Oct. 17. That’s the date on which President Obama’s position on the Benghazi, Libya, attack peaked as a national issue. The night before, in a town hall debate moderated by CNN’s Candy Crowley, the president made a spectacle of noting that on the day after the Benghazi tragedy, he stood in the Rose Garden and called it an “act of terror.” His opponent, Mitt Romney, seemed convinced otherwise, prompting a controversial fact-check by Crowley. The fuss over all of this prompted politically involved Americans to debate just how Obama had categorized the tragedy.
Cue the “60 Minutes” video. Or not.
In a passionate post today, Bret Baier of Fox News hammers CBS News for waiting till Nov. 4 to post a bit of video quite relevant to all of this. In it, Steve Kroft of “60 Minutes” asks the president about Benghazi. The question was posed on Sept. 12, the same day of the Rose Garden address:
KROFT: Mr. President, this morning you went out of your way to avoid the use of the word terrorism in connection with the Libya Attack, do you believe that this was a terrorist attack?
OBAMA: Well it’s too early to know exactly how this came about, what group was involved, but obviously it was an attack on Americans. And we are going to be working with the Libyan government to make sure that we bring these folks to justice, one way or the other.
The president’s response packs it all: 1) Avoidance of the question; 2) refusal to use the term “terrorism”; 3) reliance on talking points about bringing people to justice. In other words, big news.
Had this clip embedded itself in the news cycle after the town-hall debate, the following would have happened:
1) CBS News would have reaped millions of page views;
2) Mitt Romney’s slip-up in the town-hall debate over this issue would no longer look like as a slip-up; it’d look like a quest for accountability;
3) Team Obama would have had to spend days responding to questions about the discrepancy between what he said in the town-hall debate and what he’d told Kroft; and
4) After that town-hall debate, Romney pretty much dropped Libya as a talking point. In a strategic move much observed by pundits, he declined to pound away on the topic in the final presidential debate, which centered on foreign policy. Had CBS News released what it had on hand, perhaps Romney would have had charged ahead with a Libya message.
Now the clip is way past its sell-by date. It’ll cause a ruckus among media critics and Libya geeks, and that’s about it. As insulting as CBS News’s timing is its position on the matter. It has issued a short statement that skirts the issue in the hope of changing the subject, perfect symmetry for Benghazi: “We’re proud of our Benghazi coverage, which from Libya to Washington has been the most comprehensive original reporting of any network.”
Left unaddressed is how this possibly could have happened. An honest mistake? A producer who missed the second debate? Whatever the cause, the episode grinds to the detriment of Kroft, who had the prescience to ask the president the question that would preoccupy Washington for weeks. Perhaps it was he who agitated to release this clip.
Critics will elevate CBS News’s selective video publishing to a prime exhibit in their brief that the mainstream media is protecting Obama. Barring a better explanation from CBS News, that’s a hard case to contradict. The only note of mitigation for the network is that it didn’t wait till after the election to publish the video or suppress it altogether.