Part 3—Benghazi script survives: Our modern “journalistic” culture is heavily built around script.
What the heck is script? Nine years ago, Krugman defined it:
KRUGMAN (8/3/04): Reading the ScriptKrugman was certainly on the right track! He described a pernicious culture that day—the modern journalistic culture built around deference to script.
A message to my fellow journalists: check out media watch sites like campaigndesk.org, mediamatters.org and dailyhowler.com. It's good to see ourselves as others see us. I've been finding The Daily Howler's concept of a media “script,” a story line that shapes coverage, often in the teeth of the evidence, particularly helpful in understanding cable news.
Needless to say, this culture extends beyond the realm of cable news. Consider the New York Times’ lengthy, front-page report about the attack in Benghazi.
David Kirkpatrick wrote the 7300-word report. It appeared on the front page of last Sunday’s paper.
What actually happened in Benghazi? In this early passage, Kirkpatrick debunks two key parts of the script which has prevailed since September 2012:
KIRKPATRICK (12/29/13): Months of investigation by The New York Times, centered on extensive interviews with Libyans in Benghazi who had direct knowledge of the attack there and its context, turned up no evidence that Al Qaeda or other international terrorist groups had any role in the assault. The attack was led, instead, by fighters who had benefited directly from NATO’s extensive air power and logistics support during the uprising against Colonel Qaddafi. And contrary to claims by some members of Congress, it was fueled in large part by anger at an American-made video denigrating Islam.Say what? In a lengthy investigation, Kirkpatrick found no evidence that Al Qaeda played any role in the assault. And good lord:
According to Kirkpatrick’s investigation, the Benghazi attack actually was “fueled in large part by anger at an American-made video denigrating Islam.”
Those findings contradict the punishing script which quickly emerged in the wake of the attack. According to that script, al Qaeda had planned and executed the attack, apparently to coincide with the anniversary of the attacks of September 11, 2001.
Meanwhile, had the attack been fueled by anger about that video? The notion was widely ridiculed. According to the prevailing script, that notion was simply absurd.
There was a victim of this script; her name was Susan Rice. Five days after the attack, Ambassador Rice appeared on the Sunday shows to present the administration’s “current assessment [of] what happened in Benghazi”—“the best information that we have available to us today.”
Instantly, Rice was denounced as a liar for what she said on those Sunday programs. The claim that Rice was a liar became a basic part of the Benghazi script.
How powerful is the role of script in our journalistic culture? Amazingly, Kirkpatrick continues to misrepresent what Rice said on those Sunday programs.
His paraphrase of what Rice said is extremely loose and unskillful. At one point, he even flatly misquotes something she said on Meet the Press.
Where do such errors come from? A cynic might see two invisible hands guiding this part of Kirkpatrick's report.
On the way hand, a cynic might see Kirkpatrick bowing to the power of the Benghazi script, which can’t be completely discarded. Beyond that, a cynic might see Kirkpatrick bowing to a wider post-journalistic edict—the notion that both major parties just have to be wrong in a dispute of this type.
For ourselves, we don’t know why Kirkpatrick misrepresented and even misquoted Rice in Sunday’s report. But in our view, his lengthy report helps show us the power of script.
Even as he debunks two parts of the Benghazi script, others parts of the script stay in place. In this passage, he starts to paraphrase what Rice said:
KIRKPATRICK: Fifteen months after Mr. Stevens’s death, the question of responsibility remains a searing issue in Washington, framed by two contradictory story lines.Did Susan Rice offer a “story line” in which “the video inspired spontaneous street protests that got out of hand?” Did she offer a “story line” in which the attack was “spontaneous” and bore no warning signs?
One has it that the video, which was posted on YouTube, inspired spontaneous street protests that got out of hand. This version, based on early intelligence reports, was initially offered publicly by Susan E. Rice, who is now Mr. Obama’s national security adviser.
The other, favored by Republicans, holds that Mr. Stevens died in a carefully planned assault by Al Qaeda to mark the anniversary of its strike on the United States 11 years before. Republicans have accused the Obama administration of covering up evidence of Al Qaeda’s role to avoid undermining the president’s claim that the group has been decimated, in part because of the raid that killed Osama bin Laden.
The investigation by The Times shows that the reality in Benghazi was different, and murkier, than either of those story lines suggests. Benghazi was not infiltrated by Al Qaeda, but nonetheless contained grave local threats to American interests. The attack does not appear to have been meticulously planned, but neither was it spontaneous or without warning signs.
That is a very shaky account of what Rice actually said on those Sunday programs. In this passage, Kirkpatrick flatly misquotes something she said:
KIRKPATRICK: After the attack, Mr. Obama vowed retribution. “We will not waver in our commitment to see that justice is done for this terrible act,” he said in a televised address from Washington on the morning of Sept. 12. “And make no mistake, justice will be done.”In that passage, Kirkpatrick flatly misquotes something Rice said. A person could argue that he misquotes her more than once.
But much of the debate about Benghazi in Washington has revolved around statements made four days later in television interviews by Ms. Rice, who was then ambassador to the United Nations.
“What happened in Benghazi was in fact initially a spontaneous reaction to what had just transpired hours before in Cairo,” she said on NBC’s “Meet the Press,” “almost a copycat of the demonstrations against our facility in Cairo, prompted by the video.”
Republicans, pouncing on the misstatement, have argued that the Obama administration was trying to cover up Al Qaeda’s role. “It was very clear to the individuals on the ground that this was an Al Qaeda-led event,” Representative Mike Rogers, a Michigan Republican who is the chairman of the House Intelligence Committee, said last month on Fox News.
“This was a preplanned, organized terrorist event,” he said, “not a video. That whole part was debunked time and time again.”
He then describes the way the GOP “pounced on [her] misstatement.”
What did Rice actually say that day? Yesterday, for the ten millionth time, we posted the transcript of her remarks from Meet the Press.
To watch her entire presentation, you can just click this.
In last Sunday’s report, Kirkpatrick debunked two parts of the prevailing Benghazi script. But even after all these months, Ambassador Rice is still being paraphrased very carelessly, even flatly misquoted.
To us, this speaks to the power of script. Tomorrow, for the ten millionth time, a look at what Susan Rice said.
Tomorrow: How to paraphrase, how to quote
Saturday: Bob Schieffer should explain himself on this week’s Face the Nation