Politico’s media blogger, Dylan Byers, regularly supplies his readers with tidbits on comings and goings in the news business, but this week he provided an additional service: a lesson in the limitations of armchair journalism.
After my column appeared Tuesday on a Heritage Foundation event on Benghazi that devolved into anti-Muslim ugliness, Byers tweeted that I had “totally misrepresented the panel.” It linked to a nine-minute video clip from the session. Byers followed that up shortly with a blog post titled “Dana Milbank’s Heritage Disaster,” based on the same excerpt.
I read Byers’s post, and there was indeed a disaster: the sort of disaster that occurs when a journalist, from the comfort of his office, levels accusations based on a nine-minute clip of a 65-minute panel he hadn’t attended. (Heritage didn’t post the full video until well after the Byers report, and Byers didn’t take me up on my offer to provide him earlier with my audio recording.)
Byers wrote that the Heritage Foundation “feels that the event was ‘mischaracterized’ by Milbank. It also notes that while the event took place at Heritage, it was hosted by the Benghazi Accountability Coalition.”
But had Byers been at the event himself, he wouldn’t have swallowed the Heritage spin — hook, line and sinker. He would have been handed the agenda, printed on paper with the Heritage logo, announcing: “The Benghazi Accountability Coalition and The Heritage Foundation Cordially Invite You to a Symposium” on Benghazi. He would have seen the accompanying paper noting that Heritage is a member of the Benghazi Accountability Coalition, and he would have heard John Hilboldt, the head of Heritage’s lecture program, give remarks opening the panel. This wasn’t in the video excerpt Byers viewed.
Byers wrote, based on his perusal of the video, that Saba Ahmed, the woman in an Islamic head covering whom I reported had been taunted by panelists and audience members, “didn’t appear at all troubled or upset at the end of the exchange.” The footage on Byers’s computer screen also indicated to him that she “does not seem to have been ‘taunted.’ ”
But had he been there, Byers needn’t have relied on appearances: He could have asked Ahmed himself, as I did. She told me she felt “targeted” by those in the room. And no wonder: She had just endured a raised-voice tirade directed at her by panelist Brigitte Gabriel, who had asked Ahmed’s citizenship, condemned her for taking the limelight, tossed in a Nazi Germany comparison and disparaged the very notion of “peaceful” Muslims – all for Ahmed’s sin of pointing out that not all Muslims are evil and that Muslims weren’t represented on the panel. The diatribe brought most of the 150 in the room to their feet, and they gave Gabriel two raucous rounds of applause lasting 28 and 17 seconds. Byers couldn’t see or hear much of that on his video clip – particularly the shouts of “hey!” and “hear, hear!” and “yeah!” and “woo-hoo,” which were on the recording I made from the audience. The moderator made no attempt to calm things and indeed made it worse by mockingly challenging Ahmed to name “the head of the Muslim peace movement.”
Byers made four numbered points in support of his argument that my column was a “disaster.” Two of them took issue with my verb choice: In both cases he quarreled with my use of “demanded” when referring to questions people on the panel had posed to Ahmed. Byers’s other two points took issue not with what I wrote but with what I hadn’t written. He said the column “omits” pieces of the exchange in which two panelists agree that not all Muslims are bad.
It’s certainly fair, if not in the realm of “disaster,” to quibble with verb selection, and there’s always a question of context when you boil down to 780 words an event where tens of thousands of words were uttered. But the panelists were rather grudging in their acknowledgments of the obvious truth that not all Muslims are evil.
Panelist Frank Gaffney allowed that there are Muslims who don’t practice or even know about sharia and who “don’t speak Arabic, aren’t imbued with the traditions of the faith as out of Saudi Arabia, for example, and they are not necessarily the problem, at least not yet.” And panelist Gabriel said explicitly that the majority of peaceful Muslims are “irrelevant” because 15 to 25 percent of Muslims are seeking to destroy Western civilization.
In a broader sense, Byers was arguing that I took out of context the happenings at the panel (he later qualified his language, taking issue only with my portrayal of the exchange with Ahmed). But he was doing this without having been there to interview participants or to witness the audience reaction, and he was doing this based on a clip of only nine minutes of the 65-minute event.
Had he experienced the entire thing, he would have heard Gaffney repeat the canard that “in every single one of the national security agencies under this administration, we have had people with identifiable associations, some of them quite extensive, to the Muslim Brotherhood.” Gaffney provoked laughter in the audience when he repeated the falsehood that Hillary Clinton aide “Huma Abedin, also known as Mrs. Anthony Weiner,” had “deep personal and family ties to the Muslim Brotherhood.” Gaffney suggested that this Muslim adviser may have been urging Clinton to “embrace” the Muslim Brotherhood and laws making it illegal to oppose sharia.
Byers also would have heard Gaffney when he condemned the words of “the president of the United States, at the United Nations, where he said, ‘the future must not belong to those who slander the prophet of Islam,’ a statement you could have found on al-Qaeda’s Web site.”
It’s possible, of course, that Byers could have sat at my side for the entire event and still thought I misjudged it; such interpretations are subjective. But had he witnessed all these remarks, and heard the hisses in the audience and observed the moderator’s sneers, he might have understood better the exchange with Ahmed that followed. That’s why there is no substitute for shoe-leather reporting.
Brian Beutler, a senior editor at the New Republic, understood this. He had attended Heritage events before, and he wrote Tuesday: “I think the video format in general does a disservice to how uncomfortable lopsided encounters in that strange environment really are. It’s really jarring, and difficult to dislodge. There’s just no way you leave thinking the altercation wasn’t the key moment, or that the panel and the guests didn’t let their collective id get the better of them.”
Beutler continued: “The point is that the diatribe itself was ugly and its reception unflattering to Heritage. And if you’ve attended similar events there, the atmospherics Milbank describes won’t surprise you at all, even if the video doesn’t convey them as well as he does.”
Byers, alas, may never have the experience. He reports that he’s moving to California, where it will be just as easy to cover journalism the way he has covered it from Virginia. They have armchairs on the West Coast, too.