Media organizations want stuff first, especially when that stuff concerns Benghazi and Hillary Clinton. In his “Playbook” newsletter this morning, Politico’s Mike Allen alerted readers to a crop of pieces on the much-anticipated report of the House Select Committee on Benghazi:

–LOOK FOR embargoed scoops from Politico’s Rachael Bade, NBC’s Andrea Mitchell, CNN’s Jake Tapper and Dana Bash, Fox’s Bret Baier and Catherine Herridge, and Weekly Standard’s Steve Hayes.

“Playbook,” in other words, had the exclusive scoop on spoon-fed Benghazi non-scoops. This morning indeed saw a number of early-morning stories that reported various aspects of the Benghazi report. At 800 pages, the thing is too big to digest in toto on the quick. So the committee meted it out in parts.

Here’s a noteworthy example, from Politico: “Gowdy: Clinton, State Department stonewalled Benghazi panel,” reads the headline of a story posted at 5:15 a.m. today. It is based on “a section of the final report obtained by Politico ahead of its release.” That section, as the headline suggests, blasts Clinton and the department that she formerly managed. The lede of the Politico story reads as follows:

Rep. Trey Gowdy and fellow Republicans on the House Select Committee on Benghazi said that former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and the State Department acted in a “shameful” manner in failing to turn over emails from her private email server, making it “impossible” to know whether everything about the Sept. 11, 2012, attack in Libya that left four Americans dead will ever be known.

The rest of the story advances the Gowdy findings and position, with just a sprinkling of generic references to the positions of the Clinton campaign. Brian Fallon, press secretary for the Clinton campaign, confirmed that Politico “did not call us before posting.” A statement delivered to the Erik Wemple Blog from a spokesman for the Benghazi committee Democrats may suggest why:

Over the past several days, Republicans orchestrated the secretive roll out of their partisan report to minimize fact-checking and maximize breathless headlines based on long-debunked conspiracy theories. They leaked pieces of it to select reporters, baiting them with so-called ‘exclusives,’ but imposing conditions that are highly irresponsible for independent journalists to accept. For example, Republicans forbade reporters from checking the accuracy of their report with Democrats, and they withheld interview transcripts that contradicted their partisan narratives. Once we finally read the report, we will be able to check it against the evidence we obtained, but so far, it looks like a conspiracy theory on steroids.

Bold text added to highlight a question: Is that true? We asked Politico and a couple of other outlets on Mike Allen’s list of exclusive recipients to comment on the matter. They refused to do so on the record. So we asked Jamal Ware, communications director for the Benghazi committee, if there was a requirement not to seek comment. His response, in full:

Democrats on the committee chose not to participate in the investigation and did everything they could to undermine and obstruct it. Their extreme dishonesty and sabotage is unbecoming of the offices they hold. The truth is that reporters were free to check with the minority about the committee’s report before its public release, since the embargo was lifted before then. That is more than the minority did when it released its so-called ‘report’ to the media and the Majority at the same time, making their complaints hypocritical. Of course, the word ‘Clinton’ appears far more in the Democrats’ report than the Republicans’, and unlike the Democrats, our report doesn’t mention Donald Trump at all.

Bold text added to highlight a complicated sequence. The embargo against news organizations appears to have lifted around 5:00 a.m.; the report was released to the public at around 8:30 a.m.; Benghazi committee Democrats received a paper copy at 7:45 a.m. and a digital one at 8:00 a.m. What this all means is that organizations that received the early peek at sections of the report could check with their Clinton campaign and State Department sources around dawn. The problem: Those sources themselves likely didn’t have the report at that time.


Upshot: People at the Clinton campaign and the State Department played a great deal of catch-up today. Politico’s story on all of the alleged stonewalling, for instance, first hit the Internet without any specific rebuttal from the State Department itself, the target of much of Politico’s piece. Later on, the story added this response:

The State Department has been more measured in its response, but also pointedly denies accusations of foot-dragging in a statement Tuesday.
“The Department cooperated extensively with the Benghazi Committee,” department spokesman Mark Toner said. “The Committee received documents, briefings, and/or witness interviews from us every single month between August 2014 and June 2016. The Department provided every single witness the Committee asked for—over 50 current and former employees appeared for interviews, often requiring them to travel from abroad. We made over 50 document productions, totaling over 100,000 pages of documents. We provided eight briefings to members (of Congress) and staff, and Department witnesses appeared at all four of the Committee’s hearings.”

Despite much prodding from this blog, State Department reps declined to comment on being left out of Politico’s first draft.

As for the Clinton campaign, Fallon provided this statement to the Erik Wemple Blog:

It appears that a number of outlets – some that have acted as little more than clearinghouses for Gowdy’s office all along, others that seemed to have succumbed to competitive pressures on just this particular occasion – regretfully signed onto the Republicans’ manipulative terms for receiving leaked excerpts of their partisan report. The middle-of-the-night distribution of these selective excerpts by the Republican staff – without allowing the Democratic members of their own committee to see the material – is just one more example of the partisan nature of this Committee’s work. The ploy was clearly designed to manipulate coverage by minimizing the time for scrutiny of the allegations contained in the report. The ploy worked initially, in that many of these outlets that struck this deal got tricked into misreporting several old bits of information as “new” revelations. Much of that misreporting is now being corrected, but it is unfortunate that any news organizations would let themselves be manipulated in this way for the Benghazi Committee’s own partisan ends. Being first to report the partial details of a discredited document doesn’t seem worth it.

Embargoes have existed for years, so there’s nothing terribly new about this rash of silver-platter stories. And many Washington journalists have played ball with this awful institution — including the Erik Wemple Blog. The stories that today resulted from this journo-exclusive culture will surely do well in terms of pageviews and other Internet metrics. They won’t endure, however: Any 800-page report takes days, not hours under the harrowing rules of an embargo, to digest and properly vet. The notion that news organizations were trying to abridge the thing based on partial spoon-feeding and lightning-quick responses from the targets should prompt all the participants to examine how they do business, especially considering that reporting on Benghazi has been marred in the past by highly consequential, skewed leaks. Nothing of the sort, of course, will happen. In any case, the best stories on this report have yet to be published.