When Mitt Romney chose not to directly engage President Obama on Libya in last Monday’s third presidential debate, the mainstream media wrote it off as over-caution on the Republican challenger’s part.
That might be true. Certainly a lot of Republicans think so.
But what is the mainstream media’s excuse for cautiously engaging the president on Libya? Aren’t we supposed to be watchdogs? The ongoing story is story focused on whether the Obama administration provided, or refused to provide, adequate protection for the U.S. consulate in Benghazi, Libya when it faced the threat of attack on Sept. 11. The attack left the U.S. ambassador and three other Americans dead. Subsequent conflicting accounts coming from the administration on how the White House responded, or didn’t respond, are tailor-made for a full-blown media feeding frenzy.
Yet, the so-called media watchdogs so far have been mostly toothless.
Case in point: On Friday, FoxNews.com reported that it “learned from sources who were on the ground in Benghazi that an urgent request from the CIA annex for military back-up during the attack on the U.S. consulate and subsequent attack several hours later on the annex itself was denied by the CIA chain of command... -- who also told the CIA operators twice to "stand down" rather than help the ambassador's team when shots were heard at approximately 9:40 p.m. in Benghazi on Sept. 11.”
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That’s a very chilling story. And if correct, it could be very damaging to the President Obama’s re-election chances. But looking at the websites Friday of other major news outlets, the story is mostly ignored.
It was not picked up or reported by The New York Times. The Washington Post didn’t cover it either. Same for USA Today. Neither did NBC, CBS, CNN or ABC.
CNN had a link on its Website front page to a story that says “doubts surface” on whether claims of responsibility for the Benghazi attacks was the work of terrorists. The story mostly supports administration accounts and refutes Republican critics such as Sen. John McCain, (R-Ariz.)
NBC’s only Friday story on Libya said in its headline. “Libya Disappears from Romney Stump Speeches.”
CBS’s latest story on Libya had House Speaker John Boehner asking Obama for “answers” about the attacks.
On Thursday, the major media were loaded with stories and videos in which Defense Secretary Leon Panetta defended the administration saying that the US military did not respond to the attack because in did not have adequate “real-time information” to put American forces at risk. Not much follow-up on that.
Also on Thursday, NBC’s Brian Williams interviewed Obama on “Rock Center” asking him what can only be described as a “softball” question on Libya: "Have you been happy with the intelligence, especially in our post 9/11 world? The assessment of your intelligence community, as we stand here, is that it still was a spontaneous terrorist attack and were you happy with what you were able to learn as this unfolded?"
A tougher question might have been, “Why have the administration's explanations of what really happened, and how you responded, been all over the map?”
So what’s going on here? Are the media just protecting Obama at a critical time in this election campaign, or are they just not following the latest CIA story because they would have to give credit to Fox News?
Whatever the reason, it is not good watchdog journalism.
This article is part of our ongoing series of "bias alerts" which focuses on calling out bias in the media. For additional bias alerts click here.
Richard Benedetto is a retired USA Today White House correspondent and columnist. He now teaches politics and journalism at American University and in the Fund for American Studies program at Georgetown University. As a reporter, Benedetto covered every presidential campaign since 1984.