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Benghazi Emails: Despite spin, not just a Fox story any more

 

The story on Page 8 of yesterday’s New York Times amounts to an admission of journalistic error.

It’s a conventional news report: “A newly released email shows that White House officials sought to shape the way Susan E. Rice, then the ambassador to the United Nations, discussed the Middle East chaos that was the context for the attack on the American diplomatic mission in Benghazi, Libya, in 2012.”

But the Times waited until Thursday to publish a story that Fox News and others were blaring on Tuesday, because it was somehow deemed to be non-news.

That position became untenable on Wednesday, when ABC’s Jonathan Karl and others were pressing White House spokesman Jay Carney on the spinning that took place in the wake of the Benghazi attack. By yesterday, CNN’s Jim Acosta and CBS’s Major Garrett were taking on Carney as well.

In one sharp exchange, as he insisted the email in question wasn’t really about Benghazi, Carney told Fox’s Ed Henry:

“The only thing that refers to Benghazi is a cut-and-paste which — much to your disappointment and your boss’ disappointment — turned out to be produced by the CIA."

That’s a tried-and-true administration tactic—one that President Obama has used, including in his Super Bowl interview with Bill O’Reilly—to try to marginalize a story by dismissing it as a Fox obsession. But as the other correspondents joined the fray, it was clear that line wasn’t working.

The Times had plenty of company for its Wednesday no-show. The L.A. Times, Wall Street Journal and Boston Globe didn’t cover the emails either. Neither did the network newscasts or, that night in prime time, CNN or MSNBC. The Washington Post relegated it to Page 17.

On the other hand, USA Today put the story on the front page, and “CBS This Morning” and CNN’s “New Day” covered it Thursday morning.

I said on the “O’Reilly Factor” the other day that most of the mainstream media is suffering from Benghazi Allergy Syndrome. The conventional view is that the story is old, it’s complicated, and the country has moved on. But there is another factor as well: It’s seen as a Fox story.

Critics say Fox News has relentlessly hyped the Benghazi story to turn it into a scandal. Whatever your view, that aggressive coverage has made it easier for rivals to dismiss each report as just another incremental development.

But the email from deputy national security adviser Ben Rhodes to his colleagues, as part of the prep for Susan Rice’s appearances on the Sunday talk shows, was clearly news. And if news outlets didn’t think it was that big a deal, they at least should have reported it and put it in context,  

Now I don’t think the email is a “smoking gun,” as some Republicans say. We already knew that the White House was trying to fashion a politically palatable explanation for the failure in Libya during the fall election campaign. Rhodes wrote that they should “underscore that these protests are rooted in [an] Internet video, and not a broader failure [of] policy.”

White House officials now maintain that he was weighing in on the protests across the Middle East, but this was part of the prep session for Rice. We now know her talking points were misleading and the role of that incendiary video was marginal at best.

So the media outlets that blew off the emails, obtained by Judicial Watch under the Freedom of Information Act, made a serious misjudgment, perhaps viewing this as just more fodder for Fox.

But Slate’s John Dickerson, while saying the White House may have believed the blame-the-video line it was pushing, writes:

“The Obama administration’s story has never been straight on the Benghazi attack. Press Secretary Jay Carney once said the White House and State Department had only been involved in changing one word in crafting the first public response about the attack—the infamous Susan Rice talking points. Emails released in May showed that wasn’t the case. This new batch underscores the White House’s involvement in shaping the story. The Obama administration left the impression that everything related to the Benghazi attack had been released to the investigating committees months ago. That is also clearly false. There have been other instances where the White House line on Benghazi has also earned it Pinocchios.”

That’s a pretty good indication that the MSM narrative is shifting.

Bill O’Reilly goes further: “That is proof the American press is dishonest -- period.  They are covering up a cover-up.”

We got into a heated discussion when he said “that failure by the national press to tell the American people the truth about Benghazi is for one reason and one reason only.  To protect President Barack Obama.”

For some liberal partisans, sure. But the press has hardly been protecting the president on foreign policy lately. As I noted yesterday, such liberal columnists as Dana Milbank and Maureen Dowd have hit him hard, and sympathetic conservative columnist David Brooks has questioned Obama’s manhood.

Is the press protecting Hillary Clinton? We’ll see how many Benghazi questions she gets when she starts making the rounds.

What’s beyond dispute is that the latest Benghazi documents are news—as even the New York Times has belatedly acknowledged.

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Howard Kurtz is a Fox News analyst and the host of "MediaBuzz" (Sundays 11 a.m. and 5 p.m. ET). He is the author of five books and is based in Washington. Follow him at @HowardKurtz. Click here for more information on Howard Kurtz.