adviser Susan Rice during her Sept. 16, 2012, appearances on the Sunday morning shows. The networked aired 281 segments alleging a “cover-up” by the Obama administration, with over a hundred references to past Washington scandals like Watergate and Iran-Contra. The study also found that Fox News tried 105 times to link Benghazi to Clinton's presumed political aspirations.
A running theme on Fox News, and within conservative media more broadly, is that the mainstream media ignored the Benghazi story.
The reality is that journalists covered the Benghazi attacks on the ground in real time and in the immediate aftermath. A number of journalists even reached the prime Benghazi suspect before the U.S. government did. The New York Times conducted a months-long investigation of the attacks, and other news organizations contributed reporting that advanced the public's understanding of what happened that night.
Reporters lobbed related questions in the White House briefing room, and many covered congressional inquiries into Benghazi, which have already included 13 hearings and 50 briefings on the matter -- none of which has yet produced a "smoking gun" to support allegations of a massive cover-up.
It remains to be seen if the House select committee hearings, chaired by Rep. Trey Gowdy (R-S.C.), will yield any new revelations. Gowdy's comments after being tapped to lead the committee in May were not encouraging in that respect, given that during interviews he raised several questions about the attacks that had already been answered.
Gowdy was asked about Benghazi 13 times in Fox News interviews during the 20 months leading up to the formation of the select committee. He ranked fourth among lawmakers with most appearances on the network to discuss the attacks, behind Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.), Rep. Jason Chaffetz (R-Utah) and Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.). They clocked in at 27, 25 and 15 appearances, respectively.
It’s notable that Graham appeared the most times, given that the senator also consulted with CBS News correspondent Lara Logan on her discredited “60 Minutes” investigation into the Benghazi attacks, a report that relied heavily on an unreliable “eyewitness” and included glaring factual errors. Without acknowledging he was a source on the "60 Minutes" report, Graham originally had seized on it the morning after the broadcast in an attempt to block Obama administration nominees until all witnesses to the Benghazi attacks appeared before Congress.
There's nothing wrong with a news network questioning members of Congress and Obama administration officials about Benghazi. But again, the study showed the often one-side nature of the debate on Fox News, with Republican critics of the administration getting the most airtime. Republican members of Congress were asked about Benghazi in individual interviews 144 times, according to the study, while only five Democrats and Obama administration officials were asked about the attacks.