First I heard the distant explosion of bombs. Then the night sky over Tripoli lit up with a fiery criss-crossing of bullets and rockets from attacking American warplanes and Libyan anti-aircraft batteries. I stood in awe on my hotel balcony, trying to decipher the action, until the better part of valor told me to crawl under my bed. It was 1986, and to this day, I cannot tell you who fired what when.
I am reminded of this experience—and many others I have had serving in and covering wars—as I follow the criticisms of NPR's coverage of what happened in the attack on the American consulate in Benghazi on Sept. 11.
Some of the criticisms have had to do with the accuracy of the early reports. But more have focused on the later question of whether the attack was pre-planned by terrorists or was part of the protests taking place at the same time at American diplomatic installations in the Muslim world in reaction to a now-infamous video. These later reproaches of NPR have been mixed with objections about the Obama administration's reports of just what happened.
As Barbara McClain of Summerland, Calif., wrote, "after all the time that it took the administration to admit to the facts, it appears that NPR is still lagging behind or positioning a biased report."
The criticisms were mostly of the introductions to stories made by the hosts on NPR flagship radio shows.
Audie Cornish, for example, on Sept. 19 led into a story on All Things Considered :
France announced today that it will close 20 embassies across the Muslim world on Friday, the Muslim holy day. The reason: security. A French satirical newspaper today published cartoons mocking the Prophet Muhammad—this after a massive protest over a derogatory video about Muhammad produced in the U.S. Those demonstrations have been linked to the deaths of at least 30 people in seven countries including the American ambassador to Libya. NPR's Eleanor Beardsley is in the Tunisian capital of Tunis and sent this report.
Or Steve Inskeep, who began a Sept. 25 interview segment on Morning Edition this way:
President Obama is in New York City today, addressing the United Nations General Assembly. Now, foreign policy has lately become a major focus of the presidential campaign, which had been centered almost exclusively on the economy. That changed recently when a film produced in the United States prompted protests across the Muslim world, including the killing of a U.S. ambassador, one of the things we are expecting the president to talk about shortly. NPR's national political correspondent Mara Liasson is covering the story. She's in New York. Hi, Mara.
Attached below is a timeline assembled by intern Laura Schwartz with relevant excerpts from all NPR's coverage on the flagship shows since the beginning. I offer it so that you can draw your own conclusions. Mine, based on personal experience and a close review of the transcripts, is that NPR acquitted itself, not perfectly, but about as well as can be expected in its coverage of both the administration and the incident itself. Many of the stories shone with intelligence and insight.
There is some validity to the criticisms of the hosts, but only if you take their introductions out of the context of the larger reports that followed—reports that indeed did go into the confusion and mixed claims over what happened. The introductions are of necessity short and don't themselves go into the nuances. As it is, the conflation by the hosts of what happened in Benghazi with what happened elsewhere is not incorrect. The attack in Benghazi took place against a larger backdrop of the video protests, which to the best of our knowledge, even today, played some role in Benghazi, however pre-planned a terrorist attack might have been. Certainly, it is hard to find journalistic ignorance or political bias in the above lead-ins unless you just want to believe it.
Inskeep, the author of a recently released book on Pakistan and an experienced veteran of the tension in the Muslim world and opaqueness of violent events, said it long and well himself in response to a query from me. He began as follows with an excerpt from an interview he did with Mideast expert Robin Wright the day after the attack in Benghazi:
INSKEEP: Really important point here, Robin Wright, that I want to make sure that I'm clear on. You said at the beginning there we don't know precisely what happened in Libya. Based on the information that you're trying to sift, as everyone else is, is it not clear to you what the motivation might really have been in Libya?
WRIGHT: In Libya, you have the additional problem of an al-Qaida affiliate, some extremists who have been very active, or increasingly active, as well - very small. But, you know, there are multiple types of players in Libya, and we need to be very careful in this sensitive period, understanding who are perpetrators and the fact that they probably do not represent the majority of people, whether it's in Libya or in Egypt.
In the days that followed I was guided by the best information available from reporters on the ground and our correspondents in Washington. When they had something we reported it and when they warned us off we did not. My conversations with them yielded two useful points. First, the nearest eyewitness descriptions we received of this incident came from a Reuters correspondent, whom I know personally, who is very well acquainted with Libya, who speaks Arabic, who was in Benghazi shortly after the attack, and who interviewed actual protesters as well as Libyan authorities. Those who say there was no protest should probably talk with the protesters who acknowledged protesting. Her reporting also indicated some evidence of planning or sophistication in another part of the attack; and her description matched that of our correspondents in the US who heard that there may have been a mix of events. From my interview with her on September 13:
HADEEL AL-SHALCHI: There was definitely a protest planned around the consulate to mimic what happened in Egypt. Security even told me that, you know, people who were sympathetic with the cause from the security may have even allowed, you know, people to riot very close to the consulate.
What protesters tell me happened is that there was an exchange of fire. Who shot the first shot either from inside of the embassy or from outside is still murky. What we know is that when the shooting started or the clash started between the two sides, all hell broke loose. People went back home, brought all their weapons. Brigades that are not involved with the government or not recognized by the government brought in their heavy weapons. RPGs were shot in the air. And that's when it became very chaotic. And that's when also security forces were outnumbered and out-weaponed, and the storming was allowed to happen.
This part of the story seems like something that was a chaotic mob riot. What may make people speculate that it was a planned attack was the commander of an operations team that was involved in trying to safeguard the movements of 37 Americans staffers from a safe house to the airport in order for them to be Benghazi said that the safe house came under a sustained, accurate attack from six mortars - six rounds of mortars, and he said that it was impossible for any militant or for any regular former revolutionary or rebel to have that kind of accuracy when they were hitting what was supposed to be a secret location. So it looks like it must have been a combination.
Hadeel's reporting points to the second valuable lesson. It seems to me that people have tended to divide this story into two completely separate possibilities. People imagine that EITHER it was a completely spontaneous protest over the video, OR it was a carefully planned terrorist attack that had been in the works for months. And so if we referred to a protest on the air, some people would complain that we were ignoring the evidence of terrorism.
I think our reporting has reflected that this may not have been an either-or question. It may have been a protest and a terrorist attack. It may have been a quickly planned terrorist attack. It may have been several things at once. It may have involved several groups doing different things. To say it was one thing is not to say it was not another thing. And to say we have downplayed one possibility or another doesn't seem factual to me, though I am certain you can find instances where someone's brief mention in an intro or interview has not dealt with all the complexities.
My own sense is that the criticisms of NPR have become conflated with the criticisms of the Obama administration. It is not my place to judge the administration's actions; you will have your own opinion. But there is nothing that I have seen in those actions to justify a running framing of the Benghazi coverage as a cover-up, as some critics of NPR seem to want to do. This is not to say that reporters should not investigate the possibility of cover-up, but journalistic fairness so far seems to me to require a framing of the government's statements as consistent with the standard confusion of information in the fog of war.
The Reagan administration's statements on the 1986 bombing, for example, were filled with inconsistencies and inaccuracies, as I was to find reporting on the ground in Tripoli and Benghazi. But I didn't expect otherwise, especially in statements from distant Washington. As the Reagan administration was then, the Obama administration and the non-political, professional arms of the CIA, FBI and State Department Foreign Service are today at a similar disadvantage of limited information and distance, with little ability even to send investigative teams to Benghazi.
But this is a presidential election season, and many of the criticisms themselves seem to originate in political motivation or in shallow cynicism about everything the media does. What we want from NPR is calm, fair and independent reporting and analysis. So far, we are getting it.