Justin Fishel is a Fox News producer/correspondent who covers the Pentagon and the State Department. In that capacity, he’s known for his tough and often prickly questions. That reputation mounted on Monday, Dec. 17, when Fishel sat in on a State Department daily press briefing.
It was just two days after news had broken that Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton had fainted and suffered a concussion. Doctors had prescribed rest, keeping her from her official duties for that week. The upshot: Clinton would be unable to keep an appointment to testify before Congress regarding the fatal Benghazi attacks.
Fishel wanted to know more. So at the press briefing, he pressed. State Department spokeswoman Victoria Nuland did the push-backing:
QUESTION: Toria, can you expand on why Secretary Clinton can’t testify on Thursday about this? It seems that she has not been available to testify on the Benghazi situation on some very key dates, including the Sunday after 9/11 and now this Thursday.
MS. NULAND: Well, first of all, Justin, let me say again, the Secretary had anticipated testifying; she had committed to do so with the two committee chairs. As we put out on Saturday, she is still under the weather. She was diagnosed as having suffered a concussion, and her doctors have urged her to stay home this week. So it’s on that basis that she’s asked for the committees’ understanding, and the two committees have been very understanding to have her two deputies come up this week to testify in open session as they will on Thursday. But it was her intention to be there. If she had not been ill, she would be there. And she’s also committed, including in a letter today to the committee chairmen, that she looks forward to having an ongoing conversation with them herself.
Philippe Reines, a State Department spokesman with no assertiveness problems whatsoever, didn’t much like Fishel’s line of questioning. He sent the following e-mail to Fishel as well as to Bryan Boughton, a ranking Fox News official.
We owe you an apology. And I’m adding Bryan so he’s aware of how badly we erred. I’m almost embarrassed to even admit this – but somehow your question at today’s Daily Press Briefing was somehow completely mauled and transcribed in the release below this way:
“Toria, can you expand on why Secretary Clinton can’t testify on Thursday about this? It seems that she has not been available to testify on the Benghazi situation on some very key dates, including the Sunday after 9/11 and now this Thursday.”
I just called them and read them the riot act for putting such misleading, accusatory, and absolutely asinine words in your mouth. Because after what we and her doctors explained over the weekend regarding her health, you couldn’t possibly have been insinuating the ulterior motives that question implies. No way. No credible journalist would do that without any basis whatsoever. But even more so, I really went to bat for you with folks here and told them that while I know the media can often be incredibly self-involved, there is no way you, an informed reporter, would equate one’s testifying before the United States Congress – made up of duly elected Senators and Representatives empowered by Article I of our Constitution – with going on tv. I don’t know Chris Wallace all that well, but I’m pretty sure he wouldn’t place his television show on par with one of the three branches of our government. And therefore, saying that this has happened on multiple ‘key dates’ is simply a blatant lie and grossly misleading to the public.
Anyway, our sincere apologies. If you send us what you really said, I’ll make sure it’s properly reflected.
Those are the words of a man who enjoys his electronic mail. Reines last year got into an e-mail spat with BuzzFeed reporter Michael Hastings over CNN’s handling of a journal belonging to late Ambassador Christopher Stevens that network employees found on the site of the Benghazi diplomatic compound. The language that Reines used against Hastings cannot be repeated on a family-friendly Web site.
Vis-a-vis Fishel, Reines replaced profanity with attitude. The missive reads like an early and official defense against suggestions that Secretary Clinton’s reasons for missing the Benghazi testimony were something less than solid. It was sent on the same night that former U.S. ambassador to the U.N. John Bolton stated on Fox’s air that Clinton was suffering merely from a “diplomatic illness.” Fox News became a sufficiently popular place to traffick in Clinton-faker talk that host Greta van Susteren wrote a post on her blog distancing herself from it all. On Sunday, news broke that Clinton had checked into a New York hospital to get treatment for a blood clot associated with her concussion.
Fishel didn’t respond to questions about his questions. Which is all they were, in any case: Journalists should feel free to test the limits of taste and even fact when they pose questions to authority figures, just the way flacks should feel free to slap them back when they sense a faulty or unfair premise is sneaking into the conversation.