Why the Media Sees Bridgegate as a Scandal but Benghazi as a 'Conspiracy'

At the height of fascination with the "Bridgegate" scandal, Chris Christie decried MSNBC's coverage as "gleeful" and "partisan." Maybe so. However, one undeniable aspect of the left's attack on Christie is the rigor with which it has pursued the case, rigor worthy of a life-or-death story it has all but ignored – the Benghazi attacks.

Many conservatives, particularly those who have defended the way the New Jersey governor has handled this scandal, have been quick to point out that, at its worst, the George Washington Bridge scandal is about petty politicians being petty and ruining everyone's lives with their pettiness. 

The attacks on the American consulate in Benghazi, Libya, however, destabilized an entire national security strategy and took the lives of fathers, sons, and husbands working in the name of our country. An American ambassador, Christopher Stevens, was killed in the line of duty, and the federal government has no clear answers on who did it, where they are, or why. 

The media, claimed everyone from Christie loyalist Rudy Giuliani to ardent critic Sarah Palin, had dropped the ball on Benghazi but ruthlessly chased the shiny object that was Bridgegate.

That only conservatives appeared to be making the link in the wake of ever-plummeting poll numbers against Hillary Clinton in 2016 fed the liberal narrative that Benghazi was a conspiracy conservatives wielded like a weapon against those on the left who pointed out their flaws. It is a narrative in which many in the media have invested years – that Benghazi was a tragedy and unfortunate accident, and no one should be to blame. 

The tone of those who discuss it discredits anyone who feels that the official explanation – a direct line from the top of the political food chain – is insufficient to explain away the death of an ambassador. Alec MacGillis of the New Republic identified any interest in the attacks and lack of investigation in the deaths of Stevens and other as "Benghazi opportunism" in the wake of those attacks. Jamelle Bouie of the Daily Beast described as "conservative fantasy" the idea that "the public was aware of Benghazi, and took it seriously as a political scandal." 

New York Times columnist Frank Rich's take on both scandals most acutely isolates the two mentalities surrounding the respective scandals. He boiled down any interest in what happened at Benghazi to New York Magazine as follows: "no one to the left of Sean Hannity seriously believes that the Obama White House was trying to cover up a terrorist attack." Compare to Rich's take on Bridgegate: "How does an underling send the order 'Time for some traffic problems at Fort Lee' and get it executed on the busiest bridge in the world for four disruptive days without someone above her knowing about it or acting to end it?" In other words, asking whether it was possible for the White House to know of imminent threats to a consulate and not do enough to protect it is conspiratorial blather, but "just asking questions" about whether a governor would take time out of his schedule to cause traffic mischief as punishment for a small-town mayor is legitimate.

This is all to say that much of the media has dedicated itself to dismissing Benghazi rather than investigating it, almost with the direct inverse of the passion they have dedicated to investigating Bridgegate rather than dismissing it. It is odd and detrimental to the American public that there has been no concerted effort to dismiss neither, to devote resources to investigating both.

Part of the problem with comparing media coverage of a local corruption case and an international terrorist act is the nature of the media covering either. It would be unfair to ask of local media in Benghazi to do what local media in Fort Lee have done for their story. David Carr of the New York Times notes that Bridgegate would have been nothing but a strange traffic bungle on the Port Authority's part without an increasingly rigorous effort on the part of local newspapers and other media, particularly the Bergen Record, whose traffic reporter first publicized the intensity of the traffic jam engulfing the suburban town. 

Yet it is clear that the Benghazi attacks were an international news story from the moment they happened; the story didn't need help from partisan sources to blow up the front pages of newspapers worldwide.

Despite these differences, the approach of the national media on one story is the inverse of the other, which is telling given who stands to gain and lose from the discovering of new information. 

Carr is right to highlight the efforts of these local publications, but to give them the credit for turning Bridgegate into a national scandal worthy of the "-gate" suffix is to discredit the hours and hours of labor the liberal national media put into making the story a nationwide scandal.

According to records compiled by the media monitoring organization TV Eyes, MSNBC mentioned Christie in relation to the bridge closing 83 times last December. For comparison, CNN mentioned the scandal in passing seven times in December. By the turn of the new year, that number ballooned to 782 mentions (CNN clocks in with 408). Host Chris Hayes hosted a late-night special on the scandal. Rachel Maddow and Steve Kornacki could speak of nothing else. The network rarely took a break from its coverage all month and much of December, though the dramatic two-hour press conference that turned the story into a national scandal happened almost halfway into January.

That's a lot of national news network firepower for a story so small local reporters cracked most of it without the NBC monolith's help.

To contrast, a TV Eyes search finds a match for the word "Benghazi" on MSNBC 450 times between September 11, 2012 – the date of the attacks – and today. Ambassador Christopher Stevens was mentioned 37 times in the same time frame. The numbers may not speak directly to the amount of original reporting, but it does speak to the passion for one story over another on the left. Make no mistake: the pressure that networks like MSNBC have put on the New Jersey Legislature and other journalists to uncover the truth about what happened on the George Washington Bridge last September made a difference, and the people of New Jersey owe a debt to those journalists that stuck with the story. 

If the collective effort managed to uncover this much from a story so mundane, why does the killing of an ambassador not merit the same journalistic rigor? Why does it get the "conspiracy theory" treatment? If anything, burgeoning conspiracy culture is proof that unanswered questions need answering, and some fringe elements may be seeking answers anywhere they can. The easiest way for the government and the media to cultivate so-called conspiracies is to not answer legitimate questions, and the easiest way to discredit legitimate questions is to tie them to conspiracy theories. 

This creates a set of circumstances that make entire stories taboo. 

So speaking about Benghazi today renders a journalist some sort of conservative loon, if the liberal powers that be are to be heeded. Publicly theorizing about complex real estate schemes as an offshoot of a political retribution case is nothing to be scoffed at, though, even though no lives are at stake and no motive has surfaced.

To compare the deaths in the Benghazi tragedy to a four-hour traffic jam is indeed an affront to the memories of Chris Stevens and his colleagues. Yet it pales in comparison to giving the latter the full force of the Fourth Estate while mocking anyone who desires the full truth on the former.


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