How about Stephen Hayes: Does Michael Gerson know how to read? How well does the gentleman read?
We constantly ask such questions about the nation’s fourth-graders. How about major conservatives like Gerson and Stephen Hayes?
We ask in part because we read Gerson’s column in today’s Washington Post. Early on, he quotes something Susan Rice said last September 16:
GERSON (5/10/13): After the Sept. 11, 2012, Benghazi attacks that killed four Americans, including Ambassador J. Christopher Stevens, the facts were initially clear. The fog was a later addition.Does Michael Gerson know how to read? In that passage, he quotes Rice saying the attack in Benghazi was the “direct result of a heinous and offensive video.” He links to this transcript from This Week as the source of the troubling statement.
Information on the true nature of the attack had traveled the 5,000 miles to CIA headquarters and was incorporated into the agency’s initial talking points. But somewhere in the final few miles between Langley, Foggy Bottom and the White House, the attack was called a “demonstration” and then, according to U.N. Ambassador Susan Rice, the “direct result of a heinous and offensive video.” The administration’s characterizations became more emphatic as they became less accurate.
But uh-oh! If Gerson intended to be fair, it’s clear from the transcript that Rice was talking about a wider set of attacks at that point in the discussion. She had already discussed the attack in Benghazi when her host, Jake Tapper, raised a broader question about the uprisings which broke out that week all across the Islamic world.
This is the context from which Gerson grabbed his helpful quotation. Later, we’ll show you what Rice had already said about the Benghazi attack:
TAPPER (9/16/12): There have been protests around the world over the last several days. And President Obama pledged to repair America's relationships with the Muslim world. Why does the US seem so impotent? And why is the US even less popular today in some of these Muslim and Arab countries than it was four years ago?Rice was discussing a “maelstrom” which had erupted across a wide region when she made the quoted remark. Yes, she mentioned Benghazi. But she was giving a general explanation of events in Cairo, Tunisia, Khartoum and “in many other parts of the region.”
RICE: Jake, we're not impotent. We're not even less popular, to challenge that assessment. I don't know on what basis you make that judgment. But let me, let me point—
TAPPER: It just seems that the US government is powerless as this—as this maelstrom erupts.
RICE: First of all, let's be clear about what transpired here. What happened this week in Cairo, in Benghazi, in many other parts of the region—
TAPPER: Tunisia, Khartoum—
RICE: —was a result, a direct result of a heinous and offensive video that was widely disseminated, that the US government had nothing to do with, which we have made clear is reprehensible and disgusting.
Did Gerson notice that when he read that transcript? If he wanted to tell his readers what Rice specifically said about Benghazi, that had happened earlier in the interview with Tapper.
This is what she had said:
TAPPER (earlier in the interview): So first of all, what is the latest you can tell us on who these attackers were at the embassy or at the consulate in Benghazi? We're hearing that the Libyans have arrested people. They're saying that some people involved were from outside the country, that there might have even been al Qaeda ties. What's the latest information?Rice warned, several times, that her account was preliminary. But when she discussed the Benghazi attack, she said it was staged by extremists who came to the consulate with heavy weapons and hijacked ongoing events.
RICE: Well, Jake, first of all, it's important to know that there's an FBI investigation that has begun and will take some time to be completed. That will tell us with certainty what transpired. But our current best assessment, based on the information that we have at present, is that, in fact, what this began as, it was a spontaneous, not a premeditated, response to what had transpired in Cairo. In Cairo, as you know, a few hours earlier, there was a violent protest that was undertaken in reaction to this very offensive video that was disseminated.
We believe that folks in Benghazi, a small number of people came to the embassy to—or to the consulate, rather, to replicate the sort of challenge that was posed in Cairo. And then as that unfolded, it seems to have been hijacked, let us say, by some individual clusters of extremists who came with heavier weapons, weapons that as you know in—in the wake of the revolution in Libya are—are quite common and accessible. And it then evolved from there. We'll wait to see exactly what the investigation finally confirms, but that's the best information we have at present.
Which part of “extremists armed with heavy weapons” doesn't Michael Gerson understand?
Rice didn’t say that those extremists staged their attack as “a direct result of a heinous and offensive video.” She didn’t say why those extremists did what they did at all. She said “we'll wait to see exactly what the investigation finally confirms.”
Did Gerson quote Rice fully and fairly? We’d have to say he cherry-picked a tad. He skipped the specific statement about Benghazi, substituting an explanation about events in the wider region.
Good readers don’t do shit like that.
Later, Gerson cited Stephen Hayes as the world’s greatest expert on this topic. He linked to this Weekly Standard report about the way Rice’s talking points were created.
Gerson cites Hayes as his principal source. But uh-oh! In the following passage, Hayes engages in cherry-picking that is far worse than Gerson’s. Hayes quotes something Rice said on the September 16 Fox News Sunday:
HAYES (5/13/13): Rice would spend much time on the Sunday talk shows pointing to this video as the trigger of the chaos in Benghazi. “What sparked the violence was a very hateful video on the Internet. It was a reaction to a video that had nothing to do with the United States.” There is no mention of any “video” in any of the many drafts of the talking points.Sorry. In this instance, Rice was explicitly explaining the wave of violence across the Muslim world. As the interview started, Chris Wallace asked Rice to explain “anti-American protests in two dozen countries across the Islamic world.” Benghazi hasn’t even been mentioned at the time of that quoted remark.
By the time of the quoted remark, Wallace had asked Rice about demonstrations and violence in a wide range of locations, including Cairo, Tunisia and the Sudan. He hadn’t mentioned Benghazi at all. At that point, neither had Rice.
(When Wallace did ask about Benghazi, Rice said that people “with extremist ties joined the fray and came with heavy weapons, which unfortunately are quite common in post-revolutionary Libya, and that then spun out of control.” She warned Wallace that she was giving a preliminary assessment.)
Surely, Gerson and Hayes understand the basic history here. As everyone knows, there had been violent protests around the world as a result of that hateful video. But how useful! Each of the pundits quoted Rice discussing that wider set of events; each man skipped her specific statements about the attack in Benghazi. Unless these boys don’t know how to read, we’d be inclined to say they’re somewhat sleazy fellows who like to grab quotes out of context.
For those who know how to read a transcript, Rice gives a consistent story about Benghazi on each of the Sunday broadcasts. She says a demonstration was under way when extremists armed with heavy weapons came to the consulate and hijacked events, which then spun out of control.
Let us repeat: She said the attack in Benghazi was executed by extremists armed with heavy weapons.
Apparently, those statements weren’t soft enough for the uses of Gerson and Hayes! From that day right up to this, sleazy people like Gerson and Hayes have found ways to tell a more pleasing story. In these recent instances, each man quoted Rice discussing the wider set of protests around the world, not the specific attack conducted in Benghazi.
At best, this is D-minus work—but it defines the norms of our journalistic and intellectual culture. Tomorrow, we’ll quote the weak-kneed New York Times and explain why this bullshit persists.
In the process, we’ll bring back our gang of AWOL professors. Are they off in the south of France?