The Conversation

The Media Filter Makes Investigating Benghazi a High-Risk, Low-Reward Scenario for Republicans

What do Kermit Gosnell, George Zimmerman and the Benghazi Committee all have in common? Only one thing really but it's an important thing. All three stories were heavily filtered through a progressive-friendly media.

Kermit Gosnell was an abortionist who ran a shoddy clinic in Philadelphia for decades. He had his own method of abortion which involved inducing women to give birth to live babies and then severing their spinal cords with scissors. It's unknown how many live babies he killed over the years. Though he was only convicted of three counts of murder, he is quite possibly America's worst serial killer.

Despite the obvious national implication of his behavior and his trial most of the media didn't display much interest. Sarah Kliff of the Washington Post (not at Vox) famously dismissed it as a "local crime" story. She wasn't alone. The major networks devoted precisely zero minutes to covering the trial during the first three weeks. A local reporter took a photo of the rows of empty seats at the trial all of which had been reserved for the media who never showed up.

And the lack of interest was definitely not because the trial testimony was dry or confusing. On the contrary, it was so harrowing that Gosnell's own attorney stated after the trial that he felt the takeaway was the need for more regulation on clinics. He told Megyn Kelly, "I've come out of this case realizing that 24 weeks is a bad determiner, it should be like 16-17 weeks...I think pro-choice would still have the right to chose, but they've got to choose quicker."

When some states, including Delaware and Texas eventually did attempt to make changes to laws regulating abortion clinics the media finally found its voice. A state senator who no one outside Texas had ever heard of filibustered a bill designed to regulate clinics as ambulatory surgical centers, something the Gosnell grand jury had explicitly recommended. She became an instant celebrity who made the rounds on national political shows where she was asked mostly fawning questions. Wendy Davis received more attention in 24 hours than the Gosnell trial had in its first few weeks.

And that's really just one side of this particular coin. You see the other side when the media decides a "local crime" story is of paramount interest to the nation. That happened in 2012 when a shooting in Florida became a national story that lasted for months. Once again the media did not cover themselves in glory, but in this case it wasn't for lack of trying.

NBC News edited a tape of George Zimmerman to make it appear he was racist. After the issue was raised by this and other sites NBC fired several employees who had been involved. Zimmerman eventually sued the network for the error.

Meanwhile, the Huffington Post, Atlantic and other left-leaning outlets all claimed to be able to hear a racial slur in the same 911 recording. CNN enhanced the audio and their reporter said he could hear it too. Then a few days later CNN re-enhanced the audio and admitted there was no racial slur.

Not to be outdone, ABC weighed in with a video of Zimmerman at the police station. Their story was headlined "Trayvon Martin video shows no blood or bruises on George Zimmerman." The point of the story was that the wounds Zimmerman had claimed he sustained were not there. Like CNN, ABC enhanced the tape and found you could clearly see an injury on the back of his head.

And of course this is just the behavior of the supposedly mainstream networks. MSNBC didn't even pretend to be neutral, allowing one of their hosts, Al Sharpton, to cover the story and simultaneously hold rallies in Florida for the victim. Despite Sharpton's efforts, Zimmerman was eventually found not guilty of murder. The jury believed the evidence which showed he was being beaten when he shot Trayvon Martin in self-defense.

It's not hard to see why the two "local crime" stories got such divergent treatment. The Gosnell case was bad news for the abortion industry. It made them look bad even to people who consider themselves strongly pro-choice. On the other hand, the Martin case was portrayed as a case where gun crime, racism and stand your ground laws intersected. It was people on the left who demanded the story be told as they saw it. And, after a few weeks, the media went along with them and gave the story saturation coverage for the duration.

This ability to magnify or diminish the national importance of a particular story in keeping with whose ox is being gored is no small thing. That's not to suggest there's any kind of conspiracy at work. There doesn't need to be so long as the number of journalists who consider themselves Democrats outnumbers Republicans by 4:1. But ultimately, no matter what the facts are, the media can turn the megaphone up or down.

Which brings me to Benghazi. When Republicans decided it was time for a special committee, Democrats were united in saying it was purely politics.  Rep. Nancy Pelosi called it a "political stunt." Former New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg has called it "cheap politics." Debbie Wasserman-Schultz said it was an effort by the GOP to "gin up their base."

Not surprisingly, the media seems to not only be going along with Democrats but actually exceeding them in many cases. The LA Times editorial board said it was time to stop "playing games" with Benghazi. Not to be outdone, the NY Times editorial board called it a "kangaroo court" writing, "The hottest competition in Washington this week is among House Republicans vying for a seat on the Benghazi kangaroo court, also known as the Select House Committee to Inflate a Tragedy Into a Scandal."

The Daily Beast's Michael Tomasky got into the act with his usual subtlety, describing the committee as an, "absurd, insane, sickening, repulsive, shameful, and at the same time shame-less circus." Eleanor Clift suggested over the weekend that the whole thing was misguided since Ambassador Stevens wasn't even murdered.

There's much more like this emanating from all the usual suspects. The point is the media can usually be trusted to downplay any investigation which might damage Democrats. And when they can't downplay it, they label it a circus, i.e. something that doesn't deserve the attention it's getting. After you've seen this act enough times it wears thin.

For the most part, Republicans will ignore all of this media whining. But they should go into this with the awareness that it makes this a high-risk, low-reward scenario. At best, if it is handled soberly, it will probably reinforce some themes that help Republicans: Democrats aren't as trustworthy on foreign policy issues. More broadly that the Obama administration seems to lie about all kinds of policy. But the potential downside is also real. If Republicans over-promise, under-deliver or don't seem serious, they could remind voters of some things they don't like about Republicans and hurt their chances in 2014.

The bottom line is that even Charles Krauthammer has said this committee is a dangerous move for Republicans. He's right. To return to the circus metaphor, when you're walking a high wire in front of a large audience it's important that every step be placed carefully. That's especially true when you know any Republican misstep will be played up by a sympathetic media while any revelations embarrassing to Democrats will be downplayed.


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