Published October 12, 2012
Amid concerns that some in the mainstream media are downplaying the Libya terror attack, The New York Times' public editor scolded The Grey Lady this week for burying its coverage of the first congressional hearing on the deadly assault.
The pointed rebuke from Margaret Sullivan, whose job is to represent the interests of Times readers, said the hearing story "belonged on The Times's front page."
Instead, it was on A3 -- while other major papers like The Wall Street Journal and The Washington Post put it on the cover Thursday.
"I can't think of many journalistic subjects that are more important right now, or more deserving of aggressive reporting," Sullivan wrote, adding that readers wrote to her "in dismay" about the apparent downplaying.
The Times' editors explained to Sullivan that they thought the hearing was politicized, and that's why they tucked coverage inside. Meanwhile, stories on Lance Armstrong and other topics made their way to the front page.
Executive Editor Jill Abramson, while defending the paper's overall Libya coverage, said "congressional hearings are not all about fact-finding."
Managing Editor Dean Baquet said: "I didn't think there was anything significantly new in it."
However, as coverage elsewhere of the hearing noted, the lengthy and combative session included testimony from former security officers who expressed deep frustration about being rebuffing in their pleas for more diplomatic protection.
State Department officials, meanwhile, did offer more information about why the administration wrongly claimed the attack was tied to a protest over an anti-Islam film.
BuzzFeed reporter Michael Hastings, who has had his run-ins with the State Department over Libya coverage, tore into the Times and other media outlets for playing down the hearing.
He claimed the "jaw-dropping testimony" on the Hill "completely shredded the Obama Administration's original story about what happened in Benghazi, while offering damning evidence that the State Department ignored multiple, urgent requests for better security."
Hastings said "this is the kind of unfolding scandal" that usually takes off in the media. But he noted the Times gave it just a "23-word tease" on its front page, and none of the network nightly newscasts on Wednesday led with the hearing.
"Certainly, it's hard to imagine that under a Bush administration it would be treated the same. If this kind of catastrophic attack -- and cover-up -- had happened in 2004 or 2008, it would have likely dominated presidential debates and re-shaped election coverage," Hastings wrote.