Patrick B. Pexton
Patrick B. Pexton
Ombudsman

How The Post came up short on Libya

The tragic loss of life, the connection to terrorism and the anniversary of the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks all combined to make the assault on a U.S. installation in Libya a story that evoked visceral reactions from readers.

The feedback ranged from the hateful — Barack Obama is a Muslim Manchurian candidate, and The Post is covering up for him — to the merely disappointed, such as this comment from John Curtin, a Fairfax reader, a week after the attack:

Patrick B. Pexton

Pexton served as Post ombudsman from March 2011-March 2013.

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“Why has the Post let Fox News lead on the issue of the murder of our Libyan ambassador and other Americans? For the Post to survive it needs to swallow its tendency to look the other way when it comes to Obama and not surrender what we rely on it for — expertise in foreign and military journalism. That it took so long to ‘discover’ that the murders were calculated, and that warnings were ignored, is an embarrassment for the Post. Never sacrifice your credibility; it’s all you have.”

The Post’s coverage of the Libya attack was good early and good late, but there was an unfortunate gap in the middle — partly but not completely explained by personnel issues — that made it look like The Post was shying away from a full-court press to find out what the Obama administration knew and whether it was giving a true portrayal of the attack.

News of the attack broke late on Sept. 11, so The Post had only a late story, with few details confirmed, on Page A10 the next day.

But online just hours later and on the front page of the Sept. 13 edition was a story rich in detail and background. Michael Birnbaum, on temporary assignment in Cairo, and intelligence reporter Greg Miller in Washington combined to describe a planned and violent attack against the U.S. compound in Benghazi. It told of well-armed militias arriving at the facility in a convoy of cars during a protest and quickly setting about attacking it.

In the sixth paragraph, still above the fold on the front page, Birnbaum and Miller wrote, “[T]he early indications were that the assault had been planned and the attackers had cannily taken advantage of the protest at the consulate.”

But in subsequent days it seemed that The Post almost went silent on the background to the Libya attack and concentrated instead on the increasing and widespread protests around the Muslim world triggered by a made-in-America video clip ridiculing the prophet Muhammad.

Now, this was a real story. U.S. diplomats were threatened in more than 20 countries by violent demonstrations for the next two weeks, and frankly these countries are far larger and more important to U.S. interests than is Libya.

But four Americans, including the ambassador, died in Benghazi, and readers were getting angrier by the day that The Post was not delving into why they died. Reporting on the Libya attack was either buried in the overall protest stories or put on pages deep inside the A section. And it was thin.

One mitigating circumstance helps explain some of the gap: The Post had no North Africa reporter on Sept. 11. Birnbaum was in Cairo filling in while a new correspondent, Abigail Hauslohner, was in Washington getting new-employee training. She could not get a visa to Libya until Sept. 18, and she arrived in Benghazi on Sept. 19. Once on the ground, she did excellent work profiling the militias probably responsible for the attack.

All during this period, CNN, Fox News and other media outlets in Washington were hammering away at whether the Obama administration was being honest about what it knew and whether the murders were a planned terrorist attack. The Post published some of this in its Sept. 13 story but did not develop it further.

Miller finally returned to the story on Sept. 28, 17 days after the attack, with a front-page story based on accounts from intelligence sources and public remarks by Defense Secretary Leon Panetta indicating that it was a planned terrorist attack with possible participation by al-Qaeda affiliates. Since then, The Post has been on it almost every day.

Post reporting, noted National Editor Kevin Merida, revealed within the very first news cycle the possible involvement of al-Qaeda affiliates and that the attack was planned, and it raised questions about the vulnerability of the facility in Benghazi.

“Overall, I think The Post has done a number of strong stories,” Merida said. “But most important for readers to know, we are still on the case, still digging, still turning up leads and following them. It is a full-time pursuit.”

The Post needs to keep digging. That gap in the middle enraged many readers and reinforced their false suspicions that The Post is trying to cover for Obama, and it can’t let that happen.

Patrick B. Pexton can be reached at 202-334-7582 or at ombudsman@washpost.com.

 
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