Last week David Kirkpatrick, the Cairo bureau chief of the New York Times tweeted:


The article, by the editor of the Columbus Dispatch, Benjamin Marrison, Some think, mistakenly, that stories fit agendas, was a defense of Kirkpatrick’s recent in depth report on Benghazi that was later used for a New York Times editorial, The Truth about Benghazi. Kirkpatrick’s main findings were that al Qaeda was not involved in the attack on the Benghazi diplomatic mission, that the attack was not pre-planned and that the administration did not cover up what really happened.

In his defense of Kirkpatrick, Marrison wrote:

According to the story, “the investigation by The Times shows that the reality in Benghazi was different, and murkier, than either of those story lines suggests. Benghazi was not infiltrated by al-Qaida, but nonetheless contained grave local threats to American interests. The attack does not appear to have been meticulously planned, but neither was it spontaneous or without warning signs.” …

It saddens me to hear people accuse employees of any newsroom of writing stories to help or harm a particular candidate or party. Layers of editing in the newsrooms of major newspapers are designed to prevent that from happening. News organizations and the journalists within them care deeply about their credibility and won’t stand for agenda reporting.

Marrison quoted Kirkpatrick’s thesis that the story was “murkier” than politicians would have it and then lamented that anyone could think that a reporter or newspaper has an agenda. There is no doubt that Kirkpatrick did in-depth reporting. One critique at National Review had something positive to write about Kikrpatrick’s report:

First, the good: Times reporter David Kirkpatrick did what the American security establishment has apparently failed to do in more than a year since the Benghazi attack — get face-to-face with key players on the ground in Libya. While he’s entirely too credulous in relating their account, he does provide a vital sense of the mish-mash of competing militias and loyalties within Benghazi in the days and weeks leading up to the attack. And at least one part of the account rings true for those of us who’ve spent time in the Middle East: that the initial assault was soon supplemented by a rumor mill (that Americans were shooting unarmed Libyans) that greatly swelled the attackers’ ranks — at least after they’d already taken the compound. If you want to know how the Benghazi militias spin the story, read Kirkpatrick.

Note in that praise, the problem with Kirkpatrick is implied: Kirkpatrick chose to focus on a single set of sources for his reporting. He mostly talked to Libyans who were on the ground. Who did Kirkpatrick miss?

For example Eli Lake wrote at the Daily Beast:

On Fox News Sunday, Schiff, a Democratic member of the House Permanent Select Committee on Intelligence, said the intelligence indicated that al Qaeda did play a role in the attack. The intelligence community knows this, he said, from insights gleaned from eavesdropping on the night of the attack. Speaking of the Times report, Schiff said “they did not have the same access to people who were not aware they were being listened to. They were heavily reliant obviously on people they interviewed who had a reason to provide the story they did.” But Schiff also said sometimes eavesdropping has its limits as well. “Sometimes though the intelligence which has the advantage of hearing to people when they don’t know they are being listening to, that can be misleading as well, when people make claims, they boast of things they were not involved in for various purposes,” he said. The Daily Beast first reported that an intercepted phone conversation from one of the attackers to a person connected to al Qaeda’s north Africa affiliates boasting of the attack. The Times says this intercept was the “only intelligence connecting al Qaeda to the attack,” a claim disputed this weekend by two U.S. intelligence officials. The Times reports the phone call showed the person connected to al Qaeda sounded “astonished,” suggesting he had no prior knowledge of the assault.

Thomas Joscelyn shows that Kirkpatrick didn’t just ignore intelligence reports, but previous reporting of the New York Times itself!

On October 29, 2012 three other New York Times journalists reported that Jamal’s network, in addition to a known al Qaeda branch (al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb), was directly involved in the assault. The Times reported (emphasis added): “Three Congressional investigations and a State Department inquiry are now examining the attack, which American officials said included participants from Ansar al-Shariah, Al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb and the Muhammad Jamal network, a militant group in Egypt.” …

Since the New York Times and other press outlets first reported on the Jamal network’s involvement, both the U.S. State Department and the United Nations have designated Jamal and his subordinates as terrorists. Both the U.S. and UN designations tie Jamal’s network directly to al Qaeda.

In addition to these omissions in Kirkpatrick’s reporting, Stephen Hayes takes issue of a claim made by Kirkpatrick, that “I think honestly if you asked anybody in the U.S. intelligence business, they would tell you the same thing,” that al Qaeda played no role in the attack.

Consider what Senator Dianne Feinstein told host Bob Schieffer on Face the Nation, back on December 2, 2012, about a briefing from CIA director David Petraeus shortly after the attacks. “General Petraeus briefed us on the 13th,” she said. “There is a transcript. He said very clearly that there were al Qaeda elements involved.”

Presumably Feinstein, a Democrat who chairs the Senate Intelligence Committee, qualifies as someone in the “U.S. intelligence business.” So does the CIA director.

Matthew Olsen, director of the National Counter-terrorism Center, testified on September 19, 2012, that there were “indications that individuals involved in the attack may have had connections to al Qaeda or al Qaeda’s affiliates, in particular Al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb.”

In short, then, the New York Times presented an in-depth article purporting to tell the whole story of Benghazi, but rather than giving us a big picture, presented only a very narrow view of what happened. Marrison wants us to believe that because of the “layers of editing” it isn’t possible for a story to be tailored to fit an agenda.

But consider the defects noted in Kirkpatrick’s reporting. Critics noted that 1) he focused on one aspect of the story and that 2) he ignored previous reporting including from the New York Times. If “layers of editing” didn’t catch these obvious shortcomings, it had to be because the editors were not looking too hard. Additionally, from a professional standpoint, Kirkpatrick who initially reported on the supposed role the “Innocence of Muslims” played in inciting the violence had an interest in further supporting that angle. (You could call it “confirmation bias.”)

Andrew McCarthy identifies Kirkpatrick’s report as misdirection:

Because the objective of Kirkpatrick’s novella is not to persuade; it is to shrink the parameters of newsworthy inquiry to a punctilious debate over nonsense: The cockamamie trailer and the dizzying jihadist org chart.

Here’s a case in point. In a weak comeback to his critics’ contention that, as U.S. intelligence sources maintain, the al-Qaeda-linked Muhammad Jamal network was involved in the massacre, Kirkpatrick told CNN that this claim was at once “bogus” and “tenuous.” My friend Tom Joscelyn counters, “The Jamal network’s role in Benghazi cannot be both ‘bogus’ and ‘tenuous,’ of course. Either there are ties, however tenuous, or there are not.” Tom then proceeds to demonstrate that, in reality, this al-Qaeda branch’s role was neither “bogus” nor “tenuous.” He’s right, of course — but that’s not the point. Joscelyn wins the argument, but the Times, Obama, and Clinton win more by the fact that we are having the argument.

Coherence and historical accuracy are not what the Times is after. The aim is to drag our consideration of a jihadist act of war down a rabbit hole of nitpicking over which jihadists did what. Meanwhile, the Obama administration’s derelictions before, during, and after the massacre — the matter of greatest consequence — remain studiously outside this wearying crossfire.

Narrowing the scope of the story and its implications makes Marrison’s “layers of editing” dodge less convincing. A critical reading of Kirkpatrick’s story by editors should have resulted in a more complete report. That the editing didn’t catch any of these flaws in Kirkpatrick’s report could be explained by gross incompetence, a failure of editing process or deliberate bias.

I could believe any of these three explanations. The reason that bias seems most likely is that we know that the current executive editor of the New York Times had been rebuked by the paper’s public editor for publishing a blatantly political hit piece. Despite this obvious black mark against her judgment she was promoted to executive editor. So yes, it would be nice to believe, as Marrison does, that news reporting is not done to suit a political agenda. But from what we can discern from Kirkpatrick’s omissions and the culture of the New York Times that noble belief strains credulity.

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